PRINT December 2000


The best books of 2000

Linda Nochlin

Molly Nesbit’s Their Common Sense (Black Dog Press) isn’t exactly an art book—it’s not exactly a book even, in the usual sense. But in the unusual sense, Nesbit’s tome is a marvelous document, swinging briskly between the teaching of mechanical drawing in French schools and the arcanery of Duchamp & Co. It begins in very big print with Antonin Proust’s proposal that all French schoolchildren learn to draw and ends with a memorable still from Pabst’s Joyless Streets. In between? Children’s drawings (not the cute, creative ones, but disciplined, drafting lesson productions), some very funny ads and cartoons, and some very serious analysis of Duchamp, Cubism, and Surrealism. And don’t overlook Steve Baker’s lively, informative, provocative (and readable) The Postmodern Animal (Reaktion). Kafka, Deleuze, Derrida, Michel de Certeau—and beasts. What more could anyone want?

Linda Nochlin, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, is the author most recently of Representing Women (Thames & Hudson, 1999).

Dave Hickey

Tim Hilton’s John Ruskin: The Later Years (Yale University Press), together with The Early Years (1985), seems to me the model biography of a cultural figure. The book is fluid for all its length, judicious about a notoriously fractious subject, and unpretentiously literate throughout. Hilton recounts the events of Ruskin’s life straight through, in one- and two-year increments, digressing when necessary and referencing forward and backward when appropriate. Far from a mere recounting, however, the book is suffused with Hilton’s intimate knowledge of Ruskin’s enormous production, so at every point the narrative is telling us something we need to know—about the life to appreciate the work, about the work to appreciate the life, or about the culture to appreciate them both. Taken together, Hilton’s two volumes constitute an amazingly organic achievement, a triumphant telling of one of saddest stories ever told.

Dave Hickey, an art critic who lives in Las Vegas, is currently organizing SITE Santa Fe’s Fourth International Biennial, “Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism,” which opens in July 2001.

Robert Storr

One is grateful to those who invest in the economically doubtful business of republishing the work of major critics, and Max Kozloff’s Cultivated Impasses: Essays on the Waning of the Avant-Garde 1964–1975 (Marsilio) is a welcome rescue operation of just this kind. An American formalist of the old school radicalized by the ’60s, Kozloff, now a photographer and only an occasional commentator on the scene, wrote the first monograph on Jasper Johns and was the first to blow the whistle on foreign policy uses of American-type painting in the ’50s. His essays have an unapologetic high-mindedness that holds up well, and the prose is good. Now I don’t have to go hunting for him in boxes of moldering Artforums.

Robert Storr is an artist, critic, and a senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modem Art, New York.

Rosalind Krauss

I read Amy Newman’s oral history Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974 (Soho Press) with fascination, watching my own past parade by. Artforum’s first decade is traced with great care. Charlie Cowles, one of the magazine’s early publishers, provides a user’s guide to the launching of an art publication, and Phil Leider, beloved editor during the first decade and the magazine’s shift from California to New York, lays out his strategy. His emphasis on nurturing writers comes through clearly, as does the appreciation of the recipients of this care. John Coplans provides a more irascible voice, irritated by the relentlessness of the monthly grind and exasperated by the ideological tug-of-war within the editorial board, riven as it was by “formalists” Annette Michelson and myself and sociopolitical contextualists Lawrence Alloway and Max Kozloff. Challenging Art is a model of its kind and a much-needed historical document of one of the most important cultural journals of the ’60s, a journal nearly driven to its death by Coplans.

Rosalind Krauss is Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia University. She is the author most recently of “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (Thames & Hudson, 1999).

Mark Dion

Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé, edited by Andy Masaki Bellows and Marina McDougall with Brigitte Berg (MIT Press), rescues from history’s editing-room floor the delightful scientific documentaries of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé (1902–89). Octopi, water fleas, and vampire bats are just a few of the stars of Painlevé’s 200-plus film studies. His lyrical approach to science enraptured his Surrealist contemporaries, but Painlevé was no common egghead; he raced cars professionally, participated in the Resistance, played poker with the Surrealists, enjoyed the tribulations of a field-working marine biologist, and even got to direct Artaud. His films are discourses on the uncanny essence of nature: male seahorses giving birth, crustaceans decorating themselves with living camouflage, mollusks locomoting with a flamenco dance. Each film is as fantastical as it is factual.

Mark Dion is an artist who lives and works in Pennsylvania.

Arthur C. Danto

Terry Pinkard’s marvelous biography Hegel (Cambridge University Press) brings the great philosopher to life—it is delicious to read that in his lectures he began every sentence with “Therefore”—and for those who admire his Aesthetics as extravagantly as it deserves, we learn a lot from Pinkard about what Hegel looked at and listened to. In the Aesthetics, delivered as lectures to popular audiences in Berlin through the 1820s, Hegel was “especially concerned with the status of modern art” and “what role art would play in modern life that only art as art could play.” He saw art as a sensuous vehicle of philosophical thought. But art came to an end, he argued, once it needed philosophy to explain its cultural mission.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University, art critic for The Nation, and a contributing editor of Artforum.

Carlos Basualdo

Rosalind Krauss’s “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (Thames & Hudson), a brilliant new chapter in her continuing investigation of medium specificity, was published late in 1999—too late, in fact, to make that year’s “best of” lists. Through a close analysis of the work of Marcel Broodthaers, Krauss redefines the concept of “medium” as a differential one, a complex aggregate made to cohere only by the sheer consistency of the artist’s oeuvre. Krauss opens up a large and intricate theoretical territory that should enable the critical reading of many noncanonical works—by artists like Gego, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica—that have proved to be particularly resilient to interpretation based on the (American) high-modernist critical apparatus and to fuzzy postmodernist theorizing as well.

Carlos Basualdo is Chief Curator of Exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts, and a cocurator of Documenta which opens in 2002.

Herbert Muschamp

It’s fashionable now to insist that there is no such thing as an architectural avant garde. Anthony Vidler’s Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (MIT Press) should convince you otherwise. It helps explain why many of us watch every move made by a group of architects and designers that includes Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Philippe Starck, Ettore Sottsass, Eric Owen Moss, Thom Mayne, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, and Wolf Prix. Only a few of these figures are dealt with here in depth. Vidler has analyzed projects by others in a previous volume, The Architectural Uncanny. Both books lay down a foundation for understanding the work of contemporary designers who are remapping the boundaries between subjective perception and objective reality, brilliantly illustrating the idea that creativity creates its own history.

Herbert Muschamp is chief architecture critic for the New York Times and a contributing editor of Artforum.

James Welling

Diana Muir’s Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England (University Press of New England) untangles the complicated interrelation of natural history and technology in southern New England. Muir offers a profusion of scientific detail framed by the author’s reflections on minute changes in the small millpond outside her window. In tracing both the rise and fall of such diverse enterprises as shoemaking, cotton spinning, and papermaking and their environmental consequences—lifeless rivers, waterways impossible for shad to negotiate, land depleted of topsoil—Muir excavates the environmental foundations of our age with profound completeness. Reflections in Bullough’s Pond should be a sourcebook for everyone who cares about landscapes and technology.

James Welling: Photographs 1974–1999” is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art until Dec. 10; the retrospective travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in May 2001.

Richard Shiff

Encounters with Rauschenberg (University of Chicago Press), Leo Steinberg’s witty lecture in critical ethics, exposes our penchant for reductive reading. Steinberg once used Rauschenberg’s “flatbed” art to undermine the dogmatic formalism of the “picture plane.” Now narrow critical minds decode symbols, fixating not on planes but on Rauschenberg’s presumed iconography of anal sex. Critiquing the critics, Steinberg chides even the artist for occasionally indulging in trite sexual jokes as if inspired by the commentators’ banalities. Don’t assume that Steinberg is being prudish. He’s an erudite specialist who speaks a popular, often earthy language, the natural enemy of borderline philistines and their fashionably “shocking” interpretations (and he names names). Encounters with Rauschenberg doesn’t repeat gossip you’ve already heard, but opens your eyes and mind. It’s real criticism.

Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas, Austin.

Walter Hopps

In the ’90s, photographer Lee Friedlander embarked on a remarkable series of self-portraits taken around the United States and abroad. Seventy-seven of them are reproduced in Lee Friedlander (Fraenkel Gallery). One of our great photographers, Friedlander has created a dialogue between his own image and a wonderful array of his other subjects. Take him out of some of these portraits—like the one of him leaning his head against a nasty outdoor metal post bristling with bent wires and bolts—and you’ve got a classic early Friedlander. The photos are unflinchingly honest: The artist looks lumpy and a little out of it. He doesn’t disguise—perhaps he even exaggerates—the failure, not of spirit, but of flesh. It’s the work of an older man taking a clear look at what he’s made and what he’s become.

Walter Hopps is founding director of Houston’s Menil Collection, where he is at present a consulting curator, and art editor of Grand Street magazine.