As I was finishing my last novel, I was aware of the strange sensation of something left unsaid--fictional shrapnel. I found myself hunkered down on my living room floor, cutting and pasting, painting. I turned out a series of primitive fetishistic figures different from any work I'd done before. The paintings were eight peculiar illustrations of my creative process--an amalgam of the character I'd created and the psychological debris of having lived with him, so to speak, for five years.
I have forever been fascinated by how artists work, how they fled their way to whatever form they made their own--painting, sculpture, photography and performance. Short of having a cup of tea and a long talk with an artist about where the work comes from and what significance it has, my favorite thing to do on long winter nights is to curl up with a big fat art book. The best of these show not only the work, but establish a context--historical, personal, theoretical--illustrating an understanding of both the art and artist. This year's crop offers some wonderful possibilities.
1996 brought many significant exhibition catalogs: Art in Chicago--published to coincide with the opening of Chicago's new Museum of Contemporary Art--captures the verve and vibrancy of Chicago's art history from Harry Callahan and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to Ed Pashke, Leon Golub, Martin Puryear and Nancy Spero. Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline is an insightful and thorough volume that takes on what some consider the "defining aesthetic of the 20th century" and addresses the divide between those who think of abstraction as a "universal language" and those who claim it is "the end of art."
Jasper Johns' images make up part of the vocabulary of contemporary art. In Jasper Johns: Retrospective, one sees the thumbprint of his artistic mentors--Leonardo, Cezanne and Duchamp--along with the influence of his peers. But what becomes clear when looking at five decades' worth of his work is that Johns is an artist creating in his own language, appropriating familiar iconography--flags, targets, numbers--and transforming them into private symbols and recurring motifs. For the true Johns devotee, there is also Jasper Johns: Privileged Information a peculiar and oddly personal elaboration of cultural critic Jill Johnston's notion of Johns as "a secret autobiographer." Johns, formerly a friend of Johnston's, refused to cooperate with this flawed unmasking by going so far as to refuse to allow his work to be reproduced in the book.
1996 has also brought a plethora of Picasso material, the best of which is Picasso and Portraiture a stunning assemblage of portraits in which the autobiographical element is overt: Picasso's women often made themselves known in his work before being revealed in his life. Picasso's "Variations on the Masters" is the first intensive study of his use of appropriation, documenting the influence of artists such as Poussin and Velazquez. Picasso And Els 4 Gats: The Early Years in Turn-of-the Century Barcelona is a lovely chronicle of the artist's early work at Els Quartre Gats, a now-infamous Barcelona tavern that was the site of his first one-man show and a gathering place for artists and intellectuals in turn-of-the-century Barcelona.
The meaty volume Lucian Freud opens with a charming crayon drawing, Chimney's on Fire done when Freud was 6, and closes with a series of chillingly sharp nudes, "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995." This one wins the prize for fleshiest book of the year. Ink, Paper, Metal, Wood: Painters and Sculptors at Crown Point Press is a wonderful narration of the printmaking process and history of Crown Point Press, which has worked with artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Chris Burden, Ed Ruscha and Tim Rollins & K.O.S. It's a great book for both collectors and those curious about the intensely collaborative and technical aspects of printmaking.
Art In The Frick Collection is a luscious representation of one of the world's most romantic museums featuring the rags-to-riches story of collector Henry Clay Frick whose former home holds works such as "Degas," "The Rehearsal," Fragonard's "The Progress of Love" and Renoir's "Mother and Children"in its hushed rooms.
The Best of Flair is the book that makes you want to get the flu so that you can stay home and languidly flip through its fabulous pages. Flair, the magazine for moderns--hip and way ahead of its time with fold-outs and die-cut covers--existed for only 12 issues, from 1950-1951. Fleur Cowles, its creator, introduced Americans to the work of Lucien Freud, the paintings of Winston Churchill and writing from everyone ranging from Simone de Beauvoir to Tennessee Williams and Margaret Mead--pure fun.