Forget the stockings, art lovers! Stuff some bookshelves instead.
It’s that time of year where you realize that you have no idea what to get your artsy friends and family for the holidays, and/or no hope of getting what you really want from them. It’s our contention that in both cases you can’t go wrong with art books, so we’ve rounded up some eclectic options ranging from illustrated biographies of cultural icons and a collective portrait of the city, to independent visions of international pop, art history, fantasy, and surreal architecture — and the not-Amazon links where you can acquire them in time to win the gifting.
The Autograph Book of L.A. | Josh Kun (Angel City Press)
The Autograph Book of L.A.: Improvements on the Page of the City is, of course, a book first and foremost; as such, it can be read cover to cover, across lively and insightful essays and thoroughgoing captions. It is also a stately object, with a clean heft and gorgeously reproduced images that give an eclectic optical cross-section highlighting Los Angeles arts and culture figures from the last century-plus. But I’ve been using it as something else, too — as a kind of oracle or daily meditation. Opening to any random page and taking note of whose imprint appears there, and letting their gift be the prompt of the day or just of the moment.
In 1906, city librarian Charles Lummis began asking a sort of cultural Who’s Who of American men and women to contribute to the nascent institution in a rather unique way. He mailed them blank stationery and famously asked them each to “improve the enclosed page” in whatever way they saw fit. He got a lot of pretty amazing replies. In 2018, city librarian John F. Szabo took up the mantle in earnest, inviting all Angelenos “to add their names and drawings, poems or memories” to the archive, and even staging a multi-branch open call day where the public were invited into the process as well, and hundreds heeded the call.
With this open-book act, Szabo and the institution both expanded and democratized the initiative, asking fundamentally salient questions of the city’s residents and of themselves as its collective record-keeper. For starters, who deserves, and who receives, due credit for shaping the culture? The answer, at least from the LAPL standpoint, has always been rather progressive; but like society broadly, it is also becoming less patriarchal, less stratified by income or gender or race, and more respectful of all manner of contributions to the character of this incredible and unique place.
The autograph collection functions sort of like a guest book, except for the entire city, and is full of art, music, literature, philanthropy, and activism — and there are currently over 1,700 entries. L. Frank Baum, Helen Keller, Isaac Asimov, Cheech Marin, Langston Hughes, Shepard Fairey, Sandra de la Loza, John Muir, Father Gregory Boyle, Mercedes Dorame and Chaz Bojorquez have all contributed to the Los Angeles Public Library’s Autograph Collection.
This was the archive confronted by author, historian and editor Josh Kun as he and his collaborators at the LAPL and Angel City Press undertook the construction of the new book. The challenges of editing 1,700 items down to anything manageable, all while proceeding with an expansive, inclusive ethos, were manifold. All the more so as the approach also reframes the idea of the “autograph” to include street art and even the impulse to carve into wet cement, inscribing it all under the aegis of literally and figuratively “making one’s mark on the city.” angelcitypress.com/products/abla
The Stan Lee Story | Roy Thomas (TASCHEN)
If there’s one thing we know from our culture’s collective comic book obsession, it’s that every hero (and every villain actually) has a unique origin story. Spider-Man, Iron Man, all the Avengers — the tales of how they got their super powers and had the epiphany of their life’s mission and meaning are just as fascinating as their further adventures, maybe even more so. And judging by the new monograph from TASCHEN, the man most associated with the entire Marvel Universe of heroes and villains — Stan Lee — had quite a life story of his own. He rose from the hardships of a Depression-era childhood, joined a comic book publisher at 17, had a meteoric rise through the ranks there cut short by a military career during WWII, and eventually founding a book, television and film empire that absorbed generations and made him a bona fide star in his own right.
The Stan Lee Story was written and edited with Lee before his death, and fully related by his friend, colleague and Marvel successor Roy Thomas across a longform essay, updated postscript and the stewardship of not only the work itself, but the evidence of decades of a zany lifestyle at one of the most influential cultural intersections of the modern era. The materials in this gorgeously produced (aka TASCHEN) volume include hundreds of examples of vintage photographs, company and family archives, BTS studio and process shots from all manner of secret headquarters, and even a section with decades’ worth of complete reprints of Lee’s comics, for context. taschen.com
Tim Biskup: Tree of Life (Chronicle Chroma)
The lavishly and luscious produced new monograph on the work of celebrated Southern California painter and cultural provocateur Tim Biskup presents some 450 works of art made in the past 20 years, including painting and mixed media works as well as drawings, sculptures, editions and experiments that fully flesh out his unique hybrids of flourishes, atmospherics, geometry, gesture, character, figure, flora and fauna, and an intense, luminous, complex and nuanced supersaturated palette. Presenting the stylistic evolution and eclectic influx of influences on Biskup from Antoni Gaudí to Willem de Kooning, Pattern and Decoration and post-pop surrealism, animation to O-Art, punk rock to Palm Springs, Tree of Life chronicles the pursuit of what Biskup calls “the balance between chaos and strategy” that plays out in all his creations.
The stellar reproductions are a delight to peruse, but the most moving element comes in the form of a 12-page essay by Biskup that closes the book. It’s a detailed autobiographical narrative that begins with early fish-out-of-water stories, confesses some rather brutal personal details, and unpacks with astonishing candor the vagaries of self-doubt, feckless art world encounters, frustration, self-righteousness, genuine creative breakthroughs, personal life tolls taken and confidence acquired that has attended his impressive career. At one point he writes, “Whenever my work scares me I know I’m onto something important” — and he’s absolutely right. timbiskup.com
Soviet Metro Stations | Christopher Herwig (Fuel Publishing)
Here in Los Angeles a legitimate subway system can seem like as much of a pipe dream as a communist utopia. Say what you will about the cruelty, hypocrisy and decay of the Soviet Union, they had a gorgeous subway. The Soviets built a host of metro networks across their territories, many of which are still in service, well maintained, and as over the top in their design extremes as ever. From modernist angles to baroque excesses, palatial and institutional grandeur was the order of the day, the better to promote the prosperity propaganda of shared public luxury. Using approved tropes of classical and futuristic culture, these instances of architectural fantasy were central in shaping the public sphere in service of love for the Party.
Photographer Christopher Herwig visited these subway networks, most built between 1930-80, and was profoundly struck by the idea that they endure as perfect symbols of the Soviet ideal, including that they remain functional and in common use to this day — both time capsules to a lost era and complex symbols of the region’s resurgence. His photographs are hyper-perfect, composed for maximum effect to showcase each station’s dramatically unique personality, energy, opulence and cathedral-like scale. fuel-design.com/publishing/soviet-metro-stations
Andrew Archer: Edo Ball: The Art of Basketball (Gingko Press)
Artist Andrew Archer loves two things. He loves basketball, and he loves Japanese art. In a lovingly produced new book based on his Edo Ball series of original prints and paintings, Archer marries these passions in a seamless hybrid aesthetic that posits a new folklore for the age. With cheeky but insightful references to both modern Japenese street culture and its ancient art historical traditions such as Ukiyo-e, Archer takes on the world of heroic tribal, spiritual, and talismanic presences that swirl and dominate in the game of basketball.
Each piece is a complex rendering, often deriving recognizable compositions or image-citations from national treasure of Japanese art — from the great Hosukai, for example, whose iconic tsunami image is reimagined as a basketball court. A luminous Torii gateway is augmented with a hoop and backboard against a stylized mountain scene. LeBron James is depicted as an elaborately costumed Shogun warrior exploding on the offense. A Geisha in a Bulls jersey perches on a hoop as though it were a lotus in the floating world. A proliferation of detail in the settings and trappings of the post-traditional scenes creates a fascinating cognitive flicker between the form and the content; while the welcome presence of brief, witty texts explain the artist’s specific inspirations and references, and the meaning of the stories brought to life in the paintings. esowonbookstore.com
Catel & Bocquet: Josephine Baker (SelfMadeHero)
The radiant and inimitable entertainer Josephine Baker has been the subject of adoration, inspiration, biographies and films since she became the toast of the 1925 Parisian avant-garde. She was just 19 when she left Mississippi for the Mansard roofs of Paris; becoming a literal overnight sensation on the strength (and controversy) of her debut performance at a famous Paris theater. Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Le Corbusier were her fanboys. But her hypnotic presence and undeniable power as a performer was only part of what made Baker a revolutionary figure in history.
An independent businesswoman and a fearless artist, Baker blasted through racial barriers from her place in the spotlight all over the world. In her adopted country of France, Baker was a brave and effective member of the resistance during WWII, and she devoted significant time and resources to the cause of racial justice for her entire life, until passing away in 1975 at nearly 70 years old, surrounded by her “rainbow tribe” of a family that included 12 orphans she had adopted from different races and parts of the world, in furtherance of living her message.
In Josephine Baker, writer José-Luis Bocquet and artist Catel Muller capture rich, surprising details and emotional flourishes, formative challenges and ultimate triumphs, witty anecdotes and salient flashbacks of Baker’s extraordinary life across some 500-plus pages of illustrated storyboards. Baker’s rich internal life, bubbling societal affairs, pursuit of fierce independence, thoroughly modern artistry, personal relationships, and political engagements proceed in a black-and-white comic-strip form that is much more than funny. selfmadehero.com/books/josephine-baker
Camille Rose Garcia: The Cabinet of Dr. Deekay (Sympathetic Press)
Seven years after the worst visit to a dentist in modern history, Camille Rose Garcia has finally released the delightful and unsettling storybook which that experience inspired. As the Weekly previously reported, “The Cabinet of Dr. Deekay opens on an operating room scene, in which our young hero Alex awakes to find himself recovering from a mysterious surgical procedure and being ministered to by a team of medics led by a doctor with a giant molar for a head. Things only get weirder from there.
It turns out the kid was there to have every part of his body systematically replaced with random objects/anatomical anomalies such as whisks and lobster claws, in order to be better suited for something called the Project for a Future Tomorrow. By page 10 it’s already clear that this is not going to go well for our boy…”
A dark fantasy that is an allegory for the hopes and terrors of ordinary life, the story is festooned with original paintings and drawings by Garcia depicting elaborate scenes, imagined architecture, and surreal landscapes as well as character portraits of the narrative’s heroes and villains.
The book (published by the legendary Long Gone John) seduces with its hefty and whimsical design, sickly pretty fever-dream palette, and dystopian evocation of an upside down fairy tale that is probably not for children. camillerosegarcia.com/the-cabinet-of-dr-deekay