PRINT December 2005

Books: Best of 2005

the best books of the year

Twelve scholars, critics, and artists choose the year's outstanding titles.


A book like Alastair Wright’s Matisse and the Subject of Modernism (Princeton University Press) is enough to rekindle my faith in the future of art history as a discipline. (Here I could also mention two other such rare pearls from 2005: Maria Gough’s The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution [University of California Press] and Christina Kiaer’s Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism [MIT Press]). The first amazing trait of Wright’s book is that it manages to cast entirely new light on Matisse’s best-known works of the period from 1905–13, which can seem pretty exhausted territory. Wright’s methodological hypothesis is simple enough—that negative critics are often more acute in pinning down the historical and aesthetic significance of an artwork than are the robotic admirers—but it yields startling discoveries that challenge the state of the literature. For example, Wright argues against the current cliché that Matisse participated in the Orientalist tradition of French painting. He demonstrates to the contrary that Matisse’s so-called Orientalist, pre-Nice works were so badly received precisely because they did not adhere to the rules of the genre because, that is, they failed to appeal to a formulaic conception of the identity of the Other and thus underlined rather than repressed the crisis of colonialism and its racist underpinnings. This is only one topic (unraveled in two chapters, one on the 1907 Blue Nude—which was subtitled Souvenir de Biskra only in 1931, a fascinating find in itself—and the other on the 1912–13 Moroccan paintings), but every major work, from Luxe, calme, et volupté, 1904–05, and The Joy of Life, 1905–06, to Dance II, 1909–10, and Music, 1910, is similarly recontextualized, restoring to Matisse the edge that recent scholarship had tended to blunt.

Yve-Alain Bois is a contribuing editor of Artforum.


Lately I’ve been thinking about spatial politics in the art of Takashi Murakami—the culture of Superflat and its ideology of depthlessness—and it turns out that the other famous Murakami proves a canny (albeit accidental) interlocutor on the subject. Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore (Knopf) may not rank as my favorite novel by the celebrated literary export (that would be Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), but it dazzles with its distorted spatial imaginings and provides a neat counterpoint to the empire of flatness over which his peer is sovereign. In this bildungsroman about one Kafka Tamura, who seeks to unravel a dark mystery surrounding his origins, the usual Murakami props (cats, clairvoyants, melancholic ruminations on pop music) are out in force. Here, he ups the ante on both creepiness and confusion, giving his occult inclinations free reign and indulging a taste for oedipal drama. Yet Murakami offers no pat answers, nothing resembling narrative closure. It’s fitting, then, that some of the most memorable images in Kafka on the Shore are dark, unknowable, and deeply foreboding spaces, whether a forest inhabited by ghostly soldiers or a library haunted by the memories of a long-dead family romance. If the visual artist treats flatness as the spatial trope par excellence of postwar Japan, the writer’s scenes, charged with a sense of historical loss, suggest why this may be so: His spaces are voids left in the wake of past trauma, whereas flatness suggests an attempt to level and erase these wounds.

Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University.


The first time I saw a Chris Marker film I fell asleep, twice. I woke up an hour into The Last Bolshevik (1993), Marker’s video of the life of maverick Russian filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin, which was really a portrait of the dashed dreams of Communist Russia (or was it the other way around?), and watched for another ten minutes. Then I drifted off to sleep again. Sometimes I think better when I’m unconscious: The undertow of thought is what usually draws me toward insight.

For the past five decades, Marker has been making films and videos (and more recently, installations) that trawl the undercurrents of history. Now (finally) Catherine Lupton has written the first book about the filmmaker in English, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (Reaktion Books), an in-depth consideration of the extraordinary achievement of this elusive writer and artist.

Yes, we know he loves cats. We know he was an accomplished poet and writer before he turned to film and invented his own genre, the “film-essay.” With the 1962 release of two films, Le Joli mai, a cinema verité account of French attitudes toward the end of the Algerian war, and La Jetée, the seminal science fiction–cum–philosophical short film on time travel, memory, and love, he pioneered the use of fantasy—philosophical, sexual, or just plain silly—as the framework for engaging with and reflecting on the political events and ideas of the day.

But did you know that Marker is fascinated by Al Capone? Or that he was one of the founders of the Petite Planète travel guides? How about the possibility (convincingly argued by Lupton) that Catholicism informed his sense and search for a global visual iconography?

There are other insights in the book. And long exegeses of his storied films and videos. Marker, engaged, flirty, revelatory, deserves this book—and many others. Sleep with him. He can help us dream up a new century.

Paul Chan is a New York–based artist.


Them (Penguin Press), Francine du Plessix Gray’s marvelous portrait of her glamorous parents—her mother, Tatiana, a spoiled Russian beauty, and her stepfather, the brilliant graphic designer and modernist artist Alexander Liberman—touches by necessity on the great events they lived through (the Russian Revolution and the Second World War) and on the three cities that were the successive scenes of their lives (Moscow, Paris, and New York). Tatiana had been the great love of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and, later, the wife of Bertrand du Plessix, Francine’s biological father, a handsome French aristocrat, diplomat, and aviator who was shot down over Gibraltar early in World War II. Tatiana became, in turn, Alexander’s great love. A resourceful man, he took charge of their escape from Europe and established Tatiana and Francine in Manhattan, where Tatiana became a celebrated hat designer while he rose to a position of power in the magazine industry. For a period in New York, they were the center of a world composed of everyone who was anyone—artists, fashion stars, actors and actresses, publishing tycoons. Francine had to define her own life in the vortex of all this celebrity, and she has written an account that mingles love and devotion with an entirely understandable ressentiment. It is this that gives her book its edge. She sees her parents as enchanted beings who happen, like the rest of us, to be all too human. The mix of power, beauty, and eros that was the air of the household was laced with the selfishness, ruthlessness, and will to succeed that made the magic possible. Gray’s 1976 novel, Lovers and Tyrants, was correctly felt to be a roman à clef: Them lays out the reality everyone suspected but, grounded as it is in historical, psychological, and moral truth, also manages to cast the spell of a delicious work of fiction.

Arthur C. Danto is Emeritus Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and a contributing editor of Artforum.


No problem choosing my milestone book of the year: The Neutral (Columbia University Press), Roland Barthes’s posthumously issued notes for a lecture class he gave in 1978 at the Collège de France, first published in France in 2002, and now translated into English by that formidable duo, Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. The subject: “The Neutral,” a term near “neuter,” but not precisely it; a term for a range of longings (including the desire not to desire) that had traveled, in Barthes’s work, previously under the aliases of “third meaning,” “punctum,” and “obtuse.” Shimmer, drift, vacancy, fatigue, ineffability, cruising: The neutral is the space of undogmatic, reposeful, tactful, antiadjectival thinking and dreaming. It is, needless to say, a zone of sexual ambiguousness, but more importantly, it is a term that gave Barthes room to figure forth his entropic desire that noisy meaningfulness cease its hectoring and diminuendo back into a whisper of the banal and the imprecise and the uninterpretable. For Barthes, though known as master interpreter, inveighed against interpretation’s false decisiveness: “I never interpret,” he wrote. This was his fantasy: “Dream of a whole day, just once, sitting uninterruptedly: with no demand, no task, no responsibility.” Appropriately, he never worked up his lecture notes into a formal, complete, sociable book—he left them as is. Like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Barthes’s Neutral inspires because it is unfinished, happy to be unfinishable. It is a book of gestures, shadows, arrows, presumptions, hesitations. He gave these lectures in the wake of his mother’s death; his thinking, in The Neutral, has never been so mournful, so ample, so warm, so unembarrassed, so alive.

Wayne Koestenbaum a poet and critic based in New York.


In the worst of times, grim comedians come into their own. I read John Ashbery’s new collection of poetry, Where Shall I Wander (Ecco), more often than I wanted over the past nine months.

The pure joy of daily living became impacted with the blood of fate and battles.
There’s no turning back the man says, the one waiting to take tickets at the top of the gangplank. Still, in the past we could always wait a little. Indeed, we are waiting now. That’s what happens.

And this, from Charles Simic’s Selected Poems, 1963–2003 (Faber and Faber), titled “Speck-Sized Screaming Head”:

Hoping to make yourself heard,
Mr No-See?
Busting your balls
For one long, bloodcurdling scream,
Out of the dustheap
At my feet.

Fat chance. Someone’s just putting
A quarter in the jukebox,
Someone else is starting the pink Cadillac
On the street,
And I’m lifting and cocking the broom
In your direction.

T. J. Clark is George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Art History at the University of California, Berkeley.


Given that the study of Blinky Palermo’s oeuvre is still in its infancy, Pia Gottschaller’s fascinating chronicle Palermo: Inside His Images (Siegl) is bound to prove indispensable to anyone engaged with this artist’s work. More a forensic dossier than a conventional narrative, and replete with conceptual insights as well as technical information, her book tracks the German painter’s extraordinary inventiveness across the artistic milieus in which it took root and developed: first the Rhineland and, later, New York City. Based on Gottschaller’s doctoral thesis in the field of conservation, her in-depth analysis of Palermo’s practice with respect to materials, media, and methods proves strangely compelling.

Lynne Cooke is curator at Dia Center for the Arts, New York.


Of the many recent books that seek pathways through the last half-decade’s bleakness, none delivers the whiplash estrangement of Alexander Kluge’s new work, The Devil’s Blind Spot: Tales from the New Century (New Directions). History has always been, for Kluge, a shifting aggregate of disparate stories, but the cumulative impact of these 173 “tales” knocks us off any familiar ground from which to survey our global present. His unsparing and breathtaking montage of found materials, invented anecdotes, true events, fabricated interviews, and evidentiary fragments hurtles from Chernobyl to the Ice Age, from a star probe headed across our galaxy to the Roman annihilation of Carthage, from a KGB agent’s seduction of Christina Onassis to Tristan and Isolde. The delirious range of his narratives mocks any possible historical overview, but their revelatory flashes, alternately darkening and illuminating, expose the fragile coherence of our obdurate human strivings for reality maintenance in the face of catastrophe. For all the heterogeneity of his materials, the book’s remorseless voices are those of expertise and officialdom, detachedly reviewing the aftermath of disasters, accidents, failures of systems and strategy. In tale after tale, we confront afresh the counterfinalities that are the ruin of our loves and hopes. Yet for Kluge it is only inside the microdetails of debacles of all kinds that the reality of our spectral present can be felt, if not represented, and the languages of authority inverted. It’s a book to read along with two other crucial publications of 2005: Adi Ophir’s The Order of Evils and the reprint of Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.

Jonathan Crary is Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University.


So the world is flat?

Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters (Harvard University Press) proves that, at least in the intellectual sphere, such glib globalist fantasies are just that–– fantasies. There’s nothing flat about her Pierre Bourdieu–inspired description of what Paul Valéry called the “spiritual economy”; but the coordinates (and paradoxes) of literature’s competitive world economies are so obvious yet so invisible that only Poe’s purloined letter seems metaphorically adequate. Don’t all great ideas come from that same place, where the aha and the of course coincide? And therein lies the book’s charm: Of course the production of “literary greatness” is governed by a set of rules that emerges only from digging deeply into the rise of world literatures. Arguing for how the world marketplace of literary value functions––that is, what rules govern the “game” of style––Casanova offers a start to thinking about how Faulkner got to be “Faulkner,” Joyce, “Joyce,” and Naipaul, “Naipaul” (while any number of dominated worthies struggle angrily on the periphery). Her careful but revealing prose is a model of critical language, and in M. B. DeBevoise’s translation from French it attains a martinet’s clarity. If you take little from the book—such as an understanding of the freighted relation between intellectual and political power, or the obstinate resiliency of cultural capital––it’s still as refreshing a read as a gulp of ice water. Powerfully researched, beautifully learned, and elegantly argued, The World Republic of Letters should be at the top of any syllabus of “Art, Politics, and Globalism.” Its deep reading of the deep structures of intellectual life is as disconcerting, and productively counterintuitive, as it is smart.

Eric Banks is editor of Bookforum and senior editor of Artforum.


In its form and content, Peter Sotos’s Comfort and Critique (Void Books) revisits the themes that have been central to his writing (and his music—he’s a former member of the noise band Whitehouse) ever since he began self-publishing his fanzine, Pure, in the mid-’80s: child abuse, power, and sex as currency. His sixth work of nonnarrative fiction is loosely structured around the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in Sussex in 2000 and the accompanying British media event. The novel also contemplates the resultant community violence against pedophiles, the personal shortcomings of Sarah’s parents, and the author’s own masturbatory relationship to images of victims.

When I think of Sotos, two writers come immediately to mind: Kathy Acker, for her blurring of gender, age, and sexuality as well as her insistently pornographic mode of depiction, and Andrea Dworkin, for her unapologetic exploration of themes of dominance and her central premise that women are undervalued in our society.

One would think that because he was the first person in the US to be charged with possession of child pornography, Sotos could confidently discount accusations of his having taken an ironic stance vis-à-vis his material. But the frequency with which his disdain for—or at least overstated distance from—what he perceives as art is referred to suggests that this is his real subject. Sotos’s phobic belief that his sovereignty depends on his offensiveness and social disenfranchisement puts him squarely in the traditional transgressor’s double bind of needing the context he continually derides. This, whether inadvertent or intentional, augments the book and contributes to Sotos’s successful rendering of destructive compulsiveness as subject in Comfort and Critique.

Lucy McKenzie is an artist based in Glasgow, Scotland.


Let us imagine a category—books without borders—slipping like quicksilver through immigration were it not for the fact of languages being irreparably native and foreign. Let me slip you La Cohée de Lamentin (Gallimard).

This book is a place unlike any other. Its author, Edouard Glissant, is known as a lion poet, novelist, and essayist. La Cohée de Lamentin is the fifth in his series of Poétiques. The Poétiques read like books of reports and ruminations, something like a Daily Practice of Writing, that seek to find the ground from which life now could proceed. The ground is both land and sound. Literature, philosophy, politics, and art grow there. Glissant gives his impressions and judgments. Some of the names you will recognize—Aimé Césaire, Deleuze and Guattari, Rimbaud, Matta, Wifredo Lam. The land is nominally Martinique, but as Glissant has famously said that the whole world is becoming creolized, Martinique’s beauty, its wild weather, its earthquakes, and its métissage have grown beyond the archipelago, just as Glissant has taken a colonial French beyond the islands and beyond Paris, and in some ways beyond French. This journal goes vertical.

The collection begins by ruminating on the running predictions of earthquakes. But the tremors underfoot are those of another future. The world has been shaken, and is being shaken. That Glissant can see utopia too as a tremblement, a tremor, is tremendous.

Molly Nesbit is professor of art history at Vassar College.


This book is a false journal. Speaking to the Rose (University of Nebraska Press; translated by Christopher Middleton): A collection of the texts Robert Walser wrote in microscript, is, like a character he describes in one text, “half shut, half open.”

Walser’s microscript writings were done in “pencil area,” an interior location, expressed through the writer’s penciled detritus. Originally believed to be a code, it turned out just to be very, very, very small, hatefully small, hysterically small prose, hidden on paper slips, book jackets, and the backs of rejection letters. On translation, the found five hundred original sheets grew to an engorged two thousand pages.

I have no distance from these texts. Their economy of thought is a confusion. Walser folds up Goethe like a newspaper and places him under his arm: “He’d have liked to have a kitten to stroke along with him, or a puppy, or better still, a girl.” His Goethe rows on lakes, sightseeing dumbly, looking at the sky thinking of those good people who may be thinking that very moment of Goethe.

Walser writes air free. Talking to himself. Suspicious is what he can make a certain kind of reader. Consider his endlessly agitated aesthetic stated acutely in “She addressed me in the formal style”: “Doing something presupposes desisting from something else you’ve completed or begun to do, and at root her abuse was something like a proof of her satisfaction with me, yet satisfaction with someone brings no satiety to the soul and mind, and repose is glad to renew itself in restlessness.” And these were notes—unedited. Blatant! Perhaps private, perhaps not, they are utterly aware—the way a single letter is aware of its surrounding word.

Journals (and the contemporary malady of journalishness) are full of solitude and feigned humility, as small as personal; Walser’s microtexts are the opposite. Or, small script = large human. Smallness makes text liquid, lose-able, ubiquitous. Walser is a scale explosion.

Trisha Donnelly is an artist based in San Francisco.