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More than Pretty Pictures: Fall 2011's Eight Must-Have Art Books

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For the aesthete, art books are the great democratizer. Without buying a piece of art (or even leaving your home), you can own a small, beautifully curated product. More and more, the art book is becoming its own medium, a skilled and beautiful form; going beyond mere reproductions of shows and collections, art books claim their own aesthetic and intellectual aims and value. On top of that, shelves of great books ratchet up your cultural capital (to quote John Waters, “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t f@*! them.”). The right art books, if kept in good condition, can prove a highly profitable investment. Picking only eight fall art books was difficult, as the offerings are vast and impressive. I have attempted to sample a range of kinds of artists and types of books. (For those visiting New York this weekend, be sure to attend the NY Art Book Fair (Sept 30 – Oct 2) at PS1 MoMA, which will host over 200 international booksellers, large and small.)


1. Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth
Essay by John Kelsey
JRP|Ringier, September 30, 2011, 176 pages
As the title so clearly suggests, this shockingly beautiful book is a collaboration between two American fine art photographers (Catherine Opie and Alec Soth) and the fashion house Rodarte (comprised of the sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy). It includes a provocative and experimental text by John Kelsey. Conceived of and executed with a surprising amount of freedom and openness, the book presents a new model for cultural collaboration between fashion, photography, and writing. The book itself is a meditation on landscape: the landscape of garments, of the California desert, of the body. Printed on heavy matte paper with rich color reproductions (and Kelsey’s text as an insert), it is as evocative and imaginative a project as I’ve seen in a while, and will likely sell out fast. Although this sampling is not hierarchical, there is a reason I put this book in the number one slot. I just bought it, and I can’t stop looking.


2. Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families
by Susanne Kippenberger
J &L Books, Winter 2011, 500 pages
This book is the only one on the list to be released in Winter and not Fall, which almost led me to make the mistake of excluding it from this run-out-and-buy-it-or-at-least-go-look-at-it list. Published by J & L books, the non-profit publisher based in Brooklyn who always gets it right, this is an art book in the sense that it is about an artist. Rather than a survey of reproduced works, it is a comprehensive (500 pages) biography of the hard-drinking, confrontational, and hugely prolific German artist, written by his sister Susanne. Based on interviews with his family, friends, and professional colleagues, it promises a new, deeper insight into an artist who has influenced so many.



3. The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the Unconscious
W.M. Hunt, editor
Aperture, September 30, 2011, 320 pages
Aperture usually publishes monographs, but I wish they would do more group books like this one. Drawn from W.M. Hunt’s photography collection, all 350 photographs in this book center around a single theme: the averted gaze. Ranging from the photographs of Richard Avedon to Diane Arbus to Robert Mapplethorpe, each subject looks away, or closes their eyes (whether knowingly or unknowingly) when being shot by the camera. The resulting vulnerability and tension of those pictured is unnerving, and speaks to the problem and potential of photography at large: Who has the power of representation, and at what point does it become unethical? Hunt also writes an interesting essay about choosing to collect such photographs.


4. It Chooses You
by Miranda July
McSweeney’s Irregulars, November 15, 2011, 208 pages

Though July is an artist in the most direct sense, this book of non-fiction stories, shakily qualifies as an “art book” (I couldn’t resist). July wrote this book while conducting research on Penny-Saver sellers for her second feature film, The Future. Unlike her last book, No One Belongs Here More Than You, a series of short fiction stories, this time July chronicles the lives of thirteen Penny-Saver sellers that she met and became close with over the past three years. Read it because you appreciate July’s sincere sensibility or because you don’t; each of those 208 pages promise to be lovingly tragic and off-kilter.


5. Wolfgang Tillmans, Abstract Pictures
Hatje Cantz, October 31, 2011, 376 pages
At only 43 years old, Tillmans is arguably the best and most diverse photographer of his generation, not to mention immensely prolific; an Amazon search of his name provides 107 results, the first two pages of which are his books alone). As the title states, his new book is all abstract pictures, which Tillmans has created by probing the properties of light, materiality, and exposure. One gets the sense that the artist not only desires to see what the camera can do, but also has a driving curiosity to see what things can look like; this poetic force drives the beauty and appeal of the book, and is the reason that Tillmans will never go out of style. It’s big too: At 275 color photographs, you will get your money’s worth.


6. Gerhard Richter: Panorama
D.A.P./Tate, October 31, 2011, 288 pages
If Tillmans is the father of prolific, innovative German artists, Gerhard Richter is the grandaddy. Panorama was published in conjunction with Richter’s retrospective of the same title at the Tate. This survey show and catalogue encompass the span of the German painter’s very long, panoramic career, ranging from totally abstract paintings to photo-realistic ones, loose drawings, and photographs of the artist’s studio. It also includes 30 new paintings made over the past ten years. It is pretty straightforward, including an interview of the always well-spoken artist by the curator Nicholas Serota. If you are a Richter fan (and who isn’t?) another book, Lines Which Do Not Exist (Drawing Papers) was published just under a year ago by the Drawing Center, and is also an excellent addition to any Richter collection.


7. Francesca Woodman
D.A.P./San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, October 31, 2011, 224 pages
I’m choosing a lot of photography books, and for good reason: nothing quite reproduces as well as the medium intended for reproduction on paper in the first place. This book, which contains many never-before-seen Woodman photographs, is being published in conjunction with a major retrospective of Woodman’s work at both the SFMoMA and the Guggenheim in New York. The artist was 22 when she committed suicide in 1981, leaving behind an incredible, unusual archive of black and white photographs, many of which where haunting, illusive self portraits. Even at a very young age, her sensibility — gothic and surreal — was fully formed. Her influence was immeasurable; without fail, several people in any photography class — usually women — will list her as their prevailing influence.



8. Artist Run Spaces
edited by Gabriele Detter & Maurizio Nannucci
JRP|Ringier, December 31, 2011, 280 pages
In my all-inclusive approach of considering texts about art as art books in themselves, I conclude with Artist Run Spaces. The book presents a series of essays that, taking the phenomena of artist-run spaces in the 1960s and ’70s as its model, investigates the promise and potential of similar contemporary spaces and their founders. Among other places, Printed Matter in New York, La Mamelle in San Francisco, and Western Front in Vancouver are all considered here. If this is a subject that interests you, I would also recommend Community Art, the Politics of Trespassing, edited by Paul De Bruyne and Pascal Gielen, which will be published the end of this month.

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