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The Best Art Books of 2012

For the third year running, here’s a very personal, very subjective, “I can’t read everything, so I probably left out something, so mention it in the comments, OK?” list of the best art books of 2012 in no particular order, along with links to my reviews:

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson. An art critic with a background in Zen Buddhism argues that musical composer and overall art theorist John Cage played a central role in influencing modern American art that went beyond just repeating the ideas of Marcel Duchamp.(Full review here.)

Matisse: In Search of True Painting by Dorthe Aagesen, Rebecca Rabinow, and others (Yale University Press). Companion to the exhibition of the same name, this catalog examines how Matisse “conducted a dialogue” between his works and even between different stages of the same work in the pursuit of an elusive state of “true painting.” (Full review here.)

Weiwei-isms by Ai Weiwei and edited by Larry Warsh (Princeton University Press). The world’s most politically active artist out-Maos Mao with his own little book of bon mots on art and freedom from interviews, articles, and even tweets. It’s the closest you’ll ever come to putting a revolutionary in your pocket. (Full review here.)

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars by Camille Paglia. Critic and cultural agent provocateur Paglia unconventionally surveys art history and puts filmmaker George Lucas at the top of the list of greatest living artists. Part manifesto, part idiosyncratic beginner’s guide to art history, Glittering Images hopes to tap into “the force” that is popular culture and erase the culture boundaries that keep the elites in and the rest out. Confounding, often infuriating, but never boring. (Full review here.)

Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950 (Rizzoli USA). Companion to the exhibition of the same name, this catalog surveys the “decisive decade” when Mark Rothko worked his way through no less than six distinctive styles of painting, but finally arrived at one of the most recognizable signature styles in all of modern art. (Full review here.)

Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years (Yale University Press). Like the exhibition, this book, in addition to being a great primer on Warhol’s art, acts as a whirlwind tour not just of what artists have done since the early 1960s, but also just how prevalent Warhol’s influence has been beyond the official art world. Regarding Warhol proves once and for all that it’s still Warhol’s world, and that we’re all just living and creating in it. (Full review here.)

David Hockney: A Rake’s Progress: The Biography, 1937-1975 by Christopher Simon Sykes.  The first volume of a proposed two-part biography, Sykes’ first volume follows British painter David Hockney—perhaps the most canonically accepted artist alive today—from his humble beginnings in Bradford huddling with his family from the “blitz” to his ascent in the art world and discovery of love and inspiration in a Californian paradise. Written with Hockney’s authorization and cooperation, but not his endorsement, this book might be the final gesture that cements Hockney’s proper place in the art history pantheon. (Full review here.)

Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work), in Words and Pictures, written by Michael Goodwin and illustrated by Dan E. Burr (Abrams Comic Arts). A textbook example of how the graphic novel can be used as an educational tool. Goodwin’s straightforward text and Burr’s lighthearted drawings eliminate feelings of stupidity in the face of economic-speak while demonstrating how it really is the economy and why nobody should be stupid about it. An entertaining and highly educational must-read for any informed citizen in this or any other election year. (Full review here.)

Modern Furniture: 150 Years of Design edited by Andrea Mehlhose and Martin Wellner (h.f. Ullmann). When we think of modern furniture design, we too often think of wildly experimental and wildly expensive items found only in the homes of the rich and famous, but as Mehlhose and Wellner, founders of the design company Fremdkörper and editors of Modern Furniture, show, modern design is all around us in such a ubiquitous way that we barely notice. Modern Furniture demonstrates that our furniture really tells us a lot about ourselves. (Full review here.)

The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist edited by Alvin Buenaventura (Abrams ComicArts). The first serious monograph of the work of Daniel Clowes, a seriously funny and seriously ambitious artist. “Unlike most writers and artists who take it for granted that human beings naturally seek each other’s company,” writes friend and fellow cartoonist Chris Ware, “Clowes seems to keep asking: What is it we really want from one another, anyway?” Clowes’ complex technique matched with such deep questions leads at least one critic to claim that Daniel Clowes has reinvented comics, something this book gives ample evidence for. (Full review here.)

Kehinde Wiley by Thelma Golden, Sarah Lewis, Robert Hobbs, and Brian Keith Jackson (Rizzoli USA). With not one but two big New York City exhibitions, a featured appearance on a hot new album cover, this retrospective, lavishly illustrated, critically evaluative monograph seals the deal that American artist Kehinde Wiley at the age of 35 and after just a little over a decade of work has the whole world in the palm of his hand. (Full review here.)

Lucian Freud Portraits by Sarah Howgate with Michael Auping and John Richardson and Lucian Freud Painting People, introduction by Martin Gayford, appreciation by David Hockney, and foreword by Sarah Howgate (Yale University Press). Two books to accompany the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, exhibition Lucian Freud Portraits that was already in the works when Lucian Freud died in died in July 2011. Some felt that portraiture as a relevant modern genre died with Freud, but this exhibition and these books make the case that the true value of these paintings—for him then and us today—lives on. (Full review here.)

The Controversy of Renaissance Art by Alexander Nagel (University of Chicago Press). Nagel demonstrates how not everyone bought into the ideals of the Renaissance at that key cultural moment. Instead, Nagel sees the High Renaissance as an art historical and cultural turning point so steeped in controversy that controversy becomes “a condition of the art.” Instead of a fossilized, static time of great figures admiring one another’s greatness, the Renaissance in Nagel’s argument reemerges as a tumultuous time of experimentation and searching that is fluid, unresolved, and intellectually and spiritually challenging. Although, as Nagel admits, the Renaissance no longer stands triumphantly at the center of art history as an academic discipline, his book might just return it there, not in triumph, but in the timelessness of its human uncertainty. (Full review here.)

Under Blue CupbyRosalind E. Krauss(The MIT Press). Influential modern art critic Krauss begins with the 1999 aneurysm that sent her into a coma for a month, only to resurface and find that pieces of her remarkable memory had washed away in the torrents of blood. Recalling using flash cards as tools to reestablish her memory, one of which had the legend, “Under blue cup,” Krauss turns Under Blue Cup into a book-length “flash card” to help contemporary art restore its own, pre-Duchampian memory of the specific medium being as important to art as the idea itself. Under Blue Cup is a deeply personal, deeply infuriating, deeply thought, and deeply felt prescription for what Krauss sees as the ills of today’s art world. (Full review here.)

Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part 1: 1783-1953 written by Jean-Pierre Filiu and illustrated by David B. (Abrams Comic Arts). For any American wanting to sharpen their blurry understanding of Middle Eastern history and America’s role in it, Filiu and David B.’s graphic novel is a good start. Be prepared to discover that the clearer picture isn’t a pretty one for Americans, but one that we need to see to have any hope of ever breaking free of the relentless cycle of history. (Full review here.)

Giotto by Francesca Flores D’Arcais (Abbeville Press) and Giotto and His Publics: Three Paradigms of Patronage by Julian Gardner(Harvard University Press). D’Arcais’ comprehensive, gorgeously illustrated, and meticulously researched coffee-table bookGiotto and Julian Gardnertightly focused exploration of Giotto di Bondone’s practical concerns in Giotto and His Publics: Three Paradigms of Patronage together demonstrate that Giotto’s art remains relevant today as it continues to give up its secrets, making the father of the Renaissance not only a man of his time, but also of ours. (Full review here.)

Cindy Sherman (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Companion to the MoMA the exhibition Cindy Sherman, this lavishly illustrated, retrospective catalog may notgive you the “real” face of Cindy Sherman, but at least we get to see all her different faces over the decades in one place. (Full review here.)

The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha by Hal Foster(Princeton University Press). Foster tries to bring thinking back to Pop Art by arguing that it began with thinking—specifically, the same kind of thinking that could save art today. For Foster, Pop Art isn’t about the soup cans. Instead, Pop is about affirming painting at the same time it challenges painting to remain relevant to today’s world. (Full review here.)

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit edited by Anna O. Marley (University of California Press). A long overdue resurrection of Henry Ossawa Tanner, the forgotten father of African-American art from the tomb of obscurity built over the nearly eight decades since his death. But just as Tanner himself shunned the title in life, the exhibition and this companion book invite the idea while simultaneously showing him as an artist that transcended all labels, especially those of race. (Full review here.)

The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini edited by Keith Christiansen and Stefan Weppelmann (Yale University Press). Portraits of power go back to the beginning of recorded history, but, as this book, companion to an exhibition exhibition that ran at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows, it was the artists of the Renaissance who resurrected Greek and Roman models and modernized them for their day and our own. Since the Renaissance, portraiture continues to be more about conveying character than fidelity of representation. The Renaissance portrait endures today because portraits continue to be more about identities than about appearances. The nose (and the eyes, chin, etc.) knows who we are and reveals it to all the world. (Full review here.)

Signs of Home: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita by Barbara Johns (University of Washington Press). Among the approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans relocated and interned in Japanese Internment Camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Seattle area artist Kamekichi Tokita and his family found themselves moved from their home to a camp in Idaho. In Signs of Home, Johns tells the story of Tokita’s art and the diary he began on December 7th, 1941 to record for posterity the story of his experiences as a Japanese-American. To see history unfold through Tokita’s words and images is to gain a whole new perspective on that conflict and the nature of all immigrants to America who suddenly find themselves identified as the enemy. (Full review here.)

And now for something completely different… a random list of non-art books that I found especially enlightening and enjoyable this past year:

America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano. Romano aims (and largely succeeds) at transforming the Rodney Dangerfield of academic disciplines into a more respectable and surprisingly “American” enterprise. (Some art-related thoughts on the book here.)

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. Maddow thoroughly and troublingly demonstrates how war has become easier and easier for America to wage and Americans to ignore.

Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie. Simultaneously a biography of Bach and interpreters of Bach over the centuries as ideas and technologies evolved. Made me load even more Bach onto my iPod.

The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination by Matthew Guerrieri. A fascinating multidisciplinary look at the ultimate classical music war horse written with wit and erudition.

The Holy and the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light. Interesting insights on one of my favorite all-time songs and perhaps the most overplayed song of all time.

How Music Works by David Byrne. The Talking Heads’ front man explains how technology determines how music is both made and heard, along with plenty of insider stories from his travails and triumphs in the business.

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld. More reasons for me to dislike Ronald Reagan going all the way back to his pre-Governor of California days and his role in the establishment war against late 1960s student protests that started the escalation that ended at Kent State.

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Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens tells the story of his own demise with his characteristic style, outlandishness, and brutal honesty. Don’t meet the Reaper until you’ve read this book.

Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. The best book I’ve read on Jefferson since Ellis’ American Sphinx. A well-balanced examination of the most disorienting of our Founding Fathers.

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek. Less heralded than Meacham’s book, but much more controversial. Wiencek tears down every excuse and resists every apologist for Jefferson’s personal relationship with the peculiar institution. I’m not expert enough to know what’s the truth (if anyone does), but Wiencek manages to raise troubling questions generations (and perhaps even Jefferson himself) swept under the rug.

[Many thanks to all the publishers and museums that provided me with review copies and other press materials in 2012. You all make my job so much easier with your kindness, generosity, and professionalism.]


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