PRINT December 2004

Books: Best of 2004

the best books of the year


Arthur C. Danto

The title of Joseph Leo Koerner’s extraordinary study The Reformation of the Image (University of Chicago Press) refers to the way Martin Luther “reformed” religious pictures to make them consistent with the Second Commandment, thus protecting them against the wave of iconoclasm that swept Protestant churches in the early sixteenth century. Luther’s remedy consisted in treating images as texts, expressing in visual terms the beliefs central to his teaching. The main artistic figure to respond to the new mandate was Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose altarpiece for Luther’s church in Wittenberg gave visual embodiment to the ideas verbally conveyed through his sermons. What was achieved was nothing less than the transformation of an aesthetic of forms into an aesthetic of meanings, as Koerner puts it. The centerpiece of his book is a minute examination of the Wittenberg altarpiece from the perspective of theological analysis, drawing on the philosophy of language as well as on the polemics of the time as expressed in popular prints. It is a stupendous and persuasive piece of scholarship, opening up an unfamiliar episode in the history of art when Renaissance paradigms were transformed by means of a pictorial philosophy that, by intellectualizing the response to images, inhibited the tendency to treat them as objects of devotion—and, of course, it was precisely this tendency that Protestants found unacceptable in Catholic practice. Nearly every page has some fresh insight, some novel information, some striking argument or surprising formulation. The Reformation of the Image is the most exciting piece of art history I have read since Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art.

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

Andrea Fraser

Gregg Bordowitz’s work exists as an act of resistance to the forces that divide us into fragments of activity, interest, and identity. The almost twenty years of engagement covered in Bordowitz’s new book, The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986–2003 (MIT Press, ed. James Meyer and foreword by Douglas Crimp), represent his continuing struggle against the AIDS crisis and the division of gay from straight, healthy from sick, and those who have access to lifesaving drugs from those who don’t. It also represents a struggle against the division of form from content, theory from practice, art from activism, individual from collective action, culture from politics, politics from spirituality, intellect from affect, and subjective from social experience. In his early manifesto of video activism, Bordowitz asks us to “Picture a Coalition.” His book allows us to picture a practice that refuses to be divided within itself. The example of this artist/writer/ activist/teacher is what we need now.

Andrea Fraser is an artist living in New York.

Hal Foster

Although Eric Michaud’s Un Art de L’Éternité: L’image et le temps du national-socialisme was published in France in 1994, its translation into English as The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany (Stanford University Press) in 2004 is timely. Writing a few days before the Halloween Election, I hate to raise the old bogeyman of the Nazis, but there are a few echoes here impossible to ignore: a manipulation of fear concerning security and a blackmailing of support through war; an ideologizing of government (with no deviation brooked, error admitted, or correction made) and a reliance on decisionism (whereby the executive rewrites whatever laws stand in its way); a stereotyping of others as inhuman (a Bush ad presented insurgent Muslims as predator wolves) and a recasting of journalism as sheer propaganda (when pro) or mere opinion (when con). Indirectly, Michaud suggests a further parallel. In his account, the Nazi myth of the “Aryan race” was founded on the putative superiority of its culture, and this myth demanded a commitment to “creative work” in all spheres that became evermore destructive as it became evermore total. Bush and Company have forged a new oxymoronic myth for this country, too—the United States as the leader of a global “march of freedom”—and already this march is liberating thousands of people to death.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author of Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press, 2004).

Kerry James Marshall

I’ve bought a lot of books this year but surprisingly few of them were published in the last twelve months. Most of what I pick up is related to a new body of work I’m composing. The Black Interior (Graywolf Press), by Elizabeth Alexander, came along at just the right time. The author’s meditations on and examination of the phenomenon of “blackness”—from her treatise on the black male, “A Black Man Says Sorbet,” expansive enough to consider commuter train shooter Colin Ferguson and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as “undercover busboy” lawyer Lawrence Graham, to “The World According to Jet Magazine”—dovetail perfectly with my own preoccupation with the subject. The great achievement of Alexander’s book is how seamlessly it weaves erudite analysis with lyrical exposition. The essays shift between social, aesthetic, institutional, and anecdotal frames of reference. It is refreshing to see the dimensions and intricacies of blackness articulated so eloquently. One gets a sense of just how complex these notions are, and should remain. While reading these essays, I am reminded of another of Alexander’s great books, The Venus Hottentot: Poems, and of Aimé Césaire’s epic work Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. Like these two, The Black Interior is incredibly incisive and intensely poetic.

Kerry James Marshall is a Chicago-based artist.

Greil Marcus

Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (Simon & Schuster) could be subtitled A Life in the Arts rather than Volume One—art is what it’s about. In a humble, modest, very literary way, Dylan sets off sparks all across his career as a performer, which he describes most of all as that of a student coming face-to-face with wonders. Early rock ’n’ roll singers, he writes, “sang like they were navigating burning ships.” “What the folk songs were lyrically, Red’s stuff”—Red Grooms’s artwork—“was visually—all the bums and cops, the lunatic bustle, the claustrophobic alleys—all the carny vitality. Red was the Uncle Dave Macon of the art world.” The book is about getting it right, and then throwing it away to see where it lands—whatever it is. Every reviewer seems to have quoted a line about Dylan’s early-’60s immersion in the archives of the New York Public Library, living out the nation’s story by reading newspapers published during the Civil War, discovering “the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write”: “America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.” That line calls attention to itself in a way that takes you right out of the story—but then come the throwaway lines that slam you back into it. “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone. Figured I could send a truck back for it later.” This book is the truck.

Greil Marcus, a Berkeley, California–based writer and critic, is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Zak Smith

One character in Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog (Miramax Books), thinking about pierced girls, proposes that “The secret purpose of fashion . . .in its anarcho-bohemian form, is to thwart the lust of your elders.”

This is:

a) One I’ve heard before.

b) Indisputably wrong.

c) Condescending to the character thinking it.

d) A half-assed political opinion in disguise.

e) Necessarily what the author believes.

f) Amis doing his job, the same job he gives the sun—“still showing one thing to another: showing the other thing to this thing, and this thing to the other thing.”

Correct answer: f)

Yellow Dog: 339 pages of someone who’s still thinking.

Thank God.

Zak Smith is a New York–based artist.

Yve-Alain Bois

Of the three books that gave me the most vivid intellectual pleasure this year, one was picked by a fellow reviewer (Joseph Leo Koerner’s The Reformation of the Image) and I would be embarrassed to discuss another since, to my surprise and pride, I happen to be one of its dedicatees (Herbert L. Kessler’s Seeing Medieval Art). This made my choice of Valentin Groebner’s Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages (Zone Books) all the easier. A quick perusal might lead the reader to believe that Groebner’s analysis of violent images and their uses in the Middle Ages is motivated by a quest for universals (say, human cruelty) that would directly link our troubled time (think Abu Ghraib) to this reputedly bloodthirsty period. But Groebner shows to the contrary that violent images are inherently (and dangerously) polysemic, that their meaning gets easily inverted, depending on their specific context and the audience they address. The only thing universal is that violent images are always assigned a role to perform, but this assignment often gets out of control. Case studies range from an examination of the spectacular and peculiar habit of chopping off people’s noses (mostly those of women) to discussions of the impossibility of distinguishing friend from foe, whether soldiers on the battlefield or Christ versus Antichrist. In all the stories told by Groebner, a fantastic explorer of archives with a hefty sense of humor, the function of violent images was to give flesh to the invisible (in order to instill fear or compassion). Yet he demonstrates each time how this process was derailed, how “legitimate” and “illegitimate” violence (that done by the powers that be or for the glory of the Church on one side, and horrific acts done by thugs on the other) became interchangeable mirror images of each other.

Yve-Alain Bois is Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University and a contributing editor of Artforum.

Tony Tasset

Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster):

I had a dream the other night,
Almost had a heart attack from the fright.
Saw an apparition down the hall
Looked like John Waters on Hee Haw.
But the ghost turned out to be Bob Dylan instead
Followed by an outlaw and a priest dressed in red.
I said “Hey man, whatcha doin’ in here?”
He just pulled out his book and handed me a beer.
I said, “I already read it and thought it pretty good.”
Bob said, “I’ve seen your CD collection, I would think you would.”
I told him to calm down and not make a fuss,
After all I paid nine dollars to see Masked and Anonymous.
Just then the room started spinning and my beer exploded.
Bob said, “I shoulda told you that thing was loaded.”
As beer filled the room, I began to scream.
Then Bob reminded me that this was just a dream.
Next my room split in two and turned into the Mississippi River.
Bob floated by with Jesus and a rabbi eating chicken liver.
Folks bubbled up, Robert Johnson, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez of course,
And Woody himself on a giant white horse.
Then just as quick, I woke up to the morning sun.
That was the scariest night I can remember since George Bush won.

Tony Tasset is a Chicago-based artist.

Tom Holert

Installation art has been as harshly dismissed by partisans of an antitheatrical modernism as it has been embraced by self-proclaimed postmodernists celebrating the triumph of context. Ästhetik der Installation (Suhrkamp Verlag), Juliane Rebentisch’s brillant study of the philosophical underpinnings of installation art, argues for something that at first seems rather old hat: a reevaluation of aesthetic autonomy. To reconsider the concept as the very condition of the possibility of “art” itself, the young philosopher and critic looks at debates about and around art installations, connecting the discourses of philosophy, art theory, and art criticism in the process. Almost by necessity, this is an ambitious task that periodically tends toward the polemic, the latter a quality that gives Rebentisch’s close readings of Martin Heidegger, Michael Fried, Clement Greenberg, Niklas Luhmann, Rosalind Krauss, Jacques Derrida, Boris Groys, Theodor W. Adorno, Stanley Cavell, and others a sharp edge. That edge cuts even deeper as the author elegantly deploys the debates about “site specificity” and “institutional critique” to argue that aesthetic autonomy and the public sphere in installation art are, in fact, inseparable.

Tom Holert is a Berlin-based writer.

Joan Jonas

In the late ’60s I saw a performance of the Hopi Snake Dance in Arizona. The memory of that amazing experience was heightened when, about ten years ago, I came across a reference to the dance in an astounding book by Aby Warburg, Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America. I became inspired by the work of this remarkable man who traveled to the Southwest in 1895 and was profoundly moved by Pueblo culture, in particular its dances. Philippe- Alain Michaud’s Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion (Zone Books) is a fascinating study linking Warburg’s theory of the moving image to a history of cinematic vision. Warburg’s method of looking at art history was nonlinear, and the way he thought about the image was close to the way many of us who work with archives and history do. Throughout the book one is enthralled by the endless series of associations Warburg made across supposed boundaries—linking Hopi ritual and Mannerist spectacle, the first-century Ecstatic Maenad and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. At the same time, Michaud links Warburg’s ideas and the construction of his Atlas-like Mnemosyne with Eisenstein’s theory of montage and the clash of images, while also invoking references to Japanese Kabuki theater and Artaud. Warburg repeatedly rearranged the disparate images that made up his Mnemosyne project while doing the same with the volumes in his enormous library. He was interested in the space, the interval, between images. With his 360-degree vision, Warburg saw ahead of his time.

Joan Jonas is an artist living in Boston and New York.

Simon Leung

The most beautiful and thoughtful monographic art book of the year also has the best title. inadequate . . .Like . . . Power (Wiener Secession) is the catalogue for Silvia Kolbowski’s solo exhibition in Vienna this fall. The name is taken from a condensed assemblage of titles from three projects from 1998 to 2004 that constituted the exhibition. Ranging from a rethinking of the history of Conceptual art to shopping as constitutive experience to contemporary pathological masculinities (think Schwarzenegger), the three works are also gorgeously executed, reflecting Kolbowski’s longstanding engagement with design and architecture. Of the “appropriation” artists informed by feminism who came to prominence in the ’80s, Kolbowski is the least identified with a signature style but the most far-ranging in her inquiry and nuanced in the framing of the aesthetic and institutional support for her projects, always displacing the authority of every word and image she appropriates. This book is a model for rigorous aesthetic strategies in these political times.

Artist Simon Leung teaches in the Department of Studio Art at the University of California, Irvine.

Roni Horn

I’m not great with “best of’s”, but three art titles published last year stand out. First, Hans-Peter Feldmann’s The Little Seagull Book (Walther König): photographs of the birds above him during a holiday he took many years ago. Very simple, idiosyncratic, clear. Second, Richard Prince: American English (Walther König): documentation in Prince’s inimitable way—his collection of first editions published in America. These are American icons, for the most part oddly invisible until named—as they are in these photographs. Third, Hannah Höch: Album (Hatje Cantz): a reproduction of Höch’s 1933 notebook collages, from which it is possible to see an exquisite evolution in Richter’s Atlas.

Roni Horn is a New York–based artist.