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Originally published Friday, December 13, 2013 at 12:59 PM

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Top 5 coffee-table art books: Chihuly, skyscrapers and more

Seattle Times arts writer Michael Upchurch recommends art books highlighting Dale Chihuly, photographer Lori Nix, skyscraper architecture, polar- and Alpine-inspired art, and the USSR’s frantic sale of treasures to the West decades ago.


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Choices abound for the art-lover in your life (or maybe even for you) this year, with notable offerings about Dale Chihuly, Lori Nix and lost European treasures.

1. “Selling Russia’s Treasures,” edited by Natalya Semyonova and Nicolas V. Iljine (Abbeville, $75). In the 1920s and ’30s, the USSR found itself starved for funds and in possession of vast art troves stolen from private collectors and institutions. This lavishly illustrated tome highlights what Soviet culture lost, including historic Russian icons and masterpieces by Rembrandt and Van Gogh. It also points out the “cruel irony” of a revolution-ravaged USSR looking to the capitalist West for art purchasers. Among the buyers: American billionaire Andrew Mellon, who wound up donating his Russian-bought holdings to the National Art Gallery. A book for art lovers and history buffs alike.

2. “Chihuly,” edited by Diane Charbonneau (DelMonico Books/Prestel, $65). Dale Chihuly’s glass art is so omnipresent in the Pacific Northwest that it’s difficult to get a fresh or objective angle on it. That makes this gorgeously produced, richly informative catalog for a recent Chihuly retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts particularly welcome. All phases of his 40-year career are covered, and the point is made that both his detractors and his devotees credit him with “transforming or transcending traditional forms and functions of glass.”

3. “The City: Lori Nix” by Barbara Pollack (Decode Books, $60). Seattle fine-arts publisher Decode Books has a winner with this handsome coffee-table book of apocalypse-happy photographs by Kansas-raised, Brooklyn-based photographer Lori Nix. Nix’s meticulous color prints, at first glance, seem to document oddly antiquated institutions (libraries, museums) and humbler venues (a bar, a Laundromat) hit by some nameless but real disaster. Look more closely and you’ll see these are actually photos of small, fastidiously constructed dioramas. Photography lovers and steampunk enthusiasts should be equally drawn to Nix’s work.

4. “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012” by Barbara C. Matilsky (Whatcom Museum/University of Washington Press, $39.95). There’s strong competition for local museum-exhibit catalogs this year, including the Frye Art Museum’s “Franz von Stuck,” Tacoma Art Museum’s “Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder” and Bainbridge Island Art Museum’s “Gayle Bard: A Singular Vision.” But this superbly packaged catalog for Whatcom Museum’s latest exhibit is a model of its kind as it traces artists’ responses to icebound polar and mountain regions over two centuries. A perfect fit for art lovers with an interest in ecological issues.

5. “Skyscrapers: A History of the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings” by Judith Dupré (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $29.95). Here’s a book so tall it will only fit on a coffee table — and that’s in perfect keeping with its subject. Dupré’s excellent guided tour of the world’s tallest buildings is now in its third edition: a necessity, given that no building can lay claim to being the world’s tallest for long these days. A perfect gift for engineering buffs as well as architecture enthusiasts — and, at only $29.95, the best bargain on this list.

Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times arts writer



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