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Precious gifts, books capture spirit of great art

By Joan Brunskill, The Associated Press
Saturday December 15, 2001

Splendor of the masters reborn in pages of many fine art booksxZ 


Of course you’d love to give a work of art of heart-stopping beauty to a person dear to you, at this gift-giving season. Perhaps a small Renoir portrait, a folk-art carving, or a museum-quality Oriental embroidered panel? 

Not a hope — such items are often not for sale, and anyway the prices might well be in the thousand- or million-dollar range.  

But don’t give up, the solution is easy, in plain sight: art books, glowing with glorious illustrations. 

As reminders of art seen, and perhaps not currently on view, or as introductions to new works, books condense within their covers an unparalleled power to evoke the splendor and emotion of the originals. 

“American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum” (American Folk Art Museum-Abrams, $75) by Stacy C. Hollander coincides with the opening of the museum’s new building in midtown Manhattan, and Esmerian’s gift of his stunning collection. 

The famous portrait Ammi Phillips painted of “Girl in Red Dress With Cat and Dog” (circa 1830-1835) may be familiar, and yes, we’d all be thrilled to get that as a present — but a fetching variety of other portraits in the collection vie with it in their ability to connect. 

Turning to 3-D objects, how about a comically proud little red-glazed earthenware lion made in Pennsylvania around 1850 — or a suave 6-foot Tin Man (1930), or Dapper Dan (circa 1880) carved in wood? 

No need to gift-wrap them separately, they come with the book, more than half of whose 572 pages are occupied by color photographs, but which also includes a complete catalog of Esmerian’s collection. 

The collection is on show as the inaugural exhibition of the new museum premises through June 2002. 

In contrast to the American museum book, “Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art” (Abrams, $85) introduces us to living artists — we meet about 180, see their portraits and their vibrant work. Dramatic photos of the art works in high-saturation color against black backgrounds exude the energy of the culture. 

Traditional materials, clay, silver, wood, textiles and stone, emerge in forms that range from deeply traditional to quite astonishing, or incorporate both characteristics. 

The work of Manuel Jimenez Ramirez is an example. He’s a renowned wood carver from a village in the state of Oaxaca who fashions figures for creches, but also produces brightly painted fantasy figures based on mythical animals. Illustrations of the latter practically leap off the pages of the book. 

The art works are from the collection of Fomento Cultural Banamex, a Mexico City organization that supports Mexican folk artists and international traveling exhibitions of their works. 

The Asia Society is also marking a reopening with an exhibition and an accompanying richly illustrated book. 

The Manhattan museum’s building, which was closed for renovation and expansion, is now in business again with the exhibition documented in “Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures From Northwest China” (Asia Society-Abrams, $65) by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner. 

Stone, ceramic and bronze figures of supreme grace and power are among treasures featured in this collection that many of us would happily see on our living room shelves. Gold and silver jewelry, too, from the same fourth-to seventh-century period are equally pleasing, equally available only to gaze at, but just as generously illustrated in the book. 

The text tells us that many of the objects from this historically significant period and region have been excavated only recently and are new to Western eyes. The exhibition is on view in New York through Jan. 6, and will then be shown at the Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, Fla., Feb. 9 to April 21. 

“Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art” (Tinwood Books, $100) by William Arnett and Paul Arnett brings into focus a richly varied body of work by contemporary grass-roots artists of the South that goes far beyond folk art in its imaginative reach. 

A first volume of this study published in 2000 dealt with the earlier phases of the genre. In this handsome second volume, the authors look at paintings, sculpture and mixed media works of many artists of the 1980s and ’90s, with separate chapters focusing on 30 or so individuals. 

Photos of the works, including many pieces that have never been published, bring vivid life and color to the pages; much of the art is shown in the context of the artist’s home or environment. 

Among books focusing on individual artists, some show recent works that would not fit into any conventionally scaled home. The bookshelf comes into its own with one such, “Anselm Kiefer” (Abrams, $85) by Daniel Arasse. 

Kiefer, born in 1945 in Germany, is often described as controversial for his austere paintings, installations and sculpture, often monumental in size, often with darkly disturbing visual themes related to World War II and its aftermath. 

The book reproduces many of these acclaimed and highly influential works; even in page size, their strength, mystery and stark beauty is evident. 

Among other works about individual artists for those who already love or wish to know more about them: 

“Caravaggio” (Abbeville, $95) by John T. Spike includes new research into the work and life of this marvelous 17th-century Italian painter, who is now often dubbed “the first modern painter.” 

That comes from his robust originality, especially in showing religious scenes in contemporary settings with a realism uncommon for his time. Nearly every work extant by Caravaggio is reproduced in color in the book. 

“Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making” (Abrams, $60), edited by Colin B. Bailey, does not solve the question of where art merges into decoration, a question that often comes up when the work of this Austrian artist is debated. It does, however, offer a generous selection of illustrations that conjure up his fin-de-siecle elegance with its contrasts and rich patterns, and its links with Art Nouveau and Symbolism. 

In “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South” (Thames & Hudson, $65), Douglas W. Druick and Peter Kort Zegers delve deeply into the intense friendship and sometimes rivalry that may have challenged the two artists to make some of the most significant advances in their respective careers. 

Plenty of illustrations back up a text packed with intriguing details, quoted correspondence and anecdotal evidence of the artists’ vivid interactions. This is the companion book to an exhibition of the same title, on show at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 13, and after that at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Feb. 9 to June 2. 


Craft has its own aficionados, and among many books about them, two elaborate very different mediums: 

—“Behind the Scenes of Tiffany Glassmaking: The Nash Notebooks” (St. Martin’s, $50) is an account by Martin Eidelberg and Nancy A. McClelland of the development and production of the famous glass that makes use of unpublished sources and images. 

—“Ottoman Embroidery” (Abrams, $45) by Marianne Ellis and Jennifer Wearden may well inspire many an amateur to go look for needle and thread again. There are detailed pages of color illustrations showing the luxuriant work done during the long period the Turkish empire held sway (late 13th to early 20th century), with working diagrams of stitches. 


Something for absolutely everyone on your gift list? 

Art histories cover the whole spectrum, though many of them need strong wrists to handle — perhaps you’d better include book stands with your gifts. Among those available are two massive slip-cased works of scholarship, with abundant illustrations: 

—“History of Art” (Abrams, $95) is the sixth edition of the reference work first published in 1962. H.W. Janson wrote the original text; his son, Anthony F. Janson, has been its author since his father’s death in 1982. 

—“Art History” (Abrams, $95) by Marie Stokstad, a two-volume second edition of this comprehensive work of scholarship, which first appeared in 1995. 


Finally, in contrast, “The Art of the Piano: Drawings” (Paragon, $24.95 hardback, $16.95 paperback) by John Diebboll is disarmingly portable, almost pocket-size. 

The book’s delicately precise color illustrations are a witty series of designs intended for one-of-kind art-case pianos, drawn by Diebboll, New York-based architect and artist. 

One piano design titled “Tortoise” is for his son, with a simple tortoiseshell-patterned case. Others borrow familiar shapes: see the “Guggenheim,” “Diner” and “Sail” pianos. And of course there’s inspiration from music, as in the “Philip Glass,” “Mingus,” “Aida” and “Carmen” designs. 

The book is a small treasure that will not weigh any recipient down, in any sense.