Photographs of artists’ studios—with their provocative disarray, inspirational totems, and the peculiarly compelling vacuum of work in progress—are only a minor subset of the shelter porn industry’s increasingly gaudy output. But for shameless devotees, they’re as fascinating as they are frustrating, allowing us privileged access to the creative sanctum but denying us more than a few suggestive glimpses of what transpires there. The model for this interior investigation is Alexander Liberman’s The Artist in His Studio, first published in 1960. Liberman, who produced the book during his extended tenure as editorial czar of the Condé Nast empire, focused on the French modern masters and included savvy written appreciations of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Cézanne, Bonnard, and their peers both living and dead, along with portraits, personal anecdotes, and poignant color spreads of historic ateliers.
David Seidner, who died this past spring of AIDS, anticipated history by photographing 20 contemporary American artists, virtually all of them based in or near New York. His book, Artists at Work (Rizzoli, $50), is no match for Liberman’s critical sophistication; Seidner’s brief texts read like a besotted fan’s notes—no surprise after his introductory confession, “I worship artists.” Still, many of these artists were his close friends, and even if he isn’t able to capture that relationship in print, the best of his gorgeously precise photos suggest an intimacy that perpetuates the romance of the studio. Though there’s only so much significance we can attach to the conch shells on Brice Marden’s floor or Joan Mitchell’s bulletin-board collage of postcards, these details—as well as Francisco Clemente’s paint-slathered newspapers, Cy Twombly’s carefully arranged work table, and the plastic body parts scattered about Cindy Sherman’s floor—are the book’s real meat. Could be juicier, but it’s certainly prime.