October 2011: Top Ten Book Review


Sculptural Objects: Journeys In & Out of the Studio
by Michelle Stuart
Charta Press, 2010

On January 6, 2011 Michelle Stuart exhibited her work from the 1970s at the Leslie Tonkonow Gallery while Salomon Contemporary concurrently featured a show of her work that was made from the 1960s to present. During the run of both exhibitions, Stuart released a book that captures a narrative of her process as well as photo documentation of her art, made mostly during the 1980s. An essay titled “Touchstones” by Lucy Lippard, introduces the artist and elaborates further on this growing aesthetic that has been extended to sculpture, drawing, painting and performance in the outdoor, exterior environment. At each site Stuart utilized materials that were at hand collecting soil, pigments, rock, artifacts and bones.

Featuring work from the late 1960s onward, this book presents objects that the artist has collected from around the world along with a series of hand-made books, layered with site-specific materials such as sand, stone, feathers or fossils. For Stuart, nature writes itself over time. Erosion and layering become sculptural processes that mold, polish and reveal objects over time. When artists decided to leave the confines of their studio spaces to expand on the boundaries of art, Michelle Stuart was already gone, located at the forefront of a new movement that shaped art of the 1970s.

Paul McDonough: New York Photographs 1968-1978
by Paul McDonough
Umbrage Books, 2010

Brooklyn-based photographer Paul McDonough arrived in New York City the same year that Civil Rights continued to grip America. So it is stunning to find a series of otherwise quiet, peaceful portraits of anonymous city-goers. McDonough’s subjects appear to be where the action is not. They look out to the world, past the lens, as they walk alone and blend seamlessly into the larger fabric of New York City. Whether we find ourselves navigating through the inquisitive crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or crossing the street with models and businessmen, McDonough captures the city as an attraction for everyone.

Modigliani: A Life
by Meryle Secrest
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

Meryle Secrest deconstruct the myths that have grown around the memory of artist Amadeo Modigliani, born 1884 in Rome, Italy and died 1920 in Paris, France. In 2004 the Jewish Museum in New York City featured a Modigliani retrospective that captured the artist as a bohemian who had been largely overlooked in his day. Secrest’s text confirms that he lived poor in Paris, made paintings for friends but was largely overlooked by the French press.

After tracing the artist’s early years, the author takes readers to the back of Montmarte, to the small quarters of the Lapin Agile, a bar and cabaret, where Modigliani, Picasso, Braque, Picabia and Renoir – to name a few – gathered to debate and discuss art. While Modigliani worked and lived within Paris, he struggled with tuberculosis and consumption but remained prolific. Unfortunately, the tragedy of his life became more of a spectacle than life itself.

Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World
by Barbara Haskell
Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University Press, 2011

Lyonel Feininger was born in 1871 in America to parents who had emigrated from Germany. By the age of 16, Feinger moved back to Germany where he became an illustrator for German newspapers and eventually one of the artists who comprised the Blue Four. This catalogue published by the Whitney Museum of American Art conveys that street scenes were Feininger’s most preferred subject, capturing fashionable men and women as they strolled down city streets, some gazing out at the viewer while others looked across at one another.

Shortly after the start of World War I, the artist developed a conflicting geometric pattern that rendered significant illusionistic depth into an unreal world filled with chiseled and sharp-angled surfaces. Feinginer’s response to the impact of the Industrial Era appear rather benign when considering the destruction that was wrought by war machinery. In 1937, the artist finally returned to the United States, still in disbelief at the loss of Germany’s richly civilized culture. With an affinity for the urban center, Feininger eventually embraced the strange but familiar city-scapes that he encountered throughout the United States.

The Eve of Fluxus: a fluxmemoir
by Billie Maciunas
Arbiter Press, 2010

Billie Maciunas dedicates her book to unknown artists, a memoir that recounts her experiences with Fluxus and her partner George Maciunas. Kristine Stiles wrote the prologue and Geoffrey Hendricks, the introduction in order to as context to the short time that Billie knew George before he died. Early on, Billie explains that she moved to New York City in 1975 and lived as a writer. In 1977 she landed a typing job and decided to rent a room at the New Marlborough manor house that was located in the Berkshires and owned by George Maciunas. George had left the city due to escalating rents and had hoped to transform this house into an upstate residency for artists who were looking for space to work.

However as Billie became wrapped into George Maciunas’ life, she became aquainted with Fluxus. And it comes as no surprise to any writer when Billie provides the status of her writing assignments that brought her there: “I never received payment from the medical researcher for the typing job I had done, and I hadn’t done anything more about the steamy memoir,” (21) which left her unable to afford the rent at New Marlborough. Furthermore as a writer who aspired in poetry Billie writes about Fluxus: “I had no agenda, no attachments, and seemingly no desires other than to write.” (12) This book details the last months of George Maciunas’ life by someone who met him and Fluxus purely by chance.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating
by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Sternberg Press, 2011

Tino Sehgal wrote the forward for this book and claims that as a curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has attempted to find new ways, “modalities,” of exhibiting art that moves viewers beyond the object. This book comprises a series of interviews that artists have asked the curator, which elicit his cross-disciplinary interests.

The discussion with Enrique Walker opens the book but took place in New York City on March 27, 2008 – a few months before the stock market began to decline, which ultimately sent both the contemporary art market and the economy into a tailspin. The subsequent interviews date from 1995 to 2007, when contemporary art was booming in galleries and art schools around the world. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating is an immediate historical document that provides clear hindsight of an era in culture that will be hard to match in the near future.

Contemporary Art in North America
by Black dog Publishing, 2011

Artforum writer Michael Wilson opens up this survey of the most recent contemporary art stars with an essay that connects artistic retrogression to the richness of identity that artists in both America and Canada were experiencing during the art boom. Although this only touches upon the status quo, Wilson suggests that these artists are attempting to serve as a screen of informative self-critique. So it’s not ironic to read at the end of his essay the following quote by Andy Warhol: “I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is ‘In fifteen minutes, everybody will be famous.’” (27) Additional essays by Jerry Saltz, Pamela Lee, Martha Rosler and Critical Art Ensemble appear in the appendix for an additional rounding out.

High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture
by Isabelle Graw
Sternberg Press, 2010

Isabelle Graw launches an examination of the relationship between art, the market and celebrity. In four chapters the author dissects the nature of the art market, one that is more about commodity than edgy, alternative creativity. “After all, as Siegfried Kracauer observed, reality can only be revealed in extreme situations, such as the art boom,” write Graw. However the author suggests that art is balanced by the market which has incorporated many “artists’ artists,” such as Paul Thek, Mike Kelly and Lee Lozano: “The importance of such an artist derives solely from the recognition shown to him by his peer group. By definition, he sets no store in his artistic reputation paying off in his own lifetime.”

Graw romanticizes and overlooks the bitterness, struggles and round rejections that many “artists’ artists” have faced. The book’s final chapter attempts to clarify the connection that contemporary art has had with celebrity culture since Andy Warhol made it a viable but empty commodity. As viewers huddle in their apartments each week to watch Bravo’s Work of Art reality-television series, the filter of celebrity culture exhibits itself. It’s for artists to decide whether this is useful in their work.

Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market
by Noah Horowitz
Princeton University Press, 2011

The author opens with a cutting observation of the art market: “The year that began by setting further records but would also mark the bursting of the bubble – 2008 – presented two excellent examples of this landscape. The most notable was Damien Hirst’s auction Sotheby’s London, in September.” Horowitz continues to funnel his focus upon the unraveling of the Estella Collection that comprised solely works by contemporary Chinese artists and continues to ground his main idea in discussions of video art, experiential art and art investment funds.

The connection of contemporary art with financial liquidity and the speculative bubble is an eye-opener, revealing how far objects that grew from humble moments of creativity eventually became metaphors for machine-made objects. Several charts in the back of the book reveal the growing demand of video art, reflecting auction prices. Experiential art, moreover, became a convincing medium once museums and galleries were able to conflate viewer involvement to the larger scope of entertainment.

Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea
by Gregory Claeys
Thames & Hudson, 2011

Gregory Claeys returns to the historic subject and shared desire of utopia, at a time when direction and disillusion appear to conspire. However the notion of utopia has existed over centuries, always providing space for new ideas to emerge forth. Claeys returns to many of the great writers such as Thomas More, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and Denis Diderot. Late in the book, the author extends this desire into Jane Jacobs’ The Life and Death of Great American Cities from 1961. Utopian ideals play a strong role in urban planning and local economies. The science fictions of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells make one wonder if something was recently missed along the way. It’s definitely worth a second look.

Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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