You can tell the holiday season is upon us by the size and number of new art books piling up on shelves of The Times Book Review department. The overall quality of new arrivals is not impressive, but the quantity is predictably overwhelming, and some entries are so weighty that they ought to come with handles and wheels.
Not the biggest, but surely best is The Bayeux Tapestry by David M. Wilson (Knopf: $75; 256 pp.). Elegantly bound and slipcased in gold-stamped, beige cloth and beautifully illustrated--with the artwork reproduced in color on consecutive pages--this is a handsome package. Through illustrations, text and translated inscriptions, amateurs learn the tapestry's epic tale of William of Normandy's conquest of England; scholars are provided with commentary on each panel and with essays on aesthetic and historical details.
Little is known of the origin of the 11th-Century tapestry (actually a 230-foot length of embroidered linen), but it is considered a primary record of the Norman Conquest and the Battle of Hastings, as well as an artistic delight. This publication will swell crowds of visitors to the small town of Bayeux (where the tapestry hangs in a new museum built in the shell of a seminary) and give armchair travelers the smug sense of having been there.
Art-oriented tourists bound for Egypt will benefit from the re-release of an immense, generously illustrated book, Art of Ancient Egypt by Kazimierz Michalowski (Abrams: $125; 600 pp.). Despite its intimidating size, it is not a dry history but an easily comprehensible foundation for understanding Egyptian culture, complete with maps and charts of major archeological sites.
Release of another superior book on foreign art, Indian Miniatures: The Ehrenfeld Collection by Daniel J. Ehnbom (Hudson Hills: $50; 272 pp.), coincides with the Festival of India's yearlong celebration in America and catalogues one of the festival's exhibitions. A sparkling publication, it is illustrated with jewel like miniatures and slipcased in black cloth. The Ehrenfelds, a San Francisco couple, have amassed hundreds of tiny paintings, originally produced as book illustrations. The 127 examples reproduced in color survey the genre from 16th-Century Mughal work to 19th-Century styles of Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills while covering a delightful array of themes: fantastic animals, fairies and demons, battles and love stories.
Most prepossessing of the season's new monographs is Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings by Diane Upright (Abrams: $100; 264 pp.). This catalogue raisonne is the last word on an important abstractionist whose reputation is based on about 600 paintings produced in only five years. Louis died in 1962, at 49, but not before he had refined painting to a pure presentation of color.
As he poured liquid pigment on raw white fabric, in his "Veils," "Unfurleds" and "Stripes" series, Louis created a body of work that bridged the romantic heroics of Abstract Expressionism and the cool objectivity of Minimalism. Upright clarifies his aesthetic development, as well as more pedestrian matters of technique, materials and even the "hanging orientation" of his paintings in an authoritative treatment of a subject she knows thoroughly.
Another notable monograph on a contemporary figure is James Rosenquist by Judith Goldman (Viking: $45; 188 pp.). It's a lively catalogue for the traveling retrospective of billboard-size paintings by an artist who survived Pop-art infamy and developed his virtuosity in collage like paintings he calls "a diary of my feelings." With liberal anecdotes and quotes from the artist, his associates and critics, the text merges art with life and Rosenquist's explosive personality.
Francesco Clemente by Michael Auping (Abrams: $35; 192 pp.) focuses on one of the young Italian Neo-Expressionists who burst upon New York's art scene several seasons ago. This exhibition catalogue pairs an academic essay with overrated art that tends to look painfully tortured or exhausted from years of hype.
Picabia by Maria Lluisa Borras (Rizzoli: $75; 552 pp.) spills an astonishing amount of ink on a fascinating character, generally thought to have been too facile and intent on pursuing the new to carve a substantial niche for himself. More than you ever wanted to know about Francis Picabia (1879-1953) is pictured here--from photos of his grandparents to reproductions of his well-known mechanical fantasies and his late, overwrought paintings. Sandwiched between thick slices of illustrations is an assiduously detailed and plodding text. Certainly a book for scholars, but even they will find it difficult, for this tome has no index.