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Live art, lives, and poetry of the camera

Illustrated books with a Boston connection

Artists and writers with strong ties to this region have produced some remarkable art books this year.

Boston is a big photography town, and Abelardo Morell is at the top of the list in that medium. His ''Camera Obscura" (Bulfinch, $60) is a haunting series of images made with that most basic technology; Morell's magic results in apparitions of iconic buildings -- the Empire State Building, the Tower of London -- that appear on the walls of rooms, upside down, as in a dream.

The Nobel Prize recipient and Harvard molecular biologist Walter Gilbert is also Wally Gilbert, the photographer. The book ''Wally Gilbert: An Exhibition of Photography" (Massachusetts College of Art, $30, includes tax) is a little gem. There is a lot of science in these images, but essentially they are visual poetry. Sometimes you can identify the subjects; in other cases, you're just looking at lush colors and textures.

Peter Sutton, former Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator and now director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., has, with Marjorie Wieseman, produced the opulent ''Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens" (Yale, $60). No painter in history made oil sketches as spontaneous and full of bravura as Rubens. As the book so handsomely demonstrates, they both complement and in a way contradict the finished paintings.

For five years now, Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art has run a temporary public art program of notable success, giving fresh meanings to familiar sites including the Bunker Hill Monument and the Emerald Necklace. The projects are ephemeral, but ''Vita Brevis: History, Landscape and Art 1998-2003" (ICA/Steidl, $40) gives them a well-earned afterlife.

Childe Hassam is among Boston's most beloved painters, celebrated for his brushy scenes of New England churches, seaside views, Boston parks and patricians. ''Childe Hassam, American Impressionist" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale, $65) is a thorough and thoroughly gorgeous tribute to him published on the occasion of his retrospective at the Met earlier this year. It's also, happily, one of the few books this year devoted to Impressionism, the most overexposed movement in art history.

The current focus on Art Deco -- witness the mega-tribute to that movement now at the MFA -- has sparked renewed interest in Tamara de Lempicka, the Warsaw-born painter of silken, stylish portraits. In ''Tamara de Lempicka" (Royal Academy/Abrams, $55), authors Alain Blondel and Ingried Brugger focus on her most glamorous years, in Paris, between 1922 and 1935, when Synthetic Cubism figured into her images of decadence between the two world wars. With de Lempicka, the publishing trade offers a suitably strong alternative to Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe, art goddesses almost as overexposed as Impressionism.

Two 2004 books deal with eras in Chinese art separated by over a millennium. James C.Y. Watt's ''China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200--750 A.D." (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale, $75) chronicles a politically turbulent time but also an artistically fertile one. The spread of Buddhism, development of commerce, contact with foreigners, and migration of thousands of people from other Asian countries made for a newly broadened attitude in the arts. It was the period when glassmaking was introduced in China.

China's art has opened up again in the last decade. In ''Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China" (University of Chicago, $40), Wu Hung and Christopher Phillips survey a current cultural revolution in the arts. The boldness is exemplified in a video still of a nude performance on the Great Wall.

There's also a vast time gap in the material in two new books on Native American art. The earliest objects in ''Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South" (Art Institute of Chicago, Yale, $60) are thousands of years old. The book, edited by Richard F. Townsend, is a lavish and visually riveting examination of weapons, vessels, masks, ceremonial objects, and more, brought together for a traveling show organized by the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute's interest is an indication of the shifting attitude toward this work, which in the past was usually regarded as ethnography, not art.

Some of the more abstract works illustrated in ''Allan Houser: An American Master (Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994)" (Abrams, $60) have an uncanny resemblance to those in ''Hero, Hawk and Open Hand." But Houser was a 20th-century artist, and the bulk of his work is figurative and realistic. Author W. Jackson Rushing III places him not only in relation to earlier Native American art, but also in the context of mainstream modernist movements.

To many, performance art is merely part of the Hoax of Modern Art. These skeptics should peruse Roselee Goldberg's persuasive documentation of the medium in ''Performance: Live Art Since the '60s" (Thames & Hudson, $34.95), which has a foreword by Laurie Anderson. Goldberg includes pictures of people dangling, crawling, climbing, swinging, sacrificing animals, and playing at martyrdom. There's a lot of gore here. Your reaction will probably depend on your date of birth.

Ditto for ''Dali" (Bompiani, $77). This year marks the centennial of Salvador Dali's birth, being celebrated by a huge exhibition that opened in Venice, that most surreal of cities, and in February comes to Philadelphia. The lobster telephone, the melting clock, the faces growing out of the ground, the handlebar mustache that could so handily be replicated by flowers or $10,000 bills, and hundreds of far less familiar images all turn up.

More on Venice. Princeton professor Patricia Fortini Brown has written the marvelously readable and opulently illustrated ''Private Lives in Renaissance Venice" (Yale, $50), which describes life behind the fanciful facades of the palazzi that line the Grand Canal. Brown tackles the structure of family and society, and describes what 16th-century nobility in La Serenissima wore, ate, and collected, along with how they entertained and raised their children.

''I need a sitter in order to work," the sculptor Auguste Rodin once said. ''The sight of human forms nourishes and comforts me. I infinitely admire -- I worship -- the nude." ''Rodin" (Flammarion, $60), by Raphael Masson and Veronique Mattiusi, is a handsome overview inevitably focused on the artist's love of the body, with gorgeous photographs of ''The Kiss," ''The Thinker," ''Balzac," the entwined hands of lovers, and other figurative subjects. The drawings are fleet and gorgeous, a surprise; the sculptures are powerful even in book-size reproduction.

Dan Flavin was a pioneering artist whose medium was fluorescent light, which he could use to ''draw" grids, diagonals, columns, and other geometric forms; to punctuate spaces or flood them with colors; and also to pay homage to other artists including Vladimir Tatlin and Sol LeWitt. It's a banner year for Flavin, book-wise, with two major publications, ''Dan Flavin: A Retrospective" (Yale, $45) and ''Dan Flavin: The Complete Lights, 1961--1996" (Yale, $150), both written by Michael Govan and Tiffany Bell. Flavin's work has a spiritual quality that the superb photography, especially in ''The Complete Lights," captures and conveys admirably.

And Richard Shiff, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, and Heidi Colsman-Freyberger deserve the year's tenacity award for their work on ''Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonn" (Yale, $200), a 664-page tome that will be the definitive book on the 20th-century artist who made a simple stripe (dubbed a ''zip") into an icon.

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