Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

MAN’s best books of 2012

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With the usual caveat that this list is limited to books I read and that it includes books received after last year’s ‘best books’ post, which was published just after Thanksgiving, 2011, my best books of 2012:

The book of the year: Eleanor Jones Harvey’s “The Civil War and American Art” is the rare book that connects the dots between art and history so well that the reader assumes that the subject is well-worn. It is not. The book, which trumps the exhibition in part because the strange, small-walled, low-ceilinged exhibition space at the Smithsonian American Art Museum restricted the way the show might have been hung, deserves to win awards in two disciplines: Art history and American history. (Amazon: $40, MAN Podcast.)

The field of the year?: While Picasso shows are the new Impressionism shows and while grad students continue to flock toward contemporary art at a rate that defies all necessity, the most interesting art historical field of the moment may be colonial Spanish art. Museums from Brooklyn to Los Angeles are eagerly snapping up fine examples for their collections and LACMA in particular has established itself as a leader in the field. Nowhere moreso than in the superb late-2011 catalogue “Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World,” which was edited by Ilona Katzew. (Amazon: $44. MAN Podcast.)

Reflecting vision rather than shaping it: Conventional wisdom has long been that late 19th-century and early 20th-century French painters used photography to help inform their paintings. Often this was true — witness Manet. But “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard,” edited by Elizabeth Easton, revealed that artists just as often migrated ideas from canvas to photograph. (Amazon: $35. MAN Podcast.)

Revealing the men in plain sight: In paintings such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Diego Velazquez Portrait of Juan de Pareja, this subject has been staring right at us for decades: How did Africans work their way into European art? Walters Art Museum curator Joaneath Spicer’s book starts in about 1400 and moves through the Renaissance, explaining how and why Africans were portrayed in art from Spain to Italy and everywhere in between. This too-slim 144-page volume (essays on contributions to English and Spanish literature by persons of African origin, the portrayal of black servants, the portrayal of Africans in Christian art and the European perception of Africa were cut because of financial pressures) puts the presence of Africans in art in the context of contemporary life, literature, and Catholic thought. You’ll be amazed at what you didn’t know that you didn’t know. Another sign of under-funding: The book is $25 and is available only through the Walters. (MAN Podcast.)

Art and environmental impact: “Petrochemical America,” a big, beautiful book that mixed Richard Misarch’s beautiful photos of scary things with landscape architect Kate Orff’s beautifully designed descriptions of how the chemical industry impacts our lives, could have been an angry anti-industry polemic. Instead it encourages us to consider our role in enabling the production and dissemination of petrochemicals. (Amazon: $50. MAN Podcast. Modern Painters.)

Surveying the surveyor: When a top photography curator does a major project on a top photographer, the result is likely to be terrific. “Timothy H. O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs” by Nelson-Atkins curators Keith Davis and Jane Aspinwall details O’Sullivan’s work with and for Clarence King, as well as the development of the American West. The book also includes a valuable catalogue raisonne of O’Sullivan’s King Survey work. (Amazon: $42. MAN Podcast.)

Everyone loves an artist-rivalry: Leonardo and Michelangelo did not like each other. Their story has been oft-told, most recently in Rona Goffen’s  extraordinary “Renaissance Rivals” (2004), but The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones adds recent research and an abundance of storytelling verve to his telling in “The Lost Battles.” (Amazon: $22.)

Overdue, superb: Thanks in part to the much-touted photographs by Ken Price’s work by Fredrik Nilsen, “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective” was the most beautiful exhibition catalogue of the year. Essays by Stephanie Barron, Phyllis Tuchman and Dave Hickey both informed and entertained. The total package left many of us wondering: How come no one ha d done this show before now?! (Amazon: $48. MAN Podcast.)

Above the many: There are lots of Robert Adams books. So what makes the Yale University Art Gallery’s three-volume “The Place We Live” a must? While preparing to talk with Adams on The MAN Podcast, I compared the reproductions in “The Place We Live” with earlier books, such as the catalogue for the 1989 Adams retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There really was no comparison. Essays by Joshua Chuang, Jock Reynolds and Tod Papageorge (originally published in 2001) round out the package. (Amazon: $159. MAN Podcast.)

Florence beyond Giotto: Just as Joaneath Spicer’s project at the Walters reveals that historians are still teaching us about art we thought we knew well, so too does “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance.” The gorgeous exhibition and equally exciting book go beyond Giotto and Bernardo Daddi to teach us new things about early 14thC Florentine art, namely the importance of Pacino di Bonaguida, who has been little examined over the last, uh, seven decades, and the role of manuscript painting in the development of early Renaissance art. Credit editor Christine Sciacca and her contributors: They intended this book to be read and not just admired. (So then why why is the type so small?) (Amazon: $65.)

Fooled ya: “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” is like the first project on this list: A single-author/historian project that reveals the breadth of a subject that’s been hiding in plain sight. Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Mia Fineman’s book reveals less that photographers were clever tricksters than that the manipulation of photography was important to the early days of the photography market, and that it impacted movements in art (such as surrealism), advertising and more. The pictures are hey look at this! fun, but the text is a good a straight read as anything here, too. (Amazon: $38. MAN Podcast.)

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Comments

  1. I got the Ken Price book via Amazon. May just be temporarily out of stock…

  2. [...] MAN's best books of 2012 “Timothy H. O'Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs” by Nelson-Atkins curators Keith Davis and Jane Aspinwall details O'Sullivan's work with and for Clarence King, as well as the development of the American West. The book also includes a valuable … Read more on ARTINFO (blog) [...]

  3. [...] From Modern Art Notes: Tyler Green weighs in on the Best Arts Books of 2012. [...]

  4. Eleanor Jones Harvey’s “The Civil War and American Art” will be the perfect Christmas gift for my sister (an art historian) and her husband (a Civil War buff). Thanks, MAN!

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  7. [...] usual caveats that this list is limited to books I read and that it includes books received after last year’s ‘best books’ post, which was published just after Thanksgiving, 2012, my list of the best art books of [...]

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