The First Art Newspaper on the Net   Established in 1996 Thursday, March 4, 2021


Best art books of 2020
The art critics of The New York Times select their favorites from this year’s crop of art books. Jonathan Bartlett/The New York Times.

by Roberta Smith, Holland Cotter, Jason Farago and Siddhartha Mitter



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The long stretches of pandemic lockdown this year have afforded the chance to spend as much time reading about art as looking at it, which may account for the number of text-intensive recommendations on our lists. At the same time, with access to “live” art still limited, images on the pages of some books below will let you create your own private museums-at-home, and they’ll be pretty glorious. — HOLLAND COTTER

ROBERTA SMITH

‘Peter Saul: Professional Artist Correspondence, 1945-1976’ — Edited by Dan Nadel (Bad Dimension Press): Epistolary autobiographies are possible only if one writes letters often and well — like the maverick painter Peter Saul. This book contains over 100 letters from his correspondence with his parents and his first dealer, Allan Frumkin, whom he met in Paris in 1960. Both sets of letters are equally “professional,” in that they are smart, heartfelt reports from the studio about his progress, his place in the art world and his desire for success. Frumkin’s commitment jump-started Saul’s career. Two days after they met, the artist wrote to his parents about the dealer: “He said that it’s almost impossible to disappoint him except by dropping dead.”

‘Modern Artifacts’ — By Michelle Elligott and Tod Lippy (Esopus Books): In 2006 Tod Lippy, an artist and editor, invited Michelle Elligott, chief of the Museum of Modern Art’s fabled archives, to write a column on some aspect of its holdings for his just-founded magazine, Esopus. This she did for each of its 18 issues, until 2018. All are republished here, with actual-size reproductions of telegrams, photographs, carbon copies of letters (remember those?), newspaper clippings and an early VIP guest book. Foldout facsimiles include Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s sketches for his famous chart of modernist art movements. Mixed with these are new projects by six contemporary artists — Mary Ellen Carroll, Rhea Karam, Mary Lum, Clifford Owens, Michael Rakowitz and Paul Ramirez Jonas — that illuminate additional aspects of the archive, revealing their contemporary implications.

‘Abstract Art: A Global History’ — By Pepe Karmel (Thames & Hudson): This large coffee table/art history book announces its singularity with its cover, a painting by Hilma af Klint, whose recently rediscovered achievement upended the history of modernist abstraction. A herculean effort, it reproduces the efforts of over 200 artists from around the world, usually with sharp capsule discussions. It provocatively divides abstraction according to subject matter (the body, the cosmos, landscape, architecture), increasing its accessibility. The book’s inclusions and theories can be debated, but it sets a standard for future efforts.

‘Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-garde’ — By Starr Figura, Isabelle Cahn and Philippe Peltier (Museum of Modern Art): This unusual exhibition was devoted not to an artist, but to a workaholic polymath: an anarchist. art critic, publisher, editor, collector and art dealer. Félix Fénéon was an important early admirer of pointillist Georges Seurat and also of African sculpture. This catalog examines the facets of his many activities, one readable essay at a time. The result is an up-close portrait of the overlapping cultural spheres of fin de siècle Paris, seen from a new and telling perspective.

‘Eva Hesse: Oberlin Drawings’ — Edited by Barry Rosen (Hauser & Wirth): When Eva Hesse died at 34 in 1970, she left behind an influential body of sculpture as well as a mass of drawings and works on paper whose extent is sumptuously revealed by this monumental volume. It reproduces more than 350 examples, almost all given to the museum over the years by the artist’s sister, Helen Hesse Charash. Ranging from 1952 to 1970, they include art-school figure drawings, adaptations of older artists’ styles and sketches for her canonical late works. Altogether, they indicate how Hesse achieved so much so quickly: She started young and never let up.

‘Duro Olowu: Seeing’ — Edited by Naomi Beckwith (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago/DelMonico Books/Prestel): This impressive little volume is a catalog of the exhibition “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago,” organized for the Museum of Contemporary Art by the Nigerian-born fashion designer and self-taught curator, with nearly everything selected from the city’s museums and private collections. But it is equally a handbook to Olowu’s extraordinary interdisciplinary, multicultural curatorial sensibility; this was first revealed in his gallery-like London boutique, where he surrounded his designs with all manner of jewelry, art, craft and vintage photographs, records and magazines. The works in the show are similarly diverse, triangulated among several generations of creators in the United States, Europe and Africa. The book reproduces many of them in a deliberately compressed format — without borders, often seen in close-up and sometimes overlaid with additional images. They invite the close observation that is Olowu’s modus operandi.

‘Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective’ — By Elaine Y. Yau, Lawrence Rinder and Horace Ballard (University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive): The catalog to the first retrospective of the quilt artist Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2006) is essential to familiarity with the achievements of superlative 20th-century artists who never set foot in the art world. Lavishly illustrated, it features three excellent essays and traces the extraordinary visual range of the quilts, which can resemble found-object collages, consist entirely of glowing velvets or elevate double-knit polyester and vintage clothing. Tompkins — who also made assemblages — transformed everything she touched with her improvisatory piecing and unerring sense of color, composition and scale. In the still-unfolding field of African American quilt making, she has no equal.

HOLLAND COTTER

‘Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara’ — By Alisa LaGamma (Metropolitan Museum of Art): Sahel derives from the Arabic word for shore or coast. It was the name given by traders crossing the oceanic Sahara to the welcoming grasslands that marked the desert’s southern rim, terrain that includes modern Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. On the evidence of art from the region, the culture early travelers encountered must have looked bewildering, rich and strange. It still does in this Met book, the catalog for the most beautiful exhibition of the 2020 season.

‘Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics’ — By Arlene Dávila (Duke University Press): The marketing of modern and contemporary art from Latin America is one of the success stories of the globalist decades, giving a once-niche interest a presence in big North American museums. Exactly the opposite is true of Latino art, loosely defined as work made by artists of Latin American birth or descent who live primarily in the United States. That lack of institutional support is dictated by the politics of class, economics and race, the cultural anthropologist Arlene Dávila argues in this important broadside of a book.

‘Women, Art, and Society’ — By Whitney Chadwick (Thames & Hudson): Whitney Chadwick’s fact-packed critical survey of art by women was a monument in the field of feminist Western art history when it first appeared in 1990, and an important corrective to centuries of neglect. In its newly released and updated reissue, it’s bigger than ever and still foundational, a bible. Chadwick’s protest-scholarship finds a boots-in-the-street counterpart in the work of the Guerrilla Girls, a fluid band of anonymous, ape-masked female artists who’ve been visually and verbally calling out art-world misogyny since the late 1980s, as documented in the visually lively ‘Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly’ by the Guerrilla Girls (Chronicle Books).

‘Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration’ — By Nicole R. Fleetwood (Harvard University Press): The United States has the largest population of captive human beings on the planet, some 2.5 million, in a prison-industrial complex that constitutes a punitive universe walled off from the larger world. What takes place behind those walls? Deprivation and cruelty, but also art, as we learn from this absorbing book that serves as a companion piece for a remarkable group show of the same title at MoMA PS1 (through April 4).

‘Queer Communion: Ron Athey’ — Edited by Amelia Jones and Andy Campbell (Intellect): “Exhibitionists shall inherit the earth,” wrote the pioneering performance artist and Jesse Helms whipping-boy Ron Athey, who has secured a place in the history books for his physically, psychologically and politically extreme body-centered work. This substantial book, a companion volume to a career survey set to open at Participant Inc in January, includes tributes by devoted colleagues but is most engaging as a compendium of Athey’s own writing, much of it autobiographical. Whether he’s speaking as an ex-Pentecostal, a punk rocker, a porn magazine columnist, an HIV-positive gay activist or a mentor to generations of queer nonconformists, he’s a bracing read, and never more so than when he’s playing, shock-jock style, with ethical fire.

‘Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America’ — Conceived by Okwui Enwezor (Phaidon): Up to his death in 2019, Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor was working on a group exhibition he described as a response to the wave of “politically orchestrated white grievance” sweeping the United States and “the crystallization of Black grief” it produced. The catalog for the show (scheduled to open in January at the New Museum) is a prescient document of a continuing condition, and a tribute to Enwezor and the canon of Black artists he helped to shape.




‘The Destruction of Lower Manhattan’ — By Danny Lyon (Aperture); ‘Godlis Streets’ — By David Godlis (Reel Art Press): Late in a year that has seen New York City simultaneously surviving a pandemic and an emptying-out come two blast-from-the-past photography books that take the distressed city as a subject. Aperture has reissued Danny Lyon’s anguished 1960s pictorial record of the demolition of 19th-century buildings in the Wall Street area in the name of “urban renewal.” And from Reel Art Press come pictures of the recession-tattered Manhattan of the 1970s and ’80s by the vigilant street photographer David Godlis. Lyon’s pictures are mostly of buildings, Godlis’ mostly of people. In both cases, the New York they captured is gone, just as surely as the one we knew at the beginning of 2020.

Holiday Stocking-Stuffer:

‘Frog Pond Splash: Collages by Ray Johnson With Texts by William S. Wilson’ — Edited by Elizabeth Zuba (Siglio): The artist Ray Johnson (1927-95) and the writer William S. Wilson (1932-2016) were decadeslong friends — soul mates really is the word — and comparably skilled acrobats of images and words. This lovely little book pairs well-known collages by Johnson, the inventor of Mail Art, with little-known writing on him by Wilson, and it’s a serious pleasure, just the thing to light up a dark-early, late-year night.

JASON FARAGO

‘Raphael 1520-1483’ — Edited by Marzia Faietti and Matteo Lafranconi (Skira): There’s no 2020 show I regret missing more than this one in Rome, the largest Raphael retrospective ever. As the title indicates, both exhibition and catalog proceed in reverse chronological order. From the epic funeral procession after Raphael’s death on his 37th birthday, we rewind through his indelible portraits of the Medici pope Leo X and the courtier Baldassare Castiglione, past his grand “School of Athens,” to his first, hesitant figure studies in Urbino. This a posteriori saga gives us a refreshed Raphael, whose psychological acuity feels newly approachable.

‘Fluence: The Continuance Of Yohji Yamamoto’ — By Takay (Damiani): Long resident in London and New York, the Japanese photographer Takay returned home to shoot this profoundly beautiful book, documenting three decades of experimental tailoring by designer Yohji Yamamoto. Takay’s subjects trail Yamamoto’s black gowns and suits through undistinguished Tokyo streets; the fashion portraits alternate with images of birds on a power line or Shinjuku at midnight, shot in the grainy black-and-white style called are-bure-boke (“rough, blurred and out-of-focus”). Posing alongside the professional models are several titans of Japanese culture: actress Rie Miyazawa, fragile and rumpled in a polka-dot gown from 1999; theater director Yukio Ninagawa, pensive in a thick wool jacket; and even Daido Moriyama, the godfather of postwar Japanese photography, whose portrait here in a three-quarter-length overcoat embodies estranged Tokyo cool.

‘Artemisia’ — Edited by Letizia Treves (National Gallery, London/Yale): “I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do,” Artemisia Gentileschi told a Sicilian client in 1649 — and indeed, this Baroque painter put herself on the front lines of her dramatic tableaux. This catalog’s new scholarship reveals how Gentileschi blended self-portraiture and allegory, in paintings of herself as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, or in her gruesome “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” painted just after the notorious trial of the fellow artist who raped her. There is much more to Gentileschi than the violence she depicted: This book also reproduces recently discovered letters to a lover, swearing, “I am yours as long as I draw breath.”

‘The People Shall Govern! Medu Art Ensemble and the Anti-Apartheid Poster’ — Edited by Antawan I. Byrd and Felicia Mings (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale): In the years after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, South Africa’s townships were papered with bold agitprop whose pared-down imagery came with a promise: This country would soon be free. They were the work of Medu (whose name means “roots” in Sesotho), a multiracial coalition of more than 60 artists who fought for the liberation of South Africa through screen prints and lithographs, printed in Botswana and smuggled over the border. This book assembles nearly all the surviving specimens, and should offer young artists a model of collective authorship and political engagement.

‘The Louvre: the History, the Collections, the Architecture’ — By Genevieve Bresc-Bautier; photographed by Gérard Rondeau (Rizzoli): It’s not only Europe’s greatest museum; the Louvre is also a palace, upon which France’s kings, revolutionaries, emperors and presidents have projected visions of power and nationhood. Visit without the crowds or the jet lag with this sumptuous volume, whose 600 pages let you scrutinize the woodwork of Henri II’s bedroom, the gold of Louis XIV’s Galerie d’Apollon, the glass of I.M. Pei’s pyramid. The pleasure of this book comes from narrating the Louvre’s history as residence and museum together, and photographing the whole collection in situ.

‘Van Eyck’ — Edited by Maximiliaan Martens et al. (Thames & Hudson): His crystalline panels of saints and burghers are so accomplished they can feel unassailable — and so does this hefty volume, the catalog of the largest Jan Van Eyck show ever staged (at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium). It concentrates on the altarpiece he and his brother Hubert painted in the 1420-30s, whose recent restoration laid bare the optical innovations that fueled his unprecedented naturalism. Nothing can replace seeing these too-perfect panels in person, but this book, printed by the masters at Die Keure press in Bruges, comes pretty close.

‘Genealogies of Art, or the History of Art as Visual Art’ — Edited by Manuel Fontán del Junco, José Lebrero Stals and María Zozaya Álvarez (Fundación Juan March): In 1936, MoMA’s first director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., drew a famous diagram of modern art’s development, with arrows leading from Cézanne to cubism, thence to de Stijl and Dada, and triumphantly to abstraction. This catalog for an ingenious exhibition in Madrid arranges dozens of modernist paintings, and African sculpture and Japanese woodblocks, in the exact order Barr mapped them — revealing the ambitions, and also limitations, of a teleological art history. It also presents other efforts, from the 17th century to today, to chart painterly styles; these family trees and flow charts turn art history from a science of images to an image itself.

‘Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth’ — Edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (MIT/ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe): Climate change should furnish to art what Galileo delivered to theology: a definitive rupture of where we think we stand. The giant catalog for this German exhibition unites philosophers, scientists, historians and artists (from Caspar David Friedrich to Sarah Sze) to re-anchor art inside a constantly transforming ecosystem. The old “Blue Marble” won’t cut it; we need new methods of depicting Earth and its landscapes that account for our codependency with all species. After all, as the editors write, aesthetics is “what renders one sensitive to the existence of other ways of life.”

SIDDHARTHA MITTER

‘The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution’ — By Dan Hicks (Pluto Press): The Benin Bronzes, shorthand for thousands of objects looted in the British sacking of Benin City in 1897, epitomize the violence at the core of anthropological collections and in their continued display. A curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, Dan Hicks casts an unflinching eye on his institution’s history and the prevarications of museums today that deflect mounting calls for restitution with offers of loans, partnerships or updated wall text. Time’s up, he insists. Restitution will not diminish museums; quite the contrary, Hicks argues, it is key to their renewal. If you care about museums and the world, read this book.

‘The Tide Will Turn’ — By Shahidul Alam; edited by Vijay Prashad (Steidl): The eminent Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than three months in 2018 for denouncing the repression of protesters. Released after a mobilization of local and foreign support, he reflects here on his prison experience and a life of fighting for justice (for laborers, survivors of gender violence, Indigenous groups and others) through image and deed. Some of his finest pictures illustrate the text, as do his selections of noteworthy images by other Bangladeshi photographers. Solidarity and integrity reign, along with tenacious optimism, expressed in a heartfelt exchange of letters with the writer-activist Arundhati Roy.

‘Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto’ — By Legacy Russell (Verso): “This book is for those who are en route to becoming their avatars,” writes Legacy Russell, a dynamic curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem who celebrates the glitch, the slippage that makes machinery malfunction, as a portal to escape the gender binary and social control of the body. Grounded in theory (from Edouard Glissant to Donna Haraway) but a fast, percussive read, her text is also a guide to the growing field of art practices — notably driven by Black and queer creators — that dissolve the boundary between “internet art” and physical performance, activism and community building. “Glitch refuses,” she titles one chapter; it also “ghosts,” “encrypts,” but “mobilizes,” and most of all — this is a theory of liberation — “survives.”

‘Road Through Midnight: A Civil Rights Memorial’ — By Jessica Ingram (University of North Carolina Press): Around 2005, the photographer Jessica Ingram began visiting sites of racial terror in the Deep South — some famous, like the Mississippi town where the young civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed in 1964, but others barely known beyond their immediate communities. She went quietly, returned over the years, and eventually reached out to descendants, whose interviews, along with news clippings and legal files, accompany her photographs of these rural locations. Ingram is white, and careful and candid about her implication; she is also Southern, and highly tuned to how the land — more than any statue or marker — carries memory.

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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