Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Pharmacy or Farm: Phaidon Hedges Bets

Books in Brief: Two from Phaidon: Vitamin 3-D and Creamier

Pages from one of the publications under review
Pages from one of the publications under review

Phaidon is an inveterate experimenter in art book formats.  When it was founded in Vienna in the 1920s it was a pioneer in affordable books of quality design and accessible scholarship.  The company fled to London with its Jewish founders and, in the seventies and eighties, went through what its own website calls a “rough period” of different owners, laboriously following a tried and tested essay/plate formula—the bread and butter of art publishing, albeit one that many actually find rather filling.  Phaidon are perhaps best known today for their handsome if somewhat one-size-fits-all Contemporary Artists series.

In recent years, however, there has been a teasing of the boundaries between classic art books and other reading experiences.  Two recent ventures exemplify different ways to go.  And while both these publications have attractions and merits, a certain built-in obsolescence almost willfully pits these books against the an ethos of art books for the ages.  Many of the most prized volumes on this reader’s shelves are vintage Phaidon books by the likes of Heinrich Wölfflin and Jakob Burckhardt, art books that have no sell-by date.

As if to acknowledge their ephemeral if tonic quality, the respective series from which these two books emanate take titles from the pharmacy and the farm: sculpture is served by Vitamin 3-D (it’s related to theirVitamin P, for painting; D, for drawing and Ph, for photography series) while the publication on upcoming artists titled “Creamier” relates to their Cream series.

Vitamin 3-D actually feels like the catalog for a biennale or sprawling museum survey that happens never actually to take place.  117 artists or collaborative teams are profiled.  Each receives a pair of double-page spreads with a few paragraphs of blurb, a different one for each artist, and around half a dozen illustrations.  It is a responsible-enough cross section of fully emerged if still almost “emerging talent” aged artists, but the format is conducive to a year-book than an encyclopedia.  Of course, it sells itself as “The definitive book on contemporary sculpture and installation art from around the world” but, well, we’ve all got to earn a living. Definitive or transient, at $75 it is priced as an enyclopedia.

Vitamin 3-D is both a useful and an enticing volume, except that those who will use it have as competition the world wide web for updated information and images of the artists they might want to look up here, and for those seeking to be enticed, there is no curated sequence or considered juxtaposition in a volume that simply lists its artists alphabetically.  As such the venture might find itself falling between stalls.

Creamier makes no bones about its ephemerality, or rather, plays with it, because again, price prohibits one treating it as the newspaper it tries to look like with its tabloid format, pink paper (more New York Observer than Financial Times by the way) and lack of spine.  It is doomed to get grubby quickly but is too nicely produced to warrant wrapping up anyone’s fish and chips.  The concept of ten curators choosing ten artists each is cute: it frees publisher and reader alike from the tyranny of a singular view.  But in a way such halfway-house democracy is even more imposing: if you just had one guy’s view then it would just be that; the hedge-funding approach makes it seems too good a chance than anyone significant ought to be included.


Editors of Phaidon Press, Vitamin 3-D: New Perspectives in Sculpture and Installation (New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2009). ISBN: 9780714849744. 352 pages. $75.00.

Creamier: Contemporary Art in Culture (London: Phaidon Press, 2010). ISBN: 9780714856834. Special Format: 420 x 295 mm., 16 1/2 x 11 5/8 in. 448 pages. 700 color illustrations. $39.95.

Pages from Vitamin 3-D, one of the publications under review
click to enlarge