The Coffee Table, Revisited

Tom Knechtel’s oil paintings are spellbinding. In On Wanting To Grow Horns: The Little Theater of Tom Knechtel (Fellows of Contemporary Art, 128 pages, $45), time disjoints as one lingers, childlike, over his cornucopia of visual delights, his phantasmagoric bestiary, his promiscuous hallucinations, his ecstatic lyricism. In Lessons in the Theatre: Ejaculations, a transparent rhinocerosunicorn, his muscular heart wrapped in ribbon, has his eyes stung by a multitude of wasps as he ejaculates a spray of flowery semen that doubles as a horizon line for a miniature forest and town. Elsewhere in the piece, a monkey tips his hat, a griffin dances beneath a velvet theater curtain, a duck and squirrel kiss, and a gluttonous burgomaster says, ”Peace, crying crocodile!“ Past the boundary of the painting, two grappling wrestlers hang from an actual metal signpost.

This truly marvelous art catalog, which accompanies Knechtel‘s midcareer retrospective currently exhibiting at the Ben Maltz Gallery, is a rich and teeming book: In addition to the 60 glorious color plates and the numerous black-and-white ones, the book includes essays by Ron Platt and Anne Ayres, a prose response (penis-meditation? Diatribe? Dialectical-pornography?) by Benjamin Weissman, a commissioned poem by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard and a poem by Amy Gerstler. Knechtel (who, I later learned, is also a Weekly staffer) has influences from such sources as Theatre du Soleil, kabuki, Alice in Wonderland, 18th-century zoological prints, Hieronymus Bosch, ’50s and ‘60s Disney animation and, most recently, the Kathakali theater of southern India. These multifarious elements fuse to form a splendid circus of allegorical abundance.

The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which began in 1858 with the private collection of Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter, has grown into a strange and sublime assortment of medical and anatomical displays. Within the museum’s walls rest the 7-foot, 6-inch skeleton of an anonymous Kentucky man (the tallest human skeleton on display in North America), the connected liver of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, an X-ray of a toy battleship lodged in the esophagus of an infant, the wax model head of Madame Dimanche who, at the age of 76, began to grow a 9.8-inch horn from the center of her skull, and many other such curiosities and aberrations of the human body.

Mutter Museum (Blast, 192 pages, $35) the book is not a straightforward presentation of the museum‘s collections, but rather an assortment of photographs shot by contemporary artists, interspersed with medical photographs kept in the museum’s archives. The result is, fittingly, a rather freakish book, both in subject matter and in organization. Some of the artistic inclinations seem a tad misguided, even melodramatic; the most grotesque example is when William Wegman‘s ubiquitous (and insufferable) mutts pose in a few photos while human remains act as mere props for his doggy fashion show. However, despite the book’s peculiar mode of presentation, the cumulative effect of these images subtly deforms one‘s own sense of corporeality and self. Staring at ”Multiple Enchodroma in a Male,“ a 19th-century photo of a 20-year-old man with bulbous hands larger than his head, it’s hard not to notice your own fingers (intricate and tenuous flesh) gently turning the pages.

Charm and poise commingle in Photographic Memory (Powerhouse, 160 pages, $65), a collection of William Claxton‘s personal anecdotes and black-and-white photography. As a young photographer at UCLA in the early ’50s, Claxton began photographing musicians in the city‘s ascendant jazz scene, and many of these images are inseparable from the identities of their subjects, such as his astonishing shots of the young Chet Baker.

From the recording studios, Claxton moved easily onto the sets and sound stages of Hollywood, and from there into the lives and homes of some of the most intriguing personalities of the last 50 years. His visual acuity and generosity are apparent in every image, most of which have never before been published: Igor Stravinsky in the midst of a lascivious laugh, Marlene Dietrich in the dressing room, Steve McQueen warming himself by a fire, Andy Warhol slumped and uncomfortable on a couch, Peggy Moffitt (Claxton’s wife) with an impish smile on a windy Malibu beach -- Claxton‘s photographs dull the edge of the sharpest cynic’s blade, and leave behind a blend of nostalgia and beauty.

Like a beautiful photo book, the best reference books can draw you into their pages with something like enchantment. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, almanacs . . . spread lazily on a coffee table, cold hard facts assume an almost aesthetic appeal. The updated fourth edition of The New York Public Library Desk Reference (Hyperion, 999 pages, $35) is perhaps the most diverse (not to mention startling and pleasurable) single volume of information in the English language.

Yes, there are myriad pragmatic and applicable facts in the book: how to carve a turkey, help your dog if he goes into shock, or draw up a bill of sale. Sure, you might actually need to know where to put the oyster fork on a properly set dining table, how to write distress signals for passing planes (beware ”LL,“ which means ”All‘s Well!“), or discover who exactly the Angry Young Men of Literature were. Still, the true joy of the NYPLDR lies in its leisurely uselessness, the smorgasbord of delectable knowledge (Saint Raymund Nonnatus is the patron saint of the ”falsely accused,“ there are 94 acceptable two-letter words in Scrabble, Albanian is closely related to no other Indo-European language) that adds a strange and savory backdrop to the everyday.

The Gospel According to ESPN (Hyperion, 245 pages, $40) is a stupendously uneven book -- and with a bad cover to boot -- but it’s nevertheless a somewhat genius attempt to make sense of the bizarre cultural phenomenon of sports. Broken into five chapters -- ”Prophets,“ ”Fallen Angels,“ ”Saints,“ ”Saviors“ and ”Gods“ -- and brimming with trivia, memorabilia, cartoons and commentary, the book‘s basic conceit goes something like this: Sports is kind of similar to religion, sort of. This vague edict lends itself to such expected sentences as ”Avery Brundage . . . worshiped at the altar of Olympianism“ or ”Bobby Knight . . . was a vengeful god, a butt-kicking Old Testament--type god, quick to anger and eager to punish.“

Like much of the Bible itself, ESPN’s Gospel lacks real coherence, but the book draws strength from its ability to offer doses of impassioned sports scripture for just about everyone: to spin improbable yarns (Ty Cobb, on Christmas Eve in a Georgia cemetery, furiously searching for his own tomb, the biggest and best in the graveyard), to unearth unforgettable quotes (an aging Muhammad Ali whispering in the ring to George Foreman, ”You‘ve been following me since you were a little boy. Now you must meet me, your master.“) and to glorify the miraculous (Triple Crown winner Secretariat’s heart was 18 pounds, nearly twice the weight of an average horse heart!).

In Spoon (Phaidon, 448 pages, $75) 10 curators from various esteemed positions in the world of contemporary design have selected 100 designers who ”have broken new ground internationally in the last five years.“ The book‘s cover is made of galvanized steel -- that perennial favorite -- and bent into a supple wave to express society’s current love of curvature. It‘s a pretty thing to look at, though somewhat clumsy. The work inside ranges from Bauhaus simplicity to baroque lavishness, from the innovative to the absurd (a trampoline coffee table?). Hybridization seems a major trend: a clothes-hanger light bulb, a lamppunching bag, a chair that uses a stack of books for one leg.

Flipping through Spoon’s glossy pages triggers a deeply ambivalent reaction; the emotional impact of the countless couches, lamps, watches, shoes, computers and, yes, spoons is at turns trivial and profound. Should we read this book as a sumptuous IKEA catalog or as an avant-garde exploration of our material existence? But sooner or later, something in Spoon will catch your eye -- whether it is Shin and Tomoko Azumi‘s gravity-defying sofa, Kennet Williamsson’s painterly ceramic blueberry baskets, or Thomas Heatherwick‘s remarkable benches in Newcastle, where strips of recycled-glass paving blocks are peeled back to reveal hidden light sources beneath the street and simultaneously to form an elegant place to sit, allowing the metaphysical to seep into the physical.

If it wasn’t obvious already, Kurt Cobain has become the official lost child for an entire generation, the archetypal troubled youth, America‘s enfant melancolique. While the Kurt Cobain Journals (Riverhead, 304 pages, $30) are doomed to pale in comparison next to the precise inarticulations of Nirvana’s music, the book does capture Cobain‘s angstful earnestness, and his longing for the idealism of the ’60s, forever tainted by his deep cynicism of the contemporary world.

The Weekly profiled Krazy & Ignatz -- 1925-1926 (Fantagraphics, 120 pages, $15) earlier in the year, so here we‘ll keep it short and sweet: The first in a series of Krazy Kat reissues by the remarkable Fantagraphics (a publishing supercollider of the visual and literary arts), with cover design by the inimitable Chris Ware, these comic strips are mandatory possessions for people with eyes.

Andre de Dienes met aspiring model Norma Jeane Baker in 1945, and -- sparks already flying -- the two set off on a road trip across the West so that Dienes could photograph his ”earthy angel“ in natural settings. These photographs, and the many others in their long involvement (a romantic relationship followed by friendship), document the fresh, dazzling woman and her transformation into a visual icon, into Marilyn Monroe. A wealth of previously unknown anecdotes and photographs (discovered after Dienes’ death in 1985) have been lavishly assembled in Marilyn (Taschen, 240 pages, $200). The box set also includes Dienes‘ 608-page Marilyn memoirs, his complete Monroe photographs (nearly 1,000 contact-size prints), and 24 magazine covers shot by Dienes; the set is instantly a crown jewel in the world of Marilyn collectibles.

”Painting is not dead“ seems to be the general claim of Vitamin P -- New Perspectives in Painting (Phaidon, 352 pages, $70). In a smart, lucid and tidy introductory essay, Barry Schwabsky argues for the continued contemporary significance of painting, guides us through the breakdown of various absolutisms in regard to the what, why, when, how and where of contemporary painting, and finally claims that ”Better than any of the other media typically employed by today’s artists, painting lends itself to eloquent ambivalence towards its own historicity.“

That said, on to the paintings. Toba Khedoori‘s spatially devastating walls and windows, Francis Alys’ charming depiction of a man with a vase growing from his knee, Elizabeth Peyton‘s romanticized celebrity portraiture of Prince William, the visceral visual dramatics of Adriana Varejao’s ”Axulejaria de Tapete em Carne Viva“ . . . it‘s a highly stimulating (at times infuriating) selection of work. The editors never fully explain the mechanisms behind their ”rigorous selection process“ other than explaining that ”distinguished“ persons (critics, curators, museum directors) nominated painters ”who have emerged internationally since the 1990s.“ But Vitamin P gives us a marvelous taste of the works of these 114 artists, each accompanied by a few flattering and insightful paragraphs. This scattershot method nullifies the possibility of some smashingly brilliant theory of what is happening in the contemporary art ”scene,“ but works wonderfully with Schwabsky’s belief that such overarching theories are merely useful fictions. It‘s up to the viewer then to mull and ponder.

Also check out these other notable titles: Freedom, photo history of the civil rights movement (Phaidon, 512 pages, $60); Motel Fetish, noir porn (Taschen, 280 pages, $35); In the Most Beautiful Life, poems and photos of Romania (Umbrage, 80 pages, $30); Peggy Guggenheim, the eccentric life of (Rizzoli, 174 pages, $35); three new installments to the Phaidon Contemporary Artist Series, On Kawara, Wolfgang Tillmans, Vito Aconci (Phaidon, 160 pages, $40); Carlos Scarpa, the Italian architect (Taschen, 176 pages, $16); Modern Amazons, extremes of the female body (Taschen, 168 pages, $40); Remarkable Trees of the World, miracles of the natural world (Norton, 192 pages, $35); Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco (University of California, 94 pages, $25); Planet Earth, satellite photographs from space (Knopf, 232 pages, $40); and, if you can afford it, and aren’t morally opposed, Africa: Leni Riefenstahl (Taschen, 564 pages, $1,250).


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