Betye Saar: Black Girl’s Window by Christophe Cherix and Esther Adler. The Museum of Modern Art, July 2019. 48 p. ill. ISBN 9781633450769 (pbk.), $14.95
Frida Kahlo: Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair by Jodi Roberts. The Museum of Modern Art, July 2019. 48 p. ill. ISBN 9781633450752 (pbk.), $14.95
Sophie Taeueber-Arp: Head by Anne Umland. The Museum of Modern Art, July 2019. 48 p. ill. ISBN 9781633450684 (pbk.), $14.95
Reviewed January 2020
Jerrold Shiroma, Digital Scholarship Librarian, University of California, Merced Library, firstname.lastname@example.org
The three books under consideration are from a series, 1 on One, published by The Museum of Modern Art. Each volume of the series offers meditations, usually by a single author, on single works held in the MoMA's collection. Each is 48 pages long, profusely illustrated, and reasonably priced. As a series, the books examine the work under consideration, how that work fits within the artists' wider oeuvre, as well as its place within wider artistic and historical contexts. The works featured in the series gravitate towards those works that have figured pivotal within the respective artist's careers.
In Betye Saar: Black Girl's Window, Esther Adler (MoMA's Associate Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints) and Christophe Cherix (MoMA's Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints), both of whom curated the exhibition Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl's Window, provide a wide-ranging, but incredibly nuanced, reading of Saar's resonating work. With reference points as varied as The Watts Towers, Joseph Cornell, mysticism, and Mammy imagery, the authors illustrate how Saar's Black Girl's Window exists at a crucial juncture of Saar's career, both illuminating what came before, and providing a storehouse of possible departure points for the work that followed. It is the variety of the materials and of the iconography in the work, the authors suggest, that make Black Girl's Window a transformative piece in Saar's career. As the authors note, this confluence of iconography "has informed Saar's work since...: 'I can no longer separate the work by saying this deals with the occult and this deals with shamanism, or this deals with so and so. It's more homogenous. It's all together and it's just my work.'"
Frida Kahlo: Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, by Jodi Roberts (independent scholar and curator), examines a unique work in Kahlo's oeuvre. Roberts posits this work as one through which Kahlo challenged a constellation of assumptions about both her work and her person: the exoticizing and fetishization of her paintings and appearance; her relationship to both her husband Diego Rivera and to the other male giants of Mexican painting at the time; and to André Breton's celebration of her work as quintessentially Surrealist...an assertion to which Kahlo was always ambivalent, if not outrightly dismissive. Indeed, as Roberts notes, Kahlo, along with artists such as María Izquierdo, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington, was crucial in contributing to alternative narratives of Surrealist possibilities in Mexico that existed outside, and against, the assumptions and prescriptions of the male Surrealist cohort. As such, this painting is both confrontational in its uniqueness, but also equally resolutely Kahlo in the ways in which her work consistently raised "questions about the intersection of our private experiences with the expectations of a broader social realism."
Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Head, by Anne Umland (MoMA's Curator of Painting and Sculpture) is a wonderful analysis of a quintessentially DADA work. What is interesting about this particular analysis is how much time is spent on contextualizing this work. Umland examines a number of Taeuber-Arp's works, such as other Heads, as well as her work with marionettes as a way of framing the Head in the MoMA's collection. One reason for this kind of analysis might be due to, as the author points out, the possibility that this particular Head was never exhibited in the artist's lifetime, and prior to arriving at the MoMA, had remained in the Arp family's private collection. Despite this circuitous approach to the object under consideration, the book does a wonderful job of illustrating how this work exists as a perfect manifestation of Taeuber-Arp's artistic concerns.
The introductory nature of this highly recommended series makes the books best placed in collections serving undergraduate students in art history, and welcome in libraries serving the general public.