• Robert Birnbaum

Coffee Table Gallery

Updated: Feb 5, 2019

Isamu Noguchi Coffee Table (replica)

There was a time—actually for a lengthy period—that I disparaged the use of lists in culture/ critical journalism, believing they were a lazy way of delivering information and thus contributing to a pervasive cultural oversimplification. Such was the proliferation of lists across a wide span of media that a new term, 'listicle' was coined.

In 2005, Umberto Eco organized an exhibition at the Louvre entitled the Vertigo of Lists (and subsequently an exhibition monograph, The Infinity of Lists ) that removed the scales from my eyes.

The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco

Eco opined:

The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order -- not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists -- the shopping list, the will, the menu -- that are also cultural achievements in their own right. 

...At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

I still take issue with lists employing superlatives (especially 'the best'), though I have contributed my share of so-called listicles at such venues as The Daily Beast and more obscurely at VQR on Line (and more recently the Washington Post.) The season of the list with its deluge of the infoshitstream and as has the concomitant epidemic of list fatigue. However if lists are your thing, I think the well-regarded literary web oasis Large Hearted Boy continues to compile a complete list of "best book" lists every year.

So, here are my two shekels on a dozen real books that would be worthy and substantial enhancements to adorn the vestigial furniture known as the coffee table . You will note that a number of them are exhibition monographs which of course serve as a useful surrogate for those people who are not proximal to the big metropolitan museums. Sometimes they are an even better pathway to an artist's work...

A Thousand Crossings by Sally Mann , cover art “Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie) gelatin silver print, 37 x 47 1/2 inches, © Sally Mann,

Sally Mann has been a provocative , experimental photographer for over four decades( See her monograph Immediate Family —Valeria Luiselli observes, in her brilliant new novel Lost Children Archive, that Mann creates " a tension between document a fabrication between a unique fleeting moment and staging an instant" ) . In conjunction with a number of exhibitions around the nation (the Peabody Essex Museum was the venue local to me, also at the Getty and the National Gallery Of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 3–May 27, 2019, Jeu de Paume, Paris, June 17–September 22, 2019 High Museum of Art, Atlanta, October 19, 2019–January 12, 2020), this exhibition monograph, A Thousand Crossings acts as a not-quite career retrospective, with elucidating essays by the show’s curators, Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel, as well as Drew Gilpin Faust and Hilton Als. It is divided into five sections — beginning with Family (naturally) , The Land, Last Measure, Abide with Me, and What Remains and additionally includes previously unexhibited or unpublished photos.`

For a number of reasons I am disinclined to venture forth to art warehouses,galleries and other public venues (the thrill is gone.) Thus art tomes are of special value to me and agoraphobes everywhere. A Thousand Crossings is an excellently published (meaning it is a well-designed, well-reproduced paper and ink entity) and it is an illuminating bookend with Mann's recent memoir , Hold Still.

Hold Still by Sally Mann

Che: A revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson and Jose Hernandez

Globe trotting journalist Jon Lee Anderson's magnum opus(reportedly he is working on a biography of Fidel), Che , A Revolutionary Life (1997), the definitive biography of revolutionary hero and pop culture icon Che Guevara, has been well rendered graphically by Mexican artist Jose Hernandez. Thus it should take its rightful place with such valuable recent graphic histories as the John Lewis's "March" series, Paul Buhle's A People's History of American Empire (actually the entirety of Buhle' s ouevre should be included in American history curricula), Joe Sacco's Gaza and Riad Sattouf's three volume, The Arab of the Future

Portraits by Duane Michals

Duane Michals: Portraits includes 150 color and black and white photographs that purports to be a comprehensive overview of more than a half-century of portrait photographs― featuring images of musical performers such as Barbra Streisand and Johnny Cash; actors from Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams to Tilda Swinton; contemporary artists including Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Andy Warhol and his mother and Jasper Johns; authors Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and John Cheever; and artist patriarchs including Ren Magritte and Balthus.

Among other ground breaking Duane Michals pioneered the genre known as the photographic narrative sequence, using multiple images combined with text to create stories. In the book’s introduction, Michals describes the frustration he often felt at the predictability of his portrait sessions with public figures: “First the pleasantries,” he said. “Hello, yes, nice, good times, do you like my hair? This is my preferred side.” He’d wait patiently until, say, the subject sneezed. “A reflex. A surprise! I’ve found the surprise, the metaphysical glance,” he writes, and snap. “I am delighted by its unexpected pureness." Which puts into perspective his observation that "most portraits are lies. People are rarely what they appear to be, especially in front of a camera. You might know me an entire lifetime and never reveal yourself to me..."

In 1997 I enjoyed an amusing conversation with Michals (published in Stuff Magazine) coincident with the publication of his wonderful collection, The Essential Duane Michals (which includes my favorite portrait of Robert Duval). I was charmed by Michals' puckish persona, and among other things, his revelation that he liked to give birds' nests as gifts.

Duane Michals photo by Robert Birnbaum

Indecent Exposure by John Waters (Published in cooperation with the Baltimore Museum of Art)

My acquaintance with John Waters began with his 1988 film Hairspray (that’s right, I missed his 1972 breakthrough Pink Flamingos) which at the time was relegated to margins of campy nostalgia genre. Waters, favorite son of Baltimore (habitat of such as Billie Holiday,John Barth, Edgar Allan Poe, Nancy Pelosi, James Cain, Gertrude Stein, Frank Zappa, Babe Ruth, HL Menken, David Hasselhoff, Thurgood Marshall. Adrienne Rich, Fredrick Douglass, Philip Glass, Jerry Lieber, David Simon, Anne Tyler, Ta -Nehisi Coates and Jeff Koons ) has in the subsequent years “developed a reputation as an uncompromising cultural force “

John Waters at home, included in his Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition

From the excellent exhibition monograph:

Waters has broadened our understanding of American individualism, particularly as it relates to queer identity, racial equality, and freedom of expression. In bringing “bad taste” to the walls of galleries and museums, he tugs at the curtain of exclusivity that can divide art from human experience. Waters freely manipulates an image bank of less-than-sacred, low-brow references

John Waters circa 1985 (photo : Robert Birnbaum)

The Baltimore Museum of Art mounted a major retrospective (John Waters: Indecent Exposure, Oct 7 2018—Jan 6 2019 ) which included more than 160 photographs, sculptures, soundworks, and videos that he made since the early 1990s. Accompanying this exhibit is a hefty well-produced which include elucidating essays by BMA curator Kristen Hileman; art historian and activist Jonathan David Katz and artist Robert Storr; and an interview with Waters by diaristic photographer Wolfgang Tillmans.

John Waters. Divine in Ecstasy. 1992. Collection of Amy and Zachary Lehman. © John Waters, Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

Waters continues to engaged stay relevant with his traveling, endlessly morphing one man show This Filthy World. Waters, “:“The final irony: a creatively crazy person who finally gets power. Think about it: I didn’t change. Society did. Who would have ever thought a top college like RISD would invite a filth elder like myself to set an example to its students? See? There’s hope for everybody.”

John Waters: Indecent Exposure will be on exhibit at Columbus Ohio’s Wexner Center from Feb 02, 2019 - Apr 28, 2019

Zooicide: Seeing Cruelty, Demanding Abolition by Sue Coe

English artist Sue whose bibliography includes The Ghosts of Our Meat, The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, Dead Meat, Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation, and How to Commit Suicide in South Africa brings her striking, singular style to bear on the increasingly controversial institution —zoos. Her drawings and images are complemented by art historian Stephen F. Eisenman's essay, "The Capitalist Zoo," a history of zoos,

Coe grew up in Staffordshire, England, near a slaughterhouse, which has moved her to a deep commitment to animal rights activism. Along with her investigation of cruelty against animals, Coe has also explored topics such as sweatshops, prisons, AIDS, war, and anticapitalism

From a Psychology Today interview by Marc Bekoff:

Why did you publish Zooicide: Seeing Cruelty, Demanding Abolition?

Stephne Eisenman: We did it because zoos are one of the great, tragic, and largely unrecognized arenas of animal cruelty. Everywhere there is a zoo, mothers take their children and fail to recognize – because of all the happy, happy graphics and slick messaging – that the animals are mostly living painful, bored, frustrated, lonely, and shortened lives. Marc, you and a few others have been saying this for years, but telling the story in pictures is especially effective.

Sue Coe: I started the zoo images in response to the murder of Harambe the young gorilla. Another zoo accidentally gassed his sister and mother. His entire family was destroyed by zoos. A few days after Harambe’s death, the zoo proclaimed they had ‘harvested his genetic material.' Which, scientifically is highly unlikely. It was the zoo's way of dissembling and justifying their crime.

Why do you think that a combination of prose and graphic artwork is a good way to reach people and to change their minds and hearts about zoos, the focus of this book?

SE: We wanted to provide a critical, written history of zoos along with Sue’s powerful images. We especially wanted people to understand that zoos are the way they are because they depend upon the exploitation of animals for the sake of profit. Just as working people are exploited and used up in factories, warehouses, and offices so that a few people can get very rich, animals are exploited to promote corporations, increase real estate values, sell products and burnish the reputations of trustees and boards and make then richer!'

SC: Yes, I agree with Stephen. Making figurative art opens up a dialogue. It takes time to make art, time to stand in front of wondrous animals, looking, and drawing, it slows time down, which is imperative to understanding reality. Life drawing always attracts people who are intrigued and curious, and conversation begins. It's like something was stolen from them, they were told as children they couldn’t draw or had no talent. Put the camera phone away, and take a humble pencil and a piece of paper, and see what you can draw. [The image of Szenja made me reflect on what happened to her after her friend of 20 years, Snowflake, was shipped to the Pittsburgh Zoo to be used as a breeding machine to make more polar bears who would surely live their entire lives in captivity. Many people wondered "Can an animal really die of a broken heart?" Yes, they can. (See "Did Szenja the Polar Bear Die of a Broken Heart?")]

What are your major messages?

SE: Zoos do not protect endangered species. By making them objects of entertainment, they may serve the opposite function. On average, zoos spend about 2-3 percent of their budgets on research. That’s it.Zoos educate nobody. The didactics at most zoos are rudimentary at best. Zoos are unhappy places for animals. Like people, they want to be free and among their kind.The biggest threat to animals is habitat loss. So, what do zoos do? They sell McDonald’s hamburgers, KFC, and every other kind of fast food grown on lands that could have been used to sustain wild populations of animals. There oughta be a law.

SC: Yes, although I might differ with Stephen about the educational aspect. Children are being educated by zoos to perceive non-humans as mere props to entertain them. They and their caretakers are being educated to perceive animal bodies as either food or toys that can be purchased. Have overheard many times in zoos that animals ‘in the wild,’ live shorter ‘brutal’ lives, whose only reason for being is to search for food, and as food is supplied by a zoo, they are content. This is a falsehood, that reduces each prisoner, to a thing.

Of Love and War by Lynsey Addario

You might say that this collection of more than two hundred photographs by Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist and MacArthur Fellow, Lynsey Addario (whose work can be found in the pages of National Geographic, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Fortune etc) falls in the tradition of high risk, harrowing combat photography by such exemplars as Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke White, Don MCcaullum, Susan Meiselas, Larry Burrows and James Nachtway, except that the faces and places of the suffering and conflicts have changed and the horrors have increased exponentially— Addario having been to the major shit holes and killing fields of the last 20 years. has documented American soldiers rescue missions in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, the risk-frought lives of US women in soldiers, internecine fire-fights in Benghazi, Libya (where she was briefly held captive with Tyler Hicks, Stephen Farrell and Anthony Shadid). , Taliban-controlled Afghanistan immediately before and after the 9/11 attacks, post invasion Iraq and the abominations in western Sudan in the aftermath of the genocide in Darfur.

It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario

Addario’s work **exhibits an intense commitment to effectively presenting the horrendous consequences of human conflict. Interspersed between her striking and dramatic photographs in this volume, she annotates with fragments of personal writings. Also included are elucidating commentaries by foreign correspondent Dexter Filkens, much traveled journalist, Lydia Polgren and Suzy Hansen (Notes on a Foreign Country)

In an interview published in the New York Times after she was released from a brief imprisonment in Libyia, Addario observes:

People think photography is about photographing. To me, it’s about relationships. And it’s about doing your homework and making people comfortable enough where they open their lives to you. People underestimate me because I’m always laughing and joking. That helps. They let their guard down.

I try to do women’s stories when I can, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed as just a women’s photographer, because my interest is in covering the whole story — and human rights abuses and humanitarian issues...

The Art of Reading by Lawrence Schwarzwald

From the publisher:

New York photographer Lawrence Schwartzwald's candid images o of f readers, were made between 2001 and 2017. Partly inspired by André Kertész's classic tome On Reading (1971), Schwartzwald's subjects are mostly average New Yorkers―sunbathers, a bus driver, shoeshine men, subway passengers, denizens of bookshops and cafes―but also artists (most notably Amy Winehouse at Manhattan's now-closed all-night diner Florent).

In 2001 Schwartzwald's photo of a New York bookseller reading at his makeshift sidewalk stand on Columbus Avenue first published in the New York Post, garnered some attention and buzz Since then Schwartzwald has continued to seek readers of real books (no screens) much the same way as did Kertez , in an ever-widening variety of metropolitan locales

On Reading by Andre Kertesz

Andre Kertész's preoccupation with this black & white photography project was of a career long duration. Implicit in On Reading is a celebration of the power and pleasure of reading. Kertész photographed this subject wherever he traveled— Argentina, France, Hungary, UK and USA. and included readers of all ages in all manner of locations – on rooftops and balconies, in parks, on crowded streets, at train stations, in libraries – It's a glorious celebration that validates reading as an essential human activity

Poet Wislawa Szymborska (From Non Required Reading) agrees:

One more comment from the heart. I’m old fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that mankind has yet devised. Homo Ludens dances, sings, produces meaningful gestures, strikes poses, dresses up, revels, and performs elaborate rituals. I don’t wish to diminish the significance of these distractions—without them human life would pass in unimaginable monotony and possibly dispersion and defeat. But these are group activities above which drifts a more or less perceptible whiff of collective gymnastics. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game which are subject only to his own curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words that he’ll keep for a lifetime. And finally, he’s free—and no other hobby can promise this—to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or a take a quick dip in the Mesozoic.

War, Myth, Desire by David Levinthal

New York based photographer David Levinthal's work has been devoted to an "exploration of the relationship between photographic imagery and the fantasies, myths, events and characters that shape contemporary America’s mental landscape....Levinthal’s work has been a touchstone for conversations about theories of representation in photography and contemporary art, and through his work, he has investigated the overlapping of popular imagery with personal fantasy in the contexts of romance, sex, war, history, sports, space and social stereotypes. "

David Levinthal: War, Myth, Desire is the exhibition monograph that accompanied the first museum retrospective (at the Eastman Museum, 1 June 2018 -1 January 2019) of the artist’s work in more than twenty years. The exhibition includes nearly 200 prints, along with related books and ephemera.

The monograph fine well published survey and is the first comprehensive publication on David Levinthal, including major contributions to scholarship on the artist by Department of Photography curator Lisa Hostetler and contemporary art specialist Joanna Marsh, as well as commentary by art critic Dave Hickey. The volume is includes examples from all of Levinthal’s major series to date―including Hitler Moves East (1972–75), Modern Romance(1983–85), Wild West (1986–89), Desire (1991–92),Blackface(1995–98),Barbie (1997–98), Baseball (1998–2004) and History (2010–15).

ART KANE. HARLEM 1958 by Art Kane

A Great Day in Harlem, is a famous photograph of 57 jazz musicians who had been assembled outside a brownstone in New York in 1958 by photographer Art Kane. It was subsequently published in Esquire magazine— "I came up with the idea of getting as many musicians together in one place as we could. It would be sort of a graduation photo or class picture of all the jazz musicians. After I thought about it some more I decided they should get together in Harlem. After all, that's where jazz started when it came to New York."

So, as the story goes, one morning 57 jazz musicians, from the unknown to the world famous, showed up at the unlikely (for musicians) hour of 10am, at 7 East 126th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues. The group included Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, and Count Basie, Jonathan Kane, Art's son, took every single frame from the shoot, included forewords by Quincy Jones and Benny Golson, who appears in the photo, and his own introduction and with an original text by his dad, produced this 168 page volume of vital jazz history.

Oliver Jeffers: The Working Mind and Drawing Hand

From the publisher

This dynamic visual biography is Jeffers's personal chronicle of an artist who blends his love of creating stories with his love of art and his infectious charm, and is a must-have for art lovers and bibliophiles both young and old.

"Oliver Jeffers "takes a dive into Oliver's own origin story, inspirations, art evolution, and passion for storytelling: from growing up loving art and creating stories as a young boy in Belfast, Ireland; to finding a huge audience for his loveable stories; to what led him to his enormously clever found painting; to his collaborations with U2, TED, Colette, and Apple, to his newest meditative dipped painting performances. Oliver Jeffersis a fresh canvas for his imagination, and includes a pass through his most popular work, never-before-published illustrations and art, and a look into his more personal world of sketchbooks and doodles. Oliver's own story, infused with the whimsy and joy his work is famous for, is must-have not only for current fans of Oliver Jeffers's picture books, but also new fans, art lovers, and bibliophiles both young and old.


* the furor over Immediate Family cropped up at that sexually roiling moment in which moral panic about children and sexuality led to the placing Mann’s work with that of other controversial photographers, Jock Sturges and Robert Mapplethorpe.

** The American Scholar hosts a gallery of photos and some supplementary information


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