Gift Guide 2016: Coffeetable Books
Big books give heft to big success stories about women in business, Flatbed Press, UT's collections, Pan Am, and the Spurs
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Kathleen Brady Stimpert, Nina Hernandez, Wayne Alan Brenner, and Jonelle Seitz, Fri., Dec. 16, 2016
You can't tell a huge story in a little book. If the subject has real heft – say, a collection that holds millions of objects or a major-league franchise that's had five championship runs – then the tome about it should have it, too. It ought to be oversize and expansive, with a wealth of great pictures. This holiday season sees no shortage of volumes that succeed in that, and we've chosen five that tell massive success stories – of women who work, of printmakers, of an airline, of a basketball team (Go Spurs!) – in massive ways, with massive style. – Robert Faires
The CollectionsEdited by Andrée Bober
UT Press, 720 pp., $125
If you're familiar with the Blanton Museum of Art or the internationally heralded Harry Ransom Center, then you know about their extensive collections. But are you aware they represent just a fraction of the holdings of UT-Austin? Nestled in the Forty Acres are actually 80 collections, containing more than 170 million (yes, million) objects – an astonishing array that spans multiple centuries, cultures, and media. This makes the university the largest repository in Texas and also, in terms of number of objects, the largest in the country.
While it would take you years to sift through all this material, fortunately you don't have to. The Collections thoughtfully highlights holdings from 40 academic and administrative units at UT, covering archaeology, music, film, popular culture, visual and performing arts, natural history, science and technology, rare books and manuscripts, and more. Over 350 experts contributed content to this handsome publication, which was edited by Andrée Bober, director of Landmarks, UT's public art program. "Collections thrive at the university, but they can be elusive – even to those who work and study on campus," she says. "This book brings them together for the first time and shows the character and depth of these extraordinary holdings. I hope it contributes to the general familiarity with these public resources and inspires pride for all Texans."
Typography nerds will delight in the Rob Roy Kelly American wood type collection, featuring more than 160 examples of printing typefaces used between 1828 and 1900, a period when printing technologies transitioned from hand-created letters to industrialized mechanical typography. Here you can see fonts such as Corinthian No. 2 and Antique Light Face Extended, as well as ornamental borders and decorative wood type blocks. The collection makes plain what a Herculean effort it was to create even a simple poster then. Can you imagine the amount of work that would've been required to put together something like The Austin Chronicle? We should all be grateful for our shiny Macs and Adobe Creative Suite.
Among the numerous gems from the Ransom Center's film collection is the Robert De Niro archive, acquired in 2006. The actor drove a New York cab as preparation for his role in Taxi Driver, and here is his taxi driver's license from 1976. The photo on it is striking, revealing; he's a man not to be messed with – a Travis Bickle, indeed. Are you talking to me? In striking contrast are the photos of Audrey Hepburn with various hairstyles from 1964. They were used to determine how the actress' hair should be worn in My Fair Lady.
Whether you're a fan of art, science, politics, history, or just about anything, really, The Collections holds something fascinating for you. From Gene Autry's cowboy boots, gifted by Willie Nelson to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, to a 1921 recording of "The Four Jacks" on a Blue Amberol cylinder (Historical Music Recordings Collection of UT Libraries). From a selection of freshwater and terrestrial invertebrates (Texas Natural Science Center), to Praxis rerum criminalium, a rare law manuscript from 1556 written by Joost de Damhourdre (Rare Books and Special Collections, School of Law). The book is bound to appeal to someone on your holiday gift list. Just be forewarned: At 720 pages, it won't fit in a stocking. – Kathleen Brady Stimpert
FLATBED PRESS AT 25by Mark Lesly Smith & Katherine Brimberry
UT Press, 432 pp., $65
In an era when printing is chiefly regarded as the thing you do after you've finished editing a Word doc, the notion of a doorstop tome celebrating that activity may seem like a real yawner. But the difference between what that inkjet gizmo attached to your Mac does and what the print masters at Flatbed Press do is the difference between shooting off a bottle rocket and landing a mechanical rover on Mars. In Flatbed, co-founders Katherine Brimberry and Mark L. Smith have established a creative laboratory of the highest order, a place where artists from across the globe can come with visions of work that seem impossible to realize and have them produced.
Flatbed Press at 25 shows how the printmaking facility has pulled off that astonishing trick for a quarter of a century. Brimberry and Smith selected 36 artists to serve as case studies for the Flatbed process, introducing each with text providing background on the artist as well as the challenges thrown at Flatbed's team by each and how the printers met them with a blend of creative ingenuity and technical expertise. Along with the words are reproductions of the prints, large and lush – gorgeous testaments to both the variety of art produced and its consistent impact: alluring animal images by John Alexander, Keith Carter, Billy Hassell, and Melissa Miller; gripping human figures with surreal flourishes by Luis Jiménez and Julie Speed; piercing satire in cartoon form by Michael Ray Charles, Robert L. Levers Jr., and Peter Saul; vivid abstracts by Samson Mnisi, Margo Sawyer, and James Surls; and one-of-a-kind works by Robert Rauschenberg and Terry Allen.
The images are rich and mesmerizing by themselves: You can get lost in the haunting mystery of their subjects and moods, the intricacies of the lines, the bold graphics, and the colors, oh, the colors ... hues that pop off the page, especially the lurid reds that appear to have bled from a fresh wound (as in Speed's Ad Referendum and Surls' Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes II), and deep blacks that suck you into them like quicksand (Hassell's Red-Winged Blackbird, Frank X. Tolbert 2's Lady With a Tail). But taken with the works' origin stories, the prints have added layers of complexity that can hold your gaze for long minutes. You can see beyond the beauty of their compositions, shapes, and tones to the technical finesse that shaped the art. These pieces weren't just worked up by a brush or pen or lens; there were mechanics at play, and some of the wonder of these prints comes from the collaborative efforts of the artist and the printers, manipulating machinery and processes like wizards casting spells.
With reproductions of and documentation about an additional 40+ prints, a glossary of printmaking terms, a timeline, and photos of the shop and its equipment, Flatbed Press at 25 is an invaluable chronicle of this facility's history and an artistic treasure that should forever change what you think when you hear the words "to print." – R.F.
Spurs Nation: Major Moments in San Antonio Basketballby San Antonio Express-News Staff
Trinity University Press, 192 pp., $29.95
One of the most striking images in a book full of them is the page-and-a-half shot of Tim Duncan making for the locker room after the San Antonio Spurs were bounced out of the 2016 playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Many fans, including yours truly, watched in real-time as the legend ducked his head and extended one finger in the sky, wondering – for good reason, it turned out – if the day of his retirement was finally upon us. The San Antonio Express-News' glorious coffeetable book, Spurs Nation: Major Moments in San Antonio Basketball, is filled with three decades' worth of those moments, including contributions from staff writers, photojournalists, and another recently retired San Antonio veteran, columnist Buck Harvey.
Serving both the nostalgia of longtime Spurs and Express-News fans as well as the thirst of young ones for details of the franchise's five championship runs, the book chronicles that history, beginning with the 1987 NBA draft lottery that brought David Robinson – whose character is the unquestioned foundation of the last 30 years – to South Texas. Express-News Sports Editor Jim Lefko, perhaps unnecessarily, explains in his introduction the decision to begin with the Admiral's draft and sacrifice some true Spurs glory days: There have been enough major moments in San Antonio basketball during the Duncan era to fill two books. Add in the old American Basketball Association days, not to mention George Gervin's reign as league scoring champ, and you'd end up with a book no lap could withstand. What made the cut, however, does not disappoint. In the early years, note the casual reference to Madonna sitting courtside at a game in 1994 to watch then-boyfriend Dennis Rodman and the bald bitterness of Bob Hill, the head coach Gregg Popovich controversially fired and replaced in 1996. (Incidentally, Bleacher Report revived the story with fresh details earlier this month, pointing out that Popovich was vindicated after the club's first championship run in 1999.) Later, the newspaper watches as a dynasty develops around Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. Four more championships, along with several agonizing playoff defeats, followed. All that Spurs Nation truly lacks is context that could've been provided by staff memories to supplement the primary sources. Without that, the volume feels like a gussied-up archive. And that's a missed opportunity. – Nina Hernandez
Pan Am: History, Design & Identityby M.C. Hühne
Callisto, 432 pp., $70
Talk about defining an era. The airline BOAC may have started the world's first commercial scheduled jet service in May of 1952, but tout le monde didn't really start flying steady 'til Pan Am's New York-to-Paris flight via Boeing 707 got going in October of 1958, and, besides, who the hell remembers BOAC except for its mention in that one Beatles song, right?
No, it's Pan Am that was responsible for the wider embodiment of the term "jet set" that the Hearst papers' Cholly Knickerbocker had coined back in the day, and it was this same Pan Am whose burgeoning corporate identity – represented by iconic posters bearing the familiar logo by Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv glorified in ads across all media in the Sixties and Seventies – it's that same series of promotional campaigns that continue to festoon so many of the walls of my own childhood globe-trotting memories.
But then, Pan American Airways had started back in 1927 and would continue in various incarnations until its sad financial collapse in 1991, so there's a whole lot of history that the international powerhouse of travel covers as it once covered the geography of this oblate and rapidly warming spheroid. And if you think that's a worthy topic of investigation, that vibrant history, then there's a new book you'd probably enjoy reading. But if you're more concerned with the graphic identity accompanying such a history, and you'd especially enjoy seeing a rich collection of posters and print ads and other visio-textual ephemera representing Pan Am's many decades of service, then there's a gorgeous coffeetable tome you shouldn't be without.
Pan Am: History, Design & Identity by M.C. Hühne, now available from Callisto in a beautifully produced volume that's solid and hefty enough to clobber Optimus Prime with, is that book, that tome, that perfect addition to a life which embraces the freedoms and pleasures modern aviation technology has allowed. Whether you experienced any number of the flights yourself or you've only entertained flights of fancy about those years in which a certain sense of elegance and adventure still accompanied the fulfillment of transoceanic wanderlust, here's a deeply annotated catalog of wonders from "The World's Most Experienced Airline" for your happy perusal. – Wayne Alan Brenner
In the Company of WomenEdited by Grace Bonney
Artisan, 359 pp., $35
Like Grace Bonney's 12-year-old blog Design*Sponge, her book In the Company of Women, for which she interviewed 100 female creative professionals about their practices in business and life, is beautiful, authentic, and fresh. Between the covers are words of wisdom from artists, designers, writers, entrepreneurs, chefs, and activists (who disclose, in asides, as straight, gay, and trans), accompanied by portraits and photos of their workspaces. As on the blog – on which Bonney has, admirably, posted openly about her efforts to rectify its early lack of diversity – women of color are well represented. And while there are plenty of twenty- and thirtysomethings, older women are included, too.
The book reveals the thinking of Tavi Gevinson, Neko Case, Eileen Fisher, Thelma Golden, Linda Rodin, and Maya Lin, and the East and West coasts are heavily represented. But it also gives a voice to plenty of lesser-known female creatives who live and work across the country and abroad. Would your mother, sister, best friend, wife, or cousin see herself reflected here? If she has ever kept a journal, organized a workspace, dreamed up a business plan, crafted something from scratch, or created a piece of art, then chances are the answer is yes.
The women's responses were elicited by standard questions: "What did you want to be when you were a child?" "In moments of self-doubt or adversity, what do you do to build yourself back up?" Nevertheless, the answers are as varied as the subjects – there is no road map to, or single definition of, creative success. Ample advice on finding the balance between art and business is countered by those who don't see their work as a business. Two interviewees give their answers in illustrations. Austin hotelier Liz Lambert quotes Hunter S. Thompson, while Brooklyn product designer Karen Young quotes Rumi.
The interviews are heartening, especially for women who need lifting up after being rhetorically and politically grabbed by the pussy. The photographed portraits are compelling, and the details of their workspaces are eye candy for any woman who has wished for a room of her own. My favorite is the close-up of a scratched industrial mixer, labeled "Little Momma," in Cheryl Day's Savannah, Ga., bakery – an affirmation, in the face of early mornings and bottom lines, that the work begins in love, and that the work and love are hers. – Jonelle Seitz