I wouldn’t say that 2011 was a particularly great year for art-related books. The most-publicized book of the year comes off as more than a bit contrived and other biographies of artists were few. If there was a crossover art-book-hit, I can’t think of it.
Fortunately, there was still a strong crop of scholarship related to museum exhibitions, several stellar examples of which are here on MAN’s 2011 books list. Still, truth told, if it wasn’t for the Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions, 2011 would have gone down as one of the thinnest years in recent memory for smart, readable art books. Some of the highlights:
The book of the year: We knew Carleton Watkins took lovely pictures. But the full range of Carleton Watkins’ ambition and achievement only became clear this year when the J. Paul Getty Museum published the 608-page, nearly nine-pound, Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis-edited “Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Plate Photographs.” I’ll have a review on MAN soon, but for now: This is the book that firmly establishes Watkins as the first great all-American artist. Nearly every page contains a wow.
Pacific Standard Time, the uber-book: “Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980″ tells the story of art in the Southland from World War II until Reagan. That sounds dry, but this five-author/editor tome is anything but. It’s full of detail and connect-the-dots tidbits (and images!), so much so that even the most geographically erudite art lover will realize how little of the full story of post-war American art they really knew.
Another Caravaggio biography: By the time I’m lining up for early-bird dinners at the Ristorante di Retiro, there may be more Caravaggio biographies than there are extant Caravaggio paintings. In the last decade or two Helen Langdon, Peter Robb, Francine Prose, Desmond Seward and others have all taken swings at weaving Caravaggio’s life out of thin strands. The latest is by Andrew Graham-Dixon, and it’s a corker. Now, if only someone would get started on artists who haven’t been well-biographized but should be, a list including Klimt, Ernst, Bonnard, Manet, Miro, Braque, Degas, Monet, Beckmann, Judd, Watkins and plenty of others? (Alternate phrasing: Who wants to give me a grant…)
Phenomenal: As I’ll discuss in a review on MAN soon, “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface,” the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s indispensable light-and-space survey show, is a visual thrill that may leave visitors wanting to to understand more of the back story. This book picks up where the galleries leave off, providing an exhibition + scholarship tag-team that both fills in the blanks and points toward future scholarship. Oh: It’s also pretty.
John Marin times two: On this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast, I asked leading American modernism historian Debra Bricker Balken why 2011 was such a big year for Marin. In addition to Balken’s show, organized by the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art and the Addison Gallery and currently on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago launched a significant exhibition of its Marins and published “John Marin’s Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism.” The book, a presentation of the AIC’s incredible trove of Marins, isn’t just beautiful, it’s both a page-turner and the best Marin publication in at least a decade.
Completing the de Kooning troika: The publication of the catalogue for John Elderfield’s de Kooning retrospective completes a trifecta of de Kooning books that any lover of modern and contemporary art should own. The other two excellent recent de Kooning books are Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s biography and Susan F. Lake’s unusually gripping conservation study of several dozen key de Koonings.
Thinking about art like… journalists?: In her important new book “Since ’45,” Katy Siegel suggests that art history has become a bubble-bound discipline and argues that we should be considering art less in the timeline-driven context of other art, and more in the context of larger political and social movements. She’s right — and her book may make you feel like you’ve been looking at trees while missing the forest.
Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series: Richard Diebenkorn is the subject of strong exhibition catalogues compiled by Gerald Nordland and Jane Livingston, so Sarah C. Bancroft & Co. had some work to do to measure up — and did they ever. A beautiful, important contribution that goes beyond the exhibition to include key related material, such as these landmark works on paper.
Art and advocacy: “The Air We Breathe: Artists and Poets Reflect on Marriage Equality” is the ballsiest museum publication of 2011. Kudos to SFMOMA curator Apsara DiQuinzio, the David Tieger Foundation and to SFMOMA for putting art and artists in a context that demonstrates their engagement with our society’s major debates. The hardcover book itself is beautifully made and presented and the included essays will further your understanding of the marriage equality conversation. At just $13, you’ll want to give this one as a Christmas present — but be sure to get one for yourself.
The best book we haven’t seen (yet?): Curator Anne Umland’s “Picasso: Guitars, 1912-14″ at the Museum of Modern Art was one of 2011’s smartest, richest exhibitions. Alas, MoMA has yet to produce a related scholarly publication, though it has nebulously promised some kind of as-yet-undefined digital e-publication. I’m hoping for a project update soon.