The fantastically layered sculptures of Petah Coyne involve an array of both references that are often derived from literature and materials, of which taxidermy animals are perhaps the most notable. Fused into otherworldly concoctions of ethereal beauty, they invite the viewer to contemplate such seemingly opposed qualities as vulnerability, innocence, seduction, and aggression, among others. “My sculptures are often about very private subject matters”, Coyne once told me, adding: “I often think about the fragile state of our lives and how we are not always good to each other.” Without reflecting the current state of affairs, Coyne’s work makes us contemplate the conflicting forces inherent in human existence and aspirations. In fact, in that respect, they seem more current than ever. This particular book, one of several on the artist, includes a special treat: an original short story by A. M. Homes.
Born 1963 in Cairo, Egypt and based in Paris before moving to New York, Amer has explored themes of gender, sexuality, and especially desire for a long time. Her best-known works combine aspects of painting and embroidery, depicting women engaged in scenes of domesticity, for example, or re-appropriating images of female bodies derived from soft-porn magazines. Overall, Amer’s work is as conceptual as it is political, challenging the traditional notion of painting and the narrow-minded view of art history, which has primarily focused on white male artists for too long.
It’s no secret that Katharina Grosse is among the most prominent contemporary artists to work both site-specific and in tremendous scale. This year, for example, despite delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, she has transformed entire buildings of the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, into a painted landscape. However, rather than transforming locations into something else, her work tends to highlight what is already there. “I find it totally fascinating that the things and situations that we experience in life - and that’s what I basically also experience in painting, just that reflects another way of processing this information - change all the time”, she once told me and it is true, her work does help us to process information in unexpected ways. For example, in 2016 Grosse painted Fort Tilden, a structure trashed by Hurricane Sandy in New York’s Rockaways in alarming shades of red and white. Yet, it seemed like an interaction rather than an intervention, providing the building with a most memorable standing ovation before its impending demolition.
Recipient of the 2010 Turner Prize, Susan Philipsz has worked in sculpture, photography, and film. However, it is her sound installations inspired by and installed at a variety of historic sites that count among her most notable achievements. The latter address the unique architectural characteristics and acoustics of each setting, while exploring the emotive and psychological effects of sound and song. This book focuses on one particular project that was conceived by Philipsz for the Radcliffe Observatory, Green Templeton College, University of Oxford in 2009. Drawing inspiration from the historic role of this 18th Century structure, she first recorded herself playing radio interval signals, sourced from around the world, on vibraphone. Later, these recordings were broadcast from the rooftop of Modern Art Oxford and projected through speakers placed at the Observatory. By then, the sound had taken on a somewhat haunting and lamenting quality, enhanced by the use of the vibraphone. The title of the piece: “You Are Not Alone”. In conversation, Philipsz once told me: “Sound is visceral and you respond to it immediately according to how it works spatially, sculpturally, and how it resonates within your body.
Based in Berlin, the conceptual artist Su-Mei Tse traverses through many genres, including photography, video, sculpture, and installation. Yet, it is music that often serves as the common denominator. Trained as a classical cellist, Tse frequently explores different aspects of the field, such as rhythm and movement. Though she has shown internationally for years, receiving the 2003 Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale for the best national participation, for example, extensive publications are few. This particular book provides the best overview to date without losing a sense of intimacy and spontaneity due to its conception as a notebook. “Especially if you work with historic references and if your work is conceptual, you need to reintroduce a sense of lightness”, Tse once explained to me before adding: “You have to make sure that if you talk about breathing, the breath also remains in the work. The work cannot become a forced discourse.”
One of the formidable contemporary artists working in ceramics, New York-based Kathy Butterly received her early training at UC Davis, studying with Robert Arneson, among others. Meanwhile, she has long cited George Ohr and Ken Price as important influences on her work and once confided to me her admiration for Fred Sandback and Joan Mitchell. A self-proclaimed maximalist and equipped with an enchanting sense of humor, she creates small to (more recently) mid-size sculptures that despite their abstract language tend to manifest as individualized protagonists. Starting with cast rather than hand-built forms, Butterly achieves this by means of a vibrant palette that demands the careful layering and multiple firing of glazes, as well as minute details, such as strings of beads, among others. When speaking about the scale of her work, Butterly once told me: “These works might be physically small, but I enter them and they become a universe to me. In that sense, they are huge. My slightly larger pieces seem to become more about landscapes than figuration.”
Belonging to a younger generation of painters to expand their practice to site-specific installations, Cain’s list of completed projects is staggering and speaks to her ceaseless energy. “I started making the works on site to feel that the paintings were active and present tense”, Cain explained to me last year, stating further that she hoped that the viewer would then be able to feel painting and have a different sense of engagement. So, besides creating enticing works on paper and large-scale paintings, she has transformed public walls and a variety of spaces into immersive works of art. The latter include one of her latest projects, a massive stained-glass installation at the San Francisco International Airport. An obvious through line? Her characteristically luminous palette, which has solicited comparisons to illuminated manuscripts, prisms, and – perhaps most poignantly - cascading rainbows.
Cutler’s depiction of women clothed in historic (such as Victorian) costumes while engaged in a multitude of activities, are as mesmerizingly familiar as they are otherworldly. Obscurities become more evident upon close inspection, including the dancing on tabletops with chairs worn like hats or the mending of docile tigers with needle and thread. Meanwhile, it is the crisp white of the paper, which Cutler employs as her background, that succeeds in shining a spotlight on the scenes depicted. Stylistically, Persian miniature painting, Surrealism, children's fairytale books and Japanese woodblock printing, are easy references, but Cutler’s voice is her own. By drawing from private and public collections, this book marks an enticing survey of this thought-provoking oeuvre.
Born in Cleveland in 1926, Nancy Spero has long been regarded as one of the most influential artists of her generation. In 1964, after five years in Paris, she moved with her husband, artist Leon Golub, and three young sons to New York, where she became heavily involved with the feminist movement. When I met with her in 2003, she was still an activist, yet it had been over thirty years since she had worked on her groundbreaking War Series (1966-1970), a collection of angry manifestos against the Vietnam War. It was the project that helped sharpen her focus on women as sexual, political and economic victims. In the years that followed. She increasingly contemplated “women as mothers who see their sons go to war and who don’t want them thrust into this carnage”, as she explained to me. A few years later, in 1976, she completed Torture of Women, the subject of this particular publication. Consisting of fourteen panels, whose devastating images are rooted in a variety of sources, ranging from ancient mythology to the 20th Century, it is a true epic. This book includes many detail shots, making it an invaluable viewing experience, second only to seeing the work in person.
An artist I wish I had known personally. In addition to creating surrealist paintings that dive deep into the human psyche, Remedios Varo (1908–63) also wrote ceaselessly, a fact much less known. Indeed, none of her texts were published during her lifetime, let alone translated into English. As a remedy to this oversight, this intimately sized book brings together an impressive array of material, including Varo’s unpublished interviews, correspondence and exercises in surrealist automatic writing, for example. In that respect, it allows for invaluable new insight into the artist’s imagination. As in her paintings, mysticism and magic are predominant themes here as well, allowing readers a sense of escapism - much appreciated during our most surreal times.