Here’s a book story for you. Cartoon-lovers will recognize it as borrowed from Brother Brat, a 1944 Looney Tunes where Porky the Pig is dragooned to babysit for Rosie the Riveter while she goes to weld planes to help "the United Nations fight Schickelgruber and Tojo." Before she leaves, Rosie thrusts into Porky’s hands a thick copy of a book called Child Psychology, saying, "Here, this might help you."
Porky needs help. The kid isn’t named "Butch" for nothing. When Rosie returns at the end of the day, Porky is a mess.
"What’s the matter? Didn’t you use the book?" Rosie asks.
"Yeah, but it didn’t work," Porky says.
"Maybe you didn’t use it right," says Rosie, as she turns Butch over her knee and whacks his backside with the thick tome. "It always works for me!"
It takes Rosie’s biceps (not to mention her unique approach to the pleasures of the text) to heft many art books today, which seem to get larger and heavier just to spite the so-called digital revolution. Typically, all this hugeness reflects an encyclopedic approach to the subject at hand. As long as we’re doing something, let’s be exhaustive, not to mention exhausted.
In this vein, we turn to the glorious new "extensive global survey of contemporary art since the 1980s" from Phaidon, Eleanor Heartney’s 440-page Art & Today ($90 hardcover). Definitely a two-hander, the book is filled with exquisite color illustrations (560 in all) as well as the kind of expository prose one might expect from a contributing editor of Art in America magazine.
Necessarily brisk, the text hits the high points of contemporary art for anyone inclined towards old-fashioned reading. The chapter on "art and identity," for instance, begins with the tale of David Hammons’ provocative faux-naïve billboard painting of Jesse Jackson as a blue-eyed blonde, made for the Washington Project for the Arts in 1988, and just as quickly destroyed by vandals.
In addition to Hammons, this section covers several brilliant painters (Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, Robert Colescott) and some great Duchampian gestures (Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco exhibiting themselves in a gold cell as "Two Undiscovered Amerindians," and Gran Fury’s controversial 1989 bus poster, Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do, which depicts three interracial and same-sex kisses). The modernist dynamic between the avant-garde gesture and traditionalist modes of image-making could hardly be better illustrated.
With all due respect to my friend Eleanor, readers of such books might never suspect that artworks are used by a patron class as a supreme method of self-definition (luckily for the rest of us), that is, artworks are bought and sold, not to mention traded as hyper-speculative investment vehicles. For that we have Great Collectors of Our Time: Art Collecting since 1945 (Scala, $85). Which is not to say that this "first major survey" of the subject has anything to report about the financial aspect of art collecting -- even though the book is written by James Stourton, chair of Sotheby’s UK.
Rather, Great Collectors is a series of biographical sketches of the likes of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (1921-2002), the second-generation Swiss super-collector who sold a good chunk of his art holdings to Spain for $350 million in 1988. As one might expect from something written by an auction-house employee, the entry is too polite by half, omitting any mention of the controversy that attended the sale as well as other scandal-sheet news about "Heinie" Thyssen, such as his bitter divorce from his fifth wife and allegations of Nazi ties with the family business during World War II.
Still, considering the glancing regard given the subject of collecting and collectors in most art texts, the book has its uses. It’s notably extensive and, if nothing else, the truisms hidden in the individual entries provide some insights into the illusions and delusions of this particular breed of grandee. Perhaps it can serve as source material for dissertations as yet unwritten.
As patrons of the arts, collectors are possessed of a vaunting self-regard that polite art society does its best to ignore. After all, the benefits of collector beneficence are widely shared by artists, curators and museums, so only the rare critic is foolish enough to say "boo." A beautiful example of the collector’s grand sense of entitlement is Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation Collection, a deluxe cloth-covered and slipcased hardbound book organized by Billie Milam Weisman, the late collector’s second wife and now director of the Weisman Art Foundation, and published by the Weisman Philanthropic Foundation.
As might be expected, the book has a wealth of photographs of the Weisman estate in Los Angeles, now the foundation’s home. In fact, the book is organized in chapters reflecting the layout of the house, and sections with titles like "Sitting Room," "Music Room" and "Library" provide a typical record of the peculiar, art-intense interior-decorating style favored by our very own segment of the rich and famous. It’s an interesting way to provide an inventory of the foundation holdings, to say the least.
Published in 2007, the book is not even available new on Amazon (though a few art writers have clearly hastened to their local bookstore and sold their review copies). A vanity project, then -- but the Weismans certainly have something to be vain about. Picasso’s 1921 sketch for his Neoclassical Mother and Child is itself worth the price of admission. Besides, what else should they do with their money? Send it to the IRS? I think not.
But when it comes to large and exhaustive books, the artist monograph takes pride of place. These publications have an actual point -- to chronicle the artist’s work. And these artist people make so much stuff -- the quantity never ceases to amaze. Unlike almost all the rest of us, whose daily productive labors seem to disappear into thin air, for artists the things they make enter the world as treasures (one hopes), destined to be ever prized. That takes a lot of storage, at the very least.
Probably the grandest monograph in the pile on my windowsill at present is Gary Panter (PictureBox, $95), a two-volume (with slipcase) retrospective of the celebrated West Coast punk artist, who moved to New York in 1986. It includes a notable essay by artist Mike Kelley ("Gary Panter is godhead," he says), an interview with curator Robert Storr, and substantial commentary by the artist himself, along with several other texts.
Volume one is the history, encompassing things like the comics starring Jimbo, Panter’s punk anti-hero, and his work on PeeWee’s Playhouse in the 1980s. But mostly it reproduces an immense amount of brightly colored, impressively inventive paintings, many done on drawing-table-sized sheets of paper (ca. 23 x 30 in.), but some made larger on canvas.
A viewer can’t help but be struck by the fun Panter seems to be having, even though the work, for all its contemporary quality, doesn’t really break out of the comic-art ghetto and become a touchstone in the fine art world, the way that works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, say, or Donald Baechler have done. At least not yet.
Volume two, all 334 pages of it, is devoted to reproducing pages from the artist’s many sketchbooks from 1971-2002. In addition to giving a sense of astonishingly free imaginative play, the drawings suggest an impressive obsession with picture-making. It seems like the guy was drawing all the time, everywhere he was.
Almost as giant as Gary Panter is the 363-page-long, 10 x 13 in. Saint Clair Cemin: Sculptor from Cruz Alta (Brent Sikkema Editions, $85). Despite being a monograph published on a successful artist by his successful Chelsea gallery, the book actually seems text-driven, since it is authored by the provocative critic and art scholar Richard Milazzo.
Back in the 1980s, it was Milazzo who elucidated Cemin’s often perplexing work as representative of a "threshold" effect, something between two different states, and here he compares Cemin’s polymorphously surrealist sculpture, which wantonly mixes reference and disparate material, to ancient Egyptian sphinxes and Peloponnesian stallions, Baroque fountains by Bernini, carvings by Gauguin and Rodin, and sculptures by Jean Arp, Brancusi and Robert Gober.
Organized in 20 chapters, the book interweaves a study of the artist’s work with a biography and a detailed cultural history of contemporary art (and a fascinating chronicle of the art scene in 1980s New York, where both Cemin and Milazzo have roots), all celebrated by Milazzo’s soaring prose. He ends his text with a quote from the artist, who echoes his three-year-old daughter saying, "Give me that toy, and your glasses and the music box and let me look at that and what is this?" Cemin goes on: "The energy is abundant, the attention complete."
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.