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Recently released art books put a little culture under the tree

| Sunday, Dec. 22, 2002

If art aficionados are on your Christmas list, then you are in luck, because there are some wonderful art books that have been recently released, just in time for the holiday season.

Here is a look at a few of them:

"Curiosa: Celebrity Relics, Historical Fossils and Other Metamorphic Rubbish"
By Barton Lidice Benes
(Harry N. Abrams Inc., 131 pages, hardcover, $29.95).

Rare is the individual who would think to save the fingernail clippings of another, but so has artist Barton Lidice Benes, who has those of Frank Sinatra, among others. Add to that a snippet of Madonna's panties and cigarette butts from Brad Pitt and Yoko Ono, and you have just a glimpse into Benes' odd and strangely obsessive world in which common, everyday objects and detritus are collected and mounted in loose classifications he calls "museums."

All of the objects are lovingly annotated in Benes' handwritten script beneath each, as in "Larry Hagman's gallstone, 1995." In some cases, Benes places the objects side by side for ironic effects or alters them slightly, as when he fashioning a small dagger from a wood shard taken from O.J. Simpson's house. Displayed this way, the objects are sometimes funny, sometimes downright freaky but overridingly fascinating — making for a most curious book.

"This Fantastic Struggle: The Life and Art of Esther Phillips"
By Lisa A. Miles
(Creative Arts Book Co., 456 pages, paperback, $18).

Artists do not fear death as much as they fear the death of their art. For in each of their creations there is a tiny drop of hope that their art will live beyond them.

Since first seeing the work of Esther Phillips in the fall of 1991 at the now-defunct Carson Street Gallery on Pittsburgh's South Side, local author and violinist Lisa Miles spent nearly 10 years scouring institutional records and interviewing friends and family of Phillips, a painter who was raised in Pittsburgh in the early half of the last century, to try to find out all she could about the life of this artist that ended in anguish and obscurity.

Through extensive letters, interviews, institutional documents, artwork and newspaper articles, many of which are reprinted directly in the book, Miles pieces together Phillips' story — one of prolonged poverty and nearly seven years spent in a mental institution, all for the sake of her art — effectively carrying the reader away on a quest to uncover an artistic life lost as if sleuthing out the subject right alongside the book's author.

"The Comics Since 1945"
By Brian Walker
(Harry N. Abrams Inc., 336 pages, hardcover, $49.95).

Who better to compile a book on newspaper comics than "Hi and Lois" cartoonist and noted comic art historian Brian Walker• As the son of "Beetle Bailey" creator Mort Walker, the younger Walker grew up in the world of comics and has used his experiences and connections to cultivate a most remarkable compendium of comic art that spans over a half-century.

From "Nancy" and "Pogo" to "Mutts" and "Zits," the book traces the evolution of newspaper comics and their artists decade by decade. Although it is about as scholarly a work as one could get on the subject, the book is filled with excellent examples of some of the best comics ever created, and almost all are good for a chuckle. You might even laugh your #@!! off.

"Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual"
By Lynn Gamwell
(Princeton University Press) 344 pages, hardcover, $49.95.

All the more recently, modern art and modern science have been crossing paths, but rarely have correlations between the two been so elegantly and clearly explained as they are in this book by Lynn Gamwell, a museum director, curator and professor.

By tracing the connections between art and science over the past two centuries, Gamwell effectively bridges the gap between both fields and explains how each has influenced the other.

Illustrated profusely throughout with art that ranges from the Romantic movement of the early 19th century to the present day, as well as scientific drawings and diagrams, it is a "must have" for any art or science buff.

"Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set"
By Sarah Greenough
(Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1,100 pages, two-volume set, hardcover, $150).

Weighing in at a whopping 20 pounds, this is one gift you might want to help Santa with unloading from the sleigh. But its size is justified, considering that this two-volume set is the most comprehensive catalog ever printed of the photographic works of Alfred Stieglitz, who was one of the leading proponents of modern photography and art.

Recognized for his widely published image "The Steerage" (1907), a photograph of immigrants crowding the deck of an arriving ship, Stieglitz also is known for founding Photo-Secession in 1903, a group dedicated to nontraditional pictorial photography, and producing a quarterly magazine called Camera Work that reproduced high-quality images of the group's work.

Spanning 50 years of Stieglitz's photographic output, both volumes are filled with numerous images of New York City, landscapes, clouds and women.

Of the portraits of women, the most recognizable is painter Georgia O'Keeffe, who was Stieglitz's wife. In fact, he took more than 300 portraits of O'Keeffe between 1917 and 1937, and they are scattered throughout, making for a "Where's Waldo?" experience in what is an otherwise scholarly and beautiful two-volume set.

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