Books for Holiday Gifts, Part 2

Part two of Andrea Kirsh’s annual roundup of the best art books is here, and includes two intriguing selections, one on abstract art and the second on counterfeits and hoaxes in the world of art. ‘art! Andrea says these books are perfect for those interested in 20th and 21st century abstraction and for those who enjoy mysteries or detective stories. Be sure to check out “Holiday Books Part 1” if you missed it!

Pepe Karmel “Abstract Art: A World History” (2020)

Cover of the book, Pepe Karmel “Abstract Art: A Global History” (Thames and Hudson, London: 2020) ISBN 978-0-500-23958-2. Courtesy of Thames and Hudson.

This carefully designed and beautifully produced book offers an original and valuable way to approach the abstraction of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is written in an engaging manner that speaks to the author’s long teaching experience. Rather than tracing abstraction as a successive progression of renunciation, he traces its origins in many subjects that artists have always addressed. Karmel begins: “Abstract art is always rooted in the real world experience…. the true history of abstract art is not just a story of formal innovations; abstract art also offers a series of responses to social, political and cultural changes. It covers a range of sources under the headings of bodies, landscapes, cosmologies, architectures and signs and motifs. The book opens with a thoughtful introduction to abstraction that includes the evolution of critical approaches to the subject. Short essays explain how the artists approach each of the proposed sources, but most of the book is devoted to several hundred examples, each discussed and illustrated by full-page color plates.

Karmel points out that he is not proposing a new canon, but opens the discussion. Nor does it create a comprehensive history of abstraction. It takes a post-colonial approach that examines the specifics of each artist’s situation as well as the ideas they have in common, and pays equal attention to the work of trained and untrained artists. One of the challenges in understanding abstraction is that many of its implications are easily lost when works leave their original territory. Similar formal means have expressed a wide variety of ideas, and forms that had been well established in Europe or the United States may be both radical and timely elsewhere. While Karmel’s examples are skewed toward the New York collections (academics never have a global travel budget), the artwork is deeply international, and the volume includes many artists who had not been previously considered by mainstream writers and publishers. This book will be invaluable to the general public and to students, and the diversity of the examples will also make it interesting for many specialist readers.

In the section on Inspirational Map and Graphics Art, Karmel discusses Kathleen Petyarre (Australia, circa 1938-2018) and her choice to paint in acrylics after the medium was introduced by a teacher who worked in its native community of Utopia; Petyarre had become allergic to the dyes she used for textiles, so she switched to painting. Its designs came from family legends, the local landscape and wildlife, and its dot language came from the traditional body painting of its community used in ceremonies. A spare woodcut by Zarina (India / US, 1937-2020) consists of a single line that winds diagonally across an open plan. Its form is the line drawn to separate India and Pakistan in 1947, which created massive exile and bloody consequences; armed conflict and exile were central topics for Zarina’s work. Mark Bradford (United States, b.1961) found the first materials for his collages in the rolling papers at his mother’s beauty salon, then on the streets of his neighborhood in Los Angeles. Its forms reflect city plans and their demographic markings, and its subjects include the evolution of inner-city communities and their oversight by government and police.

Pepe Karmel “Abstract Art: A Global History” (Thames and Hudson, London: 2020)
ISBN 9780500239582. Thames and Hudson |

Antoinette LaFarge “Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax and Provocation” (2021)

Book cover, "Sting in the Tale: art, hoax and provocation" by Antoinette LaFarge, with a photo of a crumpled red satin fabric with faded flowers on top.
Cover of the book, Antoinette LaFarge “Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax and Provocation (Doppelhouse Press, Los Angeles: 2021) ISBN 978-1-7339579-5-3. Courtesy of Doppelhouse Press

Antoinette LaFarge is interested in forgeries, hoaxes and deceptions, and this book will appeal to readers who enjoy detective stories and mysteries as well as anyone who enjoys good stories, although many of these LaFarge tales are of a questionable veracity. His subjects include photographs of fairies, A field guide to surreal botany, the skeleton of a centaur, and a host of unlikely organizations such as the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and the Society for Nebulous Knowledge, and research projects including the Speculative dinosaur project and the Institute of Militronics and Advanced Temporal Intervention. His research spans from the classical period to the present day.

LaFarge explores a range of what she calls “fictional art” that developed since the 1960s and expanded in the 1980s. The works have not gained attention as a genre and employ various formats. All involve deception, with the artist often playing a role in verifying the fiction as well as producing artifacts that reinforce the story. Some invent artists or other characters, others claim scientific discoveries (fictitious zoology, paleontology, archeology), or even institutions, associations, movements and even nations. By exploring fictional art, she is interested in works rarely considered in relation to one another. These include the “Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles” by Marcel Broodthaers (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles), performances by Andrea Fraser as a museum guide, projects by Walid Raad of “The Atlas Group” and the “Museum of Jurassic Technology.

A paradigmatic work is Beauvais Lyon’s “Association de zoologiecrive”, founded in 1908, says Lyons, and devoted to the “zoomorphic junction” – the idea that unrelated species could produce offspring – as opposed to the Darwinian evolution. Lyons backs up the story with biblical quotes and taxidermic specimens of “divine collage”: a raccoon crow, a groundhogfish and a gorilla hen as well as lithographs which are heartwarming in their resemblance to 19th century scientific illustrations . He showed the work at the annual John Scopes Trial Festival in Dayton, Tennessee, where it attracts responses from Darwin supporters and opponents.

Spades in the tale is a serious study by an scholar and practitioner, but LaFarge’s examples encompass such an intriguing spectrum that the book will pique the curiosity of many culturally curious readers. It will certainly be of interest to artists and others concerned with questions of the ethical obligations of artists to their audiences, the authority of museums to establish artefacts as art and verify their authenticity, the role of educational institutions in the production of official stories and the possibilities of art as cultural criticism.

Antoinette LaFarge “Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax and Provocation” (Doppelhouse Press, Los Angeles: 2021) ISBN 9781733957953. Doppelhouse press |

Be sure to check out “Holiday Books Part 1”!

Print of a fictional archaeological work of art of an Egyptian style cat riding a woman whose arms and legs are wrapped around the cat.
Beauvais Lyons Codex Création Apasht Plate VII, a 1982 lithograph of a bas-relief fragment. Image courtesy of the Hokes Archives.

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