A Review of Picture Books (Imprint)

Danielle Dutton
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In 2021, Gagosian Publishing, an arm of the influential Gagosian galleries, launched an imprint called Picture Books, conceived by writer Emma Cline with designer Peter Mendelsund, in order to publish fiction by “leading authors,” accompanied by work from “celebrated contemporary artists.” The hardcover books, beautifully produced, share a trim size and a minimalist, series look. Each has a pocket on its inside front cover, and in each pocket waits a folded poster of the visual work. 

As a set, they feel eminently collectible. The first two titles in the series, from 2021, pair Ottessa Moshfegh’s story “My New Novel” with the down payment, an oil-on-linen piece by painter and musician Issy Wood; and Percival Everett’s novella-­length “Grand Canyon, Inc.” with Untitled (Original Cowboy), a photograph by artist Richard Prince. Gagosian states that the project will give an artist “carte blanche to create an image that is in conversation with the writer’s story,” which makes it sound as though the point is to explore the possibilities of reverse ekphrasis (when an artist responds to a text with new visual work), though this doesn’t entirely bear out. While Wood’s painting was created in response to Moshfegh’s text, Prince’s piece is from the artist’s 2013 Original Cowboy series. It’s a large-scale photograph of sandstone buttes on the Utah–Arizona border. Everett’s story, meanwhile, follows a man who grows up in Iowa obsessed with guns, gets rich leading big-game hunts in Kenya for assorted international assholes, then returns to the United States and buys the Grand Canyon. As Gagosian’s website argues, both Everett and Prince are “tricksters” known for playing with mythologies of the American West, so it seems what’s been paired are two careers; the pairing feels conceptual. The Moshfegh-Wood combo, on the other hand, feels more like a conversation between one specific image and one specific text. Wood’s piece works as a kind of grotesque psychological mirror for Moshfegh’s story about a failed writer living in LA. A sign that the pairing works: the text kept sending me back to the image, and the image kept returning me to the text. Both Moshfegh’s and Everett’s stories center loathsome and/or pathetic white American men, and so does Sam Lipsyte’s novella-length “Friend of the Pod”—the 2022 addition to the series. Lipsyte’s story gives us a middle-aged Gen X-er living in New York City who goes to work for an obnoxious boomer in New Jersey who wants to start a podcast, and the whole thing ends violently when two more awful guys show up. Lipsyte’s work is paired with Untitled, a digital image by Jordan Wolfson, whose VR piece at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Real Violence, let viewers watch him beat up another man. Here again the pairing feels more conceptual than specific. In an interview Wolfson talks about “selecting” the image—what does that mean? Why does it matter? I suppose some intractable part of my brain got stuck on that word create in the original project announcement. One reason acts of reverse ekphrasis might be more interesting than conceptual pairings is because the latter are not uncommon; we see them when a painting appears on the cover of a novel, or a photograph accompanies an online publication of a story. 

But seeing an artist provoked by a text, and seeing whatever new thing they make in response sitting next to the text that inspired it—that seems quite special. The most recent addition to the series is Lydia Millet’s delightfully odd “Lyrebird,” in which a woman gets an invitation to sing, though she’s not a singer, at a mysterious man’s estate/menagerie; it’s paired with an equally delightful acrylic painting, Eternal Garden, by Irish artist Genieve Figgis. Further books have been announced, with fiction by Joy Williams, Mary Gaitskill, and Elif Batuman. Whatever the nature of each pairing, all the writers and artists involved do compelling work, so it will be exciting to see which artists Cline assigns to the next batch of writers, and what sort of collaborative energy results.

Publisher: Gagosian Number of books as of winter 2023: 4 Price of full collection: $150 Art subjects featured: Sandstone buttes, a strange bird in a colorful courtyard, and unhappy people

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