Over the weekend The New York Times Book Review unveiled its first ever art issue. Featuring a hefty line-up of illustrated books, art-themed fiction, artist biographies, commentary, photography books and monographs reviewed by its esteemed critics and editors, and a cover created by Sarah Illenberger, the art issue is a surprising first in the weekly supplement’s 119-year run.
Inside, five leading contemporary artists have created visual book reviews for the issue’s centrepiece, paying homage to the fiction, philosophy and poetry that have inspired them. “Must a book review take the form of prose – or can it be pure image?” asks the feature.
In order to find out Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu reviews Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, video and performance artist Joan Jonas reviews Why Look at the Animals? by John Berger, Ed Ruscha reviews Oklahoma Tough by Ron Padgett, Kader Attia reviews Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s African Art as Philosophy, and New York artist Jacolby Satterwhite reviews Mature Themes by Andrew Durbin. You can read the stories behind their selections and a spread of reviews from the art issue on the The New York Times’ website.
I asked The Book Review editor Pamela Paul and art director Nicholas Blechman to talk me through The Art Issue.
What was the thinking behind doing an art issue now?
The Book Review mostly reviews recently published novels, memoirs, or non-fiction books. We rarely have space for the many, excellent art books published each year. This special issue gave us the opportunity to review big, coffee table books by notable artists, and to cover the art world through multiple genres.
Did you approach the design differently?
Instead of the usual combination of illustration or author photo to accompany a review, the Art Issue was entirely made up of artists’ work: Cy Twombly, Marilyn Minter, Basquiat, to name a few. The only commissioned piece is the cover, by the conceptual Berlin-based photo-illustrator Sarah Illenberger, whose work blurs the lines between art and illustration.
Typographically, we switched our headline treatment from the traditional NYTCheltenham to a slab serif, NYTStymie, and introduced a red hairline rule throughout the normally black and white Book Review.
Online we went further, and devised new templates that incorporated video interviews with the artists from the visual book reviews.
Can you tell me a bit about the visual book reviews and how the issue is built around them?
At the core of the issue we invited five artists to “review” books with a piece of art. We were in completely unchartered territory with this assignment. Neither we, nor the artists, had done this before. From Wangechi Mutu’s interpretation of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy to Joan Jonas’ Why Look At Animals? by John Berger, we were thrilled with the results.
What are some other stand-outs in the issue?
We were excited to showcase the work of a few pathbreaking women artists: Faye Hirsch on Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Patricia Albers on Agnes Martin, and Parul Sehgal on Marilyn Minter, as well as Chris Kraus’s review of Women Artists. And to bring some especially fine writers to the issue: Edward Sorel, Edmund White, Holland Cotter and Deborah Solomon.
Is this a one-off or do you see these kind of themed issues becoming more regular?
I’m not sure if we will do another full issue around art, but the positive response to the issue has definitely prompted us to consider expanding our coverage of visual books, and to find other ways to explore exchanges between the literary world and the art world.