We may like to think that any book is a gift—and any one surely can be. But let’s face it, some make better gifts than others. And when it comes to gifts at the higher price points, thanks to production costs and a narrower market there are certain books that are more appropriate choices than others. This fall we received a particularly heavy avalanche of submissions; maybe the economy is getting better. As a result, we have narrowed the spectrum for that category into the five most prominent ones we could discern: high art, literary and book-related titles, and books about places, entertainment/celebrity, and nature.
When it comes to high modernist art, one could do worse than start at the Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929), and there, start with Alfred Barr, it first director, and then move on to William Rubin. It was Rubin, a private collector and art historian who filled his own loft on lower Broadway in New York City with early Mark Rothkos, Jackson Pollocks, and Frank Stellas, and who then became a curator of sculpture and painting at MoMA, helping to attract big collectors and big artists to the Modern. His book, A Curator’s Quest: Building the Collection of Painting and Sculpture of the Museum of Modern Art, 1967–1988, was published by Overlook in May and remains deserving of attention as a timely—and timeless—book about modern art. Priced at $100, it is gorgeously illustrated, but also contains Rubin’s fascinating reflections on building the collection, which art aficionados and curators everywhere would do well to read.
There are at least two big and important shows going on in New York City this fall, centering on a modernist master in one instance, and a master of modernism’s subversion in the other. Both have beautiful books attached. Picasso: Black and White opens this week at the Guggenheim. It is curated by Carmen Giménez, and the show is, as she says in her introduction to the accompanying catalogue of the same name (Prestel, $60), “the culmination of my longstanding interest in the art and universal perspective of the great Spanish master.” Giménez, who has curated memorable exhibitions at the Guggenheim by Brancusi and David Smith in recent years, explores Picasso’s striking use of black, white, and gray in painting, drawing, and sculpture, and the work is stunningly reproduced. The book—and the show—provide opportunity to see dozens of masterpieces.
Another hot show in New York is at the Met—Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, and a book of that title accompanies, published by the Met (and distributed by Yale University Press; $60). While the art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto once argued that “art ended” with Warhol, this show asserts quite the opposite. Work from 60 artists, organized by independent curator Mark Rosenthal, shows how influential, inspiring—and imitated—Warhol has been. The Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar—one of 13 artist interviewed for the book by Met curator Marla Prather—speaks for many when he says, “[Warhol’s] work infiltrates the culture in a way that few artists have achieved.” And there is a lot of great Warhol work in the book and at the Met show.
Also connected to a large show—just closing this week at the National Gallery of Art in Washington but moving to the Met in November—is George Bellows (Prestel, $60). Bellows, famous for his muscular boxing paintings, was a complex and politically committed man who died young, at the age of 42, cutting short a career that was ideologically bold as well as technically adventurous. As Philip Kennicott observed in the Washington Post about the Bellows show, “You emerge willing to think pluralistically about modernism—that there was no monolithic Modernism with a capital M, but rather a host of different modernisms often in conflict with one another.... In other words, a career of many modernisms.”
Long before Bellows and 20th-century stars like Picasso and Warhol there was a body of art practice that remains influential, however invisible, to this day. Caspar David Friedrich, the great German romantic landscape painter of the 19th century, is an example. Renowned for much of his career, he died in 1840 in relative obscurity, only to have his work rediscovered 100 years later by surrealists and expressionists. His haunting and mysterious canvases are beautifully reproduced by Prestel in Caspar David Friedrich by Johannes Grave ($120).
The work of the late photographer Richard Avedon continues to be explored. Popularly known for his fashion shots and candid portraits of celebrities, he also worked on a larger scale, literarily and figuratively. In Avedon: Murals & Portraits (Abrams, $100), four large-scale photographic murals serve as “the crux” (in gallerist Larry Gagosian’s term) of the assemblage: they show the Chicago Seven in tie-dye; poet Allen Ginsberg’s extended family, all dressed up; the “Mission Counsel” mural, taken in Saigon during the Vietnam War and named after the group that helped dictate U.S. policy; and Andy Warhol and his Factory crowd. With essays by the likes of Louis Menand and William Shawcross, the book captures several extended seminal moments in American history, and helps solidify Avedon as a narrative portraitist.
Ori Gersht is an Israeli artist who had his first solo show in Boston this summer. Born in Tel Aviv just before the Six-Day War in 1967, Gersht is interested in historical witness, particularly in how landscape can stand as witness. In his work, a mix of photography, painting, and video, he has been known to create Old Master still life tableaux—and then film a hanging fruit being exploded by a bullet. Ori Gersht: History Repeating (Museum of Fine Arts, $60) accompanies the show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Curator Al Miner, in his essay in the book, notes Gersht’s “almost subversive approach to using aesthetics to lure a viewer into dealing with subject matter that’s very difficult.”
Today, with e-books thriving, and in many ways driving the industry, illustrated books still hold their own. And Little, Brown’s My Ideal Bookshelf ($24) manages to be both a beautiful little print book as well as homage to real books on real shelves—books selected from personal lists of favorites by writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Chabon, Maria Kallman, David Eggers, and David Sedaris. Want to know what Stephenie Meyer favors? This is for you. About 90 authors make their selections and provide small personal essays, and artist Jane Mount renders their books in a warm and whimsical style
There are at least two books in the category that are pretty funny: Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See (Abrams, $24.95), chosen by New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly. Well, mostly funny—some of the outtakes with Abu Ghraib themes or the tsunami that hit Japan are moving and disturbing. More consistently funny (and crude, irreverent, tasteless, and brilliant) is The Onion Book of Known Knowledge ($29.99), in encyclopedia format; from “Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem” to “ZZ Top,” it also includes instructions on how to read the book, “understanding page numbers,” and education requirements (“Graduate, New Trier Township High School,” minimum). Little, Brown promises a busy tour schedule of unnamed Onion editors throughout the fall.
Christoph Nieman’s popular visual blog, Abstract City, appeared at the New York Times from 2008 to 2011. The blog is now called Abstract Sunday and is an ongoing collection of his clever conceptual illustrations for the New York Times Magazine. Abrams has collected 14 of his “essays” in Abstract City (Abrams, $24.95) in a book that is a treasure trove of fascinating visual ideas and things to do with common items, like Legos, leaves, and coffee-stained napkins.
For lovers of all things George R.R. Martin—and they are legion—Bantam is providing maps: The Lands of Ice and Fire, illustrated by Jonathan Roberts ($40), is a box with sleeves containing a dozen pullout maps to the lands in Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire series. The publisher calls the package “the definitive dragon’s eye view that fans everywhere have been dying to see.”
Long before Lands of Ice and Fire—at least in publishing—there was Middle-earth, and the J.R.R. Tolkien landscape exists still, 100 years (last month) after the publication of The Hobbit. Now, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, comes a handsome hardcover that contains Tolkien’s 10 original black-and-white illustrations, two maps, and five color scenes he later painted. Tolkien was an accomplished artist, and Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Tolkien scholars) take close looks at Tolkien’s craft in relation to the text.
And in another Museum of Fine Arts title, The Postcard Age ($45), past and present are united, in a link between a form of communication from the early 20th century, the postcard, and the instant forms of communication today, Twitter, text messaging, etc. Around 1910, a postcard craze swept the world. People everywhere bought cards, filled them out, mailed them; when received, cards were collected in albums. Even artists took up the new medium. This book, which gathers a collection of postcards gathered by Leonard A. Lauder, the Estée Lauder chairman emeritus. is the first devoted to this particular form.
Let’s eat. Okay, where? In Lonely Planet’s Food Lover’s Guide to the World ($39.99), a reader can travel to countries (China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, etc.), 14 of which have separate chapters, or to regions (the British Isles, the subcontinent, etc.) in search of a preferred global cuisine. With a foreword by Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland and introduction by Mark Bittman, this collection is the ideal appetizer (with recipes) for a bigger meal a traveler might have somewhere else. Not a bad move by a travel guide publisher like Lonely Planet.
One of those places might be Venice. Although the Italian city of 118 islands in the Venetian lagoon is not known for its food, it is unparalleled as a city of mystery, magic, and beauty. And Vendome’s monumental Monumental Venice is a book that does its very best to get its arms around this floating enigma. In a format that is 21-in.×12-in., and with four-panel full-page foldouts, the panoramas of the city are a sight to behold (and unfold), and are particularly suited to the large canal-front vistas. There is an introduction and captions, but this book, like Venice itself, is for the eyes.
For the big picture of place, there’s always the universe, or Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide, revised and updated from the 2005 edition, and published by DK ($50), Martin Rees, general editor. Rees, the Astronomer Royal and emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge, covers it all—you can learn about the universe “before stars”—and all of it is delivered in DK’s signature mix of illustrations and text that make learning an adventure.
We might as well say icons. Elizabeth Taylor, who died at age 79 in 2011, was a Hollywood star from her first film in 1942 to her last in 2001. In Elizabeth Taylor: A Shining Legacy on Film by Cindy de la Hoz (Running Press, $30), that career is arrayed with great photos, good film production details, and juicy quotes—Taylor’s first casting director dismissed her thus: “Her eyes are too old. She doesn’t have the face of a kid” (she was 10). The book is Hollywood history, filmography, and fanzine all in one.
James Bond is still alive, thanks to a succession of male stars who’ve donned the tux and the wet suits with suavity. DK sums it all up in James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters ($50)—from every Bond film and with every actor and all the villains and ladies and villain ladies, and with posters reproduced in the language of the many markets in which the brand thrived (Diamantes para la Eternidad). DK has also issued a box with 100 postcards taken from Bond film stills and posters.
Abrams has boxed two first-rate collections of photographs. The Movie Box by Paolo Mereghetti features many studio lot stills, outtake photos, and candid down-time snaps of actors and directors at rest and play. It also contains many famous photos of the likes of Jane Fonda, Liz Taylor, and many more. The Music Box does the same, with the subtitle Photographing the All-Time Greats, though it is extremely eclectic in its choices, from Freddy Mercury to Bill Evans to Marilyn Manson. Each box retails for $29.95.
For a book that’s rather hard to put down, music and pop culture buffs might want Tragedies and Mysteries of Rock ’n’ Roll, text by Michele Prini, from White Star ($34.95). Sixty-three music world deaths, from Robert Johnson to Whitney Houston, are detailed in very readable prose with ample illustrations. The book will surely return some readers to the music of vanished stars to be reminded what all the fuss was about.
Nature crosses with an art form in the cultivation of bonsai trees, which goes back at least two thousand years. Though bonsai creations grace Japanese gardens and many homes, under the eye of renowned photographer Jonathan M. Singer the curious shapes and slightly disorienting scales have found a new context in which to be appreciated. Fine Bonsai: Art & Nature (Abbeville, deluxe slip-cased edition, $250) contains 300 full-page photos of bonsai from private collections (yes, bonsais are collected), including photos from “the mecca of bonsai, the Omiya Bonsai Village of Saitama, Japan.”
“To Nicole” is the only text that graces the photography book Flower by Andrew Zuckerman ($75). Zuckerman’s sumptuous style, evident in two other of his Chronicle efforts, Creature and Bird, is to place up-close, colorful subjects within a pure white field, revealing all the wonders of color and structure and identity.
And America’s original artist of sumptuous color, detail, and identity in the natural world, John James Audubon, is honored in Rizzoli’s Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America ($85), with text by Robert J.M. Olson, curator of drawing at the New-York Historical Society. Olson tells the story of the creation of the Audubon watercolors and delves into the master naturalist’s sources. Like the greatest of art from nature, we are taught how to see.