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Making Art From Art: 5 Nonfiction Reads For Summer

Andrew Bannecker

An elaborate cake exactingly modeled from the work of a Dutch minimalist painter. A piece of literary criticism as interesting and expansive as its subject. A photograph of an eerie, antlered hat sculpted from feathers and tulle. Art criticism, written with a novelist's eye. Here are five books that traverse genre and medium, while keeping the same aim: to analyze, celebrate and re-imagine beautiful works of art.

Each book is a work of radical reinterpretation: Each looks at art through the lens of another art. Painting is explicated through pastry, millinery through photography, and painting and writing through extraordinary criticism. These are books by five master craftsmen, who take their crafts, whatever they may be, to their very limits.

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Always Looking

by John Updike and Christopher Carduff

The novelist John Updike is not a circumspect — or even a particularly fair — art critic. He delights in having strong, abrasive opinions about the works of art he describes in this sprawling collection of essays on artists like Monet, Magritte, and Klimt — whom he accuses of "cheaply-bought glamour." Most provocatively, Updike is bored with Monet's cathedral paintings: Of his Rouen Cathedral, Façade, he writes that the "lacy stone details are laboriously transformed into friable baguettes and dim ribs of color." In the same way that you can't unsee the hidden face in an optical illusion once you've found it, now to me Monet's cathedrals will be forever plagued by French bread. But it's a price worth paying for this lovely, eclectic collection of essays. Updike luxuriates in details, and he's charmingly grumpy — of a brightly lit room at the Guggenheim, he complains, "had I stayed in it longer, I might have acquired a tan." Always Looking is like walking through a gallery with the sourest, most irreverent and most brilliant tour guide you can imagine.

Modern Art Desserts

by Caitlin Freeman, Clay Mclachlan, Tara Duggan and Rose Levy Beranbaum

The children's author Maurice Sendak said that one of the highest compliments he's ever received came from the mother of a little boy who had written to Sendak, and received an original drawing in return. The little boy loved it so much that he ate it. "He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it." Sometimes it isn't enough to just look at a beautiful work of art. From Matisse parfait to Diebenkorn trifle, the desserts in this whimsical cookbook were inspired by the works on the walls of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. Caitlin Freeman, the book's author and the pastry chef in SFMOMA's cafe, decided to become a baker after seeing the cake paintings of Wayne Thiebaud. Her Mondrian cake, with its perfect De Stijl blocks of yellow, blue, red and white, pieced together with chocolate ganache, is a triumph — the coolest Mondrian interpretation since Yves Saint Laurent's 1965 Mondrian shift dress. (Actually making the cake involves rulers and wire racks and specialty cake pans and, well, patience, but the batter tasted great.)

The Virtues Of Poetry

by James Longenbach

The Virtues of Poetry, a series of loosely linked essays on poets like Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and John Ashberry, is not so much a work of criticism as it is a work of celebration. Unlike Updike, with his summary judgments, James Longenbach doesn't bother finding flaws — "With vices I am not concerned," he says, a little grandly, adding that "Unlike the short-term history of taste, which is fueled by reprimand or correction, the history of art moves from achievement to achievement." In the same way that an explanation of a joke can rob it of its humor, there is nothing worse than a dull explication for taking the magic from a poem. But Longbach (who is himself a poet) slices open poems with such grace, care and erudition that they aren't lessened by the dissection. Precision, he notes at one point, "is not opposed to mystery." Predicated on the simple and elegant thesis that good poetry transcends trends, the book points to paired poetic "virtues" like excess and restraint or compression and dilation, and then shows how they work in harmony to make great poetry sing.

Philip Treacy

by Kevin Davies

A collaboration between fashion photographer Kevin Davies and milliner Philip Treacy, this lavish book is pure pleasure. Philip Treacy is best known as the maker of those elegant, absurd, weightless hats that Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice wore to the royal wedding in 2011, but his clients have also included Lady Gaga and Madonna. In a series of understated portraits, Kevin Davies has captured some of his most iconic designs, as well as behind-the-scenes photos from fashion shoots and Treacy's chaotic studio. One of my favorites is "Red Feather Salad," a crazed, beaked nest of a hat in blood red. Another, "Chinese Wedding," looks like an upside-down silver chandelier has sprouted from the mannequin's head. Others look like impossible deep sea creatures — nightmarish sea urchins or bright coral reefs — spiky, floating, unreal things. Kevin Davies' understated photographs are almost portraits, and it is this intersection of art photography and millinery that gives this book its surreal charm.

Waiting For The Barbarians

by Daniel Mendelsohn

In this volume of critical essays, Daniel Mendelsohn tackles Herodotus' Histories and the alien movie Avatar with equal grace and erudition. He turns to Ovid's Metamorphoses to explicate Julie Taymor's failed Spider-Man production, arguing that her melding of comic book heroism and classical myth fails because in ancient myth, transformation is a dark, punitive thing — Actaeon, turned into a stag and torn apart by wolves — but in American comic books, transformation is redemptive. When Taymor tried to reconcile these traditions, "as so often happens in both myth and comic books, the attempt to fuse two species resulted in the creation of a monster." This is the kind of sophisticated analysis that American pop culture deserves, but rarely gets. Mendelsohn is a master of the mixed review — he never raves, and rarely excoriates. He makes a point, and then circles it warily, worries it, tries it on, and then casts it off again. As you begin each of these wandering, impossibly learned essays, you know that, as C.P. Cavafy — the Greek poet from whom the title is borrowed — wrote, your journey will be "a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery."

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.