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January 12, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Michael Lesy is the chronicler of contemporary American culture whose "Wisconsin Death Trip" is an enduring classic of photography as social history. Now Lesy has turned to critical biography in Visible Light (New York Times: $14.95; also available in hardcover, $22.50), a quartet of vivid portraits-in-prose of four photographers--the late Angelo Rizzuto, a New York recluse who captured himself and his urban habitat on film; Bill Burke, a brooding photo-documentarian whose images of the rural South reveal something equally dark and troubling; John McWilliams, a restless landscape photographer "who had seen too much" and sought refuge on the high seas, and Andrea Kovacs, a woman for whom photography was a medium of first sexual and then spiritual autobiography. Each profile is illustrated with the photographer's work, but it is Lesy's impressive powers of observation, analysis and narration that make "Visible Light" such a memorable book, one that illuminates not only the sources and workings of photography as art, but also the murky psychic depths and the gritty realities of the lives of these four artists.

"What they have in common are lives that read like parables whose instruments of grace and means of revelation are cameras," Lesy explains. "For better or worse, all the people in this book reached for a camera at a certain moment in their lives the way someone with asthma reaches for an inhaler. . . . They did it, whether they knew it or not, to save and heal their own souls."

So, too, does Keith Sagar explore the inner workings of an artist in D. H. Lawrence: Life Into Art (University of Georgia, Athens, Ga. 30602: $12.95; hardcover, $30), a scholarly but thoroughly accessible study of Lawrence's methods and motives by reference to the author's personal and business correspondence, his early manuscripts, and the reminiscences of his contemporaries. In a sense, Sagar has achieved a synthesis of his earlier work as a biographer and critic in "The Art of D. H. Lawrence" and "The Life of D. H. Lawrence." His new book adds a useful and illuminating dimension to Lawrence's published stories, poems, novels and plays; Sagar's goal, as he puts it, is to close the gap "between the raw material of experience and the accomplished work of art." Indeed, "Life Into Art" captures what Lawrence himself described in one of his last poems as "the leavings of a life": ". . . snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal/odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers/such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me--"

The 10 essays collected in Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics by Hal Foster (Bay, 3710 Discovery Road N., Port Townsend, Wash. 98368: $9.95) are a sort of pulse-taking of contemporary art criticism by one of its practitioners--Foster is a senior editor of "Art in America," where most of these essays appeared in slightly different versions. Foster decries "the erosion in the place and function of art and criticism," and bemoans a system in which art has become "the plaything of (corporate) patrons whose relation to culture is less one of noble obligation than of overt manipulation--of art as a sign of power, prestige, publicity." (The author, by the way, is fairly obsessive in his use of parenthetical attributions, allusions and asides.) While Foster takes for granted that his reader is intimately familiar with the politics and personalities of the art world--for instance, he apologizes for the absence of "a single essay on the (mostly British) feminist art involved with (Lacanian) psychoanalysis"--"Recodings" is nonetheless a lucid and provocative work, and one that allows us to glimpse the stirrings and upheavals in the hothouse of modern art.

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