Big and Beautiful

The Best Coffee Table Books of 2014

Books by artists and about artists, books that are works of art—it was a great year for the coffee table book, from Goya to Dalí, from tattoos to World War I in color.

The Daily Beast

Given the despondent messages emanating from the book business people and the gloomy protectors of literary tradition, I expected over the past few years of my annual anthology of picture books, to see a diminution of the offerings. But while there is still an outpouring of peculiar books pandering to devotees of zombies, flash -in-the-pan celebrities, and other banalities, I can’t help being impressed by both the number and quality of real books—real paper, cardboard, ink— dedicated to recording the arts.

In any case, culling a manageable array from the totality of splendid volumes has with each year become more difficult. This is partly due to the proliferation of small, specialized art house presses and art gallery publishing, a growing tributary that feeds the already steady stream of museum publications such as exhibition monographs and catalogues.

So as you will see below, there is a rich and vivid blend of the old and the new, the large and oversized, and the esoteric, all wonderfully suitable for that furnishing anachronism, the coffee table:

The Story Teller Duane MichalsLinda Benedict-Jones with Allen Ellenzweig, Marah Gubar, Adam Ryan, Aaron Schuman (Prestel)

Photographer Duane Michels, though not as well known as many of his late 20th century contemporaries, is suitably represented in this tome that includes 75 original works. Something of an outlier, he was inspired by painter Réné Magritte, a useful reference point when viewing Michals’s inscribed messages and poems on photographs and his sequenced visual stories. This monograph accompanies a major traveling retrospective of his work currently at the Carnegie Museum of Art through February 15, 2015

The Storyteller features Michals’s best-known early sequences—“The Spirit Leaves the Body,” “Paradise Regained,” and “Chance Meeting”—along with later work such as “The Bewitched Bee” and “Who is Sidney Sherman?” There is an almost childlike sense present in his images (this was, after all, a man who gave birds’ nests to his friends as gifts). For those unfamiliar with Michals, an annotated biography and useful essays are included.

Goya: Order & DisorderStephanie Stepanek with Frederick Ilchman and JanisTomlinson (MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Because his life (1746—1828) bridged the late-18th and early 19th centuries, Spanish painter Francisco José Goya y Lucientes can be labeled one last of the old masters and/or one the first of the moderns. Court painter to the Spanish Crown, he is perhaps best known for his harrowing Disasters of War series. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is currently hosting the largest Goya art exhibition in North America in a quarter-century (through January 2015), a comprehensive exploration of his work as a painter, printmaker, and draftsman. Order and Disorder, the exhibit’s catalogue, comprises 170 of his most significant paintings, prints, and drawings, as well as rare rawings and working proofs executed from the 1770s to the end of his life.

Red Ball of a Sun Slipping DownEugene Richards (Many Voices Press)

Eugene Richards is as fine a photographer as anyone clicking a shutter these days, to which his highly regarded, award winning body of work on a diverse swath of subjects attests. His newest opus is the Kickstarter financed Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down. The narrative weaves his 30 year old black-and-white photos from the Arkansas Delta (he first visited as a VISTA volunteer in 1969 and returned frequently) with recent color photographs. Also included is a short story about his relationship with an impoverished Delta family— it’s a lovely, bittersweet picture memoir, typical of Richard’s soulful variety of honesty.

The Passions of Jean-Baptiste CarpeauxJames David Draper and Edouard Papet (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press)

Doubtless most people couldn’t name one contemporary sculptor and probably not many further back in time. Which does add an air of the exotic to

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Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent retrospective, The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. A predecessor to Auguste Rodin, Carpeaux (1827­1875) and considered one of the France’s greatest sculptors, he is probably best known today for a single masterpiece, “Ugolino and His Sons” The recent exhibit featured about 150 works including sculptures, paintings, and drawings; and its accompanying 376 page catalogue includes illuminating essays by exhibition curator James David Draper and others.

TattooPascal Bagot, Joe Cummings, Anna Felicity, and Friedman Sebastien Galliot (Musée du Quai Branly/Actes Sud)

More than merely a ubiquitous and trendy affectation, tattoos are being recognized and accepted as vernacular art. Tattoo references this art’s (or craft’s) long history, which dates back to 3000 B.C., of which the most famous exemplar is Ötzi the Iceman’s mummy, which was covered with 57 tattoos. Both the book and the exhibition (Musée du Quai Branly/ which runs through October 2015) present an assortment of Native North American tattoos; American tattooing from the Revolution through the ’80s; Russian criminal tattooing; European sideshow culture; Japan’s tattoo boom during the Edo period; tattooing in the Marquesas Islands, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand; and newly emerging Latino, Chicano, and Chinese tattoo cultures, as well as recent trends. The text amply surveys the various cultural exponents of tattooing accompanied by excellent images.

Atlas of the World, 20th edition (Oxford University Press)

National Geographic Atlas of the World, 10th Edition(National Geographic)

As the Oxford University Press points out, the Atlas of the World -21st Edition is the only world atlas updated annually. There is a 48-page introduction to world geography and detailed presentations of crucial geographic issues—food and water supply, global conflict, human health, standards of living, climate change, biodiversity, energy, and landforms. The 21st edition has a six-page special on “The Future of the Oceans and Seas,” and 11 new images acquired from NASA’s latest Earth Observation Satellite, Landsat 8. Measuring 14” x 18”, it’s a splendidly reproduced book, worthy of any coffee or kitchen table. For the past four years it is one of the books that I most eagerly await.

The 10th edition of National Geographic Atlas of the World coincides with the 100th anniversary of National Geographic cartography. Completely updated and expanded by 16 pages, this titanic slip-cased tome (12″ x 17″) is an authoritative reference and includes the largest and most comprehensive collection of political maps ever published by National Geographic. The update includes new maps of Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales, three detailed regional maps of Australia, expanded coverage of Africa, and a map of the strategically important area around the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing North Africa and Southern Europe. There is an expanded place-name index with more than 150,000 entries, and separate undersea, Moon, and Mars features. There are sizable appendices that include flags and facts for all 195 extant nations, geographic comparisons, world time zones, metric conversion tables, and a gargantuan number things you didn’t know that you didn’t know.

Dalí Pop-Ups Martin Howard and Courtney Watson McCarthy (Thames & Hudson)

Digitization may seamlessly mimic the real world, but I can’t see anything ever replacing the wonders and joys of pop—ups books. This volume includes 7 pop-ups and 25 illustrations, all in color, of surrealist Salvador Dalí s better known paintings, cleverly reproduced 3-dimensionally by paper engineer and graphic designer Courtney Watson McCarthy. For children of all ages.

The Art of Pin-upEdited by Dian Hanson (Taschen)

Publisher Taschen is famous for grand-bordering-on-grandiose publications, especially those celebrating the female body, e.g., last year’s six-volume history of Playboy magazine). Having previously issued The Great American Pin-up (which reportedly now sells for upwards of $200,000), Taschen is back with a new 400-page tome featuring 10 artists (including Alberto Vargas, Gil Elvgren, and George Petty) and including thumbnail bios and representative art of 85 additional artists. The sections on the featured artists each open with a tipped-in reproduction of an original calendar or magazine cover by that artist. Drawing a line between prurience and pornography, editor and art historian Dian Hanson describes a pin-up as a “provocative but never explicit image of an attractive woman created specifically for public display in a male environment.” The images are painstakingly reproduced, mostly from the original art, using the resources of the world’s largest archive of vintage pin-up calendars. It’s a behemoth of a book, sized at 19” x 13” and weighing in at about 15 pounds in its boxed carrying case. That’s a lot of cheesecake.

Beijing: Contemporary and ImperialLois Connor and Geremie R. Barm (Princeton Architectural Press)

Lois Conner’s riveting new book Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial is the culmination of her 30 years of visits to China. Its 156 pages contain 91 duotones, presented on 15” x 7.5” pages, which accentuate the panoramic views of ancient ruins, such as the Gardens of Perfect Brightness and the recently constructed ultra modern “Bird’s Nest” National Olympic Stadium. Given the age of this city, this wonderful pictorial survey does make obvious the clash of the modern with the ancient—it remains to be seen which will still be standing as Chinas leaps exponentially forward.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now Clement Cheroux (Thames and Hudson)

Whether or not you believe in artistic heirachies, it is all but impossible not to see the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) as a titan with few if any peers. Earlier this year the Centre Pompidou in Paris mounted France’s first major posthumous retrospective of the artist his biographer Pierre Assouline called “the eye of the century.” This stunning exhibition showcased Cartier-Bresson’s versatility as a stylist (surrealism, photojournalism) and his Zelig-like ability over the course of five decades to find the “decisive moment” wherever history was being made, whether his subject was the Spanish Civil War, World War II, decolonization, or the Cold War). This excellent exhibition monograph includes more than 500 images in color and black and white, some iconic, some not, but all of interest. Additionally there are Cartier Bresson’s paintings and drawings, and his experiments with film, most of it done in the last decades of the artist’s life after he abruptly abandoned photography.

Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the PresentDan Mazur and Alexander Danner (Thames & Hudson)

Comics, having gained increasing recognition as a legitimate and important art form—from R. Crumb’s seminal works of the late ’60’s to Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis and up to the present day with Joe Sacco’s reportage and his ambitious opus of 2013, The Great War, and now Roz Chast’s National Book Award nomination. All of this is comprehensively surveyed by comic historians Mazur and Danner, with 289 full-color and black and white illustrations, many presented as full pages with concise annotations. For the aficionado or the neophyte, Comics is a useful overview of a richly creative period in a burgeoning art. And despite the good scholarship the authors have managed to retain the buoyancy and upbeat air attendant on most comics.

The First World War in ColourPeter Walther (Taschen)

Over the last year, in observance of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, there has been a formidable outpouring of accessible histories and assessments of the so called Great War, aka The War to End all Wars, including a titanic outpouring of black and white photography from the period. Many of these images were already familiar. What was not so well known was that there also existed an archive of color images from the war, the result of then new technology. Hence this volume containing 320 photographs takes some getting used to. We recognize the 20th century’s first great disaster in black and white. Looking at color images is almost like seeing a different war.

On This Earth, A Shadow FallsNick Brandt (Big Life Editions)

Last year photographer Nick Brandt published the second book of the trilogy he embarked upon in 2001. Now comes On This Earth, A Shadow Falls which draws on the most memorable images from Brandt’s first two books, along with essays by philosopher and animal liberation activist Peter Singer and photo historian Vicki Goldberg. The new volume, the publisher points out, is the first of “Brandt’s work to capture the superb quality of his remarkable, large-format prints, which are notable for their velvety blacks and tonal subtleties. At 15 x 13 inches it is substantially larger than his previous books.” This is quite simply a magnificent book in almost every way, from the enthralling images of East Africa’s photogenic large mammals to its appropriately generous size to its underlying agenda —Brandt’s quixotic commitment to saving these majestic creatures from extinction.

Transcuba Mariette Pathy Allen, Mariela Castro Espín, Allen Frame, Wendy Watriss (Daylight Books)

Photographer and painter Mariette Pithy Allen has been documenting transgender culture worldwide for more than 30 years and lately she has been able to turn her eyes on Cuba. Apparently Cuba’s transgender community has gained enough acceptance under the current regime to make it possible for Allen to collect the images for this seductive anthology. The book also includes interviews and a note from director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana, Mariela Castro (who happens to be Cuban President Raúl Castro’s daughter), who was instrumental in the 2008 passage of the law allowing transgender individuals to receive sex reassignment surgery and change their legal gender.

For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace PoolawNancy Marie Mithlo (Smithsonian Institution)

Other than Edward Curtis’s substantial early 20th century ethnographic documentation, there aren’t many top drawer photographic books focusing on Native Americans. That makes Kiowa Indian Horace Poolaw’s work invaluable. Poolaw spent most of his life (1906—84) documenting Indian subjects. Beginning in the mid ’20s, he spent half a century creating a detailed visual history of Native American life across the southern plains. Through February 2015 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York exhibits For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw. The accompanying 184 page catalogue includes 154 photos, of which 150 have not previously been published. Edited by Nancy Marie Mithlo, it also features 16 essays from an mélange of scholars, other photographers, and family members, all of it illuminating Poolaw’s photographic legacy. This is both an outstanding work of scholarship and a commanding visual document.

Girls Standing on LawnsMaira Kalman and Daniel Handler (Harry N. Abrams)

My Favorite ThingsMaira Kalman (Harper Design)

Ah-Ha to Zigzag: 31 Objects from Cooper Hewitt MuseumMaira Kalman (Skira Rizzoli)

Illustrator, artist, author, and designer Maira Kalman regularly creates covers for the New Yorker and a monthly illustrated blog for the New York Times. This year she has produced three books (though not exactly coffee table exemplars Girls Standing on Lawns, My Favorite Things) and Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag: 31 Objects from Cooper Hewitt Museum, all exhibiting Kalman’s characteristic exuberance, good humor, and singular design sense. Girls Standing on Lawns, a unique collaboration with writer Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snickett) contains 40 vintage photographs culled from the Museum of Modern Art’s collection of 30, 000 vernacular photos (snapshots and photographs never intended to be works of art) and more than a dozen original paintings by Kalman inspired by those photographs, all acompanied by brief, lyrical texts supplied by Handler. The snapshots—all taken by unknown photographers—are of girls, women, siblings, families, and even pets standing on lawns or proximal to their homes—one of Kalman’s favorite categories of found photography.

My Favorite Things contains 50 original paintings, renderings of Kalman’s personal artifacts and recollections, as well as her selections from the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museums. The images are annotated with her signature handwritten prose and serves as a visual rumination on the significance objects play in our loves. Included are the pocket watch Abraham Lincoln was carrying when he was shot, original editions of Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland, a handkerchief in memoriam of Queen Victoria, an Ingo Maurer lamp, Rietveld’s Z chair, a pair of Toscanini’s pants, and photographs Kalman has taken of people walking towards and away from her. A helpful pictorial index provides photographs of the actual objects.

Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag is an alphabet (ABC) book that also serves as a demonstration of design history, which Kalman created for the reopening of the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. She chose 31 items from the Cooper Hewitt design collection—among the objects included are a 13th century silk thinking cap, 1889 tin slippers with bows, and Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig-Zag chair. The question implicit in this effort, “If you were starting a museum, what would you put in your collection?” points unerringly to Kalman’s uhr view: ”Everything is design.”

Keith Haring: The Political LineDieter Buchhart, Julian Cox, Robert Farris Thompson, Julian Myers-Szupinska (Prestel)

Dieter Buchhart, curator for the current Keith Haring exhibition The Political Line (through February 2015 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco), observes, “Haring understood that art was for everybody—he fought for the individual and against dictatorship, racism and capitalism. He was no utopian, but he had a dream that ‘nothing is an end, because it always can be the basis for something new and different.’” Haring, who died at 32 in 1990, was a key figure in the late 20th century contemporary art scene in New York City, along with Andy Warhol, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. His graffiti-inspired drawings, paintings, sculptures, murals, and other works were immediately recognizable, as was his iconic body painting of Grace Jones. The Political Line pinpoints Haring’s political perspective through more than 130 works of art, including large-scale paintings on tarpaulin and canvas, sculptures, and subway drawings that convey the artist’s sentiments about issues such as nuclear disarmament, racial inequality, capitalist excess, environmental degradation. Essays and interviews with art scholars are included.

Road to SeeingDan Winters (New Riders)

Some of the most striking photographs found in contemporary publications today bear Dan Winter’s photo credit. His photography has won more than a hundred awards, including the prestigious Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography. Winter’s body of work covers a broad swath of subject matter than includes celebrity portraiture, scientific photography, photo illustrations, and photojournalism. This 700-page opus Road to Seeing is a hybrid—a monograph representing the various aspects of his work and a kind of memoir and a personal instructional manual for students of photography with extraordinary attention to the internal process of photography. It’s not easy (or necessary) to know what to make of this fascinating tome, which is adorned with a puzzling quote on the back cover—“Now find peace in the realization that millions of potential masterpieces happen each moment the world over and go unphotographed.”

The Haight: Love, Rock, and Revolution The Photography of Jim MarshallJoel Selvin (Insight Editions)

Surely no one would call Scott McKenzie’s saccharine 1968 ditty “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)” anthemic. But it does represent one of the memorable moments of the late 20th century—the countercultural crucible that was San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. The late Jim Marshall, who built a remarkable career on his extensive music photography, moved to the Haight in 1964 and documented its transformation from a racially mixed enclave of cheap apartments and old Victorian houses inhabited by working-class laborers and Beat artists gs into what some regard as the cradle of a revolution and most certainly a worldwide phenomenon. The book taps Marshall’s astonishing archive of previously unseen photos, including images of the emerging music scene—the Charlatans, the Great Society, the Warlocks/Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin, as well as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsburg. There are also portraits, protests, reportage and Jim Marshall was there to shoot it all—or pretty closely. The Haight concludes in 1968 with the Dead’s final street show: “One last time the band pulled out their gear, trundled down the hill, and played for free in the San Francisco sunshine.” Music journalist Joel Selwin annotates, with a preface by Donovan, a foreword by Jorma Kaukonen, and an afterword by John Poppy.