In Plain Sight: Coffee Table Books with Beauty and Brains

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By Stuart Mitchner

The accepted wisdom is that books from academic publishers are too learned and weighty (in the wrong way) to be displayed on a certain piece of living room furniture. Two exceptions to the seasonal rule of show over substance, as wise as they are bold and beautiful, come from university presses: Stacey Sell and Hugo Chapman’s Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns ($49.95) from Princeton, and Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee ($34.95) from Rutgers.

Compared to the lavishly costumed usual suspects appearing just in time for holiday buyers, the tomes featured here can be seen as tributes to the taste and intelligence of both the giver and the receiver. Rather than associating yourself with the glamour buzz of some trendy subject, you can make known, in plain sight, your acquaintance with Leonardo and Jasper Johns, Walden Pond and Wounded Knee. Look inside Drawing in Silver and Gold and you find images of almost unreal beauty from the Middle Ages to the present created by master draftsmen using a rarely appreciated medium central to the history of drawing. Look inside Writing America and you find a scholar who, according to Erica Jong, “writes like an angel” about the “diversity and humor of the American spirit,” including not only familiar figures like Whitman and Twain, but Jewish, Mexican and Asian American writers, and luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance.

Choosing a Cover

One of the most visually stunning, elegantly packaged books of the season, Drawing in Silver and Gold balances its elite production values with the companionable appeal of its cover image, a detail from Albrecht Dürer’s silverpoint print, A Dog Resting (1520). There are other drawings throughout the text that might have served as well, including Joseph Edward Southall’s lovely Head of a Girl (1899), with its pre-Raphaelite glamour, and Leonardo’s Bust of a Warrior, “one of the most widely admired drawings in the history of art,” which was “executed in the late 1470s in Florence,” according to Stacey Sell’s introduction. Facing the introduction— haunting it, you could say —is another Head of a Girl, this one by Alphonse Legros (1885), after Raphael.

John Woodworth’s cover photo for Writing America draws you into the deep perspective of a luxuriant view reflecting David Bradley’s claim that Fisher-Fishkin “takes American literature out of the library” and Hal Holbrook’s celebration of a book that “cuts straight to the soul of America in all its shades and colors.” Published on the eve of the 50th anniversary year of the Historic Preservation Act, Writing America covers over 150 National Register historic sites, from plantations to immigration stations; from theaters to internment camps; from the New York tenements of Abraham Cahan’s fiction to the fields of the farm workers central to Gloria Anzaldúa’s poetry.

Human Nature

No less a figure than Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) understood the importance of keeping works of intellectual and aesthetic merit in plain sight, thus dispensing with the stigma that can be traced all the way back to a 1580 piece, “Upon the Verses of Virgil,” in which he’s vexed to think that his Essays may “only serve the ladies for a common movable, a book to lay in the parlor window.”

Any observer of human nature, from Montaigne to the late Oliver Sacks, would understand the holiday appeal of Charlotte Mullins’s Picturing People: The New State of the Art (Thames & Hudson $40) and Humans of New York: Stories (St. Martin’s $29.99) by photographer Brandon Stanton, whose project to create a photographic cross-section of New York City, with accompanying interviews, evolved into the blog Humans of New York, which grew from a few hundred followers to over fifteen million.

In an effort to understand what drives artists to represent people as they do, Charlotte Mullins provides profiles of nearly sixty creative figures, from Kara Walker and Grayson Perry to Cindy Sherman and Kehinde Wiley. Picturing People is organized into five thematic sections that reflect motivations ranging from the investigation of the history of art itself to exploring interpersonal relationships. According to Publishers Weekly, “Mullins’s astute overview pairs powerfully with the selected images, offering a perceptive argument for the enduring range and power of figuration into the 21st century.”

9781250058904_p0_v10_s192x300It’s impossible to simply browse through the picture stories in Stanton’s newly published sequel to Humans of New York, where the comments of the people in the photos can be as compelling as the photos themselves: “I hated God for a long time,” “I kissed a woman yesterday,” “This is getting too personal,” “I don’t believe in anything,” and from the male half of an old couple, “She still gets giddy when she sees a firefly.” Clearly, this is not a book to consign to a parlor window or leave unopened on a coffee table. If anything, this slice of urban humanity circa 2015 covers a range Montaigne himself (“A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband”) would appreciate. No wonder the first published incarnation of Stanton’s blog landed on the 2013 NY Times Bestseller list and stayed there for 45 weeks.

A graphic work with similar ambitions is Jason Polan’s Every Person in New York (Chronicle Books $24.95), in which the artist draws people eating at Taco Bell, admiring paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, and sleeping on the subway. Says New York Magazine, “Thumb through a copy to find sketches and scrawled captions of New Yorkers waiting in line, subway riders, famous faces, and, if you’ve been to New York City in the last seven years, maybe even yourself.”

Another book on New York, an all but inevitable subject during the holiday season, is Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks (Monicelli Press $50), which could be an companion volume to Writing America, with essays from prominent New York figures, preservationists, and architects, and imagery by architectural photographer Iwan Baan.

The Edge of Exile

Ai Weiwei would be a human subject of great interest even if he were not also an artist, designer, architect, author, publisher, curator, and dissident. He and his family were exiled to a remote region of China for 16 years. Following the death of Chairman Mao, he studied his craft in Beijing and New York. With works that touch on topics such as imprisonment, borders, and disaster, he has often found himself in conflict with the Chinese authorities.

Ai Weiwei (Royal Academy $75) is published to coincide with this fall’s major exhibition at the Royal Academy in London—the largest showing of his work to date. Edited by Tim Marlow, John Tancock, Daniel Rosbottom, and Adrian Locke, the volume includes installations and artworks specially created for the exhibition, an interview with Ai Weiwei by Tim Marlow, and contributions from a team of scholars.

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Dürer’s Dog

I keep coming back to Dürer’s drawing, A Dog Resting. While the images of people in Drawings in Silver and Gold are dressed in the fashion or habit of the period, Dürer’s dog could be sitting by a Christmas hearth in 2015 or 1315. Its dignity is for the ages, beyond human notions of giving and receiving elegant books for special occasions. In his Apology for Raymond Sebond, Montaigne, who was born thirteen years after the date assigned to Dürer’s dog, considers “presumption …our natural and original disease. The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man, and withal the proudest,” for he “withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions, and distributes to them portions of faculties and force, as himself thinks fit. How does he know, by the strength of his understanding, the secret and internal motions of animals?—from what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them? When I play with my cat, who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me? We mutually divert one another with our play. If I have my hour to begin or to refuse, she also has hers.”

And so we humans mutually divert one another with our gifts and our occasions and our displays.