And the Pursuit of Happiness

And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman
by Maira Kalman
ISBN: 9780143122036

Considering how much I love Maira Kalman’s work, it took me a long time to read this book. The Founding Fathers? A year about democracy? Perhaps I am too cynical, but it sounded boring to me.

I should have known better. First, Kalman’s perspective is always interesting, so much so the subject matter — well, the ostensible subject matter — may almost be beside the point. Second, if there can be a killer musical about Alexander Hamilton, maybe I need to reconsider what can be interesting.

She created these paintings, photographs, stories and even some embroidery at what think of already as a more optimistic time, right after Obama was elected President. Maybe it is good I did not read this before, as now in this absurd election season I need some political hope, like this quote from Lincoln:


I don’t know about you, but I am sure I will need reminders that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.” (That’s Lincoln again.)

I love Kalman’s wandering mind and serendipitous connections as much as I love her bold colors, loose sketches, and handwriting. Her books are an inspiring view into a mind at work.

An Illustrated Life

An Illustrated Life Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers
by Danny Gregory
ISBN: 9781600610868

I picked this up after many of my Sketchbook Skool “klassmates” referenced and recommended it. Danny Gregory — cofounder of Sketchbook Skool — put together this collection of artists’ work and their reflections on their processes. (As it turns out, several of the SBS teachers are included in it.)

The book includes the work of about fifty artists; some are professional illustrators, others are cartoonists, and some have non-art day jobs. If you’ve ever wondered “how do they do that?” of creative types, this book is probably for you. It doesn’t provide detailed step by step instructions; instead it offered a peek inside the heads and sketchbooks of practicing artists.

I found it most enjoyable to dip in and read the entries for or two or three people, then put it down and come back later. I didn’t read the book in order — I thumbed through and stopped when something grabbed by attention — only going through from front to back to make sure I didn’t miss anyone.

I learned people draw or keep sketchbooks for all kinds of reasons: to notice “the blessings I need to count to give myself meaning”; “to unwind and possibly to learn”; for inspiration, to be happy, to develop and maintain the chop of “instinct”. One said their sketchbook was “a pocket-sized vacation.”

As a relatively new sketchbook keeper, I am very curious as to how others use their sketchbooks, what their art looks like, what techniques/mediums/tools people are using, and what the practice has meant to them. This book is a goldmine.

Highly recommended if you are interested in illustration, the creative process, and/or sketchbooks (whether or not you keep one — though this may inspire you to try).

Humans of New York

Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton
ISBN: 9781250038821

This is people-watching in book form. Stanton, young bond trader turned photographer, has been roaming New York City streets with camera in hand and HONY is the result. (Well, his facebook page then blog then this book deal is the result.) It’s a story with a hook, but the hook itself doesn’t interest me — the pictures do.

Most of the photographs have a line of story with them, not so much captions as commentary, quotes, or scene-setting. They are presented not as fine art (where one might expect more single images and much more white space) but in a more casual, magazine-like style. Looking at HONY, you do realize you really can see it all in New York. If you know the city at all, I suppose part of the fun is in recognizing where people are literally (I’ve been there! Yes, it is one of those lounge seats on the high line!) and figuratively (Uh huh, I’ve seen that type, I know that type…) or at least believing that you do.

Some of the images really are quite striking. For example, he photographed one couple who met almost fifty years ago on a picket line, and you can see the love on her face. It is those slices of sudden wonder — where you see something you know is true, and maybe rare to see so plainly — that make the collection worth the time. Are there average shots of visually striking folks? Yeah. Does it really need to be three hundred pages long? That depends on what kind of art you are expecting. The point of this collection isn’t to replicate some gallery exhibition, it is to share something alive and vibrant from the streets of New York. And it isn’t hard to imagine that could be an even longer story… which is probably why it is a continuing one online.

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)
by Ingrid Schaffner
ISBN: 9783791350356

This book was published in connection with museum exhibitions of Kalman’s work in 2010. I did not get to see any of those exhibitions, though I think this book reflects the feeling of the museum experience as I’ve heard it described: not a chronological order, or perhaps a readily discernible order, and a bit like wandering around in a delightfully eccentric home.

I have, it should be said, developed a bit of a crush on Maira Kalman.

I’ve been searching out more information about her online — watching videos of Kalman speaking about her work and reading tantalizing bits about her future projects. (An illustrated version of Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas? Yes, please!) I’m struck by her sense of wonder, the way she expresses both sadness and joy in daily events that could be easily overlooked or forgotten, and how she doesn’t seem to have a pretentious bone in her body. Of course there are the striking washes of color, the recognizable but nowhere near photo-realistic renderings of places and people, and the quirky handwriting, too.

I first became aware of Kalman’s work five years ago, when I came across The Principles of Uncertainty in the Strand and I brought it home and loved it. I’m not sure why she’s popping up on my radar again, but I’m grateful she is.

There are many of her books I haven’t read — I learned she’s published many children’s books, too — and no doubt I’ll pick up And the Pursuit of Happiness at some point. This book, unlike her two others aimed at adult audiences, doesn’t have its own narrative, but rather reflects on the many narratives possibilities Kalman has explored. It it definitely worth spending time with, but be warned, it will leave you wanting more.

Dime-Store Alchemy

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell The Art of Joseph Cornell
by Charles Simic
ISBN: 9781590174869

In this small, well-formed book Simic shares his Cornell obsession. His prose isn’t just description, a response to the call of Cornell’s boxes, but an attempt to understand through action:

When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are the best guides. In writing the pieces for this book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image will turn out to be I the end. I had hoped to do the same.

The book contains several full color photographs of Cornell’s boxes, snippets from Cornell’s papers, small bits of biography, and many, many invitations to ponder and wonder. And that is the point. As Cornell titles one of his sections, “we comprehend by awe.”

In “The Truth of Poetry” Simic tells us that Cornell is after how “to construct a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer and keep him company forever.” Endless invitations to play, to let imagination take over as children do: that is what is in offer in this book.

Simic is a poet, so it is no surprise his lines can sound like the meditation bell. In the span of the half page that is “The Moon is the Sorcerer’s Helper” he gives us:

The forest is a place in which everything your heart desires and fears lives.


Beauty is about the improbable coming true suddenly.

That line about the forest? It’s the opening of a fairy tale. Or the description of a painting. Beauty? Maybe you think you know already know what it is, but here is a different definition, one that makes even more sense the more you think about it.

This book isn’t an examination of Cornell’s art; it’s an exploration of meaning by one artist prompted into fascination by another. Highly recommended.

Neither Here Nor There

Neither Here Nor There - The Art of Oliver Jeffers The Art of Oliver Jeffers
Edited by Richard Seabrooke
ISBN: 9783899554472

I’ve been a fan of Oliver Jeffers for four years. I can date my affection for his work to finding The Great Paper Caper in the Children’s section at Brookline Booksmith. It wasn’t misfiled; until recently Jeffers has received much more attention as an author/illustrator of children’s picture books than for his fine art.

I want to argue about the “need” for distinction, but… well, those arguments are tired. Instead, I’ll say this book takes a look at his work that wasn’t intended for the thirty-two page hardcover format. The foreword by Seabrooke is short, and from it (if you didn’t already guess) you learn Jeffers is a curious guy; he’s most curious about the idea of duality. Mac Premo picks up on the duality theme in the introduction telling us, “Oliver Jeffers’s work is almost always about two things. Those two things, however, constantly change.” The “two things” reflected in much of the work in this book are emotion and logic — as seen through painting and math, through visual depiction and metadata — it’s all art and science. Unless it’s a big red fish in the snow.

There are a few photos of Jeffers and his studio; happily the bulk of the 161 pages is devoted to his work (mostly paintings, some sketchbook pages, and a few 3D pieces), with very little commentary. I prefer books like this to keep the inline commentary to a minimum so as not to overload the experience and distract from the images. I want to see what I see, not see what it is only possible to see with a slab of text to explain it nearby. (You have the option to read labels in museums; they aren’t as pushy as poor page layouts.)

I fell in love with Jeffers’s illustrated picture books, and I’m intrigued by his “grown up” art — which doesn’t so much feel grown up, as it feeld curious in a different way.

Fathom Painting No. 1 by Oliver Jeffers

Drawn In

Drawn In by Julia Rothman A peek into the inspiring sketchbooks of 44 fine artists, illustrators, graphic designers, and cartoonists
Presented by Julia Rothman
ISBN: 9781592536948

I’ve always been fascinated by sketchbooks. I don’t have a history of keeping one, which isn’t to say I’ve never had one; I probably have two or three in the house right now. The objects themselves — empty pages full of potential — have caught my eye in the stationery or art supply store more than once and made the trip home with me.

I’ve been intensely curious: what do artists really do with sketchbooks? This book shows us, with people sharing pages from their sketchbooks and answering questions about their practices. There are all kinds of juicy specifics about the books as objects (brand names, sizes) and about how they are used (how often, as precursor to finished work, things for clients or personal work, media used).

There were some common threads (experimentation, working out ideas) in the answers, and in the media used, as well as surprises like balloons taped into pages. Rather than being an anthology striving for consistency in content, variety is part of the fun. For each contributor, there is a brief bio, the answers to four or five questions, and a half dozen or more spreads from his or her sketchbook. I like how the art is reproduced — images aren’t cropped down from the books, but rather show the whole book — with page edges or bits of the inside covers visible.

I was familiar with a few of the artists (Sophie Blackall, Camilla Engman, Anders Nilsen) before, and have found new folks to watch out for (Sarajo Frieden, Mike Lowery, Lauren Nassef, Julia Pott) in reading this. Mostly I enjoyed peeking inside where you don’t usually get to see — several of the artists talked about how their sketchbooks were generally private — and imagining the mind/hand at work in the pages.

Before this was an idea for a book (a great idea, in my opinion) it was an idea for a website, Book By Its Cover. I love to see someone’s labor of love online turn into a wonderful, tangible object. I’m a web geek, but I’m also a book nerd. The title works on two levels: as a description of the sketchbooks, and how this collection will make you feel. Definitely recommended.

sketchbook pages from Sarajo Frieden

A Camera in a Room

by Abelardo Morell
ISBN: 1560985488

That I read photography books for the pictures and not the text might seem obvious. It’s always a bonus when the text turns out to matter, to offer me something else, though I can’t say I expect it to do so. The short essay at the end of this collection seemed stale, but the six pages worth of interview with Morell was alive.

A couple of the things he said that caught my interest:

“One of the most interesting things about photography is that it let’s you say ‘I’m aware of this.’ And you can act on in on the spot.”

“One of the nice things about books is that they are private. You take a book home and you are free to experience it any way you want. You go to a museum and the pictures are usually structured so there’s really only one view of them.”

Of course, then you have the images themselves, which is I why I picked up the book. There are photographs of his son, household objects, of images printed in books, and the camera obscura photographs that I had seen before and were the reason I was looking for the book.

So I was surprised to find I really liked many of those other images, such as Brady Looking at His Shadow, 1990, Newspaper, 1993, Motion of Soapy Water in Pan, 1994, and Two Forks Under Water, 1993. I loved the the play of the photos with each other — Doll House, 1987‘s light through the windows of the doll house, the real window, the real house behind and in New Year’s Eve, 1989-90 the way the lights around the structure of the house through the window, like a child’s drawing but with light not crayon.

Morell’s camera obscura images did not disappoint. There’s something to the way real life is turned upside down and projected from outside to inside; literally a different way of seeing that perhaps evokes a different way of feeling. Two of my favorites are The Empire State Building in Bedroom, 1994 and Camera Obscura Image of Brookline View in Brady’s Room, 1992. When I think of the patience required — 8 hours for camera obscura images — I’m amazed. It’s difficult for me to imagine waiting that long for any feedback something is working; I’m thoroughly spoiled by digital, and “long” exposures are a relative thirty second blink.

I think it’s worth searching out Morell’s book and/or his work. I like how he thinks, how he talks about what he is doing, and that he is working on more than one series at once.

Art Photography Now

Art Photography Now by Susan Bright by Susan Bright
ISBN: 0500543054

Bright has collected the work of eighty contemporary photographers for this volume, dividing their work into seven sections: portrait, landscape, narrative, object, fashion, document, and city. She acknowledges the images could in some cases easily belong to a different section; organizing principles being apparently necessary and given the limitations of print, she had to choose.

You could probably go on and on about the choosing in a book like this. Why this photographer and not that one? Why these images, when this other work is better/more interesting/less expected/etc.? Why give more space to X instead of Y? I’ll be honest: I just don’t find those questions all that interesting with a book like this. It’s a survey, taken by one person, and you are clearly getting that one person’s point of view… idiosyncrasies, publishing limitations, favoritisms, and all.

I picked this up (borrowed from a library) and decided to spend time with it because I’d heard of enough of the photographers in it to be curious about the ones I hadn’t. Yes, the bunny-headed man on the cover grabbed my attention. There are 261 photographs included in the collection, the vast majority in color. For each photographer, Bright has includes a short introductory paragraph and then gets out of the way, letting the photographer speak for herself/himself about the work, and of course letting the work speak. The introductory essays for each section are similarly short, though I can’t say they added much for me. This isn’t a knock on Bright; it’s more and admission that the images were the draw, and what I really cared to focus on.

So, how are they? There’s probably something for everyone with an interest in contemporary photography. Some familiar names and images (Nan Goldin, Philip-Lorca Dicorcia, Jeff Wall, Uta Barth, Olivio Barbieri), some familiar names with less familiar to me images (Wolfgang Tillmans, Hiroshi Sugimoto), and some folks I wasn’t familiar with at all (Hannah Starkey, Collier Schorr, Melanie Manchot). In this I think the collection does it’s job: shows you a bit of what you know, alongside something you’ve heard of, mixed in with new. The point isn’t to recognize every photographer or image, but to look around a bit and identify new dots on the map for later exploring.

A Bigger Message

A Bigger Message - Conversations with David Hockney Conversations with David Hockney

by Martin Gayford
ISBN: 9780500238875

Through these conversations, you get to hear not just what but how Hockney thinks. I’m always curious about that — how an artist thinks — especially an artist with as long and varied a career as Hockney’s. I think I first became aware of Hockney for his pool paintings, then his polaroid collages. His most recent work is at opposite ends of scale: iPhone and iPad drawings on one end, giant multi-panel landscapes on the other.

One thing that has drawn me to his work is the vibrant color and the ways he sees light. Hockney doesn’t seem to think it odd he’s worked in different media, as to him it always comes down to the same problem: depiction. How do you make a 2D interpretation of a 3D world?

…how can one translate a visual experience such as a sunrise — a fleeting event involving expanses of space, volumes of air, water vapour and varying qualities of natural light — into a picture?

Hockney says that, “I’ve always believed that pictures make us see the world” and he is right in that. “Pictures influence pictures, but pictures also make us see things that we might not otherwise see” he tells us, and it’s true, from the spread of hipstamatic iPhone shots to photographs stopping a moment in time in a way that experience doesn’t, to paintings interpreting the world in a way that changes how and what people see.

Not that Hockney isn’t critical of photography — he is known for saying controversial and outrageous things about it. Photography is just part of the problem of depiction Hockney is continually trying to solve:

Most people feel that the world looks like a photograph. I’ve always assumed that the photograph is nearly right, but that the little bit by which it misses makes it miss by a mile. This is what I grope at.

The title of the book is taken from on of Hockney’s more recent pieces. The giant landscapes are easy to criticize, and I’ll admit I found the reproductions in this book (tiny as they are compared to the originals) almost garish at times. I don’t share other’s fascination with the size of these landscapes, in the same way I don’t find the iPhone and iPad images that interesting. For me, it’s the picture that does something for me (or to me) and not the method by which it was made or the size it appears.

The book is more interesting than the later work, because how Hockney talks about these pictures is still interesting. I might not be taken with the end results, but I am fascinated by how he considers problems, and that he is still after all this time seeking out new tools and process for depiction.