Best of Art & Culture
















Alphonse Mucha by Sarah Mucha (Frances Lincoln)

Practically every art and design student knows of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. Even those not so familiar with the man have undoubtedly seen his work. Watch just about any old 1970s television show and you'll probably spy a Mucha poster somewhere in the background. He's been copied, ripped-off and outright plagiarized. He's also inspired a league of artists and he epitomizes all that is fine and beautiful about the Art Nouveau style. Intricate and elegant interlaced designs, flowers and beautiful women are what he is most famous for, but he also created designs for theater posters, furniture, tableware, stained glass, menus, glassware and ceramics, jewelry, medals, stamps, money, interior design pieces, murals and sculpture. Mucha documents many of the works we have seen time and again -- though never grow tired of -- as well as a few of his lesser known pieces such as The Slav Epic, a series of murals painted between 1912 and 1928 depicting the beginnings of the Slavs. This is also a biography of Mucha and what we may not always be aware of in his work was his fierce political beliefs and devotion to his Czechoslovakian heritage. All this including some family photographs -- including a shot of a pantsless Paul Gauguin playing the harmonium -- combine to create a spectacular updated look at the master and his work. -- David Middleton

Chip Kidd: Work: 1986-2006 -- Book One by Chip Kidd (Rizzoli)

Readers of January Magazine might remember that I reviewed two books of Chip Kidd's in 2003. I raved then, but I still got it wrong. Chip Kidd's mastery of book jacket design isn't nearly as good as I said it was. In fact, it's immeasurably better. Book One collects every single jacket Kidd has designed in the last 19 years, a career retrospective that's at once eye-popping and mind-numbing in its fabulosity. While it offers up Kidd's own history in an irresistible, irreverent voice, it's the histories of the jackets -- and the hundreds of photographs that accompany them -- that make this book such a treasure. Here, you'll find the jackets, but in some cases also the early drafts of them. Kidd isn't afraid to talk about what didn't work as earnestly as he talks about what did. The missteps are fascinating and most designers would be delighted to have made such stellar mistakes. To attempt to describe in words what these pieces do in a glance would be tantamount to murder in the first degree, so I won't. What I will say is that this book, which seems meant to be a curiosity -- after all, a book of book jackets, celebrating (of all things) a book jacket designer? -- turns out to be a book of the highest quality art. Yes, it's of its time, as much as the books themselves are, but they're also timeless and lasting portraits of us and our time. Kidd has a way of spelunking into the heart of a book, then isolating a representational image in such a way as to telegraph the very soul of the book to everyone who considers buying it. If a book jacket is meant, at some level, to be an ad for a book (albeit one that accompanies it forever), Kidd elevates this simple job. In his hands, the jacket becomes filter, totem, spouse, soul mate. In his hands, sometimes, the jacket can outshine the book it hugs. In his hands, the jacket becomes the thing to display, never mind the book beneath it. Once upon a time, book jackets were there to keep the dust off. As often as not they were discarded, so why put any real effort into their design? Hell, you couldn't even tell a book by one. But today, authors with clout bind Kidd to their books in contracts. Today, a book's jacket telegraphs whether it is to be taken Seriously. Today, while a Kidd jacket won't make a book a bestseller, it certainly makes a book more interesting from the very first glimpse, an object to be admired even before you start reading. All I can is: Wow. Here's looking at you, Kidd. And thanks for all the fun. -- Tony Buchsbaum

A Fine Romance: The Magic. The Mayhem. The Musicals by Darcie Denkert (Watson-Guptill)

Anyone who's ever seen a Hollywood musical pretty much needs to run out and grab this great and great-big book about musicals, both the Broadway and Hollywood varieties. As the title suggests, A Fine Romance celebrates the oft-inspired yet oft-rocky marriage between the two, in which inspired versions produced in one medium can be absolutely tedious in the other (such as, say, Hello, Dolly!), and in which versions produced in both media can be sumptuous (such as, say, My Fair Lady). Of course, sometimes great stage musicals are drawn from nonmusical Hollywood originals -- such as Sunset Boulevard and The Producers, which was of course a nonmusical film about a Broadway musical, then a stage musical and now a brand new musical film. A Fine Romance, covers just about every major musical milestone between the two: those mentioned above as well as Gypsy, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Cabaret, Chicago and Mame, to name just a few. A few brilliant stars, a few clunkers, but all musicals at some point, and all fodder for this well-written book. Denkert's text examines each show's development -- how did it get where it got? -- and exposes all their various key moments, both large and small, both friendly and not-so. How did, for example, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion become Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady? Why was Eliza Doolittle played by Julie Andrews on the stage and by Audrey Hepburn on film? This sort of thing apparently happened a lot: Carol Channing played Dolly Levi on stage and Barbra Streisand played her on film; Barbara Harris played Daisy Gamble in the stage version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and Streisand got the film role. How did Liza Minnelli get the party of Sally in Cabaret? How did Auntie Mame become Mame? This book answers all these questions and countless others. And it does so with text that runs around and between vintage production and backstage photographs and film stills that fans will positively drool over. A Fine Romance, yes. A fine book, to be sure. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Humble Masterpieces by Paola Antonelli (Regan Books/HarperCollins)

Paola Antonelli is the curator of the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Architecture and Design. Which means she knows what looks good, what feels good and what works. This bewitching little book presents 100 objects you've likely never given much thought to -- even though you should -- and explains how they came to be. Things like M&Ms (why the candy shell?), fortune cookies (they're not Chinese), condoms, marbles, matchsticks, dominoes, Dixie cups, Swiss Army Knives, chewing gum, flat-bottom paper bags, pushpins, flip-flops ... I could go on and on. So could Antonelli, but she doesn't. Each item gets just two pages, one with an extreme close-up photo, and one for text. And that's just enough. I mean, who needs more than a couple hundred words on a potato peeler? Know what I mean? But those couple hundred words are perfect, as are the words for each and every item here. Fact is, Francesco Mosto's stunning photography and Antonelli's brevity do something other books so seldom do: Simply, cleverly, humbly, they leave you wanting more. --Tony Buchsbaum

Inspired Shapes: Contemporary Designs for Japan's Ancient Crafts by Ori Koyama (Kodansha)

Peaceful is the word that comes to mind whenever I look at books on Japanese art, whether it's ancient or contemporary design. Perhaps its the simplicity of the work or the way an artist hones down the piece to a form that is almost entirely free of extraneous bits. Ori Koyama's Inspired Shapes does this as beautifully as any book I've seen. Both the book and the designs contained within are designed to focus the viewer. Shedding all that is unnecessary until all you have is all you need. Highlighting the work of several designers and artisans -- table, chairs, cutlery, bowls, lamps, textiles and the like -- Koyama leads us through a world that is decidedly modern and yet always rooted in the past. Working in a diverse range of traditional materials, Inspired Shapes showcases bamboo, wood, stone glass metal and paper in ways that are both strange and familiar and representing the new "Arts and Crafts" movement currently finding a resurgence in Japan. Photographed with simple and bold elegance, Inspired Shapes is a beautiful and inspiring book celebrating craftsmanship, art and heritage. -- David Middleton

The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants by Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury)

Even though, considering this author's publishing history, it was not unexpected,The Naming of Names took my breath away. Anna Pavord gave us the incomparably beautiful The Tulip back in 1999, a book that looked at a very ordinary plant and made it -- quite simply -- extraordinary. Truly: it was a beautiful, fascinating and utterly complete book. One could only wonder what Pavord might do to top it. Wonder no more. The Naming of Names is similar to that earlier tome, and completely different. It's similar in that Pavord has once again brought her considerable expertise and talent to a topic not many of us think a great deal about. This time, however, she's looking at something a lot less ordinary as well as a topic much broader in scope: how, through the fullness of time and many people's passion and caring, the world of plants came to have its orders. Or rather, how all the grand cacophony of the earth's various species and subspecies of plants came to be sorted as we know them today. While that doesn't sound like particularly engaging reading, in this author's hands, it really, really is. Pavord takes us through the ages to visit with the movers and shakers of botanical history. As you might suspect, Pavord's story is as strong on human elements as it is on natural ones. The result is unforgettable. -- Sienna Powers

Weirdo Deluxe: The World of Pop Surrealism & Lowbrow Art by Matt Dukes Jordan (Chronicle Books 2005)

Weirdo Deluxe collects the work of 23 of weird-doms best and slams them cheek to jowl. If you thought just one of these artists' works were strange, then turning from page to page finds you skipping past a horny Betty Rubble (my personal favorite), sailors, hypochondria, dancing, surrealist Disney, strange automotive nightmares, a shotgun wielding man in a bunny suit and a squid in a Pope hat. So what exactly is weird? I suppose it would depend on who you talk to. To me weird is that feeling you get in your stomach when an elevator starts its decent. Weird is that Irish kid who sat behind me in fifth grade who ate packets of ketchup and could fart on command. Weird is the plot to Eraserhead (or any David Lynch movie). Apart from being considered weird, the artwork in Weirdo Deluxe is is also downright fascinating. To see how another person views the world, whether it be warped, perverted or odd is not only a look into someone else's psyche, it's a look into your own. A Heironomous Bosch sensibility for the new millennium. Taking us on a candy colored ride that, in the end, may leave some of us wishing that we hadn't eaten all those JubeJubes beforehand, Weirdo Deluxe is in turns frenetic, socially odd and physiologically disturbing -- and sometimes all three at once -- but never, ever boring. The great thing about this kind of art is how it attracts us by its basicness. Certainly not basic in the way the art is rendered; one look at Todd Schorr's, Joe Coleman's or Skot Olsen's complex compositions tells you that this is far from stick figures and finger-painting. In fact many of the artists featured in Weirdo Deluxe cite classical artists as inspiration. My one and only problem with Weirdo Deluxe is that there is not enough of it. Wandering through the short portfolios of each artist just makes you want to see what else they have hidden away in the odd corners of their minds. Sex, cars, drugs, dancing, pop culture and evil clowns. How could you not love a book like that? -- David Middleton

Wordplay: The Philosophy, Art, and Science of Ambigrams by John Langdon (Ballantine Books)

Back in 1992, I spotted an intriguing little book called Wordplay by some guy named Langdon. Then I picked the book up and fell in love. The Wordplay I'm discussing here is a revision of that earlier work, and I'm delighted to report that it's among the Best of 2005 (as the original was, for me, in 1992). John Langdon is a designer and teacher who lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Some years ago, taking full advantage of the vagaries of typography, he came up with a way to make words and phrases legible right-side up and upside down -- and called them ambigrams. One and all, they are mind-blowing mini-masterpieces. (Check out the book's cover. Its title is an ambigram, and so is the author's name.) Now, the name "Langdon" might ring a bell; it's name of the hero in Dan Brown's Angels & Demons. John Langdon did the ambigrams in that book, and Brown became such a fan that he named his hero after the artist, then brought him back famously in The DaVinci Code. The Angels ambigrams are here, but they are only a few of the many examples of the work that have made Langdon's name practically a household word. Read Dan Brown's introduction, and then get lost in the word "philosophy," in the way the Ph in one direction becomes the hy in the other. Study "gravity" and marvel at how the g becomes the y, and how in "spirals" the p becomes the al. You won't believe your eyes, believe me. In the new color plates at the book's center, Langdon offers more word-bending art, including the word you embedded in the word me, the name Joyce embedded in the word James, and the positive/negative space that forms the phrase "optical illusion." As if the art wasn't enough, Langdon also includes brief but astute essays that elaborate on the themes named by the words themselves. All told, this is one those books you'll go back to -- and be amazed by -- again and again. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The X List: The National Society of Film Critics' Guide to the Movies That Turn Us On edited by Jami Bernard (Da Capo)

Despite a somewhat confusing -- perhaps even misleading -- title, The X List is an anthology that film buffs will enjoy. While some of the writing here is provocative, The X List is a book you can take anywhere, filled with some of the best contemporary writing on film (though not necessarily contemporary film) that you're likely to find. Edited by New York Daily News' film maven Jami Bernard, The X List's contributors are 40 of the better known members of the National Society of Film Critics. The thing that any viewer finds hot in a film, Bernard tells us, is indefinable and individual. It's specific. It's to her credit that she does not, with this anthology, even take a stab at the definition. Rather she guides us through some really great writing on film collected around a topic most people never get tired of exploring. -- Monica Stark

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