Where beauty and knowledge meet: The coffee table book

You don’t need a coffee table to enjoy these new, recently published, and forthcoming art books. While they’d lend an air of sophistication to the low-set table in anyone’s living room, they’d be equally impressive on the bookshelf or, better yet, in hand. From the illuminating history of the American quilt to photographer Mark Klett’s reinterpretation of the landscape, this round up covers a multitude of artistic forms of expression, reflecting the extraordinary and the mundane as ripe arenas for artistic interpretation.

FABRIC OF A NATION: AMERICAN QUILT STORIE (2021) edited by Pamela A. Parmal, Jennifer M. Swope, and Lauren D. Whitley, MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 240 pages, $45

In 120 full-color photographs and in its detailed account of makers and their influences, Fabric of a Nation tells the story of the quilt’s unique place in American history. Quilts evolved alongside the nation as reflection of America itself with decorative motifs or person and collective storytelling.



Although they were primarily made as bedspreads and coverlets, historic American quilts provide windows into moments in time, revealing narratives of invisible communities such as slaves and former slaves, and social and political movements, such as women’s suffrage.

Fabric of a Nation invites viewers and readers to consider the contradictions stitched into the history of American quilting and into the material of American life,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her preface. “Each of the fifty-plus bed coverings highlighted here is in some respect a ‘quilt unlike any other,’” (referencing novelist Alice Walker’s impression of Harriet Powers’ famous Bible Quilt.) “In contrast to classic presentations of American quilting, which are typically sorted by form, ethnicity, or region, this survey is structured around themes more likely to be found under the old Smithsonian rubric of “History and Technology,” than in a museum of art.”

Fabric of a Nation, which was published in advance of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s exhibition of the same name (Oct. 10 through Jan. 17), introduces readers to the known and unknown voices, male and female, who’ve distilled their stories into a now celebrated art form, and continue to do so as immigrants, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, and LGBTQ+ Americans. mfa.org/exhibition/fabric-of-a-nation

STILL LIFE by Amber Creswell Bell, Thames & Hudson, 272 pages, $40 (released Nov. 9)

A new generation of artists embrace the genre of still-life painting, merging a tradition in art that spans centuries with contemporary aesthetics and themes. In Still Life, writer and curator Amber Creswell Bell considers the work, motivations, subject matter, and themes of more than 40 contemporary Australian artists.

Readers are introduced to artists such as India Mark, whose stark, tonal compositions express an elegant simplicity; Peter Simpson, who uses direct observation of organic materials — such as flowers and vegetables — as a jumping off point for exploring a multitude of concepts that reflect his subjective experience while painting; and Mirra Whale, who uses still-life as a means of exploring commonplace rituals and objects normally overlooked, such as the remains of an unfinished meal.

Still Life is a profusely illustrated, accessible survey, that features illuminating interviews and brief biographies on each artist.

“As long as there is material culture, still life will contain a message and meaning — and by pursuing this tradition, we are constantly engaging both with our ancestors and our peers,” writes Creswell Bell in her introduction. “Still life communicates grand gestures despite its modesty, and who are we to begrudge that?”

SEEING TIME: FORTY YEARS OF PHOTOGRAPHS (2020) photographs by Mark Klett, essays by Rebecca A. Senf and Keith F. Davis, interview by Anne Wilkes Tucker, University of Texas Press, 480 pages, $75

Photographer Mark Klett’s visual exploration of landscapes of the American West, which bear the traces of human presence, is a story of interaction between people and place. Rather than an indictment of the impact of humankind on nature, it reveals a multilayered relationship that evokes memories of time and region.

A Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University, where he teaches photography, Klett is known for his panoramic rephotography projects, which juxtapose images of landscapes taken over time.

Seeing Time, the first retrospective of the artist’s career, spans four decades and features more than 300 color and black-and-white photographs from 13 solo and collaborative projects, which expand on the concept of landscape, causing us to reconsider how we view it.

“Klett’s photographs are at once empirical and conceptual, descriptive and suggestive,” writes Davis in his essay, “A Sense of Where You Are: The Making of a New Kind of Landscape Photographer.” “They deliberately blur the line between the personal and the cultural, present and past, fact and interpretation.”

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (2021) By Catherine Millet, Marta Ruiz del Árbol, Ariel Plotek, Didier Ottinger, and contributing authors, D.A.P./Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, 316 pages, $65

From her pioneering works in abstraction, made between 1910 and 1920, to her depictions of New Mexico, where she lived from 1949 until her death in 1986, Georgia O’Keeffe was a key figure in 20th-century American art.

Featuring 171 color images and 74 in black-and-white, Georgia O’Keeffe is a complete survey of the pioneering artist’s career.

Published on the occasion of a major exhibit of her work at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (through Aug. 8), this authoritative tome is accompanied by documentary photographs, a biography, and essays from contributing authors. Her paintings and drawings are further illuminated by accompanying quotes from the artist that reveal her reverence for nature and her uncommon gift for expressing the ineffable.

The world was big beyond her understanding, she wrote, and she sought to understand it by “trying to put it into form,” seeking “the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.”

Georgia O’Keeffe’s allure stems primarily from her iconic cityscapes, landscapes, abstractions, flower paintings, and more, and they’re vividly brought to life in this magnificent presentation. Museothyssen.org/exposiciones/georgia-okeeffe

NIGHT CALLS (2021) Photography and text by Rebecca Norris Webb, Radius Books, 120 pages, $50

A mood is evoked in the photography of Rebecca Norris Webb, which suggests feelings poised somewhere between the elegiac and the reverent. Retracing the route of her father’s house calls as a country doctor in Rush County, Indiana — a six-year project — culminated in Night Calls, a richly woven, ethereal dialogue between past and present, fathers and daughters, memory and time.

The photographs, which were predominantly taken at night or in the early morning hours, echo the rhythms of a doctor on 24-hour call. Accompanying them are Norris Webb’s lyrical, handwritten texts, addressed to her father, whose patient logs and memories guided her on her path.

“In the spirit of my father’s house calls, I visited a number of the small-town and rural homes of his former patients and their descendants to make collaborative portraits, trying my best to channel his gentle bedside manner,” she writes in a brief introduction.

Her photographs capture a spectrum of rural life, including the people to the landscape, that feels like a glimpse into dreams and memories. Night Calls reverberates with an intimate sense of place and personal reflection. 

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