"Sex" on the coffee table?
Not in most households, we dare say. Besides, "Sex" -- Madonna's metal-bound, Mylar-sealed, media-hyped foray into the world of gift books -- seems to either bore or offend most people, so unless your Christmas list is filled with people like Aunt Sado and Uncle Masochism, you'll probably want some alternatives.
Here are some of our picks from the scores of coffee-table books that come out this season. And most can be wrapped in holiday rather than plain brown paper.
Entertainment and sports
A Really Big Show: A Visual History of the Ed Sullivan Show (Viking Studio Books, 256 pages, $35) is an affectionate remembrance of show biz before Robert Goulet became dinner-theater schlock, before Woody Allen became tabloid fodder, before VCRs and cable splintered the TV-viewing audience. Hard to believe now, but from 1948 to 1971, seemingly all of America stopped at 8 p.m. on Sunday to see what Ed Sullivan had for us. And what a panoply of talent: From opera diva Maria Callas to the Beatles, from the cast of "My Fair Lady" to plate spinners and ventriloquists, they brought their act to our living rooms.
The aptly named Grace (Random House, 160 pages, $40) was a princess of Hollywood before she married into Monaco's royal family. In the collection of candid and posed photographs of Grace Kelly taken by Howell Conant over a 25-year span, most charming are the pictures of the elegant icon with her family, frolicking with daughter Caroline or even reprimanding the ever-mischievous Stephanie.
Hollywood Jewels (Harry N. Abrams, 200 pages, $49.50) is true glitz. It's a decadent yet intriguing look at all that glitters on the necks, fingers, wrists and beyond of actresses both on and off the screen. Elizabeth Taylor merits an entire chapter, of course. There are fabulous photos of such bejeweled movie divas as Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh and, yes, even Snow White! (The seven dwarfs were miners, after all.) This book will tell you what Greta Garbo was wearing in "Conquest" (antique necklace and matching bracelets of rubies, emeralds, sapphires, amethyst, topaz and black and white enamel mounted in gold) and whether Marilyn Monroe, who sang "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," was wearing real ones (nope).
Moviemakers don't seem content today to merely make movies -- they also have to issue "the making of" books. Thus we have Bram Stoker's Dracula: The Film and the Legend (Newmarket Press, 172 pages, $29.95) and Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film (Hyperion, 120 pages, $24.95). Each captures its movie's unique quality -- "Dracula's" darkly Gothic sensibility and "Aladdin's" giddy, color-saturated fantasy world.
The true celebrities today are likely to come from the world of Sports (Collins Publishers, 192 pages, $45). Featuring the work of Neil Leifer, whose photographs are familiar to readers of Sports Illustrated, Time and People, the book captures the grace of Michael Jordan, the grit of Nolan Ryan and, in one of those marvelous moments-in-time, the perfect juxtaposition of two Kenyan runners passing two oblivious giraffes.
Polo (Collins Publishers, 112 pages, $50), the sport of kings, gets an appropriately precious treatment in this pretty book of hand-tinted black-and-white photographs by Penina Meisels. The pastel tints give a dreamy, Gatsbyesque overtone to the book.
Chilly images of the famous and the anonymous, the profane and the prosaic, fill Mapplethorpe (Random House, 382 pages, $125), devoted to the photographer who posthumously triggered the debate over NEA funding. Many of his photographs are indeed disturbing -- bald and brutal depictions that can make you want to avert your eyes -- and others have a haughty sort of beauty. Robert Mapplethorpe also figures in The Homoerotic Photograph (Columbia University Press, 230 pages, $44.95), which shows that the subject is as old as the technology.
It wouldn't be Christmas without one of those A Day in the Life of . . . books; this year, Hollywood (Collins Publishers, 224 pages, $45). But while the previous subjects celebrated the beauty of the ordinary, this one celebrates the beauty of the celebrated -- the stars and starlets, the power agents and the pool-side deals. Many of the photos, befitting Hollywood, seem posed and produced to within an inch of their lives. Peter Stackpole: Life in Hollywood 1936-1952 (Clark City Press, 250 pages, $50) makes for an interesting contrast. One of the four original Life photographers, Mr. Stackpole's black-and-white images -- of the year-old Shirley Temple showing off her engagement ring and even a naked fan dancer in a nightclub -- have a sort of innocence rarely found in that city today. Whether shots of publicity stunts or scenes in movies, the images are silver-toned gems of Hollywood's golden era.
Of particular local interest is Photographed by Bachrach: 125 Years of American Portraiture (Rizzoli, 192 pages, $45), which follows the four-generation company that began inauspiciously enough as an 18-year-old photographer's assistant named David Bachrach traveled 1 1/2 days from his hometown of Baltimore to Gettysburg and somehow missed getting a picture of Abraham Lincoln during the president's now-famed address. With a number of photos of legendary Baltimoreans, such as William Walters, and every president from Andrew Johnson to George Bush, the book is a sort of history by flashbulb. While later photos are in color and more naturalistic, the black-and-whites, as static as they may seem today, are somehow more illuminating.
Are photographers' family albums different than ours? Yes, and not just because the pictures are in focus and no one has red dots for eyes. Flesh & Blood: Photographers' Images of Their Own Families (Picture Project, 192 pages, $50) includes the work of Annie Liebovitz, David Hockney and other photographers, including the very disturbing Sallie Mann. Among the photographs are a number of nudes -- Patt Blue shows the bare torsos of herself, her mother and grandmother in descending order of sag -- and Peter Martens shows his mother being X-rayed and his father supposedly dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs and then in a casket! It makes you glad you're not related to Diane Arbus.
Fashion photography, which has gotten increasingly theatrical in recent years, gets the gift-book treatment in The Color of Fashion (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 256 pages, $65). Appropriately, this stylish book is organized in Benetton fashion, by color, from white to black and every stripe in between, including those popular shades, Cindy Crawford Red and Lypsinka Pink.
Architecture and design
Inside New York: Discovering New York's Classic Interiors (HarperCollins, 128 pages, $40) focuses on the lavishly gilded and the extravagantly vaulted. In between photos of baroquely decorated interiors of various cathedrals of religion, industry and government -- including, ironically enough, bankruptcy court -- are palate cleansers such as the Seagram Building, the Guggenheim and other modern masterpieces.
Organic, open and at one with nature -- that is The Wright Style (Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $50). Written by Carla Lind, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, this book also concentrates on interiors: the long, untrammeled spaces, the custom-made furniture, textiles and windows, the constant communication between indoors and outdoors, which probably reached its apex with the justly beloved Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa. Unlike most gift books, this one ends with a practical (or, you might say, commercial) note: a catalog of reproductions of Wright furnishings and where to get them.
To most, art deco means the saltwater-taffy-colored confections of South Miami Beach. Art Deco Architecture (Harry N. Abrams, 224 pages, $49.50) puts that slice of deco in context and illustrates other less popularly known forms of this exuberant style that flourished in the '20s and '30s. (Ever hear of pueblo deco?) A nice treatment of the antecedents as well as the heirs (i.e., post-modernism) of art deco.
Art Deco (Harry N. Abrams, 316 pages, $75) focuses on the furniture, jewelry, textiles, graphics and other expressions of the style. In addition to numerous photographs, the book includes a history of the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs and Industriels in Paris, from which the style drew its name, and a comprehensive look at premier artists of the genre, such as Erte and Rene Lalique.
The accompanying book to this year's blockbuster at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Matisse: A Retrospective (Harry N. Abrams, 480 pages, $75), should be as popular, and justifiably so, as the 400-piece exhibit that has drawn crowds to the museum. This huge book is a wonderful sweep of the modern master's work, some of which will be familiar to fans of the Baltimore Museum of Art, which lent its famed "Blue Nude" and other Matisses to the retrospective.
Also the subject of both a MOMA exhibition and a new, lavishly illustrated book this year is the weirdly wonderful Magritte (Harry N. Abrams, 352 pages, $75). The Belgian surrealist's astonishing work -- in which a man can sprout an apple for a nose and a woman's torso appears on her face -- is accompanied by a detailed account of his life and times by Magritte scholar David Sylvester.
If you enjoyed the Lawrence Alma-Tadema exhibit at the Walters earlier this year, you might be interested in his contemporary, James Tissot (Harry N. Abrams, $29.95), another Victorian painter. Tissot specialized in lushly costumed women in gilded settings, many featuring a divorcee with whom he had a six-year affair that led London society to shun him.
After all the attention impressionists have received in recent years, Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse (Harry N. Abrams, 304 pages, $75) was inevitable. This book of beautifully reproduced paintings features the work of naturalists, who painted coal miners and farmers and other down-to-earth urban and rural scenes around the same time that the impressionists were serving up lighter, more idealized subjects.
The wry tableaux of Saul Steinberg -- perhaps most famous for the widely imitated "New Yorker's View of the World" -- are compiled in The Discovery of America (Alfred A. Knopf, 208 pages, $50). Perhaps only an immigrant could depict America quite this way -- the enclosed space-capsule-like world of Las Vegas, the Par-a-Dise clubs and First Federals of small-town America and, most of all, the phantasmagoria of New York street life.
Fairfield Porter: An American Classic (Harry N. Abrams, 320 pages, $75) celebrates an artist who never achieved the widespread fame that he deserved during his lifetime, according to author and art historian John Spike. "A realist in an age of abstract art," as his New York Times obituary in 1975 said, Porter (brother of the photographer Eliot Porter and cousin of T. S. Eliot) painted what he knew best -- friends, family, domestic scenes from his homes in New York and Maine.
Like the time Bruce Springsteen landed on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, Renaissance painter Piero Della Francesca the eponymous subject of two books this year (Yale University Press, 240 pages, $60; and Harry N. Abrams, 128 pages, $22.95). The former seems to have more close-up details of portions of the artist's work, but both are comprehensive.
We don't know what he would make of Brice Marden: Paintings and Drawings (Harry N. Abrams, 240 pages, $95), featuring the work of the modern artist who moved from big rectangles of subtle colors in the 1960s and 1970s ("Three Deliberate Greys for Jasper Johns" is exactly that) to webs of lines in the 1980s. The austere design of the book is perfectly pitched to Mr. Marden's abstract art.
If the current Baltimore Museum of Art 15-piece "Picture Perfect" exhibit whetted your appetite for more, check out An Invitation to See: 150 Works from the Museum of Modern Art (The Museum of Modern Art, 192 pages, $37.50; $14.95 paperback). Featured pieces from MOMA's collection -- some of which were lent to BMA for "Picture Perfect" -- include Van Gogh's "The Starry Night," Modigliani's "Reclining Nude" and more current work by Frank Stella, Jackson Pollack and George Segal.
It's hard to imagine another country besides Italy that has been at the center of so many important movements in Western art throughout the ages. Italian Painting (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 320 pages, $85 before Dec. 31, $100 after) surveys the high points, from the art of the Roman Empire through the Renaissance and Baroque movements that were born in Italy and into the modern period. This book contains fine reproductions of everything from frescoed walls of ancient Rome to modern-day collages.
Endlessly fascinating, Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution (Princeton University Press, 234 pages, $35) shows how very similar even mortal enemies can be when it comes to propaganda. Whether it's the Nazis or the Red Army, the United States or the Italians, the use of art to sell war bonds, involve women in the effort or warn against loose lips that sink ships, the techniques are surprisingly similar. There's the appeal to protect the family from invaders, for example, and the depiction of the enemy as great, clawed beasts, and the image of the vampy woman as spy. With the Cold War over (the last reproduction in the book, incidentally, is an East German poster from 1990 featuring Karl Marx and the sentiment, "Workers of the world, forgive me"), it'll be interesting to see if any current or future tensions will produce the likes of this passionate, stylized artwork again.
Yes, despite an astonishing lack of interest, it is the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in America. Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration (Yale University Press, 670 pages, $59.95) is an encyclopedic work by 55 scholars on the art and culture of the various lands -- European, Mediterranean, Asian and American -- during this time. It takes a non-judgmental stance -- ,, i.e., it doesn't give the impression that, say, the Europeans were the sole cultural purveyors, or the indigenous people in the Americas lacked their own art or history before Columbus. It provides perspective on what else was going on in the world while the Europeans were colonizing the Americas.
Dutch artist Rien Poortvliet takes an intensely personal view of history with Daily Life in Holland in the Year 1566 (Harry N. Abrams, 122 pages, $39.95). Inspiration came from a document from that year dealing with an armoire owned by a distant ancestor. From that, the artist (famed for his best-selling "Gnomes" and "Secrets of the Gnomes") details in handwritten words and drawings the daily lives of his ancestors -- how they dressed, braided their hair, cooked their meals, even how they hanged transgressors or tortured confessions out of others.
If you share the obsession of researcher Don Lynch and painter Ken Marschall, then Titanic: An Illustrated History (Hyperion, 228 pages, $60) is for you. It features a three-page fold-out cross-section of the ill-fated ship.
The endless interest in the Civil War is fed this year in Images of the Civil War (Gramercy Books, 192 pages, $19.99), with paintings by Mort Kunstler, who became interested in the war in 1982 when he was commissioned to do a painting for the miniseries "The Blue and the Gray," and text by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson. The president of that time also gets the full treatment in Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 416 pages, $50). It's a companion to an ABC-TV documentary.
The gift-book world has gone green. Among the myriad environmental-themed books, of particular local interest is Water's Way: Life Along the Chesapeake (Elliott & Clark, 132 pages, $36) by a duo familiar to Sun readers, photographer David W. Harp and writer Tom Horton. The images may be familiar -- crabs, skipjacks, sunrises and, unfortunately, encroaching condominium and docking developments, for example -- but the intimate and delicately colored photos and essay are lovingly rendered. Another local artist, John W. Taylor of Anne Arundel County, paints Birds of the Chesapeake Bay (Johns Hopkins University Press, 88 pages, $34.95), and offers his own notes and journal entries from the field.
Embracing Earth: New Views of Our Changing Planet (Chronicle Books, 176 pages, $39.95) uses both photographs and scientific images to show the beauty of our planet as well as the damage -- the pollution, the acid rain, the deforestation -- that we've done to it. A cautionary tale, but in a pretty package. Similarly, Earth: The Making, Shaping and Workings of a Planet (Macmillan, 216 pages, $40), uses the earth sciences to illustrate the threat to the environment. It takes more of a textbook approach of charts and cutaways.
Rick Smolan, creator of the "Day in the Life" series, has moved on to another project: a series of books about people who have done remarkable things. Robyn Davidson qualifies -- the 27-year-old crossed the Australian outback with just the company of four camels and a dog, not to mention the camera eye of Mr. Smolan, who captured the trek for his book, From Alice to Ocean (Addison-Wesley, 224 pages, $49.95). Her words and his photographs -- exquisitely detailed and somehow golden no matter what time of day -- are accompanied by a PhotoCD, two discs that with the right equipment can translate pictures to a TV set and simultaneously play the narration on a regular CD player or interactively on certain Macintosh computers.
Another traveler/photographer, Victor Englebert, has spent the last 26 years compiling the photos and text of Wind, Sand & Silence: Travels with Africa's Last Nomads (Chronicle Books, 183 pages, $35). It's like an extended issue of National Geographic (which is indeed among the periodicals that have published Mr. Englebert's work) -- the photographs range from intimate close-ups of exotic persons to vast panoramas of a desolate, yet stunningly beautiful land.
Campagna Romana (Alfred A. Knopf, 114 pages, $60) -- The Countryside of Ancient Rome to you -- features the exquisite and earthy photographs of Joel Sternfeld. Although it captures a historic landscape threatened by uncontrolled development, there is no false romanticism of the rustic nor overbearingly ironic juxtapositions of the old and new. Instead, the photographs are straightforward treatments of crumbling historic structures, beautifully lit landscapes and new construction -- all the more eloquent for their understatement.
It's New York's back yard, an 843-acre garden in the midst of the concrete canyon of the city, and the subject of A Year in Central Park (Rizzoli, 208 pages, $45). Photographer Laurie A. Watters offers a season-by-season, mostly idealized portrait of this oasis in the city, capturing the rolling pathways, the breathtaking vistas of skyscrapers against treetops and the endless variety of happenings -- both planned and impromptu -- that make Central Park one of the best shows in town.
Closer to home, The Brandywine Valley: An Introduction to Its Cultural Treasures (Harry N. Abrams, 224 pages, $60) is largely the story of two families -- the DuPonts and the Wyeths. The former's estates and the latter's paintings are among the highlights of "The Brandywine Nine," museums and collections that make the valley a densely concentrated mine of culture.
The real Southwest -- not the bleached skulls and sun-washed colors of recently popular decor -- is in The Sonoran Desert
(Harry N. Abrams, 168 pages, $49.50). If you think of the desert as gray, cracked earth interspersed with a cactus or two, this book will surprise you with its photographs of fiery sunsets and delicately colored wildflowers.
Aerial photography by its very nature is remote -- it gives you forest rather than trees, which can have its merits, of course. Egypt: Gift of the Nile (Harry N. Abrams, 208 pages, $45) is a look at the desert, seas, river, monuments and metropolis from the sky -- and it is by turns awesome and, well, distant.
And finally, the Final Frontier. The Art of Robert McCall (Bantam Books, 150 pages, $60) is a collection of the artist Isaac Asimov calls "the nearest thing we have to an artist-in-residence in outer space." Mr. McCall, who created the famed poster for "2001: A Space Odyssey," paints both actual scenes such as the Apollo-Soyuz link-up and imagined scenes of future space travel. He has a sweetly optimistic and finely detailed style -- you should see his space-traveling craft and floating cities and their infrastructures! -- that make him the perfect artist laureate of the future as imagined today.
The sum can indeed be greater than the parts. Two Lives: Georgia O'Keefe & Alfred Stieglitz (HarperCollins/Callaway Editions, 144 pages, $40) is as billed "A Conversation in Paintings and Photographs" and somehow manages to throw new light on what is one of the most chronicled of artistic couplings. The book twins her paintings and his photographs: sometimes of the same objects (barns, trains), other times of disparate images that nonetheless form a dialogue (his portrait of her graceful arms and her painting of equally lyrical calla lilies).
Robert Frost Seasons (Henry Holt, $50) pairs the beloved poet's words and Christopher Burkett's photos in a predictable yet pretty way and takes you beyond "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," if that's the extent of your Frostian acquaintance.
Peter Matthiessen, founder of the Paris Review and an award-winning author, links up with multi-media artist Mary Frank to celebrate wildlife in Shadows of Africa (Harry N. Abrams, 120 pages, $34.95). With most of her artwork in black and white and subdued shades, his words fill in the colors and the atmosphere.
Two other couplings are worth a mention. Loving: Poetry and Art (Harry N. Abrams, 160 pages, $29.95) contains some clever word-and-image pairings; it makes a case for John Lennon and Yoko Ono as modern-day derivatives of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And Felines: Great Poets on Notorious Cats (Chronicle Books, 64 pages, $14.95) is similar -- if you're the kind of person who equates love with cats, that is.
From Anne Frank to Marc Chagall, from Sigmund Freud to Larry Rivers, the artistic, literary and intellectual contributions that Jews have made throughout history are the subject of a massive volume, The Jews: A Treasury of Art and Literature (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 384 pages, $75).
The gracefully pointed leg and foot of Natalia Makarova and the puffed-out cheek of Dizzie Gillespie are among the idiosyncratic characteristics brought out when Willa Shalit (yes, daughter of Gene) plaster-casts celebrities. Life Cast (Beyond Words, 96 pages, $29.95) contains photographs and background explanations on the casts she's made of famous faces and occasionally, famous other body parts. Though they usually all have their eyes closed by necessity, giving them deathly looks, the casts bring out surprising qualities in the familiar faces of Ronald Reagan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Williams, Ted Turner and others.
If you always hated throwing away your Wooden Boat calendars, photographer Benjamin Mendlowitz has compiled the best of the first 10 years in The Book of Wooden Boats (Norton, 192 pages, $50). These traditional sailing and fishing boats are shot in loving clarity in the kind of waters and weather that sailors dream about. America's Cup: 1951 to 1992 (Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co., 208 pages, $50) doesn't quite have the same warmth -- this, after all, is the official record of that increasingly big-money and high-tech race. Still, if you're into this race, the book gives you a prime seat.