With the 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 2013:
The best art books of the year: “American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World” and “Photography and the American Civil War.”
“American Adversaries,” edited by Emily Ballew Neff and Kaylin H. Weber. A page-turner masquerading as a nearly five-pound, lap-sized book, “American Adversaries” explores how the two leading American painters of the pre-Revolutionary War era chose to go to England when the colonies opted for independence and how their decisions impacted their lives and their work. As with the best books about art history, it is as much about history and how artists fit into it and contributed to it as it is about art. Weber’s essay-examination of Benjamin West’s London studio is a particularly fascinating glimpse of 18thC London and its wealth.
Neff’s account of Copley’s European travels is unapologetically entertaining, but also reveals plenty about Copley’s interests and how they would impact his art. (Well, she’s almost unapologetic about it: “[Copley’s traveling companion George ] Carter gives titillating and probably libelous accounts of Copley that are too fascinating to disregard entirely but too consciously inflammatory to take at face value.”) The exhibition this book details is on view through January 20, 2014. From the MFAH and Yale University Press. Neff on The MAN Podcast. (See marker for the beginning of the segment.) Via Amazon for $67.50.
“Photography and the American Civil War,” by Jeff Rosenheim. This is now the definitive source for our visual knowledge of the war and especially of its participants. Rosenheim’s focus on portraiture of soldiers humanizes long-familiar post-battlefield images of bloating corpses. His writing is crisp and full of detail. Best of all, the catalogue doesn’t just recount the photography of the war, it suggests how photography of the Civil War has influenced American art ever since. From the Met and Yale University Press. Rosenheim on The MAN Podcast. Via Amazon for $36.
The rest of the list
“Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art,” edited by Leah Dickerman. There is no single history of abstraction in art and there is no one path through which abstraction developed in European and American art, points that are central to Dickerman’s catalogue. Instead of publishing only her own take, Dickerman offers up 23 historians and 37 essays, thus encouraging the reader to chase abstraction down many art-historical rabbit holes. (Ester Coen on Giacomo Balla and Lanka Tattersall on science and color are particularly good, and Masha Chlenova’s two essays on Russian abstraction read as an argument that MoMA should do that exhibition next.) Of special note: Dickerman and her many co-authors included more women in the story of early 20thC abstraction than has been typical, effectively suggesting places other art historians might go to continue to build the story of how abstraction happened. In a related story, I shelve “Inventing Abstraction” next to “Hilma Af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction,” which was edited by Iris Muller-Westermann with Jo Widoff. From MoMA. Dickerman on The MAN Podcast. Via Amazon for $69.
“Titian: His Life,” by Sheila Hale. What to do when an artist deserves a thorough, contextualizing biography, but leaves behind a paucity of information about who he was, what he was like and how he lived his life? Hale did what Charles Demuth does in his best watercolors of flowers: She provided us with lots of color on the margins of Titians life, his friends, colleagues, patrons, teachers, students and places, and allows for a sense of the man and the entirety of his accomplishment to emerge from it. Tip: While there are 32 color illustrations, have Wikipaintings (or similar) handy. From Harper. Via Amazon for $21 and $28.
“Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas,” by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone. The best artist-memoirs of the last 40 years tend to be diaries, such as those written by Anne Truitt or Agnes Martin (or this new book by Liza Lou). “Bad Boy” is a more traditional memoir, one that fortunately tends substantially more toward thoughtfulness than its attention-wanting title indicates. Fischl could have written a self-obsessed, gossip-driven story of New York in the go-go 1980s, about the development of today’s art market or the pleasures of the coke-fueled party scene. Instead he writes thoughtfully about painting (and often about artists other than himself), about how he became an artist and about how other artists might develop their own interests and skills. Fischl is especially good when writing about what he describes as the “emotional content” of his art and how he thinks it owes a lot to his mother’s early death (which may have been a suicide). Sure, later on he gets to the money-mad market and coke, but the (short) parts of the book in which Fischl deals with his own drug use but they emphasize Fischl’s responsibility for his own past. If I taught at an art school, I wouldn’t assign this book to my students, I’d give it to them as a gift. From Crown. Fischl on The MAN Podcast. Via Amazon for $19.
“Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-66,” by Emma Acker, Timothy Anglin Burgard and Steven Nash. The best exhibition catalogues don’t merely feature good writing on good paintings, they present the research that drives the exhibition, (hopefully) new history about how art happened. Burgard’s essay was the best I read this year. It links Diebenkorn’s lingering, hard-to-abandon interest in the figure to his Berkeley-era abstractions, significantly deepening our knowledge of the finest American painter to emerge after World War II. From Yale University Press. Burgard on The MAN Podcast. Via Amazon for $41.
“Bas Jan Ader: Death is Elsewhere,” by Alexander Dumbadze. Ader is one of those artists who attracts nonsense-driven theorists, but to Dumbadze’s credit he avoids that trap in favor of a smart, engaging and brisk biography. (OK, there are a couple theory-heavy pages, but they included enough spoon-fulls of sugar so as to be relatively painless.) In Dumbadze’s telling, Ader’s short, peripatetic life is somehow even more interesting than his short, peripatetic oeuvre. From University of Chicago Press. Dumbadze on The MAN Podcast. (See marker for the beginning of the segment.) Via Amazon for $15.
“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938″ edited by Anne Umland. Critics of MoMA often complain that the museum spends too much time on known figures. Well, the catalogue for “Magritte: ” demonstrates that we might not know one of those figures quite as well as those critics think. The essays in this book move chronologically through Magritte’s early output, adding depth to our understanding of his development. “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938″ is on view through January 12, 2014. From MoMA. Umland on The MAN Podcast. Via Amazon for $41.
“Gutai: Splended Playground,” edited by Alexandra Munroe and Ming Tiampo. If you are interested in the art of the twentieth century, you should read this book, which is helpfully illustrated with many, many pictures of temporal artworks. Tiampo’s essay is particularly imperative. While the Guggenheim exhibition was good, the book, which fleshes out the story of performance and includes many important installation shots, is superb. From the Guggenheim. Munroe on The MAN Podcast. Via Amazon for $49.
“Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview,” edited by Serge Guilbaut. So why did it take 70-plus years for so obviously important an interview with one of the 20th century’s two most important artists to see the light of day? Good question. Good on the Getty for getting it done, because the book is full of Matisse’s fascinating insights about his peers, his influences and the way French artists responded to World War II and the Nazi occupation of France. Even better on the Getty and editor Serge Guilbaut for going beyond the interview itself: They included images of the Matisse-edited page proofs, letters, and a rich essay by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac. From Getty Publications. Guilbaut on The MAN Podcast. Via Amazon for $41.
“The Twombly Gallery: The Menil Collection, Houston,” edited by Julie Sylvester and Nicola Del Roscio. With the Dia Art Foundation having shortsightedly sold off its important early Twombly, this book and the permanence it presents seems all the more important. “The Twombly Gallery” documents the Menil’s famed single-artist space, and includes essays by Paul Winkler and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro. While it’s a formal collection catalogue, “The Twombly Gallery” includes some wonderfully informal notes: Reproductions of a hand-written letter Twombly sent to former Menil director Paul Winkler and Mancusi-Ungaro’s reminiscences of her conversations with Twombly. From The Cy Twombly Foundation, The Menil Collection and Yale University Press. Via Amazon for $43.
“Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime,” by David Maisel. Two of the artists who thought most about what the New Topographics photographers were doing and who thought about what all that Western development did to the land were John Divola and Maisel. This hauntingly beautiful monograph demonstrates how Maisel has spent a career showing us the story of how development in the West has impacted the land. Julian Cox’s lead essay is particularly good. From Steidel. Maisel on The MAN Podcast. (See marker for the beginning of the segment.) Via Amazon for $56.
“Francesco Vanni: Art in Late Renaissance Siena,” by John Marciari and Suzanne Boorsch.” Not only does Vanni,” the first monograph on Siena’s most important early 17thC artist, detail the life and work of a substantially neglected painter (complete with dozens of illustrations of work that couldn’t travel to the exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, which is on view through January 5, 2014), it sent me back to a book that should have been on my 2012 best-of list: Judith W. Mann and Babette Bohn’s “Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master of Color and Line.” (Even though Barocci and Vanni never met, Vanni was much-influenced by Barocci’s work. In his essay, Marciari explains why this is a big deal.) Marciari writes with particular verve, making it easy for a non-specialist not only to follow along, but to enjoy being led. YUAG and Yale University Press. Marciari on The MAN Podcast. (See marker for the beginning of the segment.) Via Amazon for $65.
Most disappointing semi-trend: Catalogues of contemporary exhibitions that are unreadable, lack depth, and that fail to historicize the given artist(s) both biographically and within their time. Surprise: I even find mistakes in many contemporary art catalogues. (Example: One recent monograph compared the subject of the exhibition to one of her most accomplished colleagues… and spelled that peer’s name wrong.) It’s lovely that curators install the work of living artists, it’s much better when they make a long-form case for why their choices matter. Museum directors, curators and publication departments that agree might study the examples of The Menil Collection and the Hammer Museum, both of which publish consistently meaningful catalogues.