Books

16 Art and Design Books for Your Holiday Gift List

A list of art and design books that are some of this year’s must-reads.

(image by the author for Hyperallergic)

In these troubling times, we need to support the people and publishers who continue to provide insightful, entertaining, groundbreaking, and engaged publications. Or, put more simply: let’s find some solace in books.

$25 and Under

At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich (Coffee House Press) $8.84

A beautiful little publication considers only one individual earth artwork, Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field” (1977). Queen Museum Director Laura Raicovich explores that Dia-owned work in New Mexico (she was formerly the deputy director of the Dia Art Foundation) and uses it to demonstrate how careful observation, experience, and research can come together to create an insightful text that ruminates on the limits of contemporary art, period, and perception. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the work in person, but after reading this I felt like I had already started a personal relationship with the site-specific work. The prose is well crafted and the pace is pitch perfect. Take an afternoon to read this and you won’t be sorry.

Pissing Figures 1280–2014 by Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, translated by Jeff Nagy (Ekphrasis) $9.33

Jean-Claude Lebensztejn is a French art historian and this little book (109 pages of text and notes) is definitely an interesting introduction to his work. There are over 140 color plates to illustrate his points about older works by Guido Reni, Titian, Kitagawa Utamoro, and others, as well as modern works by Duchamp, Warhol, Andres Serrano, and others. It’s a curious journey through art history and one that’s worth the trip, because where else would you read, “This is what imbues the stream of urine in the Children’s Bacchanal with a tortured subjectivity, and colors the lesson on Neoplatonic sublimation delivered by Michelangelo to Tommaso, and above all to himself.” Yeah, exactly.

On Being Awesome: A Unified Theory of How Not to Suck by Nick Riggle (Penguin Books) $13.22

There are lots of people who suck in the world — too many? Probably … ok, yes.

Well, philosopher Nick Riggle is making the case in a book that combines pop culture, literature, politics, and ethics into an attractive package that helps us understand the world around us and how not to contribute to its suckiness. Riggle is funny but the value of the book is in the real world scenarios he offers and his thinking through of difficult topics.

Will this book make you more awesome? My guess is yes.

The Wild Children of William Blake by John Yau (Autonomedia) $15.00

A Hyperallergic Weekend editor, John Yau’s newest book gathers together numerous essays from his writing on these pages but includes other essay from the Boston Review and elsewhere. Famous for investigating artists who veer from the trap of consensus, Yau writes extensively about Jay DeFeo, Hilma af Klint, Katherine Bradford, Barbara Takenaga, Forrest Bess, Simon Gouverneur, and many others. Through his words, it’s easy to imagine a more personal and engaged contemporary art that floats away from the expectations of market style into a realm that explores the weird quirks and realities that make art wonderful.

Professionals of Hope, The Selected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos, by Subcomandante Marcos, afterword by Gabriela Jauregui (Song Cave) $17.95

This book isn’t exactly an “art” book, but I included it because it almost feels like an art project. This is an anthology of the writing by a former spokesperson and strategist for the Zapatistas, who is known as Subcomandante Marcos. He was part of an insurrection that opposed the Mexican government’s violent policy against indigenous peoples. This small book gathers letters, speeches, and folktales that tell a very different story from the official government line. It’s a curious read that touches on intersectionality and all the current debates raging in the political and cultural spheres. Here’s a taste:

Yes, Marcos is gay. Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the subway at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.
Marcos is all the exploited, marginalized, oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough.’ He is every minority who is now beginning to speak, and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable — this is Marcos.

And Yet My Mask is Powerful by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme (Printed Matter) $18.00

I raved about the artwork that is associated with this book when I wrote about the current Jerusalem Lives exhibition at the Palestinian Museum. It was a smart piece that explored national narratives and their relationships to archeology, violence, and storytelling. In this part of the project, the artist duo created an artist book that weaves together various narratives about colonization, value creation, destruction, and cultural belonging to complement their sculpture. The book starts with Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck” (1973) and uses it as an allegorical framework throughout, often running portions of that poem in English and Arabic side by side). Highly recommended.

The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera by Adam Begley (Tim Duggan) $18.16

This was a joy to read. Adam Begley is a good writer and he tells the fascinating story of a man whose influence was felt all over 19th-century Paris (and beyond). He does a particularly good job of giving you a sense of Nadar’s obsession with ballooning and the financial realities of studio photography, but the best part of the book is the ease with which he’s able to relay the artist’s life story and its many intrigues — the end is the weakest part of the book, but you’ll hardly notice. As an addendum, he’s added some of the entries found in Nadar’s epoch-charting guestbook and it’s a wonderful look at a who’s-who of Paris during a period when it could actually claim to be the center of the Western art world.

You Might be an Artist If… by Lauren Purje (Top Shelf Productions) $19.99

Longtime Hyperallergic contributor Lauren Purje’s comics chronicle the unglamorous truths of an artist’s life, from fighting self-doubt to searching for inspiration. She’s collected many of her favorite comics over the years — including many published first on Hyperallergic — in her first book from Top Shelf Productions (which has already gone into its second printing). And (full disclosure) I wrote the brief foreword to the heartwarming book.

$26–100

Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism by Gregory Sholette, edited by Kim Charnley and foreword by Lucy R. Lippard (Pluto Press) $27.13

The title of Lucy Lippard’s foreword to Gregory Sholette’s new book is simply, “Is Another Art World Possible?” It sounds simple but it’s not. She writes: “Amnesia attacks and ongoing reinventions of the wheel are two things that have plagued social activist art and the left for as long as I can remember.” So true. Thankfully, Sholette‘s book doesn’t shy away from the difficult topics. He writes about gentrification, activist art, institutional decolonization, art education, and lots of other topics with a clarity that often eludes other books of this type. 

Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, 1830–1980 by Zoe Lescaze (TASCHEN) $74.95

There’s something marvelous and surreal about dinosaur illustration. In our image-obsessed culture, we aren’t satisfied with only the bones of dinosaurs so we have to imagine the real thing. Since they were discovered centuries ago, these oversized creatures continue to fascinate kids and adults alike. And then there’s the art. Each work of paleoart (yes, it’s a thing) reflects its period and culture. Surprisingly fresh after so many years, all the images spring from the imaginations of artists who were responsible for forging the image we have of these wondrous creatures. Don’t just take my word for it: Allison Meier also gave the book a thumbs up in her review earlier this year.

Monograph by Chris Ware by Chris Ware (Rizzoli) $37.42

I have no idea how this massive book is only $40, but it is. It’s worth every penny as it charts renowned graphic novelist Chris Ware’s life and art in a way that will make any artist envious. With its collection of zines placed in the book (no, really), family photos, sketches, hard-to-find posters, and other riveting features, this book is easy to get lost in. The design is excellent, the content is great (an introduction by Art Spiegelman and preface by Ira Glass are nice touches), and you’ll realize how much of Ware’s style has permeated our culture. Did I mention that the book weighs nine pounds?

Experience: Culture, Cognition, and the Common Sense by Caroline A. Jones,‎ David Mather,‎ Rebecca Uchill (MIT Press) $37.69

This book may have been published last year, but I finally got a chance to dive into its pages and enjoy the artful design (it’s really an art object) and thoughtful essays this year. Starting with its unique, heat-sensitive cover by Olafur Eliasson that responds to touch (revealing words, drawings, and colors), it also has endpapers designed by Carsten Höller (printed in ink with carefully calibrated quantities of the synthesized human pheromones estratetraenol and androstadienone, both of which are essential to the chemistry of human desire), margins and edges by artist Tauba Auerbach, and bookmarks cascading from the center as a complement to the spiderweb prints of Tomás Saraceno.

Lauren Greenfield: Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield (Phaidon) $50.96

This book (and project) has been discussed for years (we wrote about it earlier this year when its associated exhibition was on display). The art project took on a new relevance lately as the global financial elite continues to wage an unabashed war on everyone else. I’m often of two minds when it comes to projects that seem to pretend to criticize a group by shooting what amounts to glamor shots, but the level of access (and resulting images) make this project different — though you really have to wonder why the über-wealthy would allow themselves to be on display like this. Perhaps they really don’t see the issue, or maybe they feel so insulated and untouchable that they just don’t care. Either way, the book is something you’re definitely going to want to see.

Over $100

Detail Kultur by Christoph Kumpusch (Aadcu) $139.00

I first met Kumpusch when he was working for Coop Himmelb(l)au, then he joined forces with Lebbeus Woods to create the Light Pavilion in Chengdu, China, and he’s certainly done much more than that short bio suggests, but that brings me to his latest work, which is a publication that focuses on the architectural detail. This is a beautiful tome that plays with your notion of image quality (and what is really being represented) through a mix of high-quality line illustrations of architectural details, clear building shots, and pixelated images seemingly culled from the internet. It includes interviews with some of the leading architects of the day, including Zaha Hadid, Eric Owen Moss, Kazuyo Sejima, Thom Mayne, Ada Tolla, and Steven Holl, and follows in a long line of architects’ books that have slowly influenced the way we see the built environment.

Beyond Drifting: Artist Edition by Mandy Barker (Overlapse) $265340 ($45.00 version also available)

Writer Allison Meier really liked this book and wrote: “Beyond Drifting could be viewed as a playful project, with Barker using Victorian taxonomy to impart an irreverent sense of awe to discarded stroller wheels and plastic bottles, yet the issue it presents is serious. The beguiling details of these small specimens, from wispy brush bristles to a ghostly six-pack yoke, represent a global concern for the future of life in our oceans.” Sounds like something anyone who enjoys the intersection of art and science would want on their bookshelf.

Joel Meyerowitz: Cézanne’s Object by Joel Meyerowitz and Maggie Barrett (Damiani) $1,000 ($39.69 version also available)

I’m not sure what compelled photographer Joel Meyerowitz to take a photo of every object in the studio of Paul Cézanne but the result is quite fascinating, particularly since the Post-Impressionist often reused objects as subjects in his paintings. Writing about the book earlier this year, Allison Meier remarked, “Meyerowitz’s photographs are more about considering how Cézanne used this studio and its light as an essential part of his artistic method.” The $1,000 version comes with a limited edition photograph by Meyerowitz, but there’s also a cheaper version for those who want to save money.

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