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What Were the Best Art Books of 2011?

Continuing a tradition I started last year, 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:

Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered edited by Heather Campbell Coyle (University of Pennsylvania Press): Companion to the Delaware Art Museum exhibition of the same name, this book restores Howard Pyle to his rightful place as a significant player in the creation of American visual culture. (Full review.)

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (Random House). A remarkable piece of powerful scholarship and research that updates Vincent Van Gogh for our times: conflicted, troubled, and, now, digital. (Full review.)

Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science by Hans Belting (translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider) (Harvard University Press). Before developing their theories of perspective, Belting argues, the artists of the Renaissance turned their gaze East—to the mathematical theories of perspective originating from Arab culture, specifically those of Alhazen. Belting makes a compelling case that the vision of the Renaissance—a vision that still holds us today—began not in Florence, but in Baghdad, with important implications for both cultures. (Full review.)

de Kooning: A Retrospective by John Elderfield, with Jennifer Field, Delphine Huisinga, Lauren Mahony, Jim Coddington and Susan Lake (MoMA). Companion to the mammoth retrospective at the MoMA, this catalog spans the entire career of Willem de Kooning in its vastness and versatility beyond the label of Abstract Expressionism. (Full review.)

The History of Rome in Painting edited by Maria Teresa Caracciolo and Roselyne de Ayala (Abbeville Press). A fascinatingly beautiful survey of how the history of the “Eternal City” sparked the imaginations of artists for centuries. (Full review.)

Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus edited by Lloyd DeWitt (Yale University Press). How Rembrandt changed the face of Jesus from divine, inhuman perfection to human accessibility by tapping Jesus’ Jewish roots. (Full review.)

From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland by Jonathan Stuhlman and Valerie Ann Leeds (University of Washington Press). How American artist Robert Henri rediscovered his Irish roots on Achill Island, which became his refuge and how the people, especially the children, of the little village of Dooagh became his subjects and salvation. (Full review.)

Fallingwater by Lynda Waggoner (Rizzoli). Published on the 75th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic home known as Fallingwater, essays by Waggoner and others (accompanied by stunning, detailed photography by Christopher Little) define the legacy of Fallingwater by looking back to its origin in 1936 and then looking forward to how Wright’s integration of artifice and nature continues to matter, maybe more now than ever. (Full review.)

Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter by Patricia Albers (Knopf Doubleday). The first full-length biography of the artist Joan Mitchell, who had both synesthesia and an eidetic memory, allowing her to see much of the world—letters, sounds, people, and even emotions—as colors, while at the same time remembering every detail of the past as vividly as the present. That unique combination and Mitchell’s drive to become an artist helped her rise within the male-dominated art world of the 1950s. (Full review.)

Seeing through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photographyby Martin A. Berger (University of California Press). Berger argues that the iconic images of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s portrayed African-Americans as weak and incapable of saving themselves—a portrayal that continues to prevent true equality and plagues race relations to this day. (Full review.)

Lee Krasner: A Biography by Gail Levin (Harper Collins). A sensitive and intimate biography of Lee Krasner, aka Mrs. Jackson Pollock, that allows the artist to be more than just the long-suffering wife and widow and champion of Pollock’s legacy—finally giving Krasner a legacy she deserves all on her own. (Full review.)

Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture by David J. Getsy (Yale University Press). Getsy reveals how Auguste Rodin brought sexy back to sculpture not only by sculpting sexually charged works, but also by making sex integral to the very practice of sculpture. (Full review.)

Ars Sacra: Christian Art and Architecture of the Western World from the Very Beginning Up Until Today (H.F. Ullmann). Both a new bible and book of revelations, Ars Sacra instantly assumed the role of definitive guide in words and pictures of Christian art with 800 oversized pages of high quality photography and insightful text. Twenty three pounds of pure wonder. (Full review.)

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance edited by Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz (Yale University Press). The first major monograph on British painter Thomas Lawrence in three decades, this catalog separates the portraits roughly into the three main categories of men, women, and children, without losing sight of the singular excellence of Lawrence’s technique and charm. (Full review.)

Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle by Michael Taylor (Philadelphia Museum of Art). The circle of friends Marc Chagall formed around himself in pre-war Paris influenced not only his art but widened his spirit as he witnessed a world far bigger than the Vitebsk village he left behind. (Full review.)

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Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau by Brian Walker (Yale University Press). An affectionate study of the satiric art of G.B. Trudeau in the past four decades of Doonesbury. (Full review.)

Michelangelo: A Life on Paper by Leonard Barkan (Princeton University Press). By following Michelangelo’s paper trail of doodles and poems, Barkan discovers a more versatile artist of both pictures and words who seems more human and strikingly more modern than the Renaissance genius of legend. (Full review.)

Naked: The Nude in America by Bram Dijkstra (Rizzoli). Dijkstra lays bare the counterculture of art celebrating the human body through nude art while simultaneously reflecting the neuroses of the repressive mainstream. (Full review.)


[Many thanks to all the publishers and museums that provided me with review copies and other press materials in 2011. You all make my job so much easier with your kindness, generosity, and professionalism.]


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