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Bed-Hopping Bohemians

The Best New Art Books

Gerhard Richter, Kerze (1983) artwork for Sonic Youth Daydream Nation (1988), Enigma Records/Blast First. Courtesy of Taschen

BY Christian House
freelance writer for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph

In Books

On the record

One of the charms of vinyl records, missing from invisible downloads, is their prominent—and often radical—artwork. As Art Record Covers (Taschen) illustrates in full 12-inch glory, cover art can be a visual signifier of a soundscape. A huge range of artists has worked with (or had their work appropriated by) musicians over the past 60 years or so (before the Second World War, records came in generic cardboard sleeves).

The most significant early example is the tableau of 88 cut-outs and wax figures of historical figures that Peter Blake and his then-wife Jann Haworth created in 1967 for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not only is it one of the most famous record covers—and Pop artworks—of all time but it also became the defining image of the band.

This book includes some 500 covers that touch on painting, photography, collage and graffiti and includes the work of a disparate group of artists, including Wolfgang Tillmans, Bridget Riley, Jean Dubuffet, Richard Prince and Ai Weiwei.

“Contemporary art is usually surrounded by an aura of sacredness, as if it is elevated from the mundane realm of daily life,” notes the historian Francesco Spampinato in his introduction. This book, he explains, presents the quest by artists to discover “new and alternative forms of cultural production and distribution”.

Pairings can be mercurial. Gerhard Richter’s tranquil photo-painting Kerze (Candle) (1983), was used by Sonic Youth on the cover of their 1988 album Daydream Nation, while Jeff Koons’ nude sculpture of Lady Gaga, legs akimbo, featured on the cover of her appropriately titled Artpop (2013). “One second I’m a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me,” she sings on the album. “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me.”


Bed-hopping bohemians

Illustration of Billie Holiday by Forsyth Harmon for The Art of the Affair. Courtesy of Bloomsbury

Unaccountably missing, however, are the cult covers of The Smiths, although these do make an appearance in The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence (Bloomsbury). This needles a rather different groove. Writer Catherine Lacey unravels the entanglements of 20th-century painters, novelists, playwrights and musicians, each supported by Forsyth Harmon’s whimsical watercolor portraits of the key players.

The book is structured using a spaghetti junction of arrowed lines connecting the assorted characters. “Like a conspiracy theorist, I started mapping out this web on a large whiteboard and spent afternoons adding new names,” recalls Lacey. “What began as a passing curiosity became a minor obsession.”

A knotted survey materializes, chronicling couplings, un-couplings and re-couplings. Muses are passed like batons. And in the visual arts, this Venn diagram gets particularly muddled. Frida Kahlo had an (unrequited) crush on Georgia O’Keeffe while O’Keeffe’s husband Alfred Stieglitz had an affair with Paul Strand’s wife. This kind of behavior was practically de rigueur in New York—there is a whole chapter on the rascals orbiting the Chelsea Hotel.

Books, letters and even record covers provide evidence of these grand passions. There are some fabulously improbable details—Gala Dali’s fling with a member of Black Sabbath. It’s hard not to revel in a book that can plot six degrees of separation from Oscar Wilde to Basquiat. 


Andy the Mad Man

Philip Pearlstein, Andy Warhol in New York City (c. 1949). Philip Pearlstein papers. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institute

Before the Andy Warhol of The Factory and Studio 54, and before the flashbulbs and the fright wigs, there was young Andy from Pittsburgh, an ink-stained commercial illustrator.

Adman: Warhol Before Pop (The Art Gallery of New South Wales) does a fine job in exploring the artist’s ventures in the 1950s, in particular his striking adverts for publications like Glamour and The New York Times and stop-you-short window displays on Fifth Avenue.

Warhol had a diverse client base, from fashion brands such as the leather goods company Fleming-Joffe, to broadcasters such as CBS Radio (he created scratchy pictures of junkies shooting up and men in fist-fights to promote its social documentaries). For almost half a decade he delivered seemingly dashed-off drawings of shoes for manufacturer I Miller & Sons.

“We’re trying hard to make it so bad,” said Warhol of his approach. “But doing it well.” This deliberate disarray would reappear a decade later in his silkscreens of overlaid-photographs. “The difference between Warhol, fey adman, and Warhol, cool Pop artist are manifold,” explains Nicholas Chambers in his essay on these commercial drawings, “but their productions co-existed and ran parallel for around five years.” Warhol’s themes were beginning to evolve.

Concurrent to his advertising assignments, Warhol staged early exhibitions of his fine art and worked on a series of limited-edition books with playful titles such as 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy (1954) and Love is a Pink Cake (1953). A compilation of his shoe illustrations was published as A la Recherche du Shoe Perdu (circa 1955).

A portrait emerges in these pages of an artist—and man—finding his feet. He already understood the currency of others, collaborating with talents such as production designer Charles Lisanby (who he met one rainy night under the awning of a taxidermist’s shop). But one concludes that he was something of an anomaly among all those macho Mad Men. He did rather enjoy “coming on swish”.


Penn, the perpetual seeker

Irving Penn, Truman Capote (New York, 1948), platinum-palladium print (1968). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1986 © The Irving Penn Foundation

Warhol realized that heads turned when beauty was combined with irreverence. Irving Penn, who shot photographs for commercial clients, possessed a similar sensibility. “A picture that sells a cake of soap can be art too,” he remarked.

From the mid-1950s through the 1980s, Penn’s lens deconstructed products such as Jell-O desserts, Mumm champagne and Plymouth sedans. His Mouth (for L’Oreal) (1986) captured rough smudges of pink, crimson and brown lipstick erupting from a model’s lips. It’s an arresting approach—shocking even—to the business of beauty.

Such boldness is evident throughout Irving Penn: Centennial (Yale University Press), a magnificent new volume published to mark the centenary of the photographer’s birth (it also coincides with a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, until July 30).

Penn’s career spanned almost seven decades, during which his advertising commissions formed only a fraction of his output. Centennial covers all of his professional preoccupations, including celebrity portraiture, fashion photography (for Vogue between 1947 to 1950, though he worked for it throughout his career), ethnographic studies and, most significantly, still lives.

Penn understood composition perhaps better than any 20th-century photographer. The arrangement of each frame, whether it detailed a decaying poppy or the lily-like figure of his wife, the model Lisa Fonssagrives, was always carefully constructed. He jammed his portrait subjects into a corner, literally squeezing them into the cleft between two stage walls (Spencer Tracy looks a lot happier about this than the boxer Joe Louis). And Penn’s bleached-out nudes, with their mounds of marbled thighs, are more topographical than erotic.

Centennial reproduces some 300 of Penn’s photographs along with contributions by world authorities such as Jeff L. Rosenheim (the Met’s Department of Photographs’ curator in charge). The result is a vast and insightful volume that investigates an artist who bucked against the perceived wisdom of his medium.

It was his still lives that really ripped up the rulebook. His stock in trade was the miniature mise-en-scene, set-pieces that were contrived but effective: cigarette butts spooned like spent lovers; blocks of frozen food stacked up like Lego. A gallery of these curious shots add to a broad study of Penn the perpetual seeker, helping to make Centennial one of the finest photography books of recent years.


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