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Whether it's hanging on a museum wall or gracing a rock album cover, the question is open to debate. 

But is it Art?

My wife has an art history degree and has decided that I need some art education. I have been to an art museum in every town we have visited. I have seen shows by "Putty Knife King" De Kooning, "No Doubt He's Straight" Degas, "Tourette's Syndrome Victim" Jackson Pollack, and "Not Afraid of Orange Is He?" Cezanne. I think I'm getting the hang of this "art world" of hers. So in order to do a little homework on the side to impress her, I bought "Sister Wendy's 1000 Masterpieces" (DK Publishing, $40).

The first thing I did when I got the book home was count the number of paintings I would actually hang on my wall (23!). An art historian, PBS superstar and nun, Sister Wendy Beckett covers everything from the Cave Paintings at Lascaux to Warhol's obligatory Marilyn diptych.

I was shocked to find paintings that I had actually seen. No one told me at the time they were masterpieces. When I asked my wife about this she replied, "masterpiece is implied" thus generating my catch phrase for 2000.

The best parts of the book, though, are the explanations of the paintings. I watched my wife walk through the De Kooning exhibit with her mouth hanging open and I never understood why. Sister Wendy explains how De Kooning looked at the world and his paintings began to make (some) sense to me. Other paintings defy explanation. I stared at Albertinelli's "The Visitation" for a week and have decided to take my daughter to see it someday.

The layout of the book enables the reader to make interesting comparisons. The presence of David Hockney's painting of the transvestite Divine in the same book as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel makes you feel as if you were in the middle of some giant art world palindrome. Several paintings of John the Baptist in all his hallucinatory greatness are worth the price of the book. And while I will never understand the appeal of Bonnard, Sister Wendy has compiled a loving look at the history of Western art that, as she says, "will not leave us in our mental or moral laziness."

—Thom Jeter



As the product of a time when record covers were a viable part of pop culture, I eagerly anticipated delving into this collection of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell's, "100 Best Album Covers," (DK Publishing, 160 pages, $19.95). Unfortunately, this anticipation was quickly blunted as I flipped the pages and questions arose: Is this a rock fan's bonanza to savor with an eye for trivia and nostalgia? Or is it a colorfully ponderous paperback full of scattershot "infobytes" and artistic notes of more interest to students of Design 101 than to music fans?

The authors, both '70s British designers, admittedly ignore rap, country and techno album designs. But, that aside, "100 Best" stabs at the promise of the title by picking from a wide-range of record cover art. A couple of stark '50s jazz designs make the cut. The psychedelic '60s are represented and the optical tricks of the '70s are in full array. Covers from the '80s and even a few '90s adherents to the dated album design (Nirvana's "Nevermind"; Beck's "Odelay") find their places. In the trivia department, we get some humorous commentary from R. Crumb about his design for Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Cheap Thrills," and we find out that one '70s Rod Stewart cover was a paste-up job where Stewart's head was placed atop a figure in an ad for athlete's-foot medicine.

But what's oddly missing is an overall design that encourages a reader's sustained attention. Colorful album covers decorate each page but they're surrounded by meandering paragraphs presented in such a challenging array of fonts and point sizes that the text is difficult to read. Soon the contents become a mishmash; there's the featured cover and information about its designer, technical notes and trivia galore offered on each page. But unlike similar pop coffee-table books, the average rock 'n' roll Joe could flip through these crammed and jumbled pages without much reward.

— Ames Arnold
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