Lecture
Christopher Phillips: Bookmobile

 

 

Next year, I suppose, I'm going to have to launch a supplement to the Bookmobile that deals with CD-ROMs, Websites and so on, since there's so much interesting activity there. But books are not totally obsolete yet, and over the last twelve months there have been an extraordinary number of good publications crossing my desk at Art in America. What I want to do this morning is to quickly run through thirteen or fourteen of my personal favorites. When we're finished, some of you may want to point out additional publications that people ought to keep their eyes open for.

I've organized these selections chronologically and thematically, and probably the best place to begin is this wonderful catalogue by Sylvia Wolf. How many of you had a chance to see her recent exhibition of Julia Cameron's photographs of women? The book accompanied the show. It focuses on what, up to now, has been the most neglected part of Julia Margaret Cameron's work, which is her allegorical portraits of female subjects. In this book, Sylvia Wolf, examines the visual and literary sources that Cameron worked with to fashion these portraits--for example, Biblical stories, Greek myths, Renaissance paintings, and narrative structures taken from Old English literature. From the excellent essays in the book, we learn how Cameron went about staging these dramatic tableaux with her female sitters. There's even a section of biographical entries devoted to the women who figure in these marvelous photographs, and it provides a kind of social history of Victorian England.

One of the topics that Wolf touches on is Cameron's illustrations for Tennyson's poem "The Idylls of the King." As it happens, that same series of photographs is a central subject in a new book by Carol Armstrong, who teaches at Princeton. Her book is titled Scenes In a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875, and it is probably the most outstanding publication of the past year in regard to photography.

In it, Armstrong argues that most historical accounts of early photography have overlooked its close relationship to the book, and she sets out to consider the many connections between early photography and the book form. There are individual chapters on Fox Talbot's "Pencil of Nature," Anna Atkins' photographs of algae, Francis Frith's "Egypt and Palestine Photographed," and Cameron's illustrations for Tennyson's "Idylls of the King." Armstrong's insights are remarkable and, I think, promise to have a dramatic impact on the way photography is understood and discussed in years to come.

Next is a catalogue that accompanied an exhibition in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It's devoted to the 19th century physiologist Duchenne de Boulogne, a scientist who became fascinated by the effort to interpret human facial expression. He devised an elaborate means of electrical stimulation of facial muscles so he could understand exactly how we form the many different expressions that animate the human face. The catalogue, which is in French, provides a vivid account of Duchenne's career and gives a clear sense of how he came to make the photographs which appear in his book The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy. The text explains why Charles Darwin, who was also fascinated by human physiognomy, used Duchenne's photographs as illustrations in his own publications. Overall, the catalogue essays also provide a very good account of the repercussions of Duchenne's work in the arts and sciences in mid-19th century France.

Over the last decade, family photographs, and the questions surrounding the practice of family photography, have become the subject of much discussion. Some of the best essays that I have found on these topics appear in this collection, The Familial Gaze. It's edited by Marianne Hirsch and published by Dartmouth. The book is a collection of about twenty short essays by a group of European and American scholars and artists who took part in a 1996 conference at Dartmouth College. The titles of a few of the essays should give you a sense of the contents. The photographer Larry Sultan weighs in with an essay called "Pictures from Home"; Lorie Novak talks about her own work in an essay called "Collected Visions." Jane Gallop provides what she calls "Observations of a Mother." Deborah Willis writes about the photograph in black family life. Deborah McDowell discusses "Viewing the Remains: A Polemic on Death, Spectacle and the Black Family." Marita Sturken writes about "The Image as Memorial: Personal Photographs and Cultural Memory." Joanne Leonard examines "Photography, Feminism, and the Good Enough Mother." And there's an essay by Anne Burlein titled "Focusing on the Family: Family Pictures and the Politics of the Religious Right." In all, this is very rich collection of essays representing a range of diverse perspectives.

One of the most unusual publications of the last year is this book, from Arena Editions, called When We Were Three. The publishing house was established by James Crump, who was a fellow in this program during its early years. This book centers on the travel photographs of three young American men in Europe in the 1920s: Monroe Wheeler, who later became the director of publications at the Museum of Modern Art; Glenway Westcott, who became a very well-known fiction writer; and George Platt Lynes, who won fame as an extremely successful fashion photographer. What lends this book its interest is that all three of these young men were gay and very much involved with one another during this period, in an odd romantic triangle. The book charts, both in the pictures and the accompanying historical essays, the emotional and sexual drama that was being played out between them. In that light, the photographs, which are relatively innocuous and simply show them traveling around Europe and visiting various resorts and cities, become quite fascinating, because of the unexpected glimpse they provide of an upscale gay culture that flourished in the 1920s. In that sense, it provides a remarkable and unexpected window onto gay culture of that time.

The Museum of Modern Art, of course, remains the museum that everyone loves or hates. It's the object, here in New York, of considerable fascination. In recent months, art historian Mary Anne Staniszewski has published a book exploring the history of installation design at the MoMA, from its beginnings in the early 1930s until the era of early conceptual art in the late 60s and early 70s. She provides a lavish visual history of exactly how artworks, tribal artifacts, photographs, and objects of everyday design were presented to the public at MoMA via very sophisticated forms of visual display. The book features extraordinary images, found in the MoMA archive, that demonstrate clearly how conscious the museum was of the idea of display as a kind of persuasive discourse in its own right.

This has been an active year for monographic publications on female artists. The MIT Press has just brought out this extremely comprehensive book on the work of Martha Rosler. I'm sure that many of you know Rosler's video work as well as her essays on documentary photography and video art. This is a rich and varied book, titled Martha Rosler: Positions in the Life World. It contains a fascinating interview with Rosler by the art historian Benjamin Buchloh, in which she recounts her intellectual and artistic development in the 1960s, when she studied at the University of California at San Diego with teachers like Angela Davis. The book accompanies a traveling exhibition of Rosler's work which is now in Europe and will be at the New Museum, here in New York, in the summer of 2000.

Another alumnus of San Diego is Carrie Mae Weems, who is today one of the most important black women artists working with photography. This book is a catalogue that accompanied a show that took place at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. It's titled Carrie Mae Weems: Recent Work, 1992-1998. It's a valuable book because it has an such extremely good representation of the work that Weems did in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. This, you may know, is a group of islands where former slaves have kept alive their original African culture and dialect spoken there. Carrie Mae Weems made repeated trips to the Sea Islands, observed the artifacts that had been handed down over generations and generations, and created an extraordinary photo-text piece and installation. One other reason for the interest of this book is that it contains a full representation of Weems's work "I Saw What Happened and I Cried." In this piece, she started with daguerreotype images of American slaves that exist in one of the Harvard University archives. She obtained copies of these images and created a large-scale photo-text installation, which is bordered at either end by a photograph of a regal looking African tribeswoman. The text added over the first image reads, "From here I saw what happened." After taking in a series of images that have to do with the slave experience, you eventually reach the concluding panel, and you see the same woman facing in the opposite direction, and now the words read, "and I cried."

A Yugoslavian-born artist who has only recently won real recognition in this country, Marina Abramovic has been working since the late 1960s in the performance mode. This new book, by the Italian publisher Charta, is called simply Marina Abramovic: Artist Body. Since its publication, there has been a growing interest in this country in her work. The book provides a detailed chronology of all her performances, from the early 1970s up to the present. She's an extremely articulate artist, as well; there are very good interviews here, and essays by a number of critics. For me, books like this extremely valuable, since they make it possible for you to suddenly understand the work of artists who were previously difficult to access.

The art critic and historian Rosalind Krauss has recently brought out a collection of essays with the seemingly enigmatic title Bachelors--enigmatic because all of the essays, of course, deal with women artists. In this book, Krauss poses the question, "What evaluative criteria should be applied to women's art?" In the various essays contained here, she tries, from different perspectives, to answer this question. Along the way, she attempts to unsettle many of the prevailing assumptions about the relation of art making to gender. There are chapters devoted to Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, Sherry Levine and Louise Lawler; and many of the essays provide good explorations of questions related to photography, feminism, the body and its psychic drives.

While you're in New York, you might want to take the number seven train out to the Queens Museum of Art, where there is currently on view an exhibition called "Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s through 1980s." This is a sprawling, fascinating show that traces the development of conceptual art around the world. The unstated purpose of the exhibition is to make Americans, and especially New Yorkers, realize that Conceptual Art was not necessarily invented and perfected in North America, but sprang up in a number of places simultaneously, thanks to the efforts of countless artists. The catalogue provides a kind of world tour of conceptual artmaking and, in the process, the U.S. shrinks to one small point in a complex global network. For that shift of perspective, I think the show deserves the highest praise.

Finally, I want to mention a very good book that looks at recent artists' books. It's called Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists' Books. It's by Cornelia Lauf and Clive Philpott, who was, for many years, the director of the library at MoMA and an avid follower of artists' books. There are fine essays by Lauf and Philpott, and also by Brian Wallace and Glenn O'Brien, as well a good interview with Martha Wilson, who was, for many years, the director of Franklin Furnace and herself a big supporter of artists' books. If you happen to be interested in artists' books and want to know more about recent directions, this book provides a great starting point. And I should mention that while you're in New York, you might want to stop by Printed Matter, a bookstore located on Wooster St. just below Spring St., that specializes in artists' books and publications.

And that brings us to the end of this year's Bookmobile.

 

 

Analysis by Jeffrey A. Nilan

 

 

Christopher Phillips offered a stimulating presentation of what he found to be the year’s most provocative art-related publications. His sampling included thirteen titles with subject matter ranging from photography, electronic media, and artist’s books, to conceptual art and critical theory.

Phillips noted that 1999 thus far has been a year with an abundance of monographs on, and other books about, woman artists. His selections included; a catalogue on the recent work of Carrie Mae Weems, a new book with an interviews, essays, and images by Martha Rosler called Positions in the Life World, and a large volume focusing on the allegorical portraits of women by Julia Margaret Cameron, edited by Sylvia Wolf.

Three books notably absent from Phillips’s selection: a new book by Joel-Peter Witkin, The Bone House, a new collection of street photographs by the late Garry Winogrand titled The Man in the Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand, and a new book from Larry Clark titled Larry Clark.

Questions after the presentation concerned where people could locate unusual, rare, and out-of-print books. In New York City, Phillips suggested The Photographer’s Place, Printed Matter, and The Strand in addition to the museum bookstores. On the Internet, Phillips suggested www.bookfinder.com and www.ebay.com.