There is a small revelation in the thesis of this joyfully bawdy coffee-table book — the thesis being that contemporary art is, in its bones, all about sex — but what it reveals has less to do with the meaning of art than the meaning of sex. Art: A Sex Book collects 175 prints of what camp auteur John Waters and Artforum contributing editor Bruce Hainley have deemed to be the world's sexiest works of modern art, and much of what they've amassed is not what you'd expect. You won't find the obsessive sexual confessions of Natacha Merritt's photographs here, or Jeff Koons' hardcore "Made in Heaven" series, or Eric Fischl's teenage backyard masturbator. That's not the kind of juice Waters and Hainley are after. They understand sex — like art — to be more attitude than action, and that the artworks that capture it best share the same descriptors as a red-hot lover: confident, mysterious, fearless, and a little skewed. "What you have to do," Waters writes in the opening pages, "is be delighted by the nerve of contemporary art."
With this injunction at the ready, Waters and Hainley unfurl their exhibition-in-a-book, partitioned into six "rooms" and guided by the authors-cum-curators. On the more literal end of the sex spectrum displayed here, there's Jeff Burton's tight-focus, balls-out (literally) photographs of gay porn stars taken at a curious remove from any context; the grainy, semidocumentary pictures of straight boys and faded stage stars by Gary Lee Boas; and the sumptuous paintings of Monica Majoli, whose work included here chronicles masturbation fantasies with an affectionate detail usually seen in Renaissance devotionals.
But some of the most gratifying moments in Art are also its most figurative, held in those works that represent sex rather than flatly depicting it. There is something damn sexy about Tom Burr's "Deep Purple," for instance, an outdoor installation that riffs on Richard Serra's pendulous metal forms, a wall of wood that seems to teeter in a limbo of some unsatisfiable tension. Ditto Reiner Ruthenbeck's "Overturned Furniture" series, rooms full of upended tables and chairs, scattered about as if strewn in a fit of rage, or was it passion? And Peter Hujar's photograph "Bed, Newark, NJ," taken in a wasted and water-stained bedroom in an abandoned house, walks you through sexy desolation, the hidden thrill of sifting through some stranger's discarded memories.
Smart people will tell you that smart is sexy, and Art: A Sex Book is here to back them up. For everyone else, there's still plenty of pulp out there to keep their cranks turning until they're ready for this quick and subtle mind-fuck. As Waters warns readers about Art in its introduction, "If you bought it as a jerk-off book, you might be confused."