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ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 31, No. 2, Jun 2008

Book Reviews


The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibiity and other Writings on Media (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2008, $18.95 paper) reflects Benjamin’s most salient thoughts on media and on culture in general in their most realized form, still maintaining an edge under the skin of everyone who reads it. The visual arts morph into literature and theory and then back to images, gestures and thought, Here the editors have situated this essay as the cornerstone of a vast collection of writings that demonstrates what was revolutionary about Benjamin’s explorations on media.

He was so prescient, and mind you, Virginia, he was alive only until 1940. We are now talking about 2008 and his work is not just timely, but powerful, important, clairvoyant, and necessary.

This is the second and most daring version of the “Work of Art” essay which tracks Benjamin’s observations on the production and reception of art; on film, radio, and photography; on the telephone, on children’s books, on Charlie Chaplin and so much more. He was not a critic for the 20th century, he was a theoretician for all time. This volume will probably become a text for some classes, but it is an introduction, a force that must be dealt with by anyone interested in culture, in the media, in the arts, to debates on the digital age. He could explore implications of these themes and be so prescient about what we are experiencing today. Oh, if he were alive today, he would tell us about the future, I am sure. This is a must for anyone who wants to be introduced to Benjamin, or one who wants more and more of what he has to say–and this one is thankfully in English.

Experiences of Passage: The Paintings of Yun Gee and Li-Lan by Joyce Brodsky (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2008, $40.00 hardcover) brings together works by expatriate Chinese painter Yun Gee and his Chinese American daughter, Li-lan, exploring connections between each artist’s life and paintings.

Yun Gee (1906-1963) was born in China, emigrated as a young man to San Francisco, and after living there and in Paris, spent the latter part of his life in New York City. Li-lan was born in New York where she still lives and works in and near the city of her birth, but has also spent considerable time in Japan and more recently in China. Both father and daughter exemplify the desire to live and work in freedom from the restrictions of national identity, a choice that permits openness in different cultures. Li-Lan was exposed to her father’s paintings and his cultural sophistication when she was a children, and it was one reason for her becoming an artist. In turn, she has spent her adult life deepening the audience for her father’s art through her archival work, her conservation of the work and her efforts to encourage exhibitions of his work. Beautifully illustrated with 70 images, 45 in color.

Sound Unbound, edited by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2008, $29.95)has an accompanying CD which features Nam Jun Paik, the Dada Movement, John Cage, Sonic Youth, and many other examples, most of which comes from the archives of Sub Rosa, a legendary record label that has been the benchmark for archival sounds since the beginnings of electronic music.

Sound Unbound tells how music, art, and literature have blurred the lines between what an artist can do and what a composer can create. Miller asks artists to describe their work and compositional strategies in their own words. These are reports from the front lines on the role of sound and digital media in an information-based society. The topics are as diverse as the contributors: composer Steve Reich offers a memoir of his life with technology, from tape loops to video opera; novelist Jonathan Lethem writes about appropriation and plagiarism; Steve Reich offers a memoir of his life with technology; musician Brian Eno explores the sound and history of bells; and there is much more, including an interview with composer-conductor Pierre Boulez. A more refining editing job would have made this a better read, but it’s a good book.

American Photobooth by Näkki Goranin (New York, W.W. Norton, 2008, $45.00 hardcover, $29.95 paper) lets us remember entering the photobooth alone or with a friend or two, the camera, four split-second exposures, the tantlizing three-minute wait, and then that narrow strip of pictures, like frames from a black-and-white film. But few of us know how it came to be, its 80-year history, before hand-held cameras, before Polaroid, and certainly before today’s digital imaging. Goranin tells us the fascinating tale. Anatol Josepho’s Photomaton studio in Times Square was opened every day since 1925, when Henry Morgenthau offered him one million dollars for the rights to his new photographic process, stating that he thought the Photomaton would do for portrait photography what Ford was doing for cars.

Soon there were hordes of competitors finally ending up with the ubiquitous Photomat. They were all over the country, inviting working men, military servicemen, and flower children into the booth. Goranin includes more than 200 historical photobooth shots from her own collection.

There’s something romantic and spontaneous about the photobooth. The results are uniquely beautiful, and the images have depth and personality unlike a formal portrait. This is an important contribution to photographic collections and American culture.

Graffiti Paris: Photographs by Fabienne Grévy (New York, Harry N. Abrams, 2008, $19.95 hardcover) shows how graffiti artists in Paris, much like those in New York and Los Angeles, have transformed urban spaces into open air galleries. Grévy has captured the work of these artistst with her camera as she and her father have explored the streets of Paris.

With 350 full-color photos, you get images of a grinning yellow cat, a red umbrella, street grates painted to look like a skeleton, parodies of political posters, and much more. Now there is a proliferation of stickers to apply stencils to giant murals, and graffiti in Paris are everywhere. Bibliography.

California Video: Artists and Histories (Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 20208, $39.95 hardcover) documents the remarkable artistic experimentations with video during the last four decades in California, the first comprehensive survey of video art in California, highlighting the work of 58 individual artists and collaboratives. The range goes from designing complex video installations, devising lush projections, experimenting with electronic psychedelia, generating guerilla video, or exploring feminism and other social issues through video. With 575 color and 80 duotone illustrations, this is a hefty volume that makes history with its breadth and depth.

Early pioneers such as John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Martha Rosler, and William Wegman, along with emerging talents such as Jim Campbell, Mike Kelley, Jennifer Steinkamp, Diana Thater, and Bill Viola are featured. In the “Artists” section, 36 new interviews are included with biographical and interpretive essays about each artist, as well as commissioned articles, important and rare reprints, video transcripts, and pictorial spreads. In the “Histories” section there are six essays exploring the examinations of feminist video projects form the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, the history of artist’s experiments with cable television broadcast, “underground” video projects in Southern California in the 1980s, and the history of video programming at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

Glenn Phillips, the curator, traces the multiple points of origin for video art in California in the late 1960s and 1970s, focusing on lesser-known masters of the medium. This volume provides a new context for well-known artists, offers overdue recognition for others, and shines a spotlight on emerging talents. A must and the website at the Getty also offers many videos as well.


Michael Asher: January 26 - April 12, 2008 by Elsa Longhauser and Miwon Kwon, designed by is a significant catalog documenting renowned Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Michael Asher’s most recent site-specific installation. Commissioned by the Santa Monica Museum of Art to celebrate is twentieth anniversary, Asher stripped its interior down to the basics, then reconstructed each of the temporary walls erected for exhibition installations between May 1998 through December 2007 (as drawn from the construction floor plans housed in the Museum’s archives) using aluminum studs, but no drywall. What resulted was a gleaming, claustrophobic but quite navigable maze in which the only art was present was exhibition floor plans. A release had to be signed by each visitor to the exhibition just in case…but no one was injured, even the largest body could pass through the rebar. The catalog, beautifully designed by William Longhauser with a spiral binding and wrappers, includes reproductions of the original exhibition floor plans over the years, Miwon Kwon’s essay “Support and Decoration: Michael Asher’s Critique of the Architecture of Display”, and gorgeous full-color documentation of the finished project (including four multi-page foldout plates) by noted architectural photographer Grant Mudford. $30 plus $5.00 postage and handling from Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave. G1, Santa Monica, CA 90404.

Breaking the Mold: Selections from the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, 1961-1968 by Barbara Rose, Gerald Nordland, and Hardy S. George (Seattle, University of Washington Press.2008, $25.00 paper) focuses on paintings from a pivotal time, one of transition from postwar abstract expressionism to new artistic developments. It includes works on paper, paintings, and sculpture by fifty artists including Albers, Diebenkon, Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis, and Duchamp.

The Washington Gallery of Modern Art was founded on 28 October 1961 to increase national and international attention given to contemporary art in the nation’s capital, with the express mission to exhibit and collect contemporary works of art. In 1968, the museum’s collection was sold to Oklahoma Art Center. The directorship was handed from one man to another, including Gerald Nordland and Charles Millard. I used to love going to all the shows, and it is there I fell in love with Morris Louis’ painting, who has always been one of my favorites.

This catalog has essays by Barbara Rose on Washington as an Art Capital; Gerald Nordland writing about the Gallery and its Collection; an interview with Alice Denney, and conversations with Walter Hopps, a chronology, exhibition checklist, and bibliography with 91 color illustrations and a bibliography. A must for contemporary collections.

Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas by Henry John Drewal (Los Angeles, Fowler Museum of UCLA, dist. by Univ. Of Washington, 2008, $25.00 paper) traces the visual cultures and histories of Mami Wata and other African water divinities. Mami Wata, often portrayed with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish, is at once beautiful, jealous, generous, seductive, and potentially deadly. A water spirit widely known across Africa and the African diaspora, she has been thoroughly incorporated into local beliefs and practices. Her name, which may be translated as “Mother Water” or “Mistress Water” is pidgin English, a language developed to lubricate trade. Africans forcibly carried across the Atlantic as part of that “trade” brought with them their believes and practices honoring Mami Wata and other ancestral deities. With 180 color illustrations, notes, bibliography and index, this is an important volume with contributions by five different essayists.

Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement by Rita Gonzalez, Howard N. Fox, and Chon A. Noriega (Los Angeles County Museum of Art and University of California Press, 2008, $39.95 hardcover) is the first comprehensive consideration of Chicano art in almost two decades and the largest exhibition of cutting-edge Chicano art ever presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Traditionally described as work created by Americans of Mexican descent, it first emerged during the vibrant Chicano rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This catalog /book and exhibition explore the experimental tendencies within today’s Chicano art, which is oriented less toward painting and polemical assertion and more toward conceptual art, performance, film, photography and media-based art, as well as “stealthy” artistic interventions in urban spaces. The three essays explore the topic in depth.

With more than 200 color illustrations, 25 individual artist portfolios, and a wryly subversive chronology of significant moments in Chicano cultural history (a breakthrough indeed), Phantom Sightings provides a conceptual sampling of Chicano art today.


Volume 15: Destination Library gives a new slant on what libraries have been and what they are, but especially what they may be. This beautifully designed journal published by Archis Tools in Rotterdam, Holland is interested with this issue in institutions of knowledge which have morphed into multi-experiential post-spaces. The library has changed because of digitalization and the internet, as well as the process of searching and finding. And the question of the library in relationship to architecture has changed as well. From design criteria for libraries of the future, a call for the last book by Luis Camnitzer, the changes of the library from storage and presentation to a socialization during the consumption of information, future typologies for banned books, the persistance of paper, Obrist on the Library of the Future, local libraries (the bookmobile, etc.), and so much more that it will take weeks to digest this all, but this is one for librarians, architects, designers, readers, etc. If you don’t find this in refined bookshops, then go to and find it there. Great photos accompany many of the articles, some even by famous photographers.