Miami Artcentric Books: Video Art by Michael Rush Tops the List

Just as I had started reading my February 2011 issue of ARTnews, I was delighted to come across some good news about Michael Rush. Michael is a superbly talented author and an excellent curator, someone I got to know when I worked for The Miami Herald and he was director of the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Lake Worth. He curated so many outstanding shows there, and I learned so much from writing about them.

Over the years we've had many wonderful chats. I recall running into him when I was on assignment for the paper in Venice. I've also seen him in Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach.

After his job in Lake Worth ended, Michael went on to become the director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Talk about having your job "disappeared" right from under you! (Can this not-dead-yet art critic relate to that!) Now he has been named founding director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. Those Midwestern college students are extremely fortunate to have him in their midst.

Of course, I dashed off a congratulatory email to him, and was thrilled to learn in his reply that he is coming to Miami soon. I certainly hope we will have the opportunity to get together.

Reading about Michael made me think of his book Video Art that I wrote about for the Herald. So I printed out that review, along with several others I thought I would post today on my blog about about artcentric books. Thank goodness I have my own personal archive of all that I have written for the Herald! Maybe one day I can turn some of that material into a book as well...

Video Art, by Michael Rush.
Rush writes with extraordinary wit and clarity, bringing to bear his first-hand experience of making art beyond the mainstream. The 383 illustrations here go a long way to filling out this indispensable overview of an influential but less-than-40-year-old art form that notoriously eludes the printed page, and Rush gamely covers the still-morphing permutations of video, from digital to DVD, focusing on current artists like Matthew Barney, Pierre Hughye, and Tracey Moffatt.

Goya, by Robert Hughes.
No one can write about art with the blustery confidence and impeccable grasp of visual detail quite the way Robert Hughes can, even taking into account his bouts of dismissive arrogance. An ever-readable stylist, he makes Goya's experiences of late 18th Century and early 19th Century Spain and France almost cinematically vivid, leading us through the intricacies of court politics and the doldrums that impelled this monumental (and, by then, deaf) master to make his late, great, and gruesomely unforgettable "Black Paintings."

Michele Oka Doner: Natural Seduction, with foreword by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. and essays by Suzanne Ramljak, Morris Lapidus, and Arthur C. Danto.
The catchy title of this book, a survey of the career of Miami Beach native Michele Oka Doner, is more than a clever pairing of seduction and selection. It reminds us that Oka Doner is an artist gifted with an alluring sense of edit, shaping essential forms of nature into sensual environments for body and soul. Many of those environments have been public art, like her walkways at Miami International Airport. But others, like her unusual cast bark silver trays and bronze coral reef bracelets, devise a personal space with instruments both earthy and precious.

Imogen Cunningham, by Richard Lorenz, edited by Manfred Heitling.
Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) knew how to find the crystalline moment, the perfect blend of texture and form--as revealed in her luminous black and white photographs of magnolias, calla lilies, and seashells from the 1920s and 1930s. They're unbearably sexy and stately at the same time, and they surely taught Robert Mapplethorpe volumes about the art of arranging flowers. A colleague of better known photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, Cunningham has not received their level of recognition, though she founded with them the f/64 group, trailblazers in the sharply focused aesthetics of modern photography. This monograph by Richard Lorenz should help overcome that oversight by charting her prolific career, with examples of her portraits, nudes, and sculptural tanks and towers of factories recalling more celebrated images by German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Cuba on the Verge: An Island in Transition, edited by Terry McCoy, with an introduction by William Kennedy and an epilogue by Arthur Miller.
Cuba has generated so many books of photographs, with too many offering the cliche of Detroit relics hunkered against fetching, ornate ruins. The combination of images and text in this expansive volume is often striking for the sensitive, beautiful departures from such cliches. Abelardo Morrell returned to Cuba after many years to create his signature, surreal scenes with a camera obscura, while poetry and portraits by Carrie Mae Weems portray the island's Afro-Caribbean heritage with piercing immediacy.

From the Ground Up, by Eduardo del Valle and Mirta Gomez.
Maya heritage in the rural Yucatan prevails in these intelligent photographs documenting indigenous architecture, the modest forms of a hut that have been passed down for centuries. Del Valle and Gomez, photographers and professors at Florida International University, do more than document the evolving materials, from thatch to corrugated tin, by also capturing the huts as they pop up in local pop culture, from topiary to souvenir. This exquisite series of photographs is matched with trenchant essays by Sandra S. Phillips and Richard Rodriguez.

Extraordinary Interpretations: Florida's Self-Taught Artists, by Gary Monroe.
Gary Monroe has an eye for cultural resources that remain off the beaten path in this over-developed state, having written about the Highwaymen, a group of African-American landscape painters. Here Monroe records Homestead's bizarre complex of Coral Castle and well-known paintings by Purvis Young, but he also explores the quiet eloquence in such self-taught art as the "identity masks" of rusted tin and wood by Jerry Coker of Gainesville, or the dotted landscapes by Frank Ritchie, who lives in Ormond Beach and paints snow with curious precision.

The Design of Dissent, by Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic, foreword by Tony Kushner.
This is a visually stunning collection of over 400 posters and other items from the 1960s to the present, but the main focus is work from the last several years. Opposition to the war in Iraq, gas guzzling, corporate greed, and the marginalization of women are prime topics. Legendary designer Milton Glaser closes out the book with these sobering comments. He says that dissenting designs do have an effect, even if the results aren't obvious: "I don't think it makes any difference whether you think it works or not. You have to do it." In a democracy, dissent is "the only hope we have."

Latin American Posters: Public Aesthetics and Mass Politics, edited by Russ Davidson.
This selection of some 100 political posters is based on the 10,000 strong poster collection developed by Sam L. Slick, a Spanish professor at University of Southern Mississippi. In 2001 University of New Mexico acquired the collection. This book gives a dynamic, historical overview of that collection, showing how posters played a role in reflecting and promoting opinions during times of political turmoil from the 1960s to the 1990s. In the 1960s, Pop art and new printing methods gave posters their bold punch; later art movements were reflected in this brash and populist medium.

Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture, by Michael Kammen.
Kammen explores the compelling stories of how envelope-pushing artists have defied the mind-numbing status quo and how they have been censored for their provocations. At times their defiance was more calculated than earnest. Many pages recount debates about public art and public funding. The furor over Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" is a well-known chapter in the culture wars of the 1980s, but Pulitzer-prize winning historian Kammen puts that volatile event in the context of another art controversy from the 1840s, the size and design of the Washington Monument. Not everyone thought that an Egyptian obelisk was the right icon for a young democracy. Kammen shows how art controversies over notions like beauty and decency reveal fascinating aspects of social history. He makes the case that no matter how stressful conflicts are for the art world and general public, they provoke discussion and can be enlightening with the passage of time. His is a nuanced study that provides no easy answers. It does offer an important context for looking at ongoing issues of censorship and debates about the point of art.

Shall we start our own virtual book club in cyberspace? Why not?? I welcome readers to post comments about artcentric books they have read, or add to my comments about the books I have just discussed. I am quite sure that there is much more to be said about them!

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