At Home with the Irrational

Glen Baxter

Over four decades and many books of drawings, “Colonel” Glen Baxter has built a world and language all his own. The following is a selection from Baxter’s new book, Almost Completely Baxter, which brings together highlights from the full sweep of his long career.

The Diva of Delusion

Martin Filler

Hugh Grant, Lloyd Hutchinson, Meryl Streep, and Simon Helberg in Stephen Frears's Florence Foster Jenkins, 2016
Qwerty Films/Pathé Pictures International/Paramount Pictures

Florence Foster Jenkins offers some marvelous set pieces, including Meryl Streep’s hilariously inept version of “The Laughing Song” from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Regrettably, the film avoids probing the degree to which money can insulate untalented artists from realizing that they are no good at what they do.

In the Attic of Early Islam

Robert F. Worth

Inlaid metal basin depicting scenes from the Mamluk court, later known as the Baptismal Bowl of Saint Louis, by Muhammad Ibn al-Zayn, Egypt, circa 1320-1340
Musée du Louvre, Paris/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource

One of the most memorable moments in The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri, comes in the section on lions, which were still indigenous to the Middle East in Nuwayri’s time. He could scarcely have imagined that his book, written with such confidence from the heart of a mighty empire, would one day appear to us like that lion: a vanished, near-mythical creature at the desert’s edge.

Lucian Freud: The Pitiless Eye

Jenny Uglow

Unfinished self-portrait by Lucian Freud, circa 1980
Estate of Lucian Freud/National Portrait Gallery, London/The Lucian Freud Archive

“Lucian Freud Unseen,” a small display of drawings and sketches from Freud’s voluminous notebooks, now at the National Portrait Gallery in London, is a small display of artist’s autobiography, vivified by jottings on ideas and projects and people, phone numbers and racing tips—it takes us through his life, beginning with packed, colorful childish paintings. Looking at Freud’s sketches you feel you are in the company of a man of wit, intelligence—and who has a rather uncomfortable, even frightening power.

Atomic Light

José Manuel Prieto, photographs by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio

The gas-dynamic plasma trap, used by scientists of Institute of Nuclear Physics to hold and heat the plasma in a magnetic field, Akademgorodok, 2014
Pablo Ortiz Monasterio

What is most astonishing about this genuine relic of Soviet science that Ortiz Monasterio has brought to light in his photographs is the precarious nature of the installations, the austere conditions in which the scientists worked and lived. None of those immaculate laboratories illuminated by fluorescent lighting that Hollywood has made us come to expect. Unplugged science, I might be tempted to call it, if it were not for the tangles of cables that appear in so many of the images.

Fear of Rattlesnake Island

Christopher Benfey

William Bartram: The Rattle Snake, late eighteenth century
The Right Hon. Earl of Derby/Bridgeman Images

The state of Massachusetts has proposed to introduce a small colony of Timber Rattlesnakes to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir, to the vehement outrage of many local residents. “If we only conserve the cute and the cuddly,” said Lou Perrotti, who is supervising the breeding of Timber Rattlesnakes, “we’re going to have forests full of butterflies and bunny rabbits, and they’re going to be very nonfunctioning ecosystems that would eventually collapse.”

African Wildlife: Darkness Falls

Jeffrey Gettleman

Elephants, which are diurnal and nocturnal and only sleep for short periods, 2015
Robert J. Ross/Officina Libraria/ACC Distribution

Today, wildlife experts speak of an “elephant holocaust.” The regions of Africa that have suffered most from poaching are those steeped in conflict, where it is too dangerous for conservationists to work. Robert Ross’s new book of photographs of the African Selous reserve brings us into a fast disappearing world and keep us there.

Dressing for the King

Madeleine Schwartz

A page from The First Book of Fashion; the text above reads,
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Braunschweig

The Renaissance accountant Matthäus Schwarz often took note of the outfits in which he looked particularly fine. In 1520, at age twenty-three, he hired an artist to draw his most notable getups and collected these in a book that he continued to fill throughout the rest of his life.

Dreaming Up Rio

Benjamin Moser

Sugarloaf Mountain viewed from Botafogo Beach, circa 1900
Marc Ferrez/IMS 2015

To some Olympic tourists—those not frightened off by the reports of raw sewage and mosquito-borne disease—Marc Ferrez’s Rio, seen in a new collection of photographs, will seem unspeakably distant from the huge graffitied metropolis of today. But a closer look will reveal that, despite the changes over the last century, some similarities remain, less in the city than in the highly artistic view being held up for their admiration.

The Great American Cubist

Robert Storr

Stuart Davis: Report from Rockport, 1940
Estate of Stuart Davis/VAGA, New York/The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Stuart Davis, the only first-class Cubist to emerge from North America, concentrated single-mindedly on making art quiver with the energy he perceived around him, “jazzing up” details of the American Scene, in particular its stereotypical attributes, advertising hieroglyphics, and verbal colloquialisms. The core of the exhibition of his work, now at the Whitney, shows Davis applying his methodology to easel paintings of varying sizes—including small, amazingly intricate jigsaw-puzzle compositions.