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Picture this
Coffee-table books for a new generation

Time was when coffee-table books were strictly for people with, well, coffee tables — mature adults, that is, artfully strewing full-color tomes on Tuscany and Titian across handsome oak furnishings. Then came the postmodern era with its MTV, its irony — and its very own Kramer, who, though fictional, revolutionized the industry right there on prime time with his idea for a coffee-table book about coffee tables that itself doubled as a coffee table. No wonder the genre today, the following selection included, dares to tackle everything from pot to potty-training to — you guessed it — absolutely nothing, all while boasting funky graphics better suited to Formica countertops or even milk-crate-and-plyboard structures than to coffee tables proper. It’s an anything-goes aesthetic for a younger, more boldly diverse audience — some of whom, heck, may not even drink coffee.

Intercourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook, by Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge (Terrace Publishing, 1997; $24.95). All the better if they do, however, at least for this book’s purposes. The recipes in Intercourses cluster around ingredients known for their hot properties — from chilies and avocadoes to strawberries, figs, and, yes, coffee beans. The authors further organize the text according to specific modes of seduction, singling out dishes that "work just as well on the body as they do on the plate" or that "match ... your partner’s astrological sign." They also offer advice on designing menus "for every facet in a relationship from the awkward blind date to ... a fifty-year marriage." Not that you’ll need much guidance, with a dinner date that begins with, say, Parmesan oysters or sausages in grape sauce, moves on to ravioli stuffed with fresh flowers, and ends in twin scoops of cabernet-sauvignon ice. A meal like that is likely to lead all the way up to a breakfast tête-à-tête featuring French toast in honey-pecan sauce, of course.

Like so many cookbooks these days, Intercourses makes the coffee-table cut by virtue of the visual and literal feast it proffers. Gorgeous full-page photographs depict naked bodies of all genders and hues — now porcelain, now olive, now grape-skin-black — with chocolate-smeared torsos or champagne flutes dangling between their toes; some verge on abstract compositions, while others are just explicit enough to render the book a sure-fire cocktail-party conversation piece.

Sock Monkeys, by Arne Svenson and Ron Warren (Ideal World Books, 2003; $24.95). The black-and-white photographic portraits in this book are in dialogue with the text that accompanies them — primarily short-short stories and poems contributed by writers they’ve inspired. Just to thumb through the book is to re-experience the wonder of a child who sees for the first time just how lifelike inanimate objects can be: 200 whole, unique personalities present themselves in button eyes and belly-buttons, loose stitches and missing ears, pearl strands and pompom caps. Take "Earl," in whose sweetly blank face and skewed party hat Peter Getty sees a sot: "Once you know the telltale signs to watch for, you should have no problem spotting an intoxicated sock monkey. As a further precaution, however, you are reminded never to let a sock monkey operate a motorized vehicle in which you are a passenger or allow one to represent you in a court of law." Granted, the book serves no function other than to charm the socks off your guests; more interactive entertainment will have to wait for a volume on pants monkeys.

Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987, by Bobbito Garcia (Testify Books, 2003; $35). Want some shoes to go with those socks? Check out this exhaustive pictorial history of athletic footwear as it evolved from niche-market gem to mass-merchandising phenom, street-cred badge to Everyman’s wardrobe essential. The author, a New York DJ and Vibe columnist, lovingly catalogues scores of makes and models from the golden age of the industry. He also mediates a nothing-if-not-colorful roundtable composed of basketball players, hip-hop artists, b-boys, taggers, and other urban legends as they debate the relative merits of Puma, Converse, Adidas, Fila, and you-know-what. Pictured in conjunction with the stars, stripes, and swooshes of the shoes are such fads and fashions as funky laces, tinted lenses, basketball camp T-shirts, and, natch, tube socks. (There’s even a bit on the short-lived trend of tucking a toothbrush behind one’s ear.) Throughout, action snaps — whether taken courtside from the era of Afros and short shorts, say, or on the playground at the height of the break-dancing craze — emanate an energy and grace tangible even to the most casual page-thumber.

I Can’t Be Good All the Time: An Anne Taintor Collection, Anne Taintor (Chronicle Books, 2003; $12.95). Where Garcia’s book plays with the aesthetics of testosterone, Taintor’s does an equally delicious job with estrogen. Taintor’s work is everywhere these days, an instantly recognizable body of colorized photographs featuring icons of retro femininity — housewives and pink-collars, debutantes and femmes fatales — paired with sassy captions that appear culled from a magnetic poetry kit. In this collection, the pictures are printed on flowery wallpaper-esque backgrounds that serve as further ironic frames of reference for the incongruity of image and text — the propriety, domesticity, and cultivation apparent in the former undone by the lust, disarray, and sheer wickedness expressed in the latter. Subverting stereotypes about traditional females, they also explode the one about feminists having no sense of humor. Here, two prim matrons in cat-eye glasses insist "it’s not the meat, it’s the motion"; there, a third welcomes a traveling salesman into her foyer, "determined to buy whatever he was selling." Here, a pouting teen queen acknowledges "she wasn’t sure she wanted to live happily ever after"; there, it’s clear she needn’t worry, as her future self, a society dame with a militant coif, wonders, "had she punished him enough? how could she be sure?" As Bart Simpson says, "it’s funny because it’s true"; as Lisa might counter, it’s even funnier when it’s no longer so.

The Well-Worn Interior, by Robin Forster and Tim Whittaker (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, 2003; $35). Far from being lampooned, bygone domesticity is embraced nostalgically in this guide to bourgeois style. It gives irresistible glimpses into the kinds of homes, hence lives, those of us who put it on our coffee tables can only dream of. The cover photo is a case in point. Showing a brass-studded, cracking leather armchair tucked into a sunlit parlor corner beside a wooden table topped with an antique black telephone and a Clue-worthy candlestick, it bids you escape to a fantasy world in which, paradoxically, you’re utterly at home. The same goes for the montage as a whole: you sense a long-lived presence in the unpeopled images of tool sheds spilling with flowerpots and weedy, befountained courtyards; of canopied beds and upright pianos, rusty fixtures and creaking stairs. The Well-Worn Interior brings a bit of every English cottage, French chateau, and Italian castello into your own humble Beantown abode.

The Art of The Matrix, edited by Spencer Lamm (Newmarket Press, 2000; $60). As the trilogy’s final installment leaves theaters, Matrix maniacs can seek solace in this comprehensive chronicle of the movies’ making. While it contains the original screenplay and lengthy commentary by the writers and artists, words don’t tell this particular story half so compellingly as pictures do. The storyboard art depicting Neo and Trinity’s exquisitely bleak cityscape is sufficiently haunting to serve as illustration for Dante’s Inferno; that goes especially for the color work by Tani Kunitake, a design genius with anime leanings. Also included are digital art and "conceptual material" — elaborate sketches of such set elements as the Fetus Stalk and the incredible Cockpit, as well as other inventions that never actually made it to the screen. Finally, a section dedicated to promotional stills and posters is the icing on this many-layered graphic-art cake.

Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, edited by Nancy Spector (Guggenheim Museum, 2003; $65). Barney’s beyond-epic exploration of creation as such — that is, as biological fact, sacred myth, and artistic process — has made him l’enfant terrible extraordinaire of the contemporary-art world. This enormous volume, with its scallop-edged pages, details his rather staggering accomplishment. The word "cremaster," referring to a testicular muscle, itself contains a suggestive pun on "cream-master" — a title Barney deserves not only for the sexually explicit content of his work but for his infamous reliance on goopy raw materials like petroleum jelly. The Cremaster Cycle, meanwhile, is composed of five films which in turn consist of numerous multimedia projects — sketches, stills, sculptures, and installations — documented here alongside a 90-page curatorial essay, commentary by members of Barney’s enormous crew, and a glossary whose listings range from "bloodbath," "Bronco stadium," and "death metal" to "impossible discourse" and "ineffable God." Speaking of ineffability, the images are indeed all but indescribable. Fantastic characters like the goat-faced Loughton Candidate mingle with real ones (Harry Houdini, Gary Gilmore) in situations that are mildly unsettling or out-and-out shocking, against backdrops that run the gamut from pastoral to gritty, Baroque to eerily sterile. The whole becomes a monument to the morbid, freakish, and Pleistocene; the vivid and gleaming, pale and rotting; the defenseless and the omnipotent. Display this on your coffee table during your next get-together, and you won’t even have to play the articulate host or hostess, holding forth on worldly matters; in one way or another, the book already says it all.

Ruth Tobias can be reached at

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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