Rothko: The Color Field Paintings (Chronicle, $40) is a tribute to one of the greatest periods by a single painter in art history. Mark Rothko (1903-1970), one of the leading Abstract Expressionists, pioneered the large, flat fields of solid color that Clement Greenberg dubbed “color field painting.” He worked his way toward them throughout the 1940s, and by 1949 had “arrived,” as his son, Christopher Rothko, says in the Foreword. The artist pursued color fields for the rest of his life, arranging two, three, and four color rectangles in dramatic and shimmering patterns that establish kinetic relationships between the viewer and the canvas. Presenting fifty of Rothko’s iconic paintings in chronological order, this book allows you to watch the artist develop his style and discover what the colors and rectangles could do; you can see the shades deepen, and darken. The volume also allows you to savor the full, luminous power of each composition, giving you the images one by one, with plenty of white space for the colors to breathe. Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, provides a commentary on Rothko’s legacy.
Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was the son and grandson of sculptors, but when he went to school he studied engineering. Later, committing himself to art, he chose painting, like his mother. It took a few years before he accepted his fate and turned to sculpture. This brief period of indecision is the single moment of angst in the life of one of the twentieth century’s most joyful and original modern artists. Inheriting his father’s dexterity as well as his “playful, lively, fantastic” tendencies, Calder (Knopf, $55) dedicated his life to animating the inanimate. In Jed Perl’s lively, affectionate, and thorough account to 1940, Calder’s life was pretty much on track from the start. With the avant-garde “always part” of it, he grew up in the artistic circles of both France and the U.S., a peripatetic life he continued. He was an incorrigible punster (see his work A Merry Can Ballet) and everything he did was infused with humor. Perl traces Calder’s jeux d’esprit from the early portraits and objects he made by bending wire, works that “suggested rapidly executed line drawings leaping into the third dimension,” to the elaborate Cirque Calder that was meant to be performed, not just looked at, and on to his abstractions, which were also a “menagerie…of unexpected forms” in motion, and which Perl, in the spirit of his subject, describes as “motions galumphing, jagged, swishy, swirly.” As playful as they were serious, these mobiles (named by Duchamp) and stabiles (so-called by Jean Arp) revolutionized sculpture, taking a stationary form, making it move, and creating new relationships between the viewer and the art. Perl is tireless in tracing Calder’s influences, which included Miró, Klee, Hélion, Saul Steinberg, Mondrian, Edgar Varèse, Martha Graham, and Malcolm Cowley. All were his friends, and Perl’s engaging, scholarly, and buoyant biography—and its 400-plus photos—makes it easy to see why.
Among the few things known about Vivian Maier: she was a great photographer. She worked as a nanny. She was born in New York, lived in France from age six to twelve, grew up in a splintered family, spent the last fifty years of her life in Chicago, and left tens of thousands of photos, negatives, slides, and undeveloped rolls of film in storage. Once these surfaced after being auctioned off, their new owners began the myth-making that Pamela Bannos, a professor of photography, both charts and refutes. Her Vivian Maier (Chicago, $35) is a kind of Emily Dickinson of photography; while she roamed the streets relentlessly, she let no one in. Her neighbors thought she was homeless because she spent so much time on a park bench. In lieu of friends to interview, Bannos turned to the photos for clues to Maier’s life. She has studied seemingly every image Maier recorded, and follows in her footsteps from Maier’s first forays with a camera in the early 1950s, in France, through her development as a prodigious street photographer in New York and Chicago, and her travels through Europe, South America, and Asia. Looking at what Maier looked at, Bannos reads these images beautifully, giving insight about Maier’s brilliant sense of composition, her experiments, and her ever-evolving technique. She identifies the cameras Maier used, points out angles, notes lighting and shadows, and traces recurrent themes. She brings the pictures to life so vividly, and is so convincing about what was in Maier’s mind at the moment she framed each shot, that this eloquent photographic interpretation itself becomes a masterful biography of Maier not as an eccentric but as a true artist and an uncommonly independent woman.