PRINT December 2003


the best books of 2003


Though photography was first believed to entail the death of painting, early photographs presented viewers with a dead world: Objects could be rendered with clarity only under the conditions of nature morte. Unlike paintings, which were able to depict the fact that, say, horses were in motion, the camera could capture animals only when immobile. Eadweard Muybridge’s achievement in 1872—thirty-three years after photography’s invention—was to bring the new medium abreast of painting by depicting the fact that a live horse was in motion. Muybridge had taken an important step in the development of moving pictures. As late as 1881, his images look like photographs of cut-paper silhouettes. Only knowledge of how those images were made enables us to appreciate the depth of Muybridge’s achievement—that they are of actual horses in real motion, though the unaided eye would never be able to see horses move that way. The camera has captured something beyond the range of unaided vision.

Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking) narrates all this and more: the evolution of photography in panorama and kinoscopy; how the Wild West was made possible only through the technological conquest of speed. Interwoven with this, she tells the story of Muybridge himself as inventor, artist, showman, murderer, and genius.


Don DeLillo’s compact Cosmopolis (Scribner) was greeted mostly with contempt. A day in the life of a twenty-eight-year-old multibillionaire trader, setting off in his white limousine to get a haircut—or get his head cut off—its April 2000 setting was a reminder of, it seemed, an illusion of milk and honey it was time to get over. “Government by grown-ups,” as George Will said again and again of the new Bush administration in 2001. Hadn’t DeLillo heard the news? The Clinton years never happened.

They happen again here—as, DeLillo knows, America dissolving itself in an orgy of speculation has happened before and will happen again. The book is written in stilted, philosophical sound-bite dialogue that after a time works as a kind of code for people too busy to explain what they mean, or too afraid to; Cosmopolis is far more about New York City as the nation’s capital—in both senses of the word—than a single person, and so the city, and thus the nation, speaks with the same accent. DeLillo dares the reader to pretend he or she speaks any differently. “A specter is haunting the world,” shout globalization protesters outside the limousine. “You know what capitalism produces. According to Marx and Engels,” says one woman inside the limo. “ Its own grave-diggers,” says the trader. “ But these are not the grave-diggers. This is the free market itself. These people are a fantasy generated by the market.” You can pretend this less true today than it was during those unreal times before the Bubble burst, or you can listen to DeLillo hunt down the language the times still speak, listen to him try to break the code.


Let’s get specific: The best page in a book this year is page 11 in Los Alamos by William Eggleston (Scalo), a picture of a teenage boy pushing grocery carts in a parking lot, and the photographer’s first color image. These pictures, made between 1966 and 1974, show Eggleston not just as one of the best living photographers but as a great abstract artist, seamlessly joining uneasy social content and formal perfection.

Despite the book’s title, these photos were shot in many different places, from Memphis to Los Angeles; Eggleston named the project after a 1973 visit to Los Alamos. If you’ve ever been to the tiny New Mexico town, you know it’s a weird place, very bright yet very dark, something he hints at with the book’s frontispiece: a piercing blue sky with a giant, fluffy white puff. Happy days or mushroom cloud? The book wanders through an emphatically postwar America in all its bitter, beautiful glory, from handpainted ads to neon signs, from watermelon-eating black caricature to the integrated drinking fountains of the New South.

Photography from the ’70s seems to demand reevaluation in Gursky’s backward glow—both Robert Adams and Stephen Shore looked great in Tate Modern’s big roundup “Cruel and Tender”—but no one can match Eggleston’s sense of the layered quality of modernity, all hot color and peeling surfaces. And Memphis still looks like this today.


Menzel’s Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Berlin (Yale University Press), published late last year, is Michael Fried’s third campaign, after Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (1987) and Courbet’s Realism (1990), in a two-decade-long battle with the aesthetic problem of realism. The terms in which a seeming transparency to the world’s visual array might be understood as wrought, and thus as art, have been the prey Fried has hunted throughout these three books. The issue of Menzel has been made even thornier by the thought-experiment with which T. J. Clark begins Farewell to an Idea (1999), where he wonders how a group of works, including Menzel’s study Moltke’s Binoculars, 1871, unearthed after a cataclysm that would utterly separate us from an intuitive connection to past forms of life, could possibly be understood.

Fried’s concept of embodiment, which he tracks through long but hair-raising bouts of close and sustained looking, turns on the viewer’s bodily projection into and identification with the postures of represented figures and, more important, the disjunctive differences in the attitude, attention, and posture of the artist standing before the array as he variously focused on its separate aspects. To buttress this, Fried introduces the theorization of empathy so important to the late-nineteenth-century understanding of aesthetic interest. Further, he reads such projection as thematized by Menzel’s own works, in which transference or exchange between the animate and the inanimate drew the artist to the depiction of traces left by the human occupant or user of the accoutrements of daily experience. Considering a group of works devoted to suits of armor, in which the metal sheaths have taken on the animation of the body for which they were fashioned, Fried describes them as “empty yet instinct with life.” The exactitude of the word “instinct” here is characteristic of Fried’s diction, its precision and range.

Traces, condemned by Walter Benjamin as “the phantasmagorias of the interior, which are constituted by man’s imperious need to leave the imprint of his private individual existence on the rooms he inhabits,” bring Fried back into dialogue with Clark’s “great book,” a case of critical and scholarly exchange exemplary in its seriousness and courtesy.


The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the total US birder population is forty-six million. The variety of bird-watchers almost rivals the diversity of their quarry. There are intellectual-philosophical types, competition-driven sportsmen, nerdy list makers, fanatical pilgrims, and gadget-laden technophiles, to name only a few.

(Classify me a lazy bird-watcher of the 9:30 AM variety.) Despite these divergent temperaments, birders now have a literary benchmark to unite them: the Sibley Bird Guides (Knopf). This year The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America were published, joining the volumes by David Allen Sibley already in print.

The Sibley series, which took a dozen years to write and illustrate, is impressive. The illustrations are superb, precise yet animated. The texts, rather than seeming exhaustive, act as teasers, goading readers to further their knowledge by direct observation and scholarship. The variety and variability of avian life has never been more supremely presented for nonspecialists.

The American tradition of ornithological artists bridges two moments: the recording of birds as they were “discovered” and added to the annals of natural history and the later documentation of the decline of bird species. In ornithology, as in mineralogy, what is rare is precious. Bird-watchers are in the position to document the loss of species: the process of the world becoming a place less wonderful, less rich. The Sibley series is perhaps an elegant elegy.


For those who thought all was calm and gentle in the field of Renaissance studies, a careful reading of Titian (Yale University Press), the catalogue accompanying the recent retrospective originating at the National Gallery in London, might bring some delightful surprise. For some time the completeness of a number of Titian’s astonishing later works, considered by many to be the artist’s crowning jewels, has been a matter of debate. Works like Annunciation, ca. 1560–66, The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, 1567, and the extraordinary Flaying of Marsyas, ca. 1570–76, have become even more greatly appreciated today for offering early examples of an expressivity that only fully emerged in painting centuries later. While David Jaffé, the organizer of the show, stresses the relevance of this later work in the catalogue, Warburg Institute director Charles Hope advances in his essay doubts—most notably with regard to The Death of Actaeon, ca. 1565–76, and The Crowning with Thorns, 1572–76—openly contradicting the curator’s view. Beyond the scholarly debate, which concerns Titian’s patrons, the painter himself, and the notion of artistic genius, what’s at stake is not only the question of whether a Renaissance artist could embrace such an extreme painterly style at a very advanced age but, more important, whether one could enact such a radical break with his or her own time.


“We have become terminally self-conscious,” William Gibson wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1996, extolling Net surfing as a way to free the imagination from the paranoia of watching ourselves watching television, the labor of our postindustrial, postgeographic age. In Pattern Recognition (Putnam), snippets of footage circulating on the Net have created an international web of interpreters and enthusiasts, among them the book’s protagonist, Cayce Pollard.

A savant of sorts, Cayce is so sensitive to the constructs of corporate branding that she is employed to experience brand paraphernalia in corporate boardrooms but is otherwise so flat as to be dreamless. The sign-besotted world of this alternate present—much like our own—makes a submerged weapon of the Kantian faculty of taste, and Cayce suffers perpetual existential nausea from its visual torpedoes. Like Gibson’s writing style, she shuttles between a microscopically detailed scrutiny of her environment in the mirror world—what we are used to calling “the real world”—and a cocooning away from it. Negotiating between vertigo and paranoia, between purity and danger, Cayce tries to figure out her mysterious employer, Hubertus Bigend of Blue Ant, a female pursuer—not to mention the post-Soviet underworld—and, centrally, the footage. And one more thing: Why was her father, a CIA man, in New York on September 11, 2001—where she was watching the attacks on TV—and why was he an apparent victim that day? This is the backstory to the largely Western cultural Imaginary, a solipsistic forest of signs and subversions.


Years ago, walking me across the quad at Sewanee, the writer Peter Taylor let it be known that Robert Lowell acquired southern gentility and a lilt from contact with Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Review. Even when Lowell was wrestling with madness or besotted with passion, politesse streamed through his poetry, lifted beneath the long vowels Taylor heard echoing Dixie. He employed his elegant, poignant voice, his juicy intellect, a personal dignity, and peerless formal mastery to confess his life in art. Here is a taste:

No weekends for the gods now. Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance
assassinations, no advance.
Only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life . . .

Lowell wrote this stanza, from “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” during the 1967 bombing offensive in Vietnam and two years after he refused LBJ’s invitation to a White House Festival of the Arts. I happened on the poem, in his Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the day the number of Americans who had perished in Iraq after President Bush declared the war to be over exceeded those killed during the brief campaign. “Out of the blue” may not account for putting a book of collected poems on a year-end list of notables. Even so, the weight of poetry, perhaps the most solitary of all the solitary arts, makes gains in a culture as extroverted as our own.


David Batchelor’s Chromophobia (Reaktion), though not one of this year’s books according to its publication date, is this year’s book for me. For I am a chromophile, and “chromophobia,” as defined by Batchelor, turns out to be the Janus face of chromophilia. In the history of Western art, the fear of color has been especially intertwined with the yearning after it, as if it were the aesthetic imagination’s Other. Orientalist, feminine, cosmetic, superficial, hallucinogenic, poisonous, apocalyptic; mystical and infinite yet basely material and fraught with dime-store vulgarity; sensational rather than ideational, supplementary rather than of the essence, color is that which deceives rather than helps one gain knowledge of the world. From Plato to the white walls of modernism it has been reviled and attached to all things disparaged, while also constituting an object of desire.

Color, so Roger de Piles informed us at the outset of the eighteenth century, is the “difference of painting, that which distinguishes painting from all other media of visual art.” Thus Batchelor’s little book, which is immense fun to read, tells the story not only of our love-hate affair with color but also of modern painting, the meaning of its shift from coming out of tubes to coming out of cans, and its ultimate demise. Or that is one way of understanding Chromophobia’s importance to our present moment—to the decades since the burst of psychedelic color that was the Pop ’60s, and the antichromatic severity that was Minimalism. But the book also unpacks the false oppositions and Puritanisms that have dogged our aesthetic history while implicitly championing the taboo-ridden pleasure principle of art.