Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies

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Satish Padiyar
London: Reaktion Books, 2020. 248 pp.; 114 color ills. Cloth $55.00 (9781789142099)
Like the Rococo style his work came to epitomize, the artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s life was seemingly unpredictable, liberated, and characterized by constant change. Fragonard (1732–1806) began his career by winning the coveted Prix de Rome, and in 1761 he presented an ambitious history painting as his reception piece to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The painting placed the young artist in high ranking within the elite establishment, but after such success he unexpectedly turned away from public life as an academic painter, prioritizing instead inconsistent commissions from private clients and working in artistic styles that the Académie… Full Review
May 15, 2021
Saloni Mathur
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. 256 pp.; 64 ills. Paper $25.95 (9781478003014)
(An open-access version of this book is available at OAPEN: Open Access Publishing in European Networks.) Early in her important account of Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram, arguably the most significant critic-artist partnership to emerge in postcolonial India, Saloni Mathur characterizes her work as “an ongoing intellectual debt” (xii). The debt may be hers, but it is conveniently shared by everyone working on the history of twentieth-century art and criticism. Building on extended conversations and sustained archival research, Mathur considers Kapur’s writings between the years 1968, when she drafted In Quest of Identity: Art and Indigenism in… Full Review
May 10, 2021
Polly Gould
London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020. 368 pp.; 103 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9781788311694)
Historically defined by the hypermasculinity of the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration, political contestation, and scientific observation, Antarctica today represents a critical multidisciplinary meeting point. Polly Gould’s Antarctica, Art and Archive offers a timely contribution to the historical study of Antarctica and indicates the refractive interplay among visual media, temporalities, and histories. Gould is both author and artist, and her archival study of the work of Edward A. Wilson and the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910–13 is presented in conversation with her own artistic practice. Taken as a whole, the book brings together a complex series of interrelated histories, materials… Full Review
May 7, 2021
Alyce Mahon
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. 296 pp.; 44 color ills.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780691141619)
Must We Praise Sade? In her defense of the notoriously vile writings of the Marquis de Sade, “Must We Burn Sade?,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “In a criminal society, one must be criminal” (introduction to The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings, trans. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver, Grove Press, 1966, 58). The oft-cited quote encapsulates the feminist philosopher’s tempered response to the eighteenth-century libertine texts of Donatien Alphonse François (better known as the Marquis de Sade) and their place within modern European history as bastions of unfettered freedom of expression. In novels such as The 120 Days of… Full Review
May 5, 2021
Hank Willis Thomas
Exh. cat. Contributions by Julia Dolan, Sara Krajewski, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, and Kellie Jones. New York and Portland, OR: Aperture Foundation in association with Portland Art Museum, 2018. 256 pp.; 300 ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781597114486)
Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR, October 12, 2019–January 12, 2020; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, February 8–July 13, 2020; Cincinnati Art Museum, September 4–November 8, 2020
The contributors to the exhibition catalog Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal . . . write with depth and acuity about the artist’s complex body of work, which spans three decades. By asking questions about the role of the arts in democratizing visuality and creating a more civically engaged public, the essays by Julia Dolan, Sara Krajewski, and Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, as well as an interview between Thomas and the art historian Kellie Jones, combine to convey a deeply reflective portrait of the artist and offer new insights into the breadth of his artistic growth. The catalog and the… Full Review
May 3, 2021
Bret L. Rothstein
University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2019. 228 pp.; 38 color ills. Cloth $29.95 (9780271082424)
I doubt that this review can do justice either to its subject or to its author, though I was somewhat comforted to read that Bret L. Rothstein himself admitted to disliking puzzles. Still, I may not be the right person to review this book, for I confess that I also loathe most puzzles. Deeply frustrating, they make me feel unworthy to share the company of intelligent beings who appreciate them. What is it that allows some people to “get” a puzzle in a matter of minutes while others futilely ponder them, not getting anywhere? Another pause before proceeding: this book… Full Review
April 29, 2021
Georg Simmel
Ed. Austin Harrington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 392 pp. Paper $35.00 (9780226621098)
In the intellectual history of European modernity, Georg Simmel (1858–1918) remains the prototype for the extraterritorial thinker. Estranged from institutions of official culture, such a figure is singularly attuned to the dynamism of modern life, a sensitive diagnostician who finds in the most fleeting phenomena visible symptoms of a fundamentally altered relationship between objective conditions and states of mind. The centrality of works of art and literature for Simmel’s reflections on society and the money economy galvanized his students, such as Siegfried Kracauer and Ernst Bloch, who radically reconfigured philosophical writing in confrontation with the rise of mass media and… Full Review
April 27, 2021
Jacques Derrida
Ed. Ginette Michaud, Joana Masó, and Javier Bassas, with new trans. by Laurent Milesi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 328 pp.; 7 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226140612)
Sixteen years after Jacques Derrida’s death, a new collection of essays and interviews devoted to artists and art by the eminent thinker offers a chance to reconsider his impact on the field and ongoing interest in his work. According to the volume’s title, this interest might lie in the plurality of the arts. But why? Why “the arts” rather than art in the singular? Spock’s famous dictum in Star Trek comes to mind: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”—“or the one.” Was Derrida secretly a Trekkie? This dictum, of course, is at the center of… Full Review
April 22, 2021
Mark Nelson, William H. Sherman, and Ellen Hoobler
Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2020. 448 pp.; 103 color ills.; 227 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781606066669)
This hefty tome chronicles the decades of freewheeling acquisition that resulted in Louise and Walter Arensberg’s collections of modernist painting and sculpture and of art of the preconquest Americas. The Arensbergs also amassed the world’s largest collection of books by and about empiricist philosopher Francis Bacon, whom Walter (a Harvard-educated poet and literary sleuth) believed to have written Shakespeare’s plays and encrypted them with clues to his authorship. In this book’s coauthored essay, designer Mark Nelson and cultural historian William H. Sherman speculate that Arensberg’s lifelong interest in codes, conundrums, and what Bacon called the “parabolical” (402) underlay the evocative… Full Review
April 20, 2021
Esmée Quodbach, ed.
The Frick Collection Studies in the History of Art Collecting in America, vol. 5. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020. 248 pp.; 92 color ills.; 6 b/w ills. Cloth $69.95 (9780271086088)
The last two decades have witnessed a steady increase of interest in the history of taste and collecting, in America and beyond. This trend is reflected in, but also stimulated by, the recent establishment of three important book series: Studies in the History of Collecting & Art Markets (Brill) and the Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700–1950 (Routledge), both initiated in 2016, and the Frick Collection Studies in the History of Art Collecting in America (Penn State University Press), initiated in 2014. All three initiatives attest to the interdisciplinary nature of the research… Full Review
April 15, 2021