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Bright and beautiful: the year’s best art books reviewed

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

When he was a student, the celebrated American modernist master Robert Rauschenberg once told me that his ‘greatest teacher’ — Josef Albers — would proclaim ‘art is svindle’ in heavily accented English at least ten times a day. By that provocative remark Albers probably meant not so much that art was a cheat but that intellectualising about it is usually bogus. He once thanked his lucky stars that his father was a painter-decorator rather than an intellectual. For him it involved simple forms, clear colours and no nonsense.

Albers and his equally brilliant wife are the subject of a remarkable and visually beautiful joint biography, Anni & Josef Albers by Nicholas Fox Weber (Phaidon, £100). During their lifetimes, Josef was better known; but of late Anni, who was the subject of an exhibition at Tate Modern, has been more prominent. This book suggests that while they were both too soberly Teutonic to proclaim, like Gilbert & George, ‘we are two people but one artist’, their art was almost as intimately intertwined.

The Alberses’ works — his predominately paintings, hers mainly textiles — answer and echo one another through the decades in crisply geometric, abstract forms. The text of this outstanding book is excellent, but the images carry just as much of the story.

The definition of abstraction in art is a mysterious and controversial matter. In Abstract Art: A Global History (Thames & Hudson, £65) Pepe Karmel makes a bold attempt to survey the field not in terms of groups and movements — ‘Constructivism’, ‘Abstract Expressionism’ etc — but into thematic groupings. Thus his sections include ‘Bodies’, ‘Landscapes’ and ‘Cosmologies’.

This is an impressive and wide-ranging book, though the usual pitfalls of sweeping overviews are not avoided. Despite the ‘global’ in the title its perspective seems American. And there are odd omissions — where is Gerhard Richter, for example? It’s also likely that the artists involved, always the most awkward of squads, would have objected to the way they have been filed. Josef Albers might have put up with finding himself under ‘Architectures’, but what he said on the subject was: ‘For me abstraction is real, probably more real than nature.’

The sculptor Henry Moore and photographer Bill Brandt were not nearly so closely connected, nor any sort of couple at all. Nonetheless, as an exhibition and associated book Bill Brandt/Henry Moore edited by Martina Droth and Paul Messier (Yale University Press, £50) bring out, they moved on parallel paths.

They shared many subjects, from the sleeping figures in the London Underground during the Blitz to the megalithic monuments of prehistoric Britain. And Moore, the man and his work, were among Brandt’s favoured themes; indeed, the sculptor influenced the photographer’s later wide-angle shots of nudes and bits of stone on beaches. These are attempts to make reality look just like a Henry Moore.

For my money Brandt is the less important figure of the two, but he tends to come out better from this comparison because his work — like all photography — reproduces easily, and was often intended to be seen on the pages of magazines or books. Sculpture, in contrast, is hard to convey in a flat image.

Generally we think of artists producing pictures, objects, maybe events and performances, but not making books. A work of art, however, can consist of printed pages too, as is abundantly demonstrated by Matisse: The Books by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (Thames & Hudson, £65). Matisse put an enormous amount of effort into his publishing projects; and many of them were devoted to poems by Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Ronsard and Charles d’Orleans. Each one was distinct, with a different kind of line created by varied media. Sometimes Matisse also wrote the words in his beautiful handwriting.

His last and most celebrated livre d’artiste, Jazz, published in 1947, bursts into full colour, and led on to the painter’s triumphant last phase, the ‘cut-outs’. So these were not minor works, but masterpieces. And because they were always intended for the pages of a book, they retain much of the force of originals in this handsome volume.

Reproducibility is a highly variable factor in art. Some kinds of work transmit easily via sheets of paper, books or screens, some much less so. This point is brought out by Bridget Riley: The Complete Prints 1962-2020 (Thames & Hudson and the Bridget Riley Art Foundation, £45).

Riley is of course a marvellous painter — much admired, incidentally, by the Albers — but of a particular kind. She is immensely interested in the relationship between colour and shapes, but not in brush-strokes, texture or what artists call ‘touch’. That means that one print medium perfectly suits her: screen printing — a technique which can produce density and depth of colour approaching that of paint. The best of her screen prints have all the energy and astonishingly subtle sense of the colour and rhythm of her paintings. Their quality is well conveyed by this comprehensive volume.

Cecily Brown is a painter on the opposite end of the spectrum, as far as impasto and brushwork are concerned. Her work is all about glutinous, gleaming, lustrous and luscious paint, often depicting naked bodies entangled in complicated, not to say orgiastic, ways, and all this on a large scale. For those reasons, her pictures are much harder to reproduce than, say, small, geometric abstracts. Nonetheless, the new monograph Cecily Brown, with plentiful pictures, and interviews and commentary by Courtney J. Martin, Jason Rosenfeld and Francine Prose (Phaidon, £35) is to be welcomed. Brown is one of the most interesting middle-generation painters around.

With an artist who lived centuries ago, the matter of authenticity is naturally trickier than it is with Riley or Brown. Indeed, much of the point of a study such as Velázquez: The Complete Works by José López-Rey and Odile Delenda (Taschen, £100) lies in what exactly the great man actually painted. This is a revised edition of the standard work on the artist, which the late Professor López-Rey first published in 1979, and which now includes the latest additions to the canon (since the count of genuine canvases by the master is slowly ticking up).

One of the problems of reproducing art is sheer size, as books tend to be smaller than the works they include. The solution Taschen has adopted is to grow certain books to colossal scale. Velázquez is by no means the largest. Cabinet of Curiosities by Massimo Listri (Taschen, £100) is much weightier, indeed a challenge to lift. Inside, the words, printed very small on shiny pink paper, are far from easy to read, but the gigantic pictures are sumptuous. They take you into a series of quirky collections, mainly in Central Europe, crammed with bizarre and ornate artefacts, fossils, bones, shells and stones. Leafing through it is like entering a series of works by a baroque Damien Hirst. Indeed, the fact that the final example was created quite recently in East London suggests the cabinet of curiosities still qualifies as a form of contemporary art.

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