Two books that disappointed me recently.
Art & Arcana: A Visual History by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer. Ten Speed Press, 2018.
If you want a engaging and detailed history about the origins of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and role-playing games in general, read Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World (Unreason Press, 2012); if you want a corporate history with a lot of pictures, read this book. Visually, this is a pretty lavish production with tons of images, known and unknown: interior illustrations, cover illustrations, advertisements, ephemera, maps, etc. Most of the space in the book is given over to the images, which is good, as the text itself is fairly… uninteresting. The book is organized by chapters based on D&D editions, and it starts off well enough with the early days of the game and the creation of TSR — though it’s not history I haven’t read in more detail elsewhere — but the longer the book goes on the less it seems the authors had to say. I guess it is inevitable that a corporate history is more interesting in the early days than in days of ownership changes, corporate purchases, and mass marketing. By the end of this book, I had mostly lost interest in the text, it read even more like an advertisement than the early parts. For a book that I would think is clearly targeted at existing fan/players, the text of the book offers little in the way of enticement. There’s not an inside story, there’s barely an inside at all.
Analysis of the art is thin and minimal. While a number of interesting spreads are devoted to the changing appearance of different iconic monsters over the course of the editions (spreads which made me realize how much I like the 2nd edition black and white illustration style of the work more than subsequent painted editions), they are provided with no commentary, just a quote from a monster description. The authors clearly spoke to many of the various artists whose work is found within, for different images are marked as “Artist Favorite”, yet we get no actual artist interviews, little in the way of quotations, almost no insight into the people who actually made all the visuals. My expectations were clearly too high for a book calls a “visual history”, I expected more actual content about the art itself, but instead the art is primarily an attractive accompaniment to some pretty bland history (“X was released”, “X computer game made the company realize something”).
Since Amazon was offering crazy discounts, I bought the fancy edition of this, which comes with some small posters and (the real draw) a reproduction of the 1975 version of Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors with very rough illustrations by Tracy Lesch (apparently 14 years old at the time). I’ve not had time to read through that, but having just unfolded the various posters, I’m a bit baffled by the choices made. While a few iconic images are present (Trampier’s 1st edition Player’s Handbook cover, Roslof’s Keep on the Borderlands cover, the Fiend Folio cover by Emmanuel) and a few less seen ones (Trampier’s 1979 Dungeon Master’s Screen art), some of the choices are really underwhelming examples of different artists: Keith Parkinson is represented by a painting of some skeletons; Jeff Easley by the cover of The World of Greyhawk; Larry Elmore by some random painting from the 2nd edition Player’s Handbook (I played 2nd edition for a long time when it came out and have no memory of this painting).
All in all, if you just want to look at art, this is a nice production, but if you are looking to any insight about the art you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly by Joshua Rivkin. Melville House, 2018.
This book is labelled as “Biography/Criticism” and I bought it expecting a biography with discussion of art. I’m a big fan of Cy Twombly’s art — I have a few monographs of his work, I’ve travelled specifically to see show by him, I’ve got 2 large posters of his paintings hanging over my desk where they are what I see if I look up from my computer screen — but I don’t really know anything about him, other than some very basic facts. This book is not a straight biography. Twombly was incredibly private in his life (apparently giving only two interviews), and the foundation that controls his estate (and access to his images) has maintained that privacy. They did not support this project and thus not a single image of Twombly’s art is actually reproduced in this book. All images in the book are photographs from our sources. For a book about a painter this is problematic, as Rivkin is often describing abstract paintings to discuss them, and I found it hard to parse these sections. Textual description is just not adequate to the task of bringing to mind Twombly’s dynamic use of paint, pencil, chalk. I have mixed feelings about this withholding of support, but I can’t deny it has a major effect on this book, both for it’s author and this reader.
Because of this conflict with the estate, a portion of this book becomes memoir, Rivkin writing about his interactions with Twombly’s son and Twombly’s lover/assistant/executor, trying to learn about Twombly, trying to get their… blessing on the work, and by three hundred pages in I stopped caring. Rivkin endeavors to write around the privacy, the secrecy, the lack of information, but for me, that wasn’t giving me any… insight… into the work. He often shifts to extrapolation, novelized passages that attempt to bring Twombly to life, but it never made me feel like I was learning anything that would add to my appreciation of Twombly’s work. And, for me, that realization made me lose interest, I’m 320 pages into 400 pages of writing (not counting endnotes) and for the last 50 I’ve been skimming. I put this book down and picked up a different new book on Twombly that brings me more joy, Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Iliam (Yale U Press, 2018), a monograph about the amazing sequence of paintings found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (nearby to me thankfully). Maybe I’ll write about that book when I finish it.
For a more positive and detailed review of the book, you might read Catherine Lacey’s one in the Paris Review.