June 16, 2024

New books on Miles Davis, Keith Haring and other artists | Things To Do

Generally speaking, the art itself is enough.

We might read the IMDb trivia for a movie we liked or check out a review or two of a book we have enjoyed, but, usually, those extra bits of minutiae serve as seasoning for the experience, nothing more.

Occasionally, though, we will encounter a piece of art that we connect with more deeply, that touches us in such a way that we find ourselves asking, “Why? Why am I so affected by this?” And, perhaps most crucially: “How did the artist do that?”

Some works transcend the limited sphere of personal taste and connect at that deeper level across a wider, societal spectrum, calling for more formal exploration. Thus, we have multiple books about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and Monet’s “Water Lilies,” Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.”

And we have a veritable cornucopia of books about Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.”

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“3 Shades of Blue” author James Kaplan.

Longtime journalist James Kaplan’s “3 Shades of Blue” is a worthy addition to that particular library shelf (literally, in my case), despite the fact that the book breaks very little new ground. This is mostly due to Kaplan’s approach.

Rather than focusing on the album, or the two 1959 recording sessions that resulted in its five haunting tracks, Kaplan explores the personal alchemy that created the conditions for those sessions, the combination of bandleader and trumpeter Davis with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans.

Thus, the book takes the form of three interwoven biographies, drawing together for those 1959 sessions, then drawing apart. The first half of “3 Shades of Blue” is full of powerful writing, as Kaplan explores not only the lives of the players, but the social history of the middle of the 20th century and of jazz, in particular. The transition of the music from a dance form to a listening form, for example, underscores questions of virtuosity surrounding the three players and creates the ground for even the possibility of this contemplative masterpiece.

The post-“Kind of Blue” pages are, perhaps inevitably, less powerful: as they span multiple decades, the book is no longer building up to something transcendent, but counting down not only to the deaths of the players, but also to a decline in the stature of jazz. (The imbalance between the three stories is also most apparent here, with Davis getting the lion’s share of the attention over Coltrane and especially Evans, but this is largely unavoidable.) Kaplan handles the material well, but the overarching sadness is something of a bitter pill following the triumph of the album itself.

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“Radiant” by Brad Gooch, $50, HarperCollins Canada.

“Radiant,” Brad Gooch’s new biography of the artist Keith Haring, has a similar issue, although it manifests itself in a powerful way.

The second biography authorized by the Haring estate, “Radiant” follows Haring’s development as an artist and media figure, from his childhood in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, to his high school experimentation with born-again Christianity (“Haring later emphasized that his attraction was to ‘the paraphernalia and the surrounding symbols and images more than the idea.’”) to his arrival in New York City in the late 1970s.

These early sections feel, appropriately enough, like a comic book hero’s origin story. Guided by Gooch, readers follow the accrual of the iconography that grew to exemplify Haring’s work, the radiant babies and barking dogs, the flying saucers and stick figures. When, in December 1980, Haring “noticed for the first time a lone, empty panel covered in soft black matte paper on a (subway) station wall,” it’s a moment of thrilling fulfilment and commencement, as if everything in his life has brought Haring to this juncture and his realization that “every clean blackboard asks to be brought to life with white chalk.” Those subway sketches were Haring’s breakthrough, and their popularity marks not only a shift in his career, but in the book.

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Brad Gooch, author of “Radiant.”

As Haring’s star rises, however, “Radiant” settles into something of a rut, less a biography than an annotated daybook, detailing his travels, the parties he hosted or attended, his friends, his lovers. The middle of the book feels metronomic and repetitive, and readers may find themselves flicking quickly through the lists of names and places.

In the shadow of tragedy, though, “Radiant” regains its footing. With the artist’s 1990 death forming the inevitable end of the book, the loss of his peers and friends, including Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, lends “Radiant” a powerful gravitas. If you have any connection to Haring’s art — and who doesn’t, at this point? — the closing chapters will break your heart.

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“The Work of Art” by Adam Moss, $45, Penguin Random House. 

Former New York magazine editor Adam Moss largely avoids the pitfalls of the biographical imperative in his new book “The Work of Art,” by largely avoiding biography altogether.

Rather than focusing on the life of an artist, Moss digs deeply into the work itself, interviewing more than 40 creatives around the declaration of the book’s subtitle, “How something comes from nothing.” The result is a compelling kaleidoscope of creativity.


“The Work of Art” author Adam Moss.

It helps, of course, that Moss chooses to explore the work of artists as prominent — and disparate — as writers Sheila Heti and George Saunders, NPR icon Ira Glass, puzzle guru Will Shortz, chef Samin Nosrat, painter Kara Walker and, well, Stephen Sondheim. Framed journalistically, each section introduces the artist and the work and allows the former to expound on the latter: inspiration, stages, development, conflicts, all the way to the finished piece. These conversations are accompanied by photographs and archival materials, sketches and notes. (If you’re the sort of reader who swoons over notebook pages, this is the book for you.)

“The Work of Art” is a transfixing compendium that could easily have collapsed under the weight of its own ambitions. Moss proves to be a gifted guide, for both the artists and the readers. The conversations are tightly composed and directed. “When artists speak,” Moss explains, “they generally focus on what their work means.” “The Work of Art” focuses on the process, capturing that miraculous journey and demonstrating (as if there were any doubt) that quality journalism is an art in itself. The book is a treasure, one that most readers will return to often.

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