Gifts for people with brain cells

All I want for Christmas is a coffee-table full of this year’s great-looking, thought-provoking books

You’ll need pretty big stockings to stuff some of the season’s best coffee table books into, but your art/history/geography buff will probably be thrilled if you can figure out the logistics.

You’ll need pretty big stockings to stuff some of the season’s best coffee table books into, but your art/history/geography buff will probably be thrilled if you can figure out the logistics.

Helmut Newton: A Gun For Hire

A selection of commercial work by the purposefully politically uncorrect photographer. The title comes from his assertion that what he did was not art meant to be exhibited in a museum, but rather he was a hired gun, shooting whatever his clients wanted. The images range from those for fashion magazines such as the U.S., German and Italian incarnations of Vogue to shoots for various high-end designers, Absolut Vodka and Villeroy and Boch, whose plumbing fixtures become characters in a noir theater of the imagination. Newton uses both black-and-white and color, and his grainy, color-saturated photos become “stills” from non-existent movies. They surreally conjure evocative dream worlds frequently populated by stiletto-clad Amazons—both sexy and ominous, erotic and menacing—striding down the line between light and dark, literally and metaphorically.

Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape
Brian Hayes

This form of the field guide is used to explore everything that isn’t nature in our everyday environments, the design and architecture of the commonly overlooked or ignored—streetlights, cell phone towers, satellite dishes, power lines, cargo cranes, tank farms, sewer manholes and much more. It is an explanation of how the elements of our various infrastructures network together: raw materials such as water, food and coal moving over interconnecting distribution systems—roadways and electric grids—to waste disposal. Hayes explains the mysteries of a myriad of these common objects—floating globes on power lines, plumes of smoke from stacks, rotating concrete trucks, the running-out-of-phone-numbers crisis—and illustrates them with hundreds of images of the things that really surround us from sea to shining sea.

Ideas: A History of Thought & Invention, From Fire to Freud
Peter Watson
(Harper Collins)

No pictures here, but an attempt in 800-odd pages to fashion a history of the notions by which we shape our lives and how they have evolved over time. The idea is widely defined, including both abstractions and inventions. The scope is truly impressive: why stone axes were shaped to the same proportions 700,000 years ago; who divided time into BC/AD and a circle into 360 degrees; where do suicide bombers get the idea they will be rewarded in paradise; how were numbers conceived; why did Chinese creativity decline after the European middle ages; who thought of the piano; and what about Gilgamesh, punctuation and opera? Watson has an excellent eye for the fascinating detail in the nooks and crannies of thought.

Black Rock
Peter Goin/Paul F. Starrs
(University of Nevada)

Goin and Starrs, who both teach at UNR, combine maps, photos and text to explore everyone’s favorite big empty nowhere—the place where the pavement ends—from a variety of perspectives: geological to ground level and aerial. They alternate eight separate sections of text and photos, using both, along with maps and the cartographic notion of them as “drafts” to locate a place. In doing so, they construct a narrative that assays the basic physical make-up of the place—land, air, water, fire—as well as some of the human interactions—Gerlach, Burning Man, land sailers, hot-spring dippers. The result suggests that Black Rock Country is not one place, but many.

James Surls: The Splendora Years, 1977-1997
(University of Texas)

An overview of the work of one of our most idiosyncratic and innovative contemporary sculptors, exploring the two decades he lived and worked in Splendora, Texas. Surls’ work is gorgeous and creepy at the same time. He blends the personal and the universal in natural forms fabricated from steel, bronze and, above all, an ability to shape wood into edgy, over-the-top imagery that explores the realms and paradoxes of duality: male and female, joyous optimism and dark expressionism, intuition and conscious rationality. The pieces are large and balance intention and intuition by fusing folk-art imagery—ominous whirling vortexes, sexual innuendo, spirit conjuring, knives, house forms—with a high modernist sculptural dexterity to create a sophisticated baffling and provocative visual poetry; one that is freighted with a plethora of potential meanings.

Demonic Divine: Himalayan Art and Beyond
Rob Linrothe & Jeff Watt
(Rubin Museum of Art)

More than 200 images of artworks of wrathful deities who yoke together the apparently paradoxical—demonic and divine—to achieve compassionate ends through fierce means. The paintings outstrip even Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of Hell. Death, destruction, decapitation and beings with garlands of severed heads become metaphors for their opposite—laying waste to notions of hatred, revenge, anger, ignorance and greed. Unlike in Western religions, followers of these Himalayan traditions invoke these paintings as metaphors, calls to urge us to go to war with our own personal demons. The 12th- to 19th-century images are dense, richly layered, provocative and visually staggering.

Antiquity and Photography
Claire Lyons, et al.
(Getty Museum)

Photographs of ancient sites and ruins around the Mediterranean as documented by 19th-century photographers between 1840 and 1880. In addition to presenting some remarkable images—the Caryatid Porch in Athens, the statues at Thebes— the book explores the nature of the relationship between photography and archaeology—suggesting that such images were both factual and lyrical abstractions. It analyzes the way antiquity came to be depicted and promoted—through dissemination of the prints—a new kind of armchair tourism, taking us to places of mythic significance. The exhibition will be on view when the museum opens the newly renovated Getty Villa in January.

William Morris: Mazorca, Objects of Common Ceremony
(Marquand/University of Washington)

An overview of the works of this amazing glass artist who creates objects that, although entirely handmade of glass, appear to be ancient stone or wood carvings. Morris draws inspiration from ancient cultures from around the world— Egyptian, Asian, Peruvian. But his works are not copies or recreations of these traditions; rather, they’re images that confuse and confound distinctions between old and new, sacred and profane, idol and offering, spiritual and physical, animals and people. The book is gorgeously designed—with full-page, full-color bleeds—and beautifully presented.

Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits
Marion Oettinger, et al.

The catalog of a landmark survey exhibition organized by El Museo del Barrio in New York and touring the country through April 2006. It ranges from pre-Columbian carvings to contemporary works, including more than 200 artists from 15 countries—showcasing the similarities and differences among the cultures of the region. It explores the many uses of portraiture: preserving memory of the deceased, marking the deeds of the mighty, bolstering and/or mocking the status quo. The usual, and well-known, suspects are here—Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Josè Campeche—but so are some intriguing, anonymous or obscure contemporary artists such as Nahum Zenil. The section of religious and colonial portraits from 1400-1800 is worth the price alone.