3 books about iconic artists

Thursday, February 17, 2011; 6:46 PM

Brimming with both vagueness and import, the label "iconic" has been slapped on everything from fashion to corporate logos, public buildings to television characters. When applied to art, which actually brings us back to the word's Greek and Latin roots, the term takes on an added luster. In the case of the three artists these books strive to illuminate, the description is well deserved.

1 YOUNG MICHELANGELO: The Path to the Sistine, by John T. Spike (Vendome, $27.95). A case could be made that the ridiculously talented Florentine artist Michelangelo Buonarroti set the standard that all subsequent art work strives to reach. But does pondering the sensuous "David" or the moving "Pieta," both created before he reached the age of 30, tell us just who Michelangelo was? Frankly, no, but John T. Spike, an art historian, curator and critic has done some impressive research to flesh out the early years of the artist's life, right up until his return to Rome in 1508 to focus on a commission in the Sistine Chapel. The young sculptor's daunting talent and quest to earn as much money as possible are woven into the story of the Italian Renaissance and the outsized figures of the age.

2 GRANT WOOD: A Life , by R. Tripp Evans (Knopf, $37.50). Grant Wood is best known today for the quintessentially American portrait "American Gothic." And that, R. Tripp Evans laments, is the problem. The painter's art became synonymous with the American heartland, yet Wood feared being exposed as a gay man. After Wood's rediscovery in 1983, courtesy of a vibrant exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York, his images of a wholesome America resonated in the Reagan era. Today, he is similarly revered: His painting "Arbor Day" was chosen to represent Iowa in the state quarter series. Evans, a professor of art history, offers an engrossing look at Wood's life and a deconstruction of his paintings which reveals that the farmer-painter's angst, longing and sensuality are right there on his canvases.

3 ONE HUNDRED PORTRAITS, by Barry Moser (Godine, $35). Even if you are not familiar with Barry Moser's name, you've likely seen his distinctive engravings while reading a classic novel or leafing through a children's book. His illustrated edition of the King James Bible, published in 1999, has become a classic. The portraits presented here include artists, musicians and writers. Some were originally commissioned works, while others were created specifically for this book, including first-time portraits of his father, mother and wife.

- Christopher Schoppa


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