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On the Coffee Table 

Titillation, titillation, titillation — and Julius shulman

Wednesday, Dec 9 1998
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"What good is a book," wondered Lewis Carroll’s Alice, "without pictures or conversations?" These days, publishers of coffee-table books seem to be taking Alice to heart — and beyond, wrapping their heavy-priced covers around pictures designed to create conversations, or at least heavy breathing. Maybe they’re trying to compete with the Internet and its ubiquitous titillation, or maybe they just recognize a good, or bad, thing when they see it. In any case, several of this holiday season’s crop do seem to have been designed with downloading in mind.

Fashion photographer Sante d’Orazio’s A Private View: Photographs and Diary (Penguin Studio, New York; $30), a paperback compendium of classic cheesecake with literally marginal commentary, seems to have only one destiny: to be scanned by one group and ogled by another. Here, the only celebutante to escape with her shirt on seems to be Julia Roberts — Cameron Diaz in a see-through blouse doesn’t count. (One can only wish that Julian Schnabel had shown her restraint.) Véronique Vial’s Women Before 10 a.m. (powerHouse Books, New York; $45) is a classic of what an art-history teacher of mine once referred to as the "erotic Frigidaire," i.e., sexy in name only. As a follow-up to her previous book, Men Before 10 a.m., Vial visited fetching starlet types in the wee hours of the morning, when they just happened to be in the shower, or lounging in various states of deshabille ("Deborah was surrounded by a mosquito net and looked like a mermaid in her seaweed tent!!" "Colleen is not afraid to get her expensive panther mules soaked while washing her dogs!!") FYI: powerHouse Books "strives to implicate the role of books as the acme of the inverted cultural pyramid of popular entertainment." Just goes to show.

With its surly S/M wenches, all chain-wielding and leather-clad, dildos at the ready, Doris Kloster’s Forms of Desire (St. Martin’s Press, New York; $45) deviates somewhat from the "I’m so happy to face the day in my g-string" model. In spite of its almost uniformly cheesy black-and-white shots, this book has its merits: In its inadvertent miscalculations (bad lighting, bad Hoboken-glam set design, bad underwear), Kloster’s imagery approaches something like real eroticism, which has nothing whatsoever to do with perfection.

To wit: Jan Saudek’s photograph of a bushy-haired young woman in a tiara, her arms wrapped around her back at such an angle that they seem to have disappeared, her teeth coyly pulling up the front of her black sweater, just enough so that the curve of her breasts can be seen. This image, dating from 1972, appears on the cover of a brand-new monograph on the Czech photographer Jan Saudek (Taschen, Cologne; $30) who, in the 1970s, famously withdrew into the decaying basement of his home. There, he obsessively posed the men and women in his life (rouged and powdered, swathed in rags or festooned with flowers) in tableaux vivants that conjure an X-rated Renaissance Faire. This work comes straight out of an era when the representation of the nude body was somehow thought to be a revolutionary act, which is to say, it’s dated but still surprisingly powerful, even moving — especially considering Saudek’s decades-long political struggles with the Czech authorities.

Back on the home front, more or less (if you’re shopping for someone named Snake, say) there’s American Bikers (te Neues Publishing Company, New York; $40), with photographs of frequently shirtless American bikers by "Sandro" (who seems to have been born as Sandro Miller). I learned something from this book: Tattoos look surprisingly attractive on beer bellies (see the portrait of Munch Delaney).

For the teenage Goth-rocker, you could do worse than The End Is Near! (Dilettante Press, Los Angeles; $50), the "largest collection of visionary art ever assembled on the subjects of Apocalypse, Millennium and Utopia." Accompanied by essays by everyone from Harvard University’s Stephen Jay Gould, to nihilist hipster Adam Parfrey, to Richard Gere’s friend His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, this collection of self-taught art is actually rather spectacular. Howard Finster’s claustrophobic "sermons in paint" are here, and so too are Frank Bruno’s crimson-tinged nightmares, which look like they’re channeling Bosch by way of Antz. Philip Travers’ work, though, is the revelation: a series of alternately advertising-, textbook- and cocktail napkin–style drawings that document the heretofore unknown connections between Alice in Wonderland, King Tut and Travers’ mysterious alter ego Travaire."

A fractionally older audience with a penchant for raves, pomegranates, dissolute German boys named Jochen and/or Kate Moss might go for Wolfgang Tillmans Burg (Taschen, Cologne; $30). With a somewhat over-the-top essay by critic David Deitcher (is it really necessary to ponder literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov here?), this is a handsome collection of smart pseudo-snapshots by a Zeitgeister who first gained recognition in the pages of British magazines like The Face and I.D. Despite claims to the contrary, Tillmans is a fashion photographer (a great one) — even when he doesn’t mean to be, as in the shot of someone in white jeans exposing himself on an airplane, with his breakfast tray on his lap, for godsakes. This is the sort of ad Levi’s should run to win back their market share.

When all is bared and done, though, it’s frankly a relief to get back to the classic fantasies found in three new architecture books. Icons of Architecture: The 20th Century, edited by Sabine Thiel-Siling (Prestel, Munich; $30) takes a sort of Cliff’s Notes approach, with photographs and capsule texts of about nearly 100 of this century’s most important buildings (a quick read will make you a smarter person). Published to accompany an upcoming exhibition at MOCA, At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture, edited by Russell Ferguson (MOCA and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Los Angeles and New York; $65), while bland design-wise and dauntingly serious (do the two always have to go together?), is an invaluable and copiously illustrated resource. Julius Shulman: Architecture and Its Photography (Taschen, Cologne; $40), however, fully exploits the lure of the modern. For those addicted to the retro mod stylings of the British design mag of the moment, wallpaper*, Shulman’s sleek photographs of Southern California’s crystalline modernist architecture — i.e., the real thing — will be pure eye-candy. Shulman was a master of stagecraft: The right table meets the right Eames chair, with the right drooping rhododendron illuminated by the right lighting scheme. Never content to let the architect do the talking, Shulman cleared houses as if they were sets, allowing people to appear, draped across sofas or lounging at the pool, only where they were sculpturally appropriate. His aesthetic has become our fantasy of gracious, postwar, Western living, pressed under glass and utterly irresistible.

Susan Kandel is editor of art/text, and was one of the contributors to the coffee-table book CREAM: Contemporary Art in Culture (Phaidon, London; $45).

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