Best Art Books of 2023

Have art books, will travel. And this year’s prime selections clock up a lot of visual, historical and personal mileage. We get an up-close tour through the Vermeer extravaganza that became the focus of international pilgrimage in 2023. The contemporary American artist Wade Guyton leads us, with a volume of his own drawings, through a lifetime fascination with the work of Édouard Manet. And at last we have the much-anticipated autobiographical account — actually an anti-memoir — of the long, continuing and indispensable career of one of our most influential and personable art writers. — HOLLAND COTTER

Holland Cotter

‘Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction’ Edited by Lynne Cooke (University of Chicago Press).

Igshaan Adams, “Vroeglig by die Voordeur,” 2020. Adams is among the more than 50 artists featured in “Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction.”Credit…via Igshaan Adams and Casey Kaplan, New York; Photo by Mario Todeschini

This major looker of an exhibition catalog loosens up the warp and weft of conventional views of modern art — all those tight-knotted hierarchical categories (high versus low, art versus craft) on which our institutions and markets still rest — and demonstrates the universe of formal and conceptual brilliance that has always traveled on a parallel track. The sheer variety of work produced by more than 50 artists chosen by the book’s editor, Lynne Cooke, will knock your socks off. (Just wait till you see what’s happening in the field of basketry alone.) So will the visual imaginations of individual geniuses we already know like Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Gego, Lenore Tawney and Sheila Hicks, and the others we’re introduced to here.

‘Coco Fusco: Tomorrow, I Will Become an Island’ Edited by Olga Viso (Thames & Hudson).

Outstanding in the pandemic-haunted 2022 Whitney Biennial was a video by the Cuban American artist Coco Fusco, in which she was filmed steadily rowing a small boat around Hart Island, New York City’s historical public graveyard, as if keeping a vigil for the poor, unnamed and outcast dead buried there. For more than 30 years, Fusco has been a just-below-the-surface art presence, both here and in Cuba, best known for her rigorous, interruptive performances addressing the hard realities of cultural difference and the complacency — “the genteel appreciation of diversity,” she coolly notes — with which the art world smooths and markets them. This visually captivating book documents the politics and the poetry, both sharp, of an important career very much in progress.

‘Darrel Ellis: Regeneration’ Edited by Antonio Sergio Bessa and Leslie Cozzi. (Skira).

When the New York artist Darrel Ellis died of AIDS in 1992 at 33, he was all-too-well aware that the chances of the work of a young, gay, Black experimental photographer surviving, much less gaining critical and institutional notice, were less than slim. Fortunately, through the vigilance of curators, artist-friends and family, his work is very much with us and permanently visible in this lovingly conceived book, the catalog for a traveling survey.

‘Stuff: Instead of a Memoir’ By Lucy R. Lippard (New Village Press).

The cover of Lucy R. Lippard’s 140-page illustrated autobiography. It’s “a super-succinct account that packs a lifetime,” our critic says.

Admirers of the art writer and activist Lucy R. Lippard have long hoped that she would produce an autobiography, and at last, and with wry reluctance, she has. Characteristically, it’s a maverick project: a super-succinct account that packs a lifetime, from her childhood to her octogenarian present, into illustrated outline form. There’s so much to tell: She was a starter-spark in what came to be called feminist art, Conceptualism, Multiculturalism, and environmentally conscious art. She briefly touches on her role in each of these and makes mention of people she knew — what a lineup — all of it in what basically amounts to an annotated photo album of barely 140 small pages. Sure, you’d love to have more, but you still get a lot, about her and about the more than 60 years of art history she’s helped shape.

‘The Effect of Tropical Light on White Men’ By Catherine Lord (No Place Press; distributed by MIT Press).

A sampling from Catherine Lord’s “The Effect of Tropical Light on White Men,” a memoir with a pervasive sense of place.Credit…via No Place Press

Another quite different memoir also appeared in 2023, this one by the art historian and artist Catherine Lord. It’s lengthy, ruminative, non-chronological, and as much about the writer’s place of origin as about herself. That place was the Caribbean island of Dominica, once a British colony, where Lord was born and which she left for the United States at 16. She has since returned for exploratory visits, and on a recent one came upon an antique “commonplace book” of clippings, quotes and personal commentaries assembled by an early British plantation owner. Taking its scrapbook form as a model, she has kaleidoscoped a view of her own past through anecdotal memory, post-colonial history, and contemporary queer and gender politics. The result is a wry, sharp-eyed and ultimately moving mix, a late-in-life grappling with where she came from, and where she is now.

Jason Farago

‘Botticelli Drawings’ By Furio Rinaldi (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Yale).

“Portrait of a Lady (Simonetta Vespucci),” circa 1480, collection Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

His strawberry-blond Venus on a wind-propelled scallop shell still pulls Florence’s tourists from the gelateria to the Uffizi — but a rarer Botticelli feast is currently on offer in San Francisco, where the Legion of Honor is presenting the first exhibition ever of this Renaissance master’s fragile drawings (through Feb. 11). In this authoritative catalog, Rinaldi makes several new attributions, including two exquisite head studies of a man gazing upward and a woman with modestly lowered eyes. For a Florentine in the later 15th century, the core of painting was disegno (“design,” but also “drawing”), and Botticelli put drawing first. Delicate highlights of white and yellow show the light on tensed muscles or bowed heads. Effortless squiggles cohere into Simonetta Vespucci’s curled hair or John the Baptist’s camel cloak. His line feels spring-loaded; his saints and angels seem ready for the dance floor; his paintings’ grace and vigor started with a pen.

‘Miyoko Ito: Heart of Hearts’ By Jordan Stein (Pre-Echo Press).

A major book for a “minor” (by which I mean major) painter, this striking and sizable volume at last assembles all of Ito’s quiet, adroit abstractions, whose genius is no longer a Midwestern secret. Born in Berkeley, Calif., forcibly moved during the war to Tanforan internment camp, Ito (1918-83) would settle in Chicago and paint soft, subtly erotic tessellations of bulging rectangles and gradient stripes. Freshly photographed for this volume, they showcase a truly idiosyncratic palette that requires all your floral vocabulary: saffron, goldenrod, periwinkle, amaranth, gamboge. More than a refoundation of a critically important American artist, this book is a labor of love from Stein and the painter Matt Connors, who’s published it through his own imprint.

‘Wade Guyton: Galerie Matthiesen, Ausstellung, Édouard Manet, 1928, 6. Februar bis 18 März, Vol II’ (Galerie Chantal Crousel).

An example of Wade Guyton’s re-interpretation of a Manet work from his new book that overlays the Manets with patterns.Credit…Jiayun Deng/Galerie Chantal Crousel

The show of the year was “Manet/Degas,” but a second great Paris-New York hookup, and maybe the exhibition I think about more, was Wade Guyton’s immensely intelligent rereading of Manet’s full oeuvre in over 100 drawings in France this fall. Forgoing his trusty inkjet printer for a lithography stone, Guyton overlaid 10 catalogs of a century-old Manet exhibition with a pattern of hazy-edged camouflage; this book is one of them, and indeed exhibition and publication are largely coterminous. Over the hands of Émile Zola, over the mouth of Laure in “Olympia,” Guyton’s striated blots and bends stage an infinite regress of media reproduction and artistic retransmission, and enact a thrilling renewal of Manet’s commitment to an art worthy of its time. Some still misunderstand Guyton’s all-surface paintings as mere acts of style (an insult that Manet also frequently faced); in this volume and the nine others like it, he proves again that he is nothing less than the painter of modern life.

‘Shadows of Reality: A Catalog of W.G. Sebald’s Photographic Materials’ Edited by Clive Scott and Nick Warr (MIT Press).

A contact sheet arrangement of black and white photographs by the author W.G. Sebald from a book collecting the photographic materials he used.Credit…via MIT Press

In Britain at the end of the last century, the author pushing fiction furthest was writing in German. W.G. Sebald’s erudite, elegiac books bore witness to history and atrocity through slow, steady accretions of seemingly trivial details, but also through an arresting integration of photographs — taken by Sebald himself, more often than we realized, in his adopted East Anglia and around Europe — into the body of his texts. This rigorously edited volume assembles, for the first time, the author’s film negatives, slides and clippings: the hedge maze and rainy stone beaches of “Rings of Saturn,” the hybrid tea kettle/alarm clock that baffles the narrator of “The Emigrants,” the young boy in a white nobleman’s costume who would become the orphan Austerlitz. “What the image always does is arrest the text,” Sebald said in 2001, just a few weeks before his fatal car crash. “The visual arts have the capacity to lift you out of time, and since all disasters happen in time, they offer some consolation in lifting you out of it.”

Walker Mimms

‘Vermeer’ Edited by Gregor J.M. Weber, Pieter Roelofs and Taco Dibbits (Thames & Hudson).

Do you get FOMO? I do. Maybe you missed the most hyped show of 2023, the once-in-a-lifetime majority of Vermeer paintings in Amsterdam. So did I. But there was compensation. With its many pages of hyper-zoomed close-ups, this dense and snoopy catalog gets you obscenely close to the real thing. Although there are trenchant essays about the artist’s household and his innovations in perspective, I came for the goods. A double-page spread of nothing but the nail holes in the wall of his “Milkmaid?” Yes, please. They’re so beveled with shadow you feel you could spackle them flat. That lemon peel in “Girl With a Wineglass?” Stippled like a Seurat. The choice of matte rather than standard glossy pages (a matter of some controversy) respects the painter’s soft lighting. This is armchair museum-going at its finest.

‘Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction’ Edited by Mark A. Castro (Dallas Museum of Art; distributed by Yale University Press).

Abraham Ángel, “Portrait of Manuel Rodríguez Lozano / Retrato de Manuel Rodríguez Lozano,” 1922.Credit…via Museo de Aguascalientes/Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura

Like Vermeer, the Mexican portraitist Abraham Ángel, who died at age 19 in 1924, left little behind. His 20 extant works (on view in Dallas through next January) reproduce beautifully in a slim but convincing catalog that doesn’t overstate the case. Ángel’s preferred substrate was cardboard, and the bumpy nap of it really shows in these pages. So do the Fauve-like colors he used to outline his sitters. (Instead of black he preferred blues and browns, as Alice Neel would.) Playfully primitive, these knowing likenesses (among them Ángel’s tutor and lover, Manuel Rodríguez Lozano) combined Mexico’s burgeoning populist aesthetic with a private romanticism that seems nonetheless to have sought clarity on the promise of his country’s Revolution.

‘Mad About Painting’ By Katsushika Hokusai, translated by Ryoko Matsuba (David Zwirner Books).

A spread with sketch from the book “Mad About Painting,” which was dictated by the Edo-era Japanese printmaker Hokusai, who could not write.Credit…Madison Carroll/David Zwirner Books

Even the most technical corners of art history can awe. From the reliably excellent “ekphrasis” series at David Zwirner, this pocket paperback humanizes a forbiddingly mythical figure, the Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai. Newly collected and translated here, the painting manuals he dictated near his death in 1849 (dictated, as Hokusai was not literate) contain, despite their strict instructional nature, surprising delights: his precocious awareness of abstraction (“Didn’t shapes develop first and their meanings accrue later?”), his almost culinary relationship to pigment (“Wrap the white lead in a piece of paper and insert it into a quarter block of tofu”), a readiness to talk trash (in Dutch painting, lions “look like dogs and do not appear ferocious in the least”) and a terrific, grumpy ego (“The brush never lies, so please do not do what you should not”). For scholars and straphangers alike, and affordable to both.

‘Whitfield Lovell: Deep River’ By Whitfield Lovell, Kellie Jones and Julie L. McGee (Eakins Press Foundation).

In his book, Whitfield Lovell draws tightly modeled conté portraits of Black Americans from antique tintypes and cabinet cards in his collection.

During the Civil War, escaped slaves formed a settlement on the banks of the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, Tenn. Camp Contraband has long been a muse of the artist Whitfield Lovell. On repurposed foundry molds, Lovell draws tightly modeled conté portraits of Black Americans from antique tintypes and cabinet cards in his collection. These cameo portraits practice imaginative archaeology on a vanished corner of history. Changing the tune a bit, a new book pulls these big wooden discs from the context of their original installations (Lovell’s room-size earthworks nodding to Camp Contraband) and devotes individual spreads to each one, cropping them tight like an album of pennies mudlarked from the riverbank. And for all its technical and photographic appeal, “Deep River” asks a curatorial question: How much exhibition can a book mount on its own? Quite a bit, it seems.

‘Trad, Gras och Stenar: A Collective History’ By Hakan Agnsater, Mats Eriksson Duner, Jakob Sjoholm and Jonas Stal (Anthology Editions).

“Trees, grass and stones” is how the name translates. Operating under this and other monikers since 1967, the Swedish rock band that set the gold standard for counterculture in Scandinavia gets the kitchen-sink treatment in a sumptuously illustrated archival book. While “Trad Gras och Stenar” is best known for cult classic LPs that combine the groupthink of the Grateful Dead with the menace of La Monte Young, shown here for the first time are the paintings, posters, prints, zines, light projections, homemade instruments and ephemera that embodied their uncompromising art ethic. Anticommerce is the theme. The aesthetic is punk and pastoral at once, rigorous, not your typical groovy psychedelia. Interviews with members document the emotional labor that held it all together: all the homesteading, performance art, child-rearing, mediation, budgeting and activism. The total communalism that eluded so many of the Woodstock generation. The real deal.

Back to top button