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Call this a Gustonian moment if you like.
Philip Guston: A Life Spent in Painting (Laurence King, USD 85, GBP 60)
Robert Storr’s new monograph, Philip Guston: A Life Spent in Painting, is the sort of book that any dead artist, were he still anxious about his own reputation more than 40 years on, would want to have published about him.
Almost square in format, and hefty as a slab of York stone from a London pavement, its look, its general presentation, and the quality and sheer generosity of its presentation of so many of the works themselves, feel just right. It manages both to maintain some critical distance from its subject and to bring over the nature of the man himself, his unswervability from the task in hand, his tough-mindedness in the face of critical onslaught.
Two other new books about this artist deserve some attention too. It is 50 years since Guston, who had established a reputation as a figurative painter in the 1940s and then morphed into abstract expressionism alongside his friend Jackson Pollock in the 1950s, shocked and outraged the art world by showing a series of brash, cartoony paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in New York.
Philip Guston Now (DAP/National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USD 60, GBP 53)
Poor Richard (DAP/National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USD 14.95, GBP 13.50)
Philip Guston Now — a career-spanning retrospective that will begin a tour of the US (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) after opening at Tate Modern, London, in February 2021 — looks at Guston’s legacy and influence, and includes commentary on individual paintings by William Kentridge, Amy Sillman, Tacita Dean and many others.
Poor Richard brings together the suite of outrageous, wacky, scatological, anti-Nixon drawings that Guston committed to two spiral-bound notebooks in the privacy of his studio in Woodstock in 1971, and which remained unpublished for 30 years.
Gerhard Richter: Life and Work (Prestel, USD 150, GBP 74.25)
The other major monograph of the first half of the year is Armin Zweite’s giant book about a German chameleon. Gerhard Richter: Life and Work narrates the wholly credible/incredible tale of one of the most perplexing shapeshifters of our day. No sooner do you wrestle him to the ground as, say, a photographic realist or a painter of grid-ruled abstractions, than he has slipped away into the shadows to reinvent himself yet again. How did he come to be this way? Zweite tells the tall tale of a lifetime of slippery behavior in the studio with aplomb, elegance, and a steady authority.
Dorothea Tanning: Transformations (Lund Humphries, USD 79.98, GBP 40)
Once upon a time the American artist Dorothea Tanning would have been regarded as a lesser force than her husband Max Ernst. Not so now. Transformations is the fullest and most nuanced account of her trajectory as an artist to date. A great painting called “Birthday” (1942), in which she seems to be emerging from the chrysalis of herself, seems to tell her story in micrcosm. After the great Surrealist paintings of the 1940s, in which magical, passive children plucked from folktales populate uncannily credible domestic interiors, she painted soft, morphing, dream-like bodies writhing, coupling, squirming.
Artemisia (National Gallery London, USD 45, GBP 35; GBP 30 if purchased through the National Gallery’s shops or website)
Artemisia Gentileschi’s show at London’s National Gallery is due to open in October. Its catalogue is the first full monograph ever to be published on the artist was one of the greatest painters of the Italian Baroque. Her works are stuffed full of theatricality and dramatic immediacy. Many of them show off biblical and mythological heroines with a kind of reckless excitability. Judith takes off Holofernes’ head with matchless poise and a brutally steely determination, a reminder that Gentileschi herself was the victim of rape.
The Lives of the Objects (Victoria & Albert, USD 40, GBP 25)
Any great museum tells far too many stories for its own good. Why not single out just a few for close attention? This is exactly what Tristram Hunt does in The Lives of the Objects, which close-scrutinizes objects from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. Where do these things come from? What were they for? Who made them? These questions are asked and answered, with scholarly attentiveness and a pleasing lightness of touch, of such objects as a high couture suit, Tipu’s wind-up Tiger, and Rodin’s “The Inner Voice.” What are all these things doing here? And how did so many works by Rodin find their way to this museum anyway?
Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950 (Thames & Hudson, USD 24.95, GBP 16.95)
Monet (Thames & Hudson, USD 19.95, GBP 14.95).
Some book series represent the beginning of something important. This was the case with World of Art, launched in its familiar black livery by Thames & Hudson way back in the 1960s. The individual titles have ranged from descriptions of movements to authoritative assessments of individual artists. And this year, after putting in more than half a century of useful service to needy generalists and specialists alike, the series is relaunched with a new look and a batch of new titles — look out especially for Maja and Reuben Fowkes’s Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950 and a refreshing reconsideration of Monet by James H. Rubin.
The Street Art Manual (Laurence King, USD 19.99, GBP 14.99)
Did I hear you complaining that book roundups like this one never actually challenge you to do anything other than to look and read and then read some more? If this is the case, buy yourself a copy of The Street Art Manual, a handy little book by an author gifted with a pseudonym perfect for the task in hand: Bill Posters. Bill will take you on a quick tour of much of the knowledge you will need to get you in trim to tackle some urban space in your neighborhood. One tip from me: don’t forget to work in the dark.
Matisse: The Books (US and Canada: University of Chicago Press, USD 75; UK: Thames Hudson, GBP 65)
Over his long lifetime Henri Matisse made eight important livres d’artistes that transformed the genre. Many were responses to the words of poets – Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Charles d’Orléans, and Ronsard, for example. Louise Roger Lalaurie’s Matisse: The Books considers this body of work in the context of Matisse’s overall development as an artist. These books-as-works-of-art are both a running commentary upon Matisse himself, the ever evolving, ever surprising image-maker, and an extraordinarily vivid series of critical responses to words that are often so rich and elusive in their meanings.
The Outwardness of Art (Ridinghouse, USD 27.50, GBP 28)
The English critic Adrian Stokes was one of the brilliant loners and oddballs of 20th-century art writing. His prose flies from the particular to the abstract with extraordinary ease, and his range of interests, from psychoanalysis to aesthetics, from ballet to the latest currents in scientific thinking, never ceases to fascinate and exhilarate. The Outwardness of Art is a single-volume compendium of some of the best words ever written by this most subtle and wide-ranging of aesthetic theorists.