Best Art Between the Covers of These Holiday Books
Lots of NFT art collections nose-dived in this year’s crypto crash, but a well-stocked library will never lose its value. Museums, galleries and art institutions have not yet lost faith in high-quality print publications in this screened-out century, and even as venues for cultural debate keep shrinking — pour one out for Bookforum, the lively art-adjacent book review that shuttered this week — art publishing remains in fine fettle, with more titles every year than even the most committed bibliomaniac could peruse. My fellow critics and I have selected here some of thebest we read in 2022: splashy or studious, affordable or investment-grade, all of them worthy of a space on your shelves. — JASON FARAGO
Saving Cultures Amid Transformation
‘Dare to Know: Prints and Drawings in the Age of Enlightenment’
It was the “stay woke” of its day: Sapere aude, “dare to know,” a Latin motto that Immanuel Kant raised to a moral command. This dense and very handsome overview of 18th-century European graphic arts (the catalog of a show on view at Harvard through Jan. 15) takes the form of a dictionary whose 26 chapters, from Antiquities to Zealotry, cast a sharp new glare on the Enlightenment’s transformations in science, economics, religion and liberty. Anatomical studies face off with satires of quack doctors, watercolors of erupting volcanoes with cross-sections of slave ships; and if Enlightenment reason is found somewhat wanting, its philosophers also furnish us tools for its own critique. (Harvard Art Museums / Yale University Press)
‘Treasures of Ukraine: A Nation’s Cultural Heritage’
This urgent new title introduces us to more than 100 buildings and art objects, from prehistory to the Baroque era to the bomb-shelter present, in the nation we now finally see as the heart of Europe. With chapters on Orthodox icons and Catholic cathedrals, Soviet avant-gardism and nationalist folk crafts, this book illustrates a culture whose very diversity now puts it in danger — and indeed some works pictured, such as stone statues near Kharkiv dating from the 9th to 13th century, have already been destroyed. The Ukraine war is a culture war, and these are the stakes. All proceeds from the book’s sale are being donated to PEN Ukraine. (Thames & Hudson)
The curator and Rutgers professor Sandrine Colard organized one of the most ambitious shows I saw this year, at Antwerp’s photography museum: an excavation of photographs from Congo under Belgian colonial rule, by Europeans and Africans, as propaganda and as free expression. The trilingual catalog is even more expansive, and unfolds rare amateur photo magazines, 1930s studio portraiture, missionary and ethnographic documentation, and also wrenching but important photos of colonial atrocities (framed here with uncommon care). A talented slate of African writers, including the novelists In Koli Jean Bofane and Annie Lulu, offers crucial readings. (Fotomuseum Antwerp / Lannoo)
Is there any application today of Renaissance classicism to our glutted cities, anything the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica can teach builders of condos and duty-free concessions? Pier Paolo Tamburelli, an architect and editor of the now defunct cult magazine San Rocco, insists in this spirited treatise that Donato Bramante’s spatial innovations can propel a new practice of “architecture as public art.” Strange, sometimes flippant, as conversant with Rem Koolhaas as with Pope Leo X, this book is a rare effort to rethink our present deadlocks through historical models — and its ironic Neo-Classicism is beautifully buttressed by Bas Princen’s spare photographs of Bramante nerve centers: Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo painted “The Last Supper,” or the cloisters of Rome’s Santa Maria della Pace. (MIT Press)
‘In the Name of the Image: Figurative Representation in Islamic and Christian Cultures’
So much of this century’s fanaticism and insularity has rested on a stubborn error about art and religion: Christians like pictures, Muslims don’t. The far richer truth is that the world’s two largest religions both have long histories of creating images and destroying them — as detailed in this learned book, the catalog for a major show I saw last spring at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich. Looking at Byzantine coins, Persian miniatures, and images of Jesus and Muhammad both preserved and scratched out, Axel Langer and a dozen other scholars dissolve the clean Occident-Orient opposition inherited from the 19th century, and reveal how iconophilia and iconophobia go hand in hand. (Hatje Cantz)
The Fine Arts & Exhibits Special Section
- Bigger and Better: While the Covid-19 pandemic forced museums to close for months, cut staff and reduce expenses, several of them have nevertheless moved forward on ambitious renovations or new buildings.
- A Tribute to Black Artists: Four museums across the country are featuring exhibitions this fall that recognize the work of African and African American artists, signaling a change in attitude — and priorities.
- New and Old: In California, museums are celebrating and embracing Latino and Chicano art and artists. And the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum is working to engage visitors about the realities of climate change.
- A Cultural Correction: After removing all references to Columbus from its collections the Denver Art Museum has embraced a new exhibition on Latin American art.
- More From the Special Section: Museums, galleries and auction houses are opening their doors wider than ever to new artists, new concepts and new traditions.
Serendipitous Pairs and Single Masterworks
‘Speaking With Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography’
One of the year’s singular beauties was this catalog accompanying an exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth (through Jan. 22). The earliest pictures here, dating from the 19th century and taken of Indigenous North Americans by non-Native photographers, emphasize exoticism, controllable otherness. The richly varied work of 20th- and 21st-century Native artists who make up the bulk of the book, edited by John Rohrbach and Will Wilson, moves beyond constricting categories and has the power of poetry. (Radius Books)
‘Geles Cabrera: Museo Escultórico’
Now 96 and sometimes referred to as Mexico’s “first female sculptor,” for half a century Geles Cabrera produced small-scale, semiabstract cast and carved female forms and displayed them in her own custom-built garden-museum. For a compact career survey, Americas Society created a mini-version of that museum and published a tiny takeaway souvenir catalog that distills the essence of a treasurable artist’s life and work. (Americas Society/ISLAA (Institute for Studies on Latin American Art)
For a few years, beginning in 1968, four young New York artists — William T. Williams, Melvin Edwards, Guy Ciarcia and Billy Rose — turned Harlem into abstract art heaven. Calling themselves Smokehouse Associates, they painted neighborhood walls with brilliantly colored abstract murals and enlisted local residents in the creative team. This book, by Eric Booker, was produced by the Studio Museum in Harlem, which came into being at this time (Williams was instrumental in its founding too). It wonderfully catches the energy, in interviews with the original artists and through a generous sheaf of photographs of empty lots being cleaned, walls being prepped, kids playing and pitching in, and artists doing their totally wow-inspiring thing. (Studio Museum in Harlem)
‘Simone Martini in Orvieto’
The first English-language publication in 30 years devoted to the resplendent 14th-century Umbrian painter focuses on a single altarpiece owned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and spins interlocking narratives around it: about the artist himself, about the city for which he made important work, about the genre of gold-ground painting he perfected, and about the path that brought the altarpiece to Boston, where it is the centerpiece of an exhibition through Jan. 16. Edited by Nathaniel Silver. (Yale University Press)
‘Códice Maya de México: Understanding the Oldest Surviving Book of the Americas’
The Gardner publication reads like an adventure story, and so does another study of a single work,this one from the Getty Center in Los Angeles and edited by Andrew D. Turner. The Códice Maya de México, an illustrated book in the form of a paper scroll painted by an unknown Mayan artist around 1100 A.D., remains mysterious in its precise meanings, celestial and earthly. Historians writing in the Getty catalog offer fascinating theories on both. And thanks to a foldout insert, we get to peruse the Codex itself, which is as visually inventive as any graphic novel you’ll ever see. (Getty Publications)
‘Art in the After-Culture: Capitalist Crisis & Cultural Strategy’
When future art historians seek perspectives on our era of billion-dollar auctions, carbon-footprint art fairs, and market-driven diversity, this collection of essays by the American critic Ben Davis is a text they’ll consult. An alert data hoarder, a shrewd analyst, and a propulsive stylist, Davis views the hot-air balloon called the art world in a broad political context. He writes with the coolness of a sociologist, the passion of someone with a horse in the race, and the smarts to avoid both cheerleading and snootiness. (Haymarket Books)
‘Beautiful, Gruesome and True: Artists at Work in the Face of War’
While Davis’s restricts his beat primarily to the United States, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie’s trim, tough book takes a global view of current art by focusing on politically minded artists living elsewhere: Amar Kanwar in India, Teresa Margolles in Mexico, and a collective called Abounaddara in Syria. They are among the most persistently daring artists we have, and Wilson-Goldie tells us why. (Columbia Global Reports)
‘New York: 1962-1964’
Designed to match the physical dimensions of old-time Life magazines, “New York: 1962-1964” is the catalog for a fabulous Jewish Museum exhibition on new American art and culture in the early 1960s, which the museum did much to promote at the time. Even more than the exhibition itself (through Jan. 8), the book, conceived and edited by Germano Celant, is a packed time capsule, one that includes a detailed timeline of three fire-starting years of public violence, disobedience and liberation. With blast-from-the-past (and echoes-in-the-present) images on every page, it has the pull of a fast-paced documentary film. (Skira)
‘Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces’
Comparably engaging is the catalog for the Museum of Modern Art’s stellar survey “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” (through Feb. 18), which chronicles a piece of cultural history from a decade later: the brilliant 12-year run of the first Black-owned commercial art space to gate-crash New York’s white art world. Just Above Midtown opened its doors in 1974 and kept them open, on a shoestring budget, for 12 years, giving debut shows to extraordinary artists in the process. The book captures the JAM vibe, and its lead essay by Thomas (T.) Jean Lax, one of the MoMA show’s curators, that gets my vote as best of the year. (Museum of Modern Art/The Studio Museum in Harlem).
‘This Must Be the Place: An Oral History of Latin American Artists in New York, 1965-1975’
Finally, rounding out the saga of a city, and an art world, in the process of inclusionary transformation, I found a page-turner in another Americas Society book, the catalog for the exhibition “This Must Be the Place: Latin American Artists in New York, 1965-1975.” It’s a chronicle of young artists who migrated north to the city to visit or to stay; who mingled — or didn’t — with Latino artists already here; and who, by being here, permanently changed what “art” and “American” meant. (Americas Society/ISLAA (Institute for Studies on Latin American Art.)
From Louise Bourgeois to Planet Lace
‘Threads of Power: Lace From the Textilmuseum St. Gallen’
It turns out that some books can, indeed, be judged by their covers: Their exterior beauty can signal an interior of visual and textual pleasures. So it is with the handsomely proportioned, lace-embossed exterior of “Threads of Power: Lace From the Textilmuseum St. Gallen” at the Bard Graduate Center (through Jan. 1).
Inside, the history of Lace is told in about 17 highly focused essays that cover a great deal of cultural, political and economic as well as lace-making history without being overwhelming. It’s a big ongoing saga, made newly comprehensible here with the latest research, clear prose and lots of pictures. (Bard Graduate Center, New York; distributed by Yale University Press)
‘Letters to Gwen John’
This marvel of interwoven narratives hinges on imaginary letters written by a living painter, Celia Paul (born 1959), to an admired deceased one, the Welsh painter Gwen John (1876-1939). Their common ground includes reticent, largely figure painting styles; formative but damaging relationships with difficult older artists (Rodin and Lucian Freud, respectively); and the embrace of solitude as essential to art making, in part because of the domination of male artists. Paul reaches out to John to examine her own life, art, relationships and her work habits, creating a portrait within a self-portrait, flanked by memorable sketches of their feckless lovers. (New York Review Books)
‘Women Holding Things’
Over the years, Maira Kalman has used her talent for writing and painting in different ways — most often in illustrated books. But rarely has she combined them with such complex resonances as in her latest, “Women Holding Things.” The book’s 85 images — many of them based on appropriated material — constitute a large exhibition; they continue Kalman’s droll evocations of the School of Paris heated up with intensely contemporary reds, magentas and olive greens. With them and their various captions and texts, she pays homage to the people known for holding things together, and includes a few men as well. Depicting relatives, cultural heroes and invented women, Kalman’s images encompass both everyday pleasures and incomprehensible loss, always affirming art’s sustaining grace. (Harper Design, distributed by HarperCollins Publishers)
‘Louise Bourgeois Paintings’
The catalog “Louise Bourgeois Paintings,” and the revelatory exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are the first of their kind. Together, they introduced 50 examples of the artist’s 100 or so almost entirely unknown paintings. Evincing a singularly personal Surrealism and quantities of red, these works were made between 1938, when Bourgeois first arrived in New York, and 1949, when she turned to her sculpture career. Both show and catalog were overseen by Clare Davies, associate curator in the Met’s department of modern and contemporary art, who hascommissioned an insightful essay from the art historian Briony Fer. But there’s anotherbonus: Beyond the paintings in the show, the catalog reproduces around 25 more, meaning that three-quarters of Bourgeois’s contribution to modern painting can now be seen in one place. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)