The art of letters: Four recommended artbooks

CL’s visual art critic rounds up a quartet of tomes on the subject.

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click to enlarge MOTHERLY LOVE: LaToya "Ruby Frazier's Momme (Floral Comforter),"  from Momme Portrait Series, 2008, - from The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014). - © LaToya Frazier
© LaToya Frazier
MOTHERLY LOVE: LaToya "Ruby Frazier's Momme (Floral Comforter)," from Momme Portrait Series, 2008, from The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014).

LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Notion of Family (Aperture, $60)
Since 2009, 32-year-old photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier has emerged as one of the most talented photographers of her generation. The Notion of Family brings together 100 of Frazier’s black-and-white photographs, as well as video works reproduced as color stills, which take her family — especially her mother, grandmother and grandfather — and the surrounding community of Braddock, Pa., as their subject. On the one hand, the images document the ingredients of an American nightmare: Rust Belt economic distress, industrial pollution and healthcare inequity. On the other hand, they brim with love, dignity and a determination to be seen, aided by Frazier’s charismatic presence and frank stare in self-portraits shot alone and with her mother. The gripping contrast evidences Frazier’s careful consideration of how to claim a space for her story in the history of American photography. (In the catalogue, she describes herself as “a descendant of Scottish, African, Braddonian blue-collar steel workers.”) “I knew I did not want to make stereotypical images of the drugs, violence and poverty my family faced; but, I also believed my reality needed to be unabashedly confronted,” Frazier tells photographer Dawoud Bey in an interview that completes the volume along with two critical essays. If you’re gifting one book to a photographer or American culture buff this year, let this be it.

33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton (W. W. Norton & Company, $26.95)
Thornton’s first book about visual art, Seven Days in the Art World, took place across a series of rarefied locales where art unfolds, including an art fair, an international biennial, an artist’s studio and a selective art school. What made the book fascinating was her style of ethnographic journalism, often anemic where ideas were concerned, but shedding a welcome and entertaining light on a notoriously opaque world. Her follow-up, 33 Artists, isn’t as good, but it’s still required reading, sort of. Thornton, a former art correspondent for The Economist and sociologist of pop culture, has upped the ante, aiming to answer a deep question — what is an artist? — inspired by her first book. The problem is that she’s not a particularly insightful investigator, except when it comes to detailing the mostly chic lifestyles of her celebrity artist-subjects, who include Maurizio Cattelan, Jeff Koons, Gabriel Orozco, Ai Weiwei, Cindy Sherman and Andrea Fraser. A significant portion of the book is devoted to photographer Laurie Simmons, painter Carroll Dunham, their now-famous daughter Lena and her sister, Grace. The end product is irritating, but (like the New York Times style section) you’ll want to read it anyway. 

Bruce Nauman: The True Artist by Peter Plagens (Phaidon, $125)
Nauman is a famously laconic artist whose sculptures, installations, photographs, performances and videos — rife with wordplay and challenges to the question, “what is art?” — have helped define contemporary art. Plagens is a straight-talking art critic who wrote for Newsweek (1989-2003) and now contributes to the Wall Street Journal. The combination is illuminating. Plagens, who has known Nauman since 1970 when their studios were a block apart in Pasadena, Calif., pens the first book to offer an interpretive chronology of Nauman’s work, intertwined with biography and lavishly illustrated with photographs. He charts Nauman’s career from his rapid emergence on the U.S. and European scenes in the 1960s, shortly after graduate school, to his 2009 solo exhibition in the Venice Biennial’s American Pavilion. Throughout, Plagens functions as an impeccably informed but not-overly-serious guide to such Nauman projects as Wall-Floor Positions, a 1968 video in which the tall, skinny artist assumes a series of poses connecting his body to both the floor and the wall of his studio; Performance Corridor (1970), a seminal interactive piece that captures viewers in a disorienting circuit of video cameras; and any number of flashing neon signs (some of Nauman’s best known works) of sexually charged figures and unsettling puns. If you can dig Nauman — an achievement this book brings within easy reach — you won’t have much trouble with the rest of contemporary art. Publisher Phaidon has showered love on the monograph, creating a handsome tome with neon end papers and a wraparound photo cover of Nauman’s notoriously messy studio.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Simon & Schuster, $26)
The premise of Hustvedt’s novel elicits a wry smile: A forbiddingly smart middle-aged female artist named Harriet Burden, whose career prime appears to have come and gone without much recognition, embarks on a trio of major projects under the cover of male identities, whereupon her art at last meets with critical acclaim. Through the medium of fiction, The Blazing World plunges readers into the art world’s psychological underbelly — a roiling cauldron of talent, power, envy, frustration and social politics. Hustvedt orchestrates the tale as a posthumous investigation of Burden’s hoax by a fictive editor, pieced together from her journal entries and the testimonials of other people. The result is a wrenchingly poignant and darkly humorous portrait of Burden, whose Modigliani-esque beauty and devotion to philosophy render her a cipher to men and women alike, as well as the fickle, sexist art system in which she stews. The fallout comes after the last of Burden’s surrogates — each of whom is an actual young man and aspiring artist, not merely a pseudonym, ranging from a gay best friend to a volatile lover — kills himself, casting a pall of suspicion on the older woman.

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