Luc Tuymans’ “The Secretary of State” (2005) in the 2005 Tuymans monograph (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The David Zwirner Gallery is located in Chelsea and known for its expansive “historically researched” exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. Zwirner, like other high-end galleries, maintains a publishing program that produces exhibition catalogues, monographs and artist books.

On my first trip to New York City, as part of a graduate class about the art world beyond Richmond, Virginia, I remember lining up to buy my first gallery publication. It was a thin but beautiful book published by the James Cohan Gallery, filled with the colorful sculptures of Folkert de Jong, and available for only twenty-five dollars. A smart way to promote a gallery’s artists, these books are affordable and specific to a certain gallery, artist, exhibition and date. Monographs are a little like buying postcards of an exhibition, but they have more depth, scope and historical value than a simple keepsake.

Though the books that accompany large-scale museum exhibitions are beautiful, heavy enough to be used as a doorstop and commonly run you about $60, a collection of small monographs could eventually be more satisfying to a particular art viewer’s tastes and interests. Instead of having the same books on the same artists and exhibitions as everyone else, you could have a collection of slightly more obscure artists from much smaller shows. Sometimes a gallery’s books are more interesting than the artwork they regularly exhibit, and you can peruse their best artists and exhibitions from the confines of a well-constructed catalogue. Zwirner’s publications cater to a particular artist and exhibition, from which the monograph is generated.

Zwirner’s monograph for the work of the well-known and respected Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, published in 2005 for the exhibition Proper, is a good example of an overly explanatory catalogue. The press release, included in the back of the book almost as an afterthought, is all the description needed for Tuyman’s muted and haunting paintings. I don’t believe that art or artists always need to be explained and sometimes even a short press release gives away too much; all you can see afterward is what that author suggests you should. Context, however, is always a good thing, and writers sometimes forget that telling viewers what they should see in a work of art is different than telling them who made it, when and how.

In the catalogue for Proper, each of Tuyman’s 10 new paintings, exhibited for the show, are both described and explained in wordy detail by Gerrit Vermeiren, almost like an art historical text. Reading Vermeiren reminded me of that painful task art historians undertake, where they dissect and analyze each and every object within a canvas to mine it for cultural significance. While this is a prerequisite for understanding artwork from centuries ago, is it necessary to explain the significance of our current culture to such a detailed extent? Tuyman’s paintings describe murky and foreboding moments in our contemporary society, and with “anemic hues” he paints ballroom dancers, the face of Condoleezza Rice, a dust cloud from a toppled building, the perfect table setting for the perfect non-existent and absent family — these are all activities, icons, actions and ideals with which everyone today is already familiar.

The 2011 Marcel Dzama monograph.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the catalogue Behind Every Curtain, for a 2011 show featuring the more youthful New York City-based artist Marcel Dzama. Aside from the dedication at the beginning of the catalogue, which reads “in memory of Luis Miguel Suro,” a young Mexican artist who was shot and killed during an armed robbery at his family’s ceramic factory in Guadalajara in 2004, there is no other text. A perfect bound book the size of a small pad of notebook paper, it’s filled cover to cover with Dzama’s drawings, dioramas, sculptures and photographs. Dzama is known best for his ink and watercolor drawings and for how his childlike style of mark making is married to his gory and ghoulish subject matter — his drawings resemble a fairy-tale that somehow turns into a dark nightmare.

In Behind the Curtain, Dzama branches out and brings his two-dimensional drawings to life, first in cluttered dioramas filled with pale, paper people grinning almost stupidly in bright red lipstick, and again in his William Kentridge-esque black & white photographs that feature his costumed and masked characters dancing and performing.

Because this catalogue lacks any kind of explanation, Behind the Curtain, as the title might suggest, is all the more playful and engaging, like the work itself. It’s clear that there are no “answers” to Dzama’s drawn narratives, no decipherable stories behind his photographs and yet we still engage with the work as we try to understand his mysterious characters and puzzling situations. Text enters into the catalogue in the form of comic book drawing strips and tiny, scribbled text in multiple languages layered behind the drawings. Because the text describes such complicated situations, and switches back and forth between French, Spanish and English, it feels as if it’s not meant to be read. Dzama’s catalogue seems to prove that sometimes monographs are helped, rather than hindered, by little to no explanation.

Raoul De Keyser’s “Steek 1” (1987) in the 2005 monograph.

Recent Work, Zwirner’s 2006 monograph for the abstract, Belgian painter Raoul De Keyser, rests somewhere between the previous catalogues mentioned and is what most monographs should be; the perfect combination of text and images, giving some explanation and context without overwhelming the work itself.

The monograph begins with a concise and compelling short essay by Wendy White, who first places Keyser into the context of his contemporaries, and then slowly lifts him away from them to highlight his unique perspective and style. She describes Keyser’s work as “accessible yet wholly ambiguous” and though she admits he’s a “painters painter,” she claims that at no point in his paintings does an “art historical trope or pseudo-conceptual framework trump intuition.” Regardless of whether or not you agree with her claims, her essay Iconoclast leaves you with enough information to form your own conclusions about the artist and his work.

It’s a shame then that the work of Raoul De Keyser is utterly bland and even boring. Sometimes painting with vivid shades of primary colors, Keyser’s canvases are sparsely populated with continent-like floating shapes. At other times they are black and white compositions of lines, dots and shapes, beautifully composed if not terribly compelling of any sort of visual meaning. Certainly his work, stylistically speaking, has historical value within the context of abstract painting and modern art. As a contemporary artist looking for relevant voices, however, this particular catalogue is about as far from ideal as you can get.

A good collection of monographs should contain the artists we already know and love, the artists we happen across and wish to learn more about and the artists whose historical relevance we should study and remember. Zwirner’s monographs, if you are visually interested and conceptually stimulated, even a little bit, by the gallery’s represented artists, are as good a place as any to begin a collection of books on art.

All of the publications mentioned in this review are available for purchase on the David Zwirner Gallery website.

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