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With these six art books, you needn’t distance yourself from beauty

Artwork from "Soviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions From the USSR."
(Phaidon)

With the coronavirus lockdown in effect and theaters, museums and galleries temporarily shuttered, it’s harder than ever to experience art in the most vital and old-fashioned way: face to face. Luckily there’s a backstop in art books; usually deployed as coffee-table souvenirs, now they can salve your deep museum FOMO. I like to think of it as “visual meditation.” (Or, if you’re 7 years old, it’s looking at a picture book, but meditation sounds more sophisticated, doesn’t it?) Taking 30 minutes to flip through evocative or layered images can result in a transporting experience, a renewable antidote to cabin fever (or actual fever). And unlike scrolling Instagram, perusing a gorgeous book doesn’t sell your data to some mega-corporation trying to sell you Shen Yun tickets. Think of it as self-care for the artistically inclined.

These six books offer the chance to experience artwork in postponed exhibitions, imaginative graphic design and other fun offerings that will fill the soul in cultural quarantine.

Yoshitomo Nara

By Mika Yoshitake and Michael Govan
DelMonico Books: 224 pp., $45

LACMA’s exhibition on the playful Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara is slated to open April 5 — and good luck to them. At least you can have the book. Nara’s instantly recognizable art adds a sinister twist that goes far beyond kawaii, the Japanese Pop movement loosely based on cuteness. While puppies and little girls appear throughout his work — his “Black Dog” sculpture was a hit in LACMA’s 2019 “Animals in Japanese art” exhibition — his dark sense of humor boils up from beneath the surface.

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Nara’s art was initially influenced by the punk music he had heard in Tokyo in the ’70s and ’80s. Lyrics from Ramones and the Clash songs showed up in his work, but Japan’s Neo-pop movement of the late ’90s fueled much of his output, referencing manga and street art. The book uses music to trace Nara’s wide-ranging career — from his sketches on envelopes while studying art in Germany to the bronze statues forged in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 earthquake. Nara also has roots in Los Angeles: In 1998, he became a guest lecturer at UCLA with another Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami. The two future art stars were roommates for a time, and Murakami gave their style a name: superflat. The limited-edition catalog comes with a musical bonus: Indie rock titans Yo La Tengo recorded cover songs of Nara’s favorite old school tunes — and an original song — which will be included on vinyl.

Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975

By Matthias C. Hühne
Callisto: 436 pp., $650 (premium edition); $70 (standard edition)

A page from "Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975."
(Callisto)

In normal times, buying a book that costs as much as a flight may seem ridiculous. But when is your next flight? You might as well splurge on Matthias C. Hühne’s extravagantly illustrated exploration of graphic design from the jetsetter era. Each chapter provides the backstory of 13 airlines that dominated the airways, from Pan Am, whose decision to call pilots “captains” was adopted as an industry standard, to Lufthansa, the airline that took years to build due to a ban on German pilots after World War II. Then there’s the history of Saul Bass’ design for the United logo, which remained in use until 2010, when it merged with Continental Airlines. But the crown jewels of the book are the full-bleed, foil-printed airline travel posters, harkening back to more elegant times and friendlier skies. Air France’s midcentury posters designed by Lucien Boucher, who created many world map posters between 1934 and 1962, are particularly eye-catching. Sure, there’s a $70 edition available, but the oversize premium version weighs 13 pounds, so you also can get a little workout while waiting for your gym to reopen.

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Inside spread from "Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975."
(Callisto Publishers GmbH)

Soviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions From the USSR

By Alexandra Sankova with the Moscow Design Museum
Phaidon: 240 pp., $39.95

An image from "Soviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions From the USSR."
(Moscow Design Museum/Phaidon)

Few humans were better acquainted with claustrophobia than cosmonauts, the Soviet pioneers who once orbited the planet in tiny — and presumably smelly — spaceships. While the American view of the space race is well documented, this collection of more than 250 illustrations reveals another view. Cold War tensions cut off communication between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., but the otherworldly images show how our imaginations were cosmically aligned. There are polychromatic visions of star-bound rockets, retro-futuristic scenes of monorails on the moon and verdant gardens bringing a jungalow vibe to sterile space stations. The differences are subtle if you know where to look, analogous to the gap between Soviet auteur Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film “Solaris” — ruminating on existential questions of nature and our inner worlds — and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” about technology’s connection to the will-to-violence. In dual book covers by Stanisław Lem, the Polish author who wrote the “Solaris” novel, we witness a young man’s mind populated by swirling constellations, while another cover depicts a kid in a robot suit waving to alien dinosaurs. Beyond the search for life out there in the universe, the Soviet artwork often illuminates the equally important journey into our own minds, where anything can be possible.

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Donald Judd Spaces

Edited by Flavin Judd, Rainer Judd and the Judd Foundation
DelMonico Books: 416 pp., $75

Long before Marie Kondo made decluttering a way of life, artist Donald Judd was the preeminent master of minimalism. His objects — he preferred not to call them sculptures — are the subject of a currently closed exhibition at New York’s MOCA. In a 1977 essay included in this book, he lays out his ethos: “The space surrounding my work is crucial to it: as much thought has gone into the installation as to a piece itself.” Judd also brought his ideas into his live-work spaces in Manhattan and Marfa, Texas, which this photo-heavy book showcases as masterclasses in thoughtful living. Judd bought a cast-iron building in 1968 on 101 Spring St. in Lower Manhattan, and moved his young family there shortly after. For the next 25 years, he renovated the space, updating its industrial roots to house his family and artistic practice. “My requirements were that the building be useful for living and working and more importantly, more definitely, be a space in which to install work of mine and of others.” The book shows the clean lines of the furniture he designed, paired with nothing else but artwork. The only clutter: his well-stocked liquor collection.

Miranda July

By Miranda July and Julia Bryan-Wilson
Prestel: 244 pp., $48

"Miranda July" by Miranda July and Julia Bryan-Wilson.
(Prestel)
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Multimedia artist, writer and filmmaker Miranda July has had a big 2020. Her first film in more than a decade, “Kajillionaire,” debuted at Sundance, her 2005 movie “Me and You and Everyone We Know” gets a Criterion Collection release in late April, and her midcareer monograph will be released that same month. The book is a deep dive into her wild career, resurfacing the art, performance and film projects that put her on the map. We see the seeds of her creativity in band fliers from her Portland days and the experimental videos screened for small audiences. (On my daily commute, I still think about “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal,” her 16mm film with Matt McCormick, which I saw projected on the nasty walls of downtown L.A. punk venue the Smell, nearly two decades ago.) The book also includes memories from her collaborators and creative circle, including Carrie Brownstein, David Byrne, Spike Jonze and Krissy Edmunds, who now heads UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance. But for real July fans, the ultimate Easter egg in the book is the origin of the emoticon ))<>((, which really defies explanation. Just Google it sometime when you’re not at work — which is now pretty all the time.

Off the Grid: Houses for Escape

By Dominic Bradbury
Thames & Hudson: 272 pp., $45

A cabin near Gothenburg, Sweden, from "Off the Grid," designed by architects JeanArch.
(Jeanna Berger)
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These days there’s an appeal to the idea of getting away from it all — so far away, in fact, that there’s not a single soul around. Though flying to the remotest regions of Tasmania may not be realistic, “Off the Grid” offers aspirational adventurers plenty of imaginative opportunities. With 400 illustrations, the photo book takes a world tour of remote homes that are also ecologically aware. “The notion of treading lightly as possible upon the land … has become more embedded than ever, especially in relation to rural residences,” writes design journalist and author Dominic Bradbury. We travel to a modernist cabin in the Scottish Isles and a sleek home in Huron County, Canada. Swedish architects Tham & Videgård’s Stockholm Archipelago house is like a chocolate confection: jet black on the outside and warm on the inside, lit by skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows. Then there’s Jean-Baptiste Barache’s A-frame cabin in Normandy, built with beautifully grained pinewood walls. The arced brick wood-fire oven provides warmth for the house, while oil lamps illuminate the interiors. “I love the light of a flame and the way it creates shadows,” Barache says. “It’s a very Japanese notion — beauty that does not reveal itself.”

Book jacket for "Off the Grid: Houses for Escape" by Dominic Bradbury.
(Thames & Hudson)

Tewksbury is an L.A. writer, editor and Emmy-winning producer. He’s the director of digital content at KCRW.


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