Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Renaissance of Wood, Not Marble

Lorenzo Lotto, Self-Portrait

Feast your eyes on the face above. Lorenzo Lotto. Painter. Illustrator. Renaissance man. Creator of the cartoons for the choir stall panels of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, one of the most distinguished intarsia cycles in the history of art. Now imagine this Northern Italian gentleman approaching you, clad in his black cloak and beret. He clasps your hand warmly. “Come, my friend,” he whispers in a dialect you somehow understand. “Let me show you the delights of inlaid wood.”

Off he whisks you to sixteenth-century Italy, where the art of intarsia, or decorative wood inlay, is thriving as never before or since. He shows you around churches and cathedrals, around the studioli (private studios) of wealthy secular gentlemen. You run your hand over the panels of sacristies and choirs, walls and vaults, private cabinets and stalls beneath pipe organs. There, depicted in wood mosaics of varying grain and hue, are porticoes, domes, entire illusionistic cityscapes visible through archways. Religious scenes, too: nativities, annunciations. Still lifes of lutes, flutes, and fruits. Geometric studies of the medieval headdress known as the mazzocchio. In the studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro, commissioner of Italy’s second-largest library, an intricately rendered array of desktop items: books, lamps, hourglasses, inkstands. (Also, in one panel, a mischievous squirrel.)

“The makers of these images,” Lotto intones, “are all but forgotten in your century. Fra Giovanni da Verona. Benedetto da Maiano. Pier Antonio degli Abati. Their names do not ring down the corridors of time as do those of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci. Yet they once sought to rival the great painters and sculptors of my age in the passion and precision with which they handled wood. Perhaps these men were dreamers. Perhaps their quest was folly. But do they deserve oblivion? Did they not master techniques of perspective unknown to Europe only a century or two before? Did they not handle light, shade, tone more skillfully with wood than many a draftsman could with pencil? Should they be punished–their life’s work forever judged a ‘minor art’–merely for going against the grain?”

The pun you forgive; the artists you vow not to forget. You linger by Lorenzo Lotto’s side a moment in the sinking Venetian sun. “Well, I should retire to my own studiolo,” you tell him. “It’s getting late, and I’d like to study this art form more.”

“Then I shall leave you with another guide.” He hands you a copy of Abbeville’s Renaissance Intarsia, edited by Luca Trevisan. “If we must part, accept this as my parting gift.”

“Thank you,” you whisper, turning it over in your hands. You glance up and find yourself at home, at your desk, with only the book and a faint wistfulness as souvenirs from your journey. Perhaps Lorenzo will someday return. You knock on wood. You begin to read.

The Lost Art of Intarsia

Abbeville’s Renaissance Intarsia

“The lost art of intarsia.” Let that phrase roll off your tongue and try not to be enchanted. The very syllables are redolent of the Renaissance, evoking workmen’s guilds and intricate handicraft and the firelit faces of apprentices. This lost art–this lost world–is what we here at Abbeville will be celebrating all this week, in anticipation of our forthcoming volume, Renaissance Intarsia. But before we get too transported, let’s address a few basic questions.

What is intarsia?

Intarsia is a form of wood inlaying that originated in the Arabic world and spread to Europe in the Middle Ages. It entails the joining together of variously shaped and colored pieces of wood to create mosaic-like images with sophisticated perspective illusions. As Luca Trevisan explains in his Introduction to Renaissance Intarsia:

Intarsia is neither sculpture nor painting (nor, perhaps, pittura di legno, “painting in wood,” Pier Luigi Bagatin’s appropriate definition, a paraphrase of Giorgio Vasari’s term legni tinti, or “tinted wood”), nor, in the end, architecture. Or perhaps, on second thought, it is all three arts together. Composed on a two-dimensional plane and according to chromatic canons already well tested in painting, intarsia is at the same time based on material that is carved, arranged, and thus “sculpted,” and it reaches the height of its inherent potential in the representation of three-dimensional objects, namely urban spaces translated into meticulously prepared architectural perspectives.

When and where did European intarsia flourish?

Its development in Italy began in the mid-1300s and flourished throughout the Quattrocento and Cinquecento. During the Cinquecento it began spreading to wider Europe, ultimately reaching as far as London.

What sorts of things was intarsia used to decorate?

The walls and doors of ornate buildings, particularly churches. Also, church furnishings: altars, cabinets, choirs, and the like.

What held intarsia panel pieces together?

We are very glad you asked. According to Paolo Pizzati in Renaissance Intarsia:

“…the artist glued the pieces down, usually with cheese glue, one of the strongest types then available. This was obtained by soaking fresh cheese in water and quicklime, which allowed the casein to separate from the oils….Other glues were derived from the skin or bones of animals, a process that entailed a prolonged boiling with alkaline substances and subsequent purification. One of the most surprising formulas called for the use of eel skin preserved in salt.”

Why care about intarsia nowadays?

Because you have a taste for the finer things and an imagination. Because you admire how quickly, how skillfully, the fifteenth-century discovery of perspective in drawing was adapted to this more sculptural art. Because you can practically smell the sweet haze of sawdust hovering around those long-dead woodworkers as they plied their trade. Because it is the smell of honest craftsmanship, of dignified labor. Because in the late Renaissance, cabinetmakers and their customers began to favor marquetry over intarsia, and deep down you know that Western culture has gone downhill ever since.

Regarding “Regarding Warhol”

It’s been Warhol Week here at the Abbeville blog, as we celebrate the publication of the e-book edition of Carter Ratcliff’s Warhol. Today we conclude with a few reflections on this year’s most high-profile Warhol exhibition.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current featured exhibition is called Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, and it is the talk of the season. Many of the featured names could be, or have been, the subjects of special Met exhibits in their own right. They include the famous living (Ai Weiwei, Chuck Close, Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, David Hockney, Cindy Sherman) and the famous dead (Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring), for multiple generations of artists now bear Andy’s stamp as plainly as if they were produced in his Factory. It’s a testament to the range and depth of his influence that the Met decided against a more intuitive title; “Fifty Artists, Fifty Years” would have left out too much.

In Abbeville’s Warhol, critic Carter Ratcliff argues that:

With Before & After any hint of satirical impulse [in Warhol's work] disappears forever. Nor is there any point in calling such art campy–a celebration of images so bad they eventually come to look good. Camp is satire in reverse, whereas Warhol refuses to take a point of view from which satirical gestures of any sort might be made. He is more like a still center, a mirror in front of which we and the entire culture strike our various attitudes.

The Met exhibition reminds us that this includes, first and foremost, the culture of art itself. Artists since Warhol have often seemed incapable of tearing themselves away from that mirror, or even of finding its blind spots.

From Warhol, Carter Ratcliff. Photograph by Christopher Makos.

Warhol’s work depended so heavily on restatement and repetition–on taking existing cultural icons and giving us more, and more, and more of them–that art too directly influenced by him risks seeming automatically exhausted, as if starting at a point beyond “ad nauseam.” Take the flashy and unabashedly commercial work of Jeff Koons. We might question whether, for example, his sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp really elaborates on the irony of Warhol’s garish Marilyns. On the other hand, art that intersects with Warhol’s work more obliquely can communicate a warmth that Warhol often does not. The “photorealistic” painter Chuck Close gives us faithful renditions of famous people, from Philip Glass to Bill Clinton, but the painstaking nature of his method conveys the raptness–the loving literalism–at the heart of Warholian stargazing.

It’s easy now to forget how unlikely Warhol’s dominance would have seemed before Warhol. In the years preceding Pop Art, the Abstract Expressionism of Pollock and Gorky and de Kooning ruled the New York art scene, which since World War II had rapidly become the center of the world art scene. Backed by such powerhouse critics as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the movement inspired an intellectual zeal commensurate with its intense, almost High Romantic emotional urgency. Pop Art traded that passion for an absolute cool, a multilayered irony that the critical old guard resisted at first but that came to define postmodernism.

Now Andy is the establishment, for better or for worse. Blake Gopnik of The Daily Beast believes that the Met exhibition “makes Warhol look like an old master, in the mode of a Titian or Rubens, whereas he was all about breaking that mold.” But perhaps Gopnik is fighting the inevitable. As the show demonstrates, Warhol’s ideas have been considered au courant for five decades and counting. Can they really stay that way forever? If Andy gave us the images we already loved, why can’t a museum give us the Andy we already love? Treating him not as perpetually hip but as classically square–his followers disciples, his soup cans solemn icons like Titian’s Venus: might this not be a final irony the privately religious Warhol would have loved?

You can judge for yourself by visiting Regarding Warhol between now and December 31, and find out what other patrons have to say by visiting the Regarding Warhol Facebook page.

Andy Warhol: Redemption Through Glamour

From Warhol, Carter Ratcliff. Photograph by Christopher Makos.

Guest article by Carter Ratcliff. Carter Ratcliff is an art critic, poet, editor, and the author of numerous books on art and culture, including John Singer Sargent (1982); The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art (1996); and Warhol, recently released for the first time as an e-book from Abbeville Press.


In writing Warhol, I talked to the artist at length. This is standard procedure and Andy made no difficulties. He was always available, sometimes on short notice. Warhol was one of the great talkers of the New York art world–his interviews are an important part of his oeuvre–and our conversations were crucial to my understanding of his work. As forthcoming as he was, his demeanor was always deadpan and his remarks were tinged by a certain reluctance. On the slightest pretext, he would change the subject from, say, his childhood or a new series of prints to something else–anything else. Warhol was always in flight from himself and his evasions are often more revealing than his reminiscences. How much did we learn about the Campbell’s Soup can paintings when he told us that he often had Campbell’s Soup for lunch when he was a kid?

The trajectory of Warhol’s self-evasion took him toward disaster (car wrecks, suicide), high fashion (Halston, Diane von Furstenberg) and above all celebrity (Marilyn, Liz). In his art, these categories acquire a remarkable capaciousness. Thus the Marilyn pictures invoke disaster even as they celebrate stardom, and the images of Jackie Kennedy in mourning belong to all three categories–disaster, high fashion, and celebrity. Warhol once said, “The Empire State Building is a star.” He saw stardom in the Campbell’s Soup logo, the Brillo box logo, and Chairman Mao. His detractors understand his devotion to fame as a sign of adolescent shallowness. That judgment never convinced me and in the years since Warhol was published I have come to see him not merely as an important artist but as an American visionary of the first magnitude. And he has taken a place in my imagination near Jay Gatsby, another seeker after fame, American-style.

Gatsby, the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, is of course a fictional character. But then so was Warhol, who had imagined and reimagined himself several times over by the time he became known as a Pop artist in the early 1960s. Faced with an array of his celebrity portraits, I’m reminded of something Gatsby says to Daisy, when she asks how he can live all alone in his immense house. “I keep it full of interesting people,” he replies. “People who do interesting things. Celebrated people.” Gatsby’s guest list mirrors, with a time-delay, the roster of Warhol’s sitters. And in both of these figures, one historical and the other make-believe, we find an extreme, even an exalted instance of the American faith in redemption through glamour.

From Warhol, Carter Ratcliff. Photograph by Christopher Makos.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently presenting a show entitled Regarding Warhol. It contains forty-five works by Andy and a hundred more by sixty artists–American, European, Asian–who have somehow been affected by his example. As a study in influence, this is an impressive exhibition. Yet it seems a bit too academic, too museumy, if I may put it that way. One could mount a comparable demonstration of Caravaggio’s influence or that of Jacques-Louis David. And those would be useful shows, as is Regarding Warhol. If there was ever any doubt, we now have Met-certified proof that, during the past half-century, Warhol exerted more influence on the look and idea of art than anyone else. Yet he was more than an influential artist. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and a very few others, he helped us see what it is to be American.

Unlike those nineteenth-century figures, Warhol never set out to do any such thing. He simply wanted to find his way into the realms of celebrity and stardom and glamour. In doing so, he found that even a supermarket logo could be given a dazzling aura–and so could the mundane commercial process, photo-silk-screening, that he used to replicate his favorite logos on canvas. Even the glitches in his process could acquire an offhand glamour. When the image on a Brillo box turned out to be blotchy or dim to the point of invisibility, he accepted it, saying, “It’s all part of the art.”

According to Warhol, “Everybody has their own America, and you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.” As the leading citizen of this invented America, you make it real. You take on, in imagination, its scale and its inclusiveness. Or you do if you are Walt Whitman or Andy Warhol, for the inventiveness of Warhol’s art was self-invention by proxy and he had that Whitmanesque sense that a truly American self is somehow identical with the nation and its infinite possibilities.

The Inescapable Andy Warhol

Abbeville’s Warhol

Warhol at the Met. Warhol at Sephora. Warhol on Campbell’s soup cans at Target. It’s been fifty years since Andy Warhol calmly revolutionized the American art scene, and suddenly he’s everywhere again.

But did he ever really leave us? He said that “in the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes,” but his own fame never slackened during his career and, since his death, has only solidified into fact. Every artist working today works in his shadow. His irony is our irony. You could argue that that quote is the most famous quote of the past fifty years.

He seems to be like blue jeans: having come into style once, he’ll never go out again. Or he’s like the subjects of his art: famous for being famous for being famous for…

Still, he goes through phases (just as jeans do: bell bottoms, “distressed,” etc.) and we’re undoubtedly in the midst of a miniature Warhol revival. Here at Abbeville, we’re taking the opportunity to release the e-book edition of Carter Ratcliff’s classic Warhol, from our Modern Masters series.

The images have lost none of their fascination and Ratcliff’s commentary remains as sharp and relevant as the master himself. Next week we’ll be featuring a special interview with Ratcliff that includes his thoughts on the current Warholmania.

We’d love to hear our readers’ thoughts, too. Is Warhol overrated? Underrated? A prophet? A poseur? Do you miss him? Do you wish he’d go away? Does it make sense to speak of a personal connection with his work, and if so, what’s your favorite Warhol image?

Happy Architecture and Design Month!

The autumn trees redesigning their color scheme. The pumpkin spice latte you sip from your Frank Lloyd Wright mug. The crisp smell of architecture in the air. It’s always the little things that let you know it’s Archtober.

Architecture and Design Month, a.k.a. Archtober, is underway in New York City, complete with a full slate of activities, programs, and events. To mark the occasion, Abbeville Press will be hosting a booth at the first-ever Designers & Books fair on Saturday, October 27 and Sunday, October 28. Located at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the fair will feature 123 designers, 34 publishers, and a huge selection of beautiful art books available for sale.

We invite you to stop by our booth and browse Abbeville titles ranging from Great American Houses and Antonio Gaudi: Master Architect to 21st Century Hotel and Designing with Light. When you see us, be sure to wish us a happy Archtober. (It’s pronounced “ARK-tober” as in architecture, not “ARCH” as in arches, so don’t make that classic mistake.)

If you’d like to get a head start on browsing, you can check out Abbeville’s Designers & Books page or explore more of our Architecture, Design & Decorative Arts, and Interior Design & Lifestyle offerings at


Welcome to the New Abbeville Blog!

Dear Readers,

The Abbeville Press blog is back! Let the renaissance begin.

We’re excited to be resuming this project, the previous incarnation of which debuted five years ago this month. The Abbeville blog will be your source for news about our beautiful books; exclusive Abbeville content including videos, slideshows, and author interviews; and features exploring the wider culture of books and art.

Be sure to check back for new updates each week. Next week we’ll be presenting our first special feature: an interview with art critic and poet Carter Ratcliff, author of the acclaimed Andy Warhol monograph from Abbeville’s Modern Masters series. To commemorate this month’s release of Andy Warhol as a full-color e-book for the iPad, Ratcliff will be sharing his reflections on the legendary Pop artist, filmmaker, and provocateur, and looking back at his own distinguished career.

Since Abbeville’s founding in 1977, we’ve loved art and books with a passion. We look forward to sharing that passion through our blog once again. Why not take a moment to bookmark the new landing page–and while you’re at it, our Facebook page and Twitter feed as well?

Happy reading!


The Abbeville Press Team