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books

THE BEST BOOKS OF 2011

Ten scholars, critics, writers, and artists choose the year’s outstanding titles.

SVETLANA ALPERS

Imagine that you are listening to a spirited conversation between a French art historian and a German painter. De Rouget and Daimler, as they are called, are at lunch on a recent October Sunday near Pontarlier. It is where Degas vacationed briefly in 1904 and where absinthe is made. In Il était plus grand que nous ne pensions: Édouard Manet et Degas (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Scala/Collection Ateliers Imaginaires), Éric Darragon, author of a subtle biography of Manet and writings on contemporary German art, sets up the differences French/German and art historian/artist as a way to examine how we think and write about art.

The book’s title is Degas’s homage to Manet. “He was greater than we all thought” are the words of one of the group of independents coming around to a painter committed to the Salon. The two had not been close. I want your opinion in order to better compare Degas (1834–1917) and Manet (1832–1883), the Frenchman says. Everything is open—a work in progress. The German replies, You want to make order. You have a notion of history and have all your poets and writers, and you cannot imagine anything without them. When I make a painting, it decides what I need.

The pair is off and running: An artist from the culture that invented academic art history challenges an art historian from a culture that nurtures criticism. The fictional conversation is about studios, lives, and works. The two men agree that Degas’s work is more resistant to words than Manet’s, to which the German adds that Degas’s dancers do it for him. What to make of Degas’s Young Spartans Exercising, ca. 1860, and Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, unsold and on view in their respective studios until the artists’ deaths? We understand the Cézanne whom Manet disliked better than you do, the German claims. A German present (Immendorff, but also Pina Bausch) plays against a French past.

A dossier of annotated illustrations, an author’s “studio” note, a chronology, and a dictionary of names cited are included at the end of the volume. This is not academic art history, nor art theory, nor criticism as currently practiced. The series is promoted as another way to write history. And this is a wonderful book.

Svetlana Alpers is professor emerita, University of California, Berkeley; visiting scholar, department of fine arts, New York University; and the author of The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others (Yale University Press, 2005).

ANTHONY VIDLER

Michael Sorkin’s latest book All Over the Map (Verso), is precisely not: It is in fact quite focused, a witty, incisive, critical, and brilliantly written invitation to see contemporary architecture and urbanism as a complex result of economic, political, and ideological forces that are hardly masked by the formal expressions of architects. Comprising a series of seventy-six essays written between 2000 and 2009, the book serves as a trenchant reader in the architecture of recession—our own and that of the global community.

From the debacle of the World Trade Center memorial “competition” to the uneven political and economic development of the Emirates, with harrowing looks at the effects of Katrina and of oil exploitation in the Amazon basin along the way, Sorkin insists that there is another way—or, more precisely, other ways—that will better serve the public good and the environment. While he is never kind to those he sees as providing “fig leaves” for political and economic manipulation of the public realm, neither does he leave us with a sense of despair. Rather, he professes an underlying belief that utopia could be, might be, may be, should be, just around the corner if we could but wish and design it—tempering his passionate diatribes with an almost Benjaminian sense of the unfortunate errors of a fallen world, albeit one that could be redeemed. If only.

This is criticism as we rarely read it, of the sort that Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford provided in an earlier era. In one brief chapter Sorkin offers his advice to critics in twelve maxims: Always visit the building; style is seldom the issue; credit effects, not intentions; think globally, think locally; safety first; who profits?; consult the user; history is not bunk; it’s the city, stupid; defend the public realm; keep your teeth sharpened; and play your favorites. These essays demonstrate that Sorkin goes well beyond his own advice, and that he adds something else for good measure: a deep and broad knowledge of architecture and cities, a love of both, and a profound belief in the role of architecture in constructing a just city.

Anthony Vidler is a professor of architecture and the dean of the Irwin S. Chanin school of architecture, Cooper Union, New York.

MICHAEL FRIED

Richard Neer’s The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture (University of Chicago Press) offers a visually and conceptually fresh take on its perennially fascinating subject. At the risk of simplifying Neer’s several-pronged approach, one can say that he attaches fundamental importance to the hitherto largely neglected issue of the relation of the objects of his analyses to the beholder, an issue he tackles by looking closely at (and thinking hard about) a wide range of significant works—not all of them well known—and by mobilizing clues from poetic and other textual sources, from Homer to Pausanias.

The Emergence of the Classical Style also fruitfully engages with the late, great classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant’s superb writings toward what Neer rightly calls “a historical ontology of the concept of the ‘image’” in ancient Greece. This is not the place to even briefly summarize Vernant’s views, which involve an emphasis on what he calls presentification rather than on representation, but Neer’s insistence on Vernant’s importance—as well as on the need to “correct” him by introducing “the evidentiary priority of the visual, of the critic’s eye”—sets the stage for a new way of framing the very project of describing the emergence of classical sculpture from its archaic roots. None of this would matter if Neer were not able to deliver the goods critically and historically, but he does just that through five brilliant chapters, beginning with a consideration of various sixth-century bc kouroi and culminating in a highly original discussion of Athenian relief sculpture from the time of the Peloponnesian War.

Michael Fried, the J. R. Herbert Boone professor of humanities and the history of art at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is the author, most recently, of The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton University Press, 2010) and Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon (Yale University Press, 2011).

DAWN ADES

In her 1945 children’s book Bilderbuch, recently published for the first time in English as Picture Book (Green Box), Hannah Höch again took up the medium of photomontage that had in her hands become one of Berlin Dada’s most powerful, aggressive, streetwise tools. In Weimar Germany it was the modern world of jazz, record players, film, fashion plates, crowds, race cars, and machines that provided the grist for her satiric, feminist montages, which juxtaposed a sequence of women’s eyes and fragments of faces to create a male profile, or showed the head of her friend the poet and artist Raoul Hausmann, mouth stretched as he recites a phonetic poem, being extruded from metal armature. In Picture Book, by contrast, it is nature that is reinvented: Plants, flowers, fruits, fabrics, hair, feathers, and unnameable bits of creatures (none obviously human except one wailing baby) are magically cut to pieces and recombined to make a new bestiary. Höch has added multicolored fibers to the cut-and-pasted photographs, which not only supplies the decorative effect she desired but also gives a density and depth to these wonderful, subtle, comic images. Built up of multiple fragments, the creatures may be imaginary but are made highly expressive through the precision of the cut edge that creates a posture, the placing of an eye, the transformation of the original material. Each picture is accompanied by a short poem in which Höch plays Dada-like linguistic games (brilliantly translated here by Brian Currid). Dada’s ludic strategies had often claimed the irreverent freedom of childhood, aiming at what Höch’s fellow Dadaist Hans Arp called a “natural and unreasonable order.” Here, the poems nail the distinct character of each fantastic new animal or bird, which have comic invented names such as die Schnippeldebonchen (the Snipplesnapplewings) and der Unzufriedel (the Unsatisfeedle). Part of the intimate delight of reading this book lies in first catching the curious nature of the creature—wily, smug, dissatisfied, lonely, pompous, prissy, delicate—and then reading the corresponding poem. So of the serpent Boa Perlina, who is clearly perfidious, with a snaky body made of pearls or perhaps frog spawn, Höch writes: “Trust her not, I say / the beauty in pearl gray.” The unclassifiable Unsatisfeedle, whose large eyes are pasted on a head of butterfly-like patterns, limbs cut from paper lanterns that look like centipedes, “wanted the black dress, / But God gave him the white.”

Dawn Ades is a professor of art history and theory at the University of Essex in Colchester, UK. She recently organized the exhibition “The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art,” which was on view this past summer at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada.

J. HOBERMAN

So what is a book anyway? Is it a computer file? A Torah scroll? Should we be talking about “book objects”? Peter Maresca’s Forgotten Fantasy: Sunday Comics 1900–1915 (Sunday Press Books) is one such. Enshrining newsprint ephemera a century old, Forgotten Fantasy makes a kind of statement. This wildly anachronistic, massively outsize (which is to say, full-size) color compendium of ancient broadsheet Sunday funnies embodies two media forms, one all but vanished and the other increasingly beleaguered.

Forget your Kindle. Forgotten Fantasy can’t even be read like an ordinary book—you need an entire coffee table to leaf through it. Maresca includes all of Lyonel Feininger’s two comic strips, The Kin-der-Kids (1906) and Wee Willie Winkie’s World (1906–1907), as well as hitherto undreamed-of context for the great Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland (itself not included in this volume). In addition to Feininger’s excitingly off-kilter strips and the vernacular Jugendstil of McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, the book samples several other multicolored newsprint voyages (ever heard of The Explorigator or Bill and Budd, the Bird Boys?) and one hilarious, short-lived travesty of McCay, namely George “Maggie and Jiggs” McManus’s 1906 Nibsy the Newsboy, in Funny Fairyland.

To become engrossed in these eye-catching fossils of early-twentieth-century newspaper circulation wars is to catch a glimpse of the world being remade. In one 1913 McCay page, New York City becomes first a ghost town and then a void, as people and buildings begin to vanish into the mysterious depths of a posh Fourteenth Street nickelodeon. Feininger is introduced to readers of the Chicago Sunday Tribune as “the famous German artist” who will anchor their brand-new comic supplement. Forgotten fantasies, indeed!

J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for the Village Voice.

SARAH CHARLESWORTH

There is no doubt that history frames photographs. By the same token, photographs frame history. Yet as Errol Morris so brilliantly demonstrates in his wonderful new book, Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) (Penguin Press), there is no direct correspondence between what photographs appear to tell us and the actual complex of facts that (apparently) surround their making. Events are often shaped by images (think of the effect on the antiwar movement of Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of the Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc running naked from a napalm assault near Saigon). Of course we know this to be true in the case of “history painting.” “History” is the provenance of the class, sex, race, leader, country, culture that writes, paints, photographs, or publicizes it—say, Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of soldiers raising the American flag, signaling victory at Iwo Jima, or the 2003 “Mission Accomplished” image of George Bush aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln giving the thumbs-up, signaling an alleged end to major combat in Iraq.

Much has been written in the past two decades about the “return of the real.” In photo circles this is somehow supposed to be opposed to the manipulated (cut, pasted, Photoshopped, staged, appropriated); and while mendacious interventions, “parafictions,” and documentations abound (Yes Men, Walid Raad), we think we know propaganda when we see it. But what if reality itself, or at least “truth,” were no more than the slippery slope, the shifting perspective, that separates “propaganda” from “objective fact”? With obsessive, rigorous sensitivity, Morris researches and considers the “objectivity” of various photographs or sets of photographs that are the focus of each chapter. These essays originally appeared on the New York Times blog Opinionator. The photographs range in subject from a set of images by Roger Fenton taken in 1855 during the Crimean War to a WPA photo by Walker Evans and a dust bowl image by Arthur Rothstein. The Fenton photos depict a barren stretch of road in the Valley of the Shadow of Death near Sebastopol. One image shows the road strewn with cannonballs, the other empty of cannonballs. Morris takes Susan Sontag to task for saying that Fenton moved the balls in order to make the scene seem more dramatic and sets out on a quest to investigate.

His method, familiar from some of his brilliant films such as Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven, is slow and detailed and draws the reader deeper and deeper into the visual mysteries that define the limits of appearance in photography. Somehow, his digressions hold the reader’s attention. There is a fascinating interview with photojournalist Ben Curtis regarding a photo of a child’s toy in an image of bombed-out rubble in Lebanon. Curtis goes to great lengths to stick to the truth as he sees it and in his caption refrains from attributing blame for the bombing; yet Morris shows how the context of an image alters how we interpret it. The same photograph, available through the Associated Press, has been made to function as pro-Arab and as pro-Israel propaganda depending on the caption and editorial context. While Morris (apparently) explores the possible objectivity of photographic appearance, at root is a question of epistemology. What is truth? Is it knowable? Or do we inevitably view the world from the perspective of our culture and time?

Sarah Charlesworth is a New York–based artist.

GRAHAM HARMAN

“Displacing percepts is the role of the artist. The artist in any field is the person who anticipates the effects in his own times.” So say Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt in “Causality in the Electric World,” one of four chapters in Media and Formal Cause (NeoPoiesis), an anthology that also contains two other essays by McLuhan and one by his son and frequent collaborator Eric McLuhan.

Toward the end of Marshall’s life, he and Eric were hard at work on a more systematic presentation of media, which appeared after McLuhan père’s death as the overlooked classic Laws of Media in 1988. They concluded that all media produced by humans, without exception, show four basic traits: enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval, and reversal. All media extend one of the human senses while deadening another, all retrieve some previous medium as their content, and all eventually flip into their opposite. The resulting “tetrad” method of analyzing media is even more powerful than it sounds, and it leads to insights on human artifacts ranging from satellites to chewing gum.

The present collection gives us the crucial prehistory of this tetrad while linking it ever more closely with Aristotle’s doctrine of “formal cause,” which the authors try to rejuvenate. What we usually term “causation” is Aristotle’s “efficient cause”: Tables are made by carpenters, bridges by engineers. Formal cause is what a thing really is: the structure of a table or bridge quite apart from how it was made.

The formal cause of a thing is not what is most visible to us, but what hides in the background while we
are distracted by the content it generates: “The medium is the message.” In the present book we learn that every medium has effects heralding its own downfall. The telegraph paves the way for the telephone by producing telephone-like effects; effects precede their causes. Once the telephone is invented, the telegraph becomes obsolete, and the phone begins to retreat into the background even as it reaches its own phase of preeminence.

One of the McLuhans’ most crucial insights is that media enslave us unless we can produce “ anti-environments,” which we need for the same reason that governments need opposition parties. For the McLuhans, the primary role of the artist is to produce such anti-environments, rummaging through the clichés of dead forms and transforming them into new and powerful archetypes.

Graham Harman is a professor of philosophy and associate provost for research administration at the American University in Cairo. His most recent book is The Quadruple Object (Zero, 2011).

RALPH UBL

Today, it is very difficult to find a piece of art writing that devotes more than a few sentences of close reading to a single work of contemporary art. Most art critics seem to have lost their faith in the notion that contemporary artworks call for a sustained form of attention. Against this quiet desperation underlying the surrender either to theory or to historicism, Michael Fried’s new book, Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon (Yale Unviersity Press), offers a rare counterexample. Fried discusses individual works by Anri Sala, Charles Ray, Joseph Marioni, and Douglas Gordon with the same kind of dedication he has applied to Courbet’s Burial at Ornans and Manet’s The Old Musician in his art-historical books.

Since it would be impossible to summarize even roughly these brilliant readings here, I want to point out how persuasive Fried’s conceptual innovations continue to be. He has never borrowed his terms from the philosophical tradition, although it seems obvious to consider his writings as profoundly informed by and preoccupied with philosophical discussions of autonomy, authenticity,skepticism, and the problem of other minds. But some of the most important American philosophers of the day, including Stanley Cavell, James F. Conant, and Robert Pippin, have deeply engaged with his work precisely because of its introduction of new terms such as absorption, embedment, and to-be-seenness, which are inseparable from the art-critical or art historical context in which they were formed. Fried’s conceptual work always gives us a sense of originating in and emerging from a keen experience. The author of “Art and Objecthood” (published in these pages in 1967) has long since taken a historical view of the Greenbergian idea of medium-specificity, but his own work is more than ever a powerful example of the achievements still specific to criticism.

Ralph Ubl is a professor of modern art at the University of Basel.

TOSH BERMAN

If you’re like me, a longtime pop enthusiast who’s now middle-aged, nothing sounds new in contemporary music. This is not to say that there is nothing wonderful being produced, but just that we’ve heard it all before. Now more than ever, new hits are made from the stuff of yesteryear. Simon Reynolds covers this terrain in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (Faber and Faber)—in my opinion, the best book on pop music written since the turn of the twenty-first century.

His take on the current state of things is spot-on. Reynolds has a deep understanding of a culture that tends to go back to its sweet and safe home, amassing, recycling, and repackaging albums, samples, and styles of the past. Thanks to the unlimited access that the black hole known as the Internet grants us, we are becoming a society of MP3 hoarders, obsessively downloading instead of taking the time to enjoy the sounds.

Then there are the reunion tours. It seems that almost every band with an audience to speak of is on the road playing that one iconic album that made them what they are—or what they were, for that matter. (The only band that went totally—and brilliantly—overboard are Sparks, who, as Reynolds mentions, played each of their twenty-one albums, including those that nobody cares about, over a stretch of three weeks in London in 2008.)

The beauty of Reynolds’s book is that it exposes pop’s now-long history—revealing our incessant rehash of what is nostalgically believed to be a better time and place—but also that it leaves room for new possibilities. What’s fun is trying to figure out where we can go from here. Is it possible to discover new forms, or will we just keep mining the field of pop music past? If we continue in this vein, Reynolds asks, will we eventually tap out our cultural resources entirely?

Tosh Berman is the publisher and editor of TamTam Books and the book buyer for Book Soup in Los Angeles.

NANA LAST

James Gleick takes on the subject of his book The Information (Pantheon) first as history, then as theory, and ultimately as flood. If we reverse the order and begin with the flood, one might ask: A flood of what? And how is it propelled? As if to answer these questions, the book presents a history of people, discoveries, and machines: Claude Shannon, Alan Turing; the fields of communication, logic, the sciences; telegraphs, computers; genes and memes. At the core of the construction of these into a theory lies the point at which information becomes crystallized as the bit, the smallest possible quantity of information, a material at once malleable and foundational.

The nature of that material became clear to me as I was reading another text, where I happened upon the phrase “in the course of its formation.” In formation! I realized information is a process of formation, and that it self-propels via encodings, translations, transmissions, and transformations. Gleick’s book makes these vivid, in its descriptions of information as a material interwoven between data and meaning, abstraction and material substrate, order and disorder.

Building on the theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s celebrated phrase “It from bit,” Gleick—himself one of our best-known chroniclers of scientific knowledge—details how information theory at certain moments proclaims information’s primacy over matter and at others stresses information’s undeniable embodiment as stone tablet, punch card, or the spin of an elementary particle. Yet the book makes clear that the promise of information’s unique modality resides in its potential to leave such idealist-materialist debates in the dust. What emerges in their stead is information’s active, formative drive, its order wrenched from disorder. Amazing things emerge from this perspective: Hybrid forms appear, distinctions are eliminated, biochemistry proves to be about the flux of information, and quantum physics professes to have always been about information. I find myself exhilarated over what this understanding of information means for the arts. If this realm goes unmentioned by Gleick, the book’s lucid rendering of information expands the understandings—and misunderstandings—of information prevalent throughout the cultural realm. What emerges is an immanent transformative productivity only dreamed of by Conceptualism, and a near-perfect (aesthetic) material that, whatever its substrate, always exists “in” “formation.”

Nana Last is an associate professor at the University of Virginia school of architecture.