1.) The most beautiful art book of the year is the Chinati Foundation’s catalogue of its collection and detailing of its history. If you’ve never been to west Texas, 15 minutes with this book will have you clicking to southwest.com for plane tickets. Pair it with David Raskin’s new Donald Judd, monograph, the first to be published since Judd’s Tate retrospective. Raskin’s book is extra-valuable because Judd monographs/etc. are astonishingly rare.
2.) The most important exhibition of 2010 was the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Even before the Smithsonian-created fiasco around the show blew up, the Jonathan Katz/David C. Ward-penned catalogue was a must-own. Lost in the hullabaloo kicked up by the Smithsonian’s removal of a David Wojnarowicz video is this key point: For years other museums could have done this show. They didn’t and the NPG did. If you want to support the show and the scholars behind it, buy the catalogue.
3.) Another of the year’s best catalogues is the Walker Art Center’s Siri Engberg-edited Alec Soth exhibition catalogue. Look for a review of it on MAN as soon as news stories quiet down a bit. (Tip: The cover is a gem. It features Soth’s address, phone number and email address.)
4.) Published late last year, Linda Gordon’s Bancroft Prize-winning biography of photographer and activist Dorothea Lange belongs on the top shelf of artist biographies. Lange lived an amazing life and cared passionately about America and its most ignored. At a time when the market often motivates artists more than their hearts or minds do, Gordon’s book is a reminder of how an artist can impact the world around her.
5.) Also published late last year: Mark Lamster’s look at how painter Peter Paul Rubens functioned as diplomat Peter Paul Rubens. Consider it proof that to buttonhole artists — then or now — as actors on just one stage is a mistake.
6.) In recent years there have been more must-own books published about Henri Matisse than about any other artist of the first half of the 20th century. The latest is the John Elderfield/Stephanie D’Alessandro catalogue of Matisse’s activity during and around World War I.
7.) The 19th-century’s newest artistic medium was photography and the most important 19thC American photography was done in the newest part of the country: The West. Philip Brookman’s Eadweard Muybridge catalogue is the first career-length look at the artist’s oeuvre. It kicked off an attribution controversy and is a must-own. Toby Jurovics’ examination of the long-overlooked survey photography of the mysterious Timothy O’Sullivan reveals that O’Sullivan initiated many of the ways in which artists still examine the West. Speaking of which: The exhibition was a disappointment, but the Britt Salvesen-edited catalogue for “The New Topographics” redux is a serious achievement. The quietest wonderful book on the West published this year was the late Joe Deal’s “West and West,” which find rich detail in the overlooked middle West. (I reviewed it here.)
8.) The year’s best book on the nuts-and-bolts of how a painting is built was Hirshhorn conservator Susan Lake’s technical-but-accessible examination of Willem de Kooning. (I reviewed it here and here.)
9.) Another small-but-rich treasure is Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Keith Christiansen’s book on Andrea Mantegna, a Renaissance master who is often overlooked in the U.S. It’s a page-turner — and not just because it’s wonderfully illustrated.
10.) This year former President George W. Bush admitted to personally authorizing torture, a violation of U.S. and international law. His far-too-proud confession sent me back to Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women, made accessible in book form this year. (Tip of the cap to the Pompidou, which is showing a Spero retrospective.)