Share this article

print logo

A tough year for culture, but a good year for culture books

Culture is what sustains us in uncertain times.

So we can be thankful that even in the annus horribilis of 2016 -- when so many of our great artists, musicians and cultural forces departed for greener pastures -- yielded an astounding collection of worthy books.

Whether you're interested in more deeply exploring local treasures like the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the grain elevators along the Buffalo River or learning more broadly about the history of human creativity, here are a few suggestions for the culture-lover on your holiday shopping list:

The Impressionist Revolution and the Advent of Abstract Art by Janne Sirén, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 191 pages, $50

Some people relax on their summer vacations. Albright-Knox Art Gallery Director Janne Sirén writes books.

His latest, penned during the summer months of 2015, is an essential companion to the gallery's fine exhibition "Monet and the Impressionist Revolution," and it is a must-read for fans of the Albright's collection or modern and contemporary art in general.

In clear-eyed prose, Sirén transports readers back to the brink of modernity and guides them on a swift and compelling narrative through visual culture that ends with the flourishing of abstract art in the early 20th century.

Albright-Knox Art Gallery director Janne Siren (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Albright-Knox Art Gallery director Janne Siren (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

What stands out about Sirén's work is its insistence on positioning art as an individualistic pursuit and against the ever-encroaching forces that attempt to repress, flatten, coopt and disempower it.

"Modern art requires the viewer's dedication and engagement in an intellectual conversation with inanimate objects," he writes in his afterword. "When faced with modern masterpieces like those illustrated in this book, simple delectation, passive consumption, just will not do. Art can enrich our lives, but only if we accept the challenges it puts before us, and only if we can live with the indeterminacy of interpretation and a plurality of meanings."

American Chartres: Buffalo's Waterfront Grain Elevators, by Bruce Jackson, State University of New York Press, 192 pages, $40

The prolific photographer Bruce Jackson, Western New York's foremost public intellectual, had lived in Buffalo for more than four decades before he recognized the astounding grandeur of the city's grain elevators.

For him, as for thousands of Western New Yorkers, the structures had simply faded into the city's post-industrial landscape and become easily dismissed reminders of the Buffalo's diminished glory.

All that changed in 2009, when Jackson's legendary curiosity led him into the city's derelict industrial corridor to document the rusted-out hull of the city's once-proud economy. That project quickly morphed into a photographic paean to the great silos that financed Buffalo's golden age and inspired the likes of Le Corbusier.

Jackson's work, like that of many other history-minded admirers from Rayner Banham to Patricia Layman Bazelon and beyond, goes a long way toward highlighting the forgotten glory of these structures and fostering a new appreciation for their. And that's just what he does in this new volume, which puts the graffitied interiors and pockmarked exteriors of the city's major and minor elevators into context.

There's no substitute for experiencing the elevators in person. But "American Chartes" is more than enough to whet your appetite for the real thing.

Now I Sit Me Down, by Witold Rybczynski Farrar, Straus and Grioux, 256 pages, $25

Mention that you've written a book about the history of the chair, and you can expect a good portion of your audience to immediately fall asleep. Too bad for them, because Witold Rybczynski's slim and breezy volume tells a fascinating story of world culture through its most beloved piece of furniture. It is, he writes, "as much a chronicle of human behavior as of human artifacts."

It has the quality of a great New Yorker article about something you never realized you were interested in, and it sells itself in the first few pages. The chair, Rybczynski writes, is one of the most enduring objects in modern human history -- a visual constant whose essential form connects us as much to the ancient Greeks as to shoppers testing out Poang lounge chairs in Ikea.

"They are simply different," Rybczynski writes of the non-evolutionary history of the chair. "They convey different meanings, carry different cultural messages, suit different tastes." He continues: "The way we choose to sit, and what we choose to sit on, says a lot about us: our values, our tastes, the things we hold dear."

Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, by Robert Kanigel, Knopf, 496 pages, $35

No single thinker has had more influence over the discipline of urban planning and the development of modern American cities than Jane Jacobs, the late Canadian champion for the centrality and vitality of the urban environment.

For that reason alone, whether you agree with her philosophies or not, Robert Kanigel's biography provides much-needed insight into the movements that are shaping the future of American cities.

Jacobs' book "The Death and Life of American Cities" remains a kind of bible for planners and city advocates, and in this volume Kanigel provides a dutifully researched look into the planner's life. He takes readers from her childhood in Pennsylvania and her young adulthood in Toronto through an extraordinarily life of activism and advocacy -- including a 1968 arrest for her rabble-rousing opposition to the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists, by Donna Seaman, Bloomsbury, USA, 480 pages, $35

There is, at the moment, a great and overdue movement of cultural rescue work led by scholars, museum curators and academics the world over. Locally, it has taken the form of exhibitions such as "Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is?" in the Albright-Knox.

That movement, aimed at promoting the great female artists whose lives and work has been unfairly overshadowed by their male contemporaries, has a great new document in Donna Seaman's diligently researched and compassionately written look into several undsersung female artists.

They include the painters Gertrude Abercombie, Joan Brown, Loïs Mailou Jones, Christina Ramberg and sculptors Ree Morton and Lenore Tawney. The book also includes a look at Louise Nevelson, whose wonderful "Sky Cathedral" is in the Albright-Knox collection. She is by far the most famous of the group, but still a minor figure compared to her male counterparts.

It is only through books like Seaman's, which contains fascinating biographical details as well as keen analyses of individual artworks, that this great historical (and ongoing) slight of accomplished women artists has any hope of being corrected.


There are no comments - be the first to comment