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Art Attack 

Big books for big eyes

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
THE ART WORLD NODS OFF IN THE SUMMER, then springs back to life with a roar in September. Publishers of art books live by the same calendar, and their fall line is upon us. The best of the new books thus far is a catalog from the exhibition "Drawn From Artists' Collections" (published by the Drawing Center, $35, 128 pages). It was published in April, so it's not exactly new, but it didn't start turning up on local coffee tables until July, when the exhibition of the same name opened at the Hammer Museum (it continues there through September 26). Organized at New York's Drawing Center by Jack Shear and Ann Philbin, the Hammer's newly installed director, the show is a selection of drawings from the private collections of 18 artists.

This simple premise is enormously rewarding for the insight it offers into the minds of the artist-collectors, to say nothing of the staggering quality of many of the works. Jasper Johns, for instance, has the privilege of owning choice pieces by Cézanne, Seurat and Odilon Redon. Eric Fischl has three sketches by Gustav Klimt, Terry Winters owns a stunningly odd 1880 drawing by James Ensor, and Brice Marden has an extraordinary Franz Kline. Completed in 1948, the field of feathery black calligraphic marks is decidedly different from the fat slabs of paint Kline is known for. The show features an abundance of backroom oddities of this sort, and if you can't get to the Hammer to see it, the catalog is a reasonable substitute. It includes an essay by the redoubtable Robert Storr (curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art), and it's a splendid book.

A deluge of photography books is hitting the shelves, and among the best of them is Michael Ackerman's End Time City, a photographic essay on Benares, India (Scalo, $50, 135 pages). Seemingly untouched by the 20th century, Benares is a city of pilgrimage, a holy place where people go to die and be cremated, and the line that separates the living from the dead there is hard to locate. Benares pivots on a surreal juxtaposition of violence and beauty, and Ackerman captures it all: the roiling sea of faces, the ubiquitous outstretched palm, packs of dogs racing through the streets, the hunger and exhaustion of poverty, vultures devouring a dead cow, a shamelessly naked man walking down a city street, the piercing gaze of the holy men, a naked child staring at a corpse in the shallows of the Ganges. These are very tough pictures, and Ackerman must have had the unflappable nerve of a combat photographer in order to make them.

William Eggleston has been hailed as America's great master of color photography since he debuted with a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976. Last year he won the Hasselblad Foundation's International Award in Photography, and to commemorate the event, the foundation has published William Eggleston: The Hasselblad Award 1998 (Scalo, $42.50, 127 pages), a volume of Eggleston's greatest hits, along with some bonus cuts. (The artist is wildly prolific, so it was undoubtedly no sweat for him to dig into his vast archive and toss out a few new pictures.) Anyone familiar with Eggleston's work will recognize many of these images: photographs of Graceland in Memphis, where Eggleston lives; a wealthy white Southerner standing in a field with his black valet; a naked light bulb in a red room; a muddy patch of land; a freezer crammed with food and in need of defrosting. There are lots of old â favorites here, along with several previously unpublished pictures that make the book worth tracking down.

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Anthology of the Photography of Africa and the Indian Ocean (Éditions Revue Noire, $85, 432 pages) is a big, fat book that looks inviting, but on opening it you'll be dismayed to find that the text is only in French. Quel problème! Then again, this is a book of images, so it's not an insurmountable obstacle. What is disappointing, however, is that you expect a survey of Africa's recent history depicted photographically, and what you get is exactly what the title promises: a chronicle of Africa's relatively limited photographic traditions, which revolve for the most part around portraiture. There's a substantial amount of intriguing work here, yet it's an oddly unsatisfying book -- and would be, I suspect, even for someone fluent in French.

David Redfern's The Unclosed Eye (Sanctuary Publishing, $30, 176 pages) goes beyond unsatisfying and sails easily into the downright-annoying category. A British artist who's photographed musicians for more than 40 years, Redfern allots less space to his pictures than to his insufferably smug autobiographical text, which tells us loads about the compulsively name-dropping artist and precious little about the people he photographed. An incredible shot of Anita O'Day is printed tiny, for instance, so that Redfern has room to tell us what kind of lens he was using in 1961. Redfern has taken gorgeous pictures of several jazz greats, including Miles Davis and Ben Webster, but he talks too much.

  • Big books for big eyes

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