Francis Bacon in the '50s by Michael Peppiat (Yale University Press, 200 pages, $50); Abu Ghraib By Fernando Botero (Prestel, 109 pages, $35 paper). When the Abu Ghraib story broke in 2003, no one could possibly have been surprised that those unforgettable images of psychological (and some physical) torture by American soldiers would work their way into the work of living artists. They seemed almost ready-made for a painter of dark sensibility or ordinary humanism moved to outrage -- some modern Goya inflamed by the disasters of war or maybe a modern Francis Bacon, perhaps, that extraordinary British painter of exacerbation who died 15 years ago at the age of 83.
What -- still -- seems more than a little astonishing is that such a long series of outrage in pigment and drawing came from Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who is usually known for painting people so folksy and fleshy -- even porcine -- that they are often consigned to the world of kitsch, never to be thought of again. And, in fact, if you look at the amazing new paperback version of Botero's Abu Ghraib paintings, there is indeed a stylistic contradiction between Botero's constant renderings of abundant pink flesh and the mortification and sufferings those bodies are undergoing. And yet, maybe that's what startles strongly about this work -- as if Walt Disney in 1945 had somehow gotten it into his head to exhibit paintings and drawings of Auschwitz.
Meanwhile, the book of the forthcoming Albright-Knox "Francis Bacon in the '50s" exhibit is available, having been published to accompany its first stop at the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts of East Anglia in Norwich. Its stop in the Milwaukee Art Museum ends today and begins at the Albright Knox on May 5. While his contemporaries in America were transforming world art with abstract expressionism, the "snarling monkeys and screaming popes" in Bacon's own kind of expressionism were giving Auden's "Age of Anxiety" an entirely different kind of iconography previously known only from Edward Munch. Says Michael Peppiatt in this book "whether in man or monkeys, the scream was the moment of truth, the moment at which all pretense and false-seeming fall away." It's no less powerful a half-century after its inaugural moment.
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Goth: Undead Subculture edited by Lauren M.E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby (Duke University Press, 442 pages, $25.95 paper); Looking Askance: Skepticism in American Art from Eakins to Duchamp by Michael Leja (University of California Press, 300 pages, $34.95 paper). Here are two scholarly books from university presses that present fascinating chapters on Buffalo. By far the cheerier -- and far more obscure -- one is Michael Leja's superb "Looking Askance" which devotes a 32-page chapter called "Buffalo's Illusions" to the Pan American Exposition of 1901 and, specifically, to "one especially celebrated designer of spectacles: Henry Rotair" whose Palace of Illusions included "severed heads and torsos (that) looked at viewers, smiled, spoke and performed." Also featured was a female spirit that emerged from Niagara Falls as well as "the Half Body" of "The Topsy-Turvy Bicycle Girl" who appeared to levitate 20 feet in the air before returning to the stage.
Much grimmer indeed is Mark Nowak's contribution to a Goth subculture book called "To Commit Suicide in Buffalo Is Redundant: Music and Death in Zero City 1982-1984." It quotes liberally from this newspaper and focuses on music at the Continental and its contribution to "Necro-Ideology", specifically the group Nullstadt whose singer Giles Collins "remembered the early '80s in Buffalo as a time of Reagan-defying youth" wandering around "the windswept dusty streets lost between economies, its ad agencies scavenging party bones for misplaced bits of pride to put on TV, the beautiful decrepit steel mills."
Other subjects of these essays on Goth subculture include everyone from David Bowie, The Cure and Nine Inch Nails to "Edward Scissorhands," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the books of Poppy Z. Brite.
-- Jeff Simon