America, the beautiful - classic, surreal, and abstract

THE AMERICAN ART BOOK Phaidon Press 512 pp., $39.95

Phaidon Press has made presenting the ABCs of the visual arts into - excuse the pun - an art form. Whereas most art books, even the survey collections, group material according to artist, artistic style, or historical movements, Phaidon has had great success with a simple A-to-Z format that favors a wide-ranging, eclectic approach to appreciating art.

The latest installment in the series, "The American Art Book," follows in the footsteps of the highly popular "The Art Book," as well as "The Twentieth Century Art Book," "The Photography Book," and "The Fashion Book." This large and impressive tome features 500 beautifully rendered reproductions representing 500 American artists from Colonial times to the present who have helped define American history and culture.

"The American Art Book" serves as both a coffee-table diversion and a serious, though condensed reference guide. Each work is accompanied by cross-references and a brief text giving interpretive insight into the work, as well as information about the creator and the historical/social contexts in which the work evolved.

The writers are a heavy-hitting group of critics and curators, and though they sometimes assume a bit too much knowledge on the part of the reader, even the most casual art lovers will find inspiration and illumination.

The book also includes a helpful glossary of terms and artistic movements as well as a directory of museums, galleries, and public collections.

The scope of "The American Art Book" is impressive. Not only are there paintings from the key artistic schools and movements, from the Hudson River School to pop art, there is a range of other artistic mediums as well.

Photography is well represented, from a Civil War print of Ulysses Grant by Mathew Brady to the canine parodies of William Wegman. There is photo documentation of land art, site specific work from artists such as Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer, and Chris Burden. Some are less than effectively represented by still photos, but their inclusion gives a sense of the extraordinary range of American art. There is even a work by cartoonist Saul Steinberg, a quilt by 19th-century quilter Harriet Powers, and a rough hewn eagle by 19th-century folk carver Wilhelm Schimmel. The earliest work, a painting of "The Mason Children," dates back to 1670, and is attributed to an artist referred to only as the Freake-Gibbs Painter in recognition of the families he most frequently painted.

What is lacking is an embrace of other crafts - computer art, glass, ceramics, jewelry, basketry. There also are a few odd omissions: no acknowledgment of Annie Leibowitz's impact on the world of photography, or R.C. Gorman's wildly popular Southwestern art. In fact, there is little acknowledgment of any native American art, save ledger artist Frank Henderson and contemporary artist Jimmie Durham.

However, nearly every region in the country is represented, and the book is one of the most inclusive American art books with regard to gender and ethnicity.

The great pleasure in "The American Art Book" is its extraordinary contrasts. Frederic Remington's vibrant "Dismounted: The Fourth Trooper Moving the Led Horses," with its fiercely galloping steeds amid almost palpable clouds of dust, sits alongside the three nearly monochromatic squares of Ad Reinhardt's resolutely minimalist "Abstract Painting, Blue." Grandma Moses' picturesque folk art is juxtaposed with Robert Motherwell's stark, metaphoric "Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. LV."

Browsing through the myriad styles, movements, and mediums of the book arouses a continual sense of serendipity. And ultimately, isn't one of art's greatest powers the ability to evoke that breathtaking moment of unexpected discovery?

*Karen Campbell is a freelance writer in Boston.

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