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Umbrella Online - Current Issue

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ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 31, No. 1, Mar 2008

Book Reviews

MONOGRAPH

Allan Kaprow: Art as Life, edited by Eva Meyer-Hermann, Andrew Perchuk and Stephanie Rosenthal (Los Angeles, GRI, 2008, $55.00 hardcover) is more than an exhibition catalog, since it uses all the resources of the artist’s archives which are housed at the Getty Research Institute. While this was intended to complement the exhibition which is an international traveling retrospective, by using the resources of the archives, it becomes a revelatory portrait of an artist who has been called the best unknown artist among the major postwar practitioners in the United States. But with this exhibition and the book-catalog, with the astute scholarship, research, and understanding of the scholars who coalesced to make the exhibition and the book a reflection of the meshing of Art and Life, Allan Kaprow (also deceased last year) is no longer unknown.

Although this is not meant to be definitive, Kaprow’s work cries out for a catalogue raisonné and so this is a beginning of more intensive museological and scholarly engagement to complete the life of this amazing artist. Annette Leddy has done a remarkable job of creating much more than a timeline, but an intimate picture of a life including drawings, paintings, collages, sculptures, assemblages, scores, environments, Happenings, Activities, Activity Booklets, Videos and Films with a wonderful assortment of images from the Archives that makes Kaprow’s life fly off the pages. For someone who was determined enough to work outside the gallery and museum and who insisted on active participation rather than passive spectatorship, this “kind” of catalog serves its purpose so very well. His life and his art intermeshed to become a tapestry of meaning what an artist is. With the six essays that contextualize this history, focusing on Kaprow’s early work, his writings, and the difficulty of exhibiting his oeuvre, the writers paid homage to Kaprow’s aesthetic ethos. This is a must publication for all contemporary collections. Its resonance will endure until the next volume is written and beyond.

GENERAL

Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art by Liz Kotz (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2007, $29.95 hardback) is the first time language in art in 1960s art crossed minimalism, Pop, conceptualism, and Fluxus as well as music, poetry, performance and sculpture. Kotz retells the story of how language art emerged from the cauldron of experimental art in New York through a contemporary filter, making a case for painted, drawn, projected, spoken, performed, and transmitted words as one of the defining tendencies and lasting legacies of 60s art.

In this age of historifying movements and decades, Kotz sees how visual art, poetry and experimental music created in New York City from 1958 to 1968 changed culture, where language was reduced to an object nearly emptied of meaning. In Robert Smithson’s exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in 1967, the title says it all: “Language to be Looked at an/or Things to be Read.” Kotz shows the paradox of artists living in a time of social upheaval (much like ours) who used words but chose not to make statements with them.

Using this book as a roadmap, Kotz’s study is bookended by two exemplars of language art: the spare “text score” of John Cage’s 4’33” and Andy Warhol’s massive a: a novel. But there are such remarkable interventions between John Ashbery and Jackson MacLow, for instance, or a chapter on Vito Acconci where language becomes a “field for action” as indicated in his many publications in the 70s, or Dan Graham who describes himself as “poet” and reflects how “poetry appeared in the 1960s art world as a potential field for investigating language as such and, in particular for exploring the behavior of words on the page.”

Kotz gives us a new way of looking at language in the 1960s with an examination of works by Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, George Brecht, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Jackson Mac Low, and Lawrence Weiner, among so many less-known but important figures. We see how language was used in the 1960s as a reaction to the new recording and transmission media such as magnetic sound, videotape, and other emerging electronic technologies. This book is very important, significant because it has new observations which bring us to our new digitized network, explaining how we got here through the very nature of what Dick Higgins coined as “intermedia” where photography, visual art, poetry, music and performance live together in a new construct. Extensive bibliography and index.

Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance by Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes (New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2007, $17.50 softbound) is a book about things sacred and profane that have inspired us. Included are everyday items such as a rubberstamp or a lamp, as well as a plastic pencil sharpener in the shape of a TV or a pile of dirt or a beaver stick. The cast of characters includes artists, writers, designers, among others who add to the mix with photographs of the items and reflections on the objects which energize, motivate, and serve as catalysts for their own creativity.

Much like artists who keep “things or objects” around to stimulate their creativity, so these 75 objects serve up stories and actions. We all have things around the house or studio which remind us of something irreplaceable or striking, or remind us of those people with whom we exchanged those objects, all serving to create anecdotes and stories about them. This is like a Cabinet of Wonders which reminds us of our collecting totems, charms, relics, fetishes and everything else that has been picked over from yard sales and garage sales, the trash, barter, and the detritus of someone becomes the treasures of another.

Hand Job: A Catalog of Type by Michael Perry (New York, Princeton Architectural Pres, 2007, $35.00 paper) reflects the movement of many computer-generated typographers to champion the practice of working by hand. Sketchbooks are passé, so their hand-drawn type has emerged from the underground with the energy and dynamic verve that drives visual communication including magaiznes, books, and album covers.

Gathering the work of 55 of today’s most talented typographers who draw by hand, Michael Perry selected work representing the full spectrum of design methods and styles. The complexity, simplicity or zest that the hand-drawn type gives to the page makes one smile honestly, because it is so delicious. What a wonderful way of knowing that these typographers really want to express themselves and really know how to do it with excitement and energy.

There are also photographs of found type, artists’ studios, and the tools that help make typography come to life. These artists are really visual communicators with zest!

Match Book: Indian Matchbook Labels by Shahid Datawala (Chennai, India, Tara Books, 2007, $19.95 paper) covers over 500 matchbook labels. Designed as a large matchbox – complete with slipcase and striking edge, Match Book is the first ever collection of Indian matchbox labels. Curious and visually stunning in full color, these designs spawn imitation from the big companies to smaller and more courageous ones. Names such as Cheetah Fight, Judo Deluxe, Tip Top and New Shit brands are sold in every road-side booth, used to light up a beedi or a kerosene stove. These firms create boxed matches which have left many social agencies where cigarettes are looked down upon. But the author’s ruminations on the match book industry and how an unjust economy throws light on how they squelch dynamic visual and vibrant design which they introduced make this a beautiful and yet a sociological study.

An American Artist in Tokyo by Frances Blakemore (1906-2997) by Michiyo Morioka (Seattle, Blakemore Foundation, 2008, $35.00 cloth, dist. By Univ. of Washington Press) tells the story of the life of a woman who had a lifelong love affair with Japan. First going to Japan in 1935 after graduating from the University of Washington, she then spent most of her adult life in Tokyo. Living there as an artist, she absorbed all the Japanese culture, interacting with the Japanese people made special by her integrating so keenly in the society.

Known as a painter and printmaker, she began to teach art and English in Tokyo, chronicling her experiences both with art and writing. Escaping from WWII, she settled in Honolulu, where the Office of War Information hired her to design propaganda leaflets that were dropped by the millions on the Japanese islands and combat areas in the Southwest Pacific to convince the Japanese to cease the war effort.

In 1946, Frances returned to war-devastated Tokyo and prepared posters and exhibitions for the Civil Information and Education Section of General Headquarters led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. During the following decades, having married an American attorney, she achieved prominence as an artist and gallery owner in Tokyo. She held one-person exhibitions of her paintings both in Japan and in the U.S., while she promoted aspiring Japanese print artists in her gallery. Health problems led to return to the U.S., but she and her husband had wanted so much to live out their lives in Tokyo.

Besides the paintings and prints, she did children’s books, murals, cartoons, and personalized greeting cards. She wrote many letters and essays indicating her power of observation. This book is illustrated with 246 illustrations, 113 in color, as well as striking color reproductions of her work, introducing the adventures of this remarkable American artist. Recommended for those who love Japan and travel.

Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860, edited by Julia Meech and Jane Oliver (New York, Asia Society and Japanese Art Society of America, dist. by Univ. of Washington Press. 2008, $45.00) is a beautiful large-size catalog covering the Floating World with experts writing about Moronobu, the cult and culture of color, the master publisher Juzaburo, private commissions for Hokusai and his Circle, and Ukiyo-e as Material Culture.

There are 200 color illustrations and an extensive index. Works in the show are in Japanese.

Louise Bourgeois, ed. by Frances Morris and Marie-Laure Bernadac (New York, Rizzoli, 2008, $65.00 hardcover) begins with her earliest drawings, prints and paintings, covering over 200 works which show Bourgeois’s diverse range of materials–latex, bronze, marble, and mirrors–as well as her most recent works using fabric.

In her 90s, Bourgeois is one of the world’s most respected sculptors. Over her long career she has gone from abstraction to realism, yet she has always been powerfully inventive, idiosyncratic, and often at the forefront of contemporary art.

This catalog to the major traveling exhibition which will be at the Guggenheim this summer explores core themes of femininity, sexuality and isolation. There are 240 color and black and white illustrations. An innovative presentation of writings by, on and about the work of Louise Bourgeois is A-Z, alphabetical. There is bibliography, chronology, and list of exhibited works. With writings by Robert Storr, Elisabeth Lebovici, Mignon Nixon, Julia Kristeva, Alex Potts, I would emphasize the wonderful essay by Donald Kuspit entitled “Writings/Words as Transitional Objects.”

The French Alphabet Book of 1814 for Alfred Bourdier de Beauregard, created by his uncle Arnaud at the Chateau de Beaumont de Beauregard by Charles Plante (New York, Rizzoli, 2007. $24.95 hadcover) is a charming series of watercolor drawings which were made in 1814 as an alphabet primer for two-year-old Alfred by his uncle Arnaud, demonstrating the education and everyday life of a young French aristocrat after the Revolution, the rule of Napoleon, and the return of the Bourbon King Louis XVIII. The book reflects pleasure as well as knowledge of the world around the privileged young man as he grew older, the Alfred treasured the abecedarium until his death in 1893.

The book gives a picture of the family chateau, its surrounding landscape, furnishings, kitchens, wine cellar, stables, as well as palaces, churches, cottages and barns. Insects, animals, plants, articles of clothing, musical instruments, tools, tableware, facial expressions illustrating emotions, religious vestments and liturgical objects, weather and heavenly bodies, architectural elements, and much more. It appears to be visual encyclopedia of the day–and is delightful to the eye. Recommended for Francophiles, art lovers, and anyone interested in French country life in the early 19th century. There is an alphabeticlaly organized side-by-side translation of all the French words into English.

Life is More Important than Art, edited by Gilane Tawadros (London, Ostrich, 2007, 7.00 pounds) with the participation by many artists including Stuart Brisley, Simon Callery, Susan Hiller, David Medalla, Yinka Shonibare, Terry Smith and many more, is the result of a series of conversations between Gilane Tawadros and Paul Hobson, is the result of screening some 20 artists and making sure the wide range of gender, age, types of practice, emergent artists alongside mature ones who could discuss issues about art production and the understanding of conditions for practicing artists working within, outside, and, in some cases, in opposition to the policies, values and structures which characterize the art world at the beginning of the 21st century.

James Baldwin wrote, “Life is more important than art, that’s why art is important.” Baldwin was concerned with the dynamic and contingent relationship between art and everyday life. This brings up questions such as What is the relationship between art and the everyday world? What does it mean to be an artist at the beginning of the 21st century?

The result is this book which spans at least three generations, investigating the current conditions of making and presenting contemporary art. Subjects as diverse as what does it mean to be an artist? On Audiences, On Censorship, on Cultural Institutions, and much more allude to conversations and statements on the subject by the various artists. It feels like you are in a room listening to these voices. The book captures the present so very well–and although this comes out of the UK, there are very few different kinds of questions to ask. Save for governments that differ in how they fund the arts, there is kinship here.

The book is beautifully designed, with clear and good illustrations, as well as a Glossary of Terms and Artists’ Biographies. To order this book, you can buy it online at www.amazon.co.uk or contact The Ostrich Team: ostrichmail@waitrose.com.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Paris Changing: Revisiting Atget’s Paris by Christopher Rauschenberg (New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2007, $40,00 hardcover with 172 duotones) documents Rauschenberg’s revisiting many of Atget’s original locations. Eugène Atget documented Paris between 1888 and 1927, defining the city as well as France’s belle epoch. In 76 pairs of images beautifully reproduced in duotone, Rauschenberg captures the similarities and changes Paris has undergone with its enduring beauty.

Paying homage to Paris, Rauschenberg also takes his own eye and sees Paris as his own observations convey its attractions. Each site is indicated on a map of the city, inviting viewers to follow in both Atget’s and Rauschenberg’s footsteps. Although in 1997 and 1998, he made over 500 images of Atget’s sites, we can zoom in on the ones that are in this volume, aided by essays by Clark Worswick and Alison Nordstrom giving insight into Atget’s life and placing Rauschenberg’s work in the context of other rephotography projects, such as Mark Klett, Nicholas Nixon, Milton Rogovin and many others. A nostalgic afterword by Rosamond Bernier, who has just ended her lectures at the Metropolitan Museum at the age of 91, adds weight to the beauty and wonder of this project.

Higley by Andrew Phelps (Heidelberg, Kehrer Verlag, 2007, 40.00 Euros, $54.00 hardcover) is meditation in photographs of Higley, Arizona which is disappearing. Week by week, a township, once at the center of a farming expanse, is steadily losing ground to the exploding metropolis known as the »greater Phoenix area«. Phelps tells how he grew up in a farming expanse of cotton, alfalfa, citrus , and otherwise empty desert, always east. A farming town, Higley has now turned into a community of bedrooms.

Phelps, now a resident of Europe, has photographed, people, places, new immigrants, old residents, parties, work, weddings, construction sites, and so much of the texture and fiber of a changed community. As Tamarra Kaida writes, “Evolution is an ongoing process with no guarantee of success.” Phelps also notes that what is happening to Higley is happening to do many other places that become homogenized and undifferentiated. But over 3 years, Phelps has captured the light, the life and the changes. It haunts you if you live in a changeable city, let alone what is happening to our farms. Living in California for more than 50 years, it is hard to find any open space untouched by the real estate developer. Higley brings us back to our roots.

Graciela Iturbide: Juchitán with essay by Judith Keller (Los Angeles, Getty Museum, 2008, $29.95 hardcover) is the result of Mexican photographer Itrurbide’s visits to Juchitán, Mexico between 1979 and 1988, after she was invited to document the culture of this Zapotec Indian community. This monograph reproduces a selection (50) of her black-and-white photographs, celebrating the strong and independent women of this society. Juchitán is an ancient, communal, and fiesta-loving city located in the Isthmus of Teuantepec in the state of Oaxaca. Since the early 20th century, women of this city have been national symbols, and Iturbide’s photographs capture them in public and in private as they conduct their lives.

The images show animated scenes of religious festivals, dancing, women catching up on gossip or butchering game. At the same time there are images of a mother resting with her child, a woman preparing to bathe, and other events that are more quieter moments. And there is the marketplace, where women run the place while men spend their days fishing or hunting iguanas. Women take control and sell their harvest, appearing fearless in Iturbide’s photographs as they display iguanas on their heads and carry away freshly slaughtered chickens.