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The Boston Phoenix Image is Everything

The year's best art books, from Sister Wendy to Annie Leibovitz

By Michael Joseph Gross

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  Forget Simon Schama. Forget Arthur Danto. Art critics don't get any better than PBS star Sister Wendy Beckett. Admittedly, her insights are not always as perspicacious as they could be. But for sheer love of art, she beats the pointy-heads hands down. My Favorite Things: 75 Works of Art from Around the World (Abrams) is Sister Wendy's gift of gratitude to the art she loves most. Brief texts and fine photographs illuminate works ranging from a 24,000-year-old 11/4-inch ivory carving of an unidentified woman to van Gogh's Starry Night. My Favorite Things is an extraordinarily versatile gift idea. Children and old people can love it. Smart and not-so-smart people can love it. And if someone unwraps this book and gives you a look of anything but sheer rapture, you should seriously question that person's place in your life.

Having declared my middlebrow sympathies and exposed myself as merely an armchair art critic, I now offer further recommendations regarding the best art, photography, and architecture books of 1999:

A gift book of almost universal appeal, considering the Eastern seaboard's current surfeit of exhibits Egyptian, is Egyptian Treasures from the Museum in Cairo (Abrams). The cursed, crowd-pleasing treasures of Tutankhamen receive ample attention in this volume, along with the most impressive examples of ancient Egyptian sculpture, wall paintings, jewelry, and statues from the pyramids. The book's layout is sufficiently clear and straightforward for a teenager to appreciate it; its photographs are among the best ever made of their subjects.

Another introduction to the same topic is found in Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (Metropolitan Museum of Art). This book, the catalogue of the Met's Egypt exhibit, is devoted to the 500-year period (2649-2150 BC) called the Old Kingdom, in which Egyptian art reached its peak. (You perhaps have heard of the pyramids, or the Sphinx, both of which were built during this time.) Though not quite as pretty as its aforementioned cousin, this book is heavier in text and more historically focused. It will be the definitive reference book about Egyptian art for years to come.

Turning back the clock a bit (or turning it ahead, depending on how you look at it), we arrive at the subject of another 1999 MFA blockbuster exhibit: John Singer Sargent. If you're a straight guy who took a girl to the Sargent show, you can continue to rack up the sensitivity and thoughtfulness points by giving her John Singer Sargent: The Male Nudes (Universe). The images are sufficiently tame (and most of the models sufficiently un-buff) that you'll look quite fetching by comparison, and the homoeroticism is subtle enough that it won't arouse unseemly suspicions.

For those who prefer to take their homoeroticism straight, there's The Chop Suey Club (Arena Editions), by photographer Bruce Weber. In 1996, Weber discovered a beautiful 15-year-old named Peter at Dan Gable's Wrestling Camp in Iowa. For no particular reason ("I though 'Chop Suey' would be the right nickname for a boy from Wisconsin"), Weber nicknamed the boy Chop Suey, and proceeded to spend three years dressing him up (as a cowboy, a sailor, a dancer, a girl) and taking pictures of him. Though some of the images are banal (there's a bit of recycled Abercrombie & Fitch work here), most of them are hauntingly beautiful and sexually provocative (on facing pages, Peter is shown nuzzling a Tom of Finland drawing and kissing a photograph of Elizabeth Taylor).

Less sexually provocative but equally erotic is the stately production called Women (Random House), by photographer Annie Leibovitz with text by Susan Sontag (her first major essay in 10 years). "[T]he ensemble says," according to Sontag, "so this is what women are now -- as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this." The images, all previously unpublished, encompass leagues of human experience, from the Delta Debutante Club of Greenville, Mississippi, to "the West Side Crips all-girl gang" of San Antonio, Texas. Leibovitz's characteristically penetrating portraits of public figures such as Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart, and Eudora Welty are included as well.

For the insatiable starfucker on your list, go directly to Hotel LaChappelle (Bulfinch Press) by David LaChappelle, a sumptuous romp among the rich and famous. LaChappelle is noted for his slick, artificial, trippy renderings of familiar figures. Thus, among the amazements that await you: Alan Cummings in plastic high heels, Marilyn Manson in a Monroe-vian dress, Elton John leaping from a leopard-print piano, and Leonardo DiCaprio dazedly ruing a game of mumblety-peg gone bad. This is the kind of stuff that starts looking really sexy if you spend a lot of time dropping acid and reading Playboy.

Peter Beard, like David LaChappelle, has photographed a phantasmagoric assortment of celebrities, but the resemblance between them stops there. Peter Beard: Fifty Years of Portraits (Arena Editions) is the size and weight of a finely made journal, and that is essentially what the book is. Beard bounds through life photographing rock stars, dead elephants, politicians, artists, and anonymous folk. He then colors the photos, or adds handwritten notes or elements of collage. Together these images and words create one of the most outstanding scrapbooks of this century. With its high concentration of images from Beard's African trips, this volume would be an excellent choice for the adventure traveler on your list. (Throw in Hemingway's Collected Stories for bonus points.)

A more serene adventure may be found in Monument (Arena Editions), Lynn Davis's tranquil, reverent photographs of some of the world's most extraordinary structures. Davis brings readers to icebergs in Greenland, pyramids in Egypt, and ruins in Greece, Syria, and Ethiopia. Having arrived at these destinations, she simply points toward the wonder -- like Ansel Adams, but less didactic. The resulting work is truly awesome.

Extraordinary structures are also the subject of Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect, by Robert McCarter (Phaidon), the best book in print about the best architect America has yet produced. McCarter proceeds through Wright's work chronologically, in essays and pictures. He's especially insightful about the formation of Wright's design philosophy and the architect's insistence on designing from the inside out (allowing the floor plan -- the space for living -- to dictate a building's internal structure). With hundreds of color photographs and black-and-white reproductions of floor plans, it's almost enough to inspire you to take your vacation in Pennsylvania, just to see Fallingwater.

Because we're all swingers now, Palm Springs Modern (Rizzoli) may turn out to be the most popular architecture book of the season. You've got to have a pretty ascetic heart not to ring-a-ding-ding for this one. In the jet-set getaway of the 1940s and '50s, all is palms and pools. The chapter on Frank Sinatra's house alone is worth the price of the book. He bought the house to celebrate making his first million (isn't that cute?); the swimming pool is shaped like a grand piano, and at noon the walkway at its base is filled with shadows in the form of piano keys. Of this house, Ava Gardner wrote in her autobiography: "It was the site of probably the most spectacular fight of our young married life, and honey, don't think I don't know that's really saying something."

For the person who wants it all, and wants it now, your gift-giving dilemma is solved: go with Century: One Hundred Years of Human Progress, Regression, Suffering, and Hope (Phaidon). Century is a selection of photographs of people and events from each year from 1899 to 1999, beginning with a poor Parisian street performer flinging her arms wide, and culminating in the horrors of Columbine and Kosovo. The contents of this book are engagingly eclectic -- glamour, news, and fine-art photography and movie and television stills are all included.

Another feast for the visual appetite is The American Art Book (Phaidon), part of the series that includes The Art Book and The Photography Book. One image and one explanatory paragraph represent each of several hundred American artists. All media are represented, from text (Jenny Holzer) to sculpture (Red Grooms). If I were a high-school student with ambitions to become a great artist and you gave me this book, you'd instantly become my favorite aunt, or uncle, or Mom's-boyfriend-whom-I-didn't-used-to-like-very-much, forever.

And if I were a college art-history student, my conversation increasingly breathy with the word "theory" and its variants, I would be flattered to the point of deadpan giddiness by the gift of Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade (Abrams). The design of this book is so hip that you can barely read the text. Its images are by turns ravishing, nonsensical, Loony Tune-y, and gross. Young British Art includes many of the works made famous by the scandalous "Sensation" show in Brooklyn, such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the shark in the tank of formaldehyde), by Damien Hirst, and The Holy Virgin Mary (the one with the elephant dung), by Chris Ofili. There is tremendous vitality in this group of artists. With the support of collector and advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, they took charge of the contemporary art world between 1987 and 1997, and, Giuliani be damned, their reign is not over yet.

The opposite of Young British Art is Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People (Abrams). A sure hit among the AARP set, this catalogue of a major Rockwell retrospective includes most of his extremely charming Saturday Evening Post and Boy's Life illustrations, and plenty of bittersweet Christmas fare. These images are interspersed with essays praising the illustrator for his accessibility, and also for his achievement of imagining a common heritage for an increasingly diverse American population. For a stocking stuffer, also keep in mind Norman Rockwell: A Pop-Up Art Experience (Universe). This sweet, well-designed pop-up book is a virtual tour of Rockwell's studio, New England landscapes and interiors, and the Rockwell museum in Stockbridge.

A less sentimental nostalgia trip is undertaken by photographer Richard Avedon and writer Doon Arbus in The Sixties (Random House). This collaborative effort, which was almost 40 years in the making, may stand as the definitive record of this wildly influential generation. Weaving photographs and interviews (Janis Joplin: "Meeting somebody and balling them . . . means something, but it doesn't mean near as much as it used to"), most of which are previously unpublished, The Sixties restores its eponymous subject to shocking power. Photographs of napalm victims' faces, Andy Warhol's shoes (and scars), and Catholic worker activist Dorothy Day hit me especially hard. Be careful if you give this to Mom or Dad, though. They might think you're actually starting to understand them.

Finally, if you're unafraid of understanding and being understood -- essential dynamics in the exchange of the best-chosen gifts -- consider Illustrated Letters: Artists and Writers Correspond (Abrams). This collection of letters and sketches by Balzac, Victor Hugo, Saint-Exupéry, Manet, Picasso, van Gogh, Magritte, and the Marquis de Sade, among others, is gorgeous, and goading, as great gifts often are -- gestures that make their recipients into the people they want to be, by treating them as if they already embodied their own ideals.

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