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Best of 2019: Our Top 25 Books

Here are our favorite books of 2019, brought to you by the writers and editors of Hyperallergic.

From Sun Seekers — The Cure of California by Lyra Kilston (Atelier Editions)

Every year is a good year for books, but perhaps this year was especially so. From deep dives into the inner workings of the art world, to analyses of architectural, visual, musical, and cultural histories, 2019’s art books were varied, informative, and distinctly beautiful. Some of Hyperallergic’s contributors and editors put together this list of our favorite books of 2019, ranging from graphic novels to photo books to memoir. We hope you enjoy.

1. Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay

Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay (Verso Books)

Ten years in the making, Potential History, Unlearning Imperialism by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay is a tour de force in remaking radical critical imaginaries. The tome challenges ingrained ideas, methodologies, and practices, striking at the heart of how embedded imperialism is in the collective conscious and unconscious. Azoulay analyzes subjects as varied as the violence of the logics museums and archives, to the ways in which time is understood through past, present, and future (what if solidarity could be lent, in real time, to figures from the past? how would that change the present?), and the idea that rights might be granted (don’t all flora and fauna have inherent rights? don’t these rights precede any dispossession, oppression, or violence?). These are only a few of the many threads that weave an unlearning of imperialism that is as vivid in its telling as it is urgent in its implementations. —Laura Raicovich

2. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman (W. W. Norton & Company)

By historian, author, and Guggenheim Fellow Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval bases speculative narratives on found historical photographs “exemplary of the beauty and possibility cultivated in the lives of ordinary black girls and young women and that stoked dreams of what might be possible.” The essays within clearly present Hartman’s underlying values as a researcher: that no life is insignificant, that suppressed narratives deserve daylight, that we hold within us the capacity to expand history with our imagination and shared humanity. —Sarah Rose Sharp

3. Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power by An Xiao Mina

Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power by An Xiao Mina (Beacon Press)

An Xiao Mina’s Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power has helped the world understand the political realities of memes in a clear and concise way. She’s been tracking the emergence of political memes since she started writing about them on these very pages years ago. The book is an illuminating journey through the world of these slippery visuals — and it’s incredible what she was able to achieve without reproducing a single one in the book itself. She helps us understand how memes in China, the US, and elsewhere have helped to define the world and media landscape we exist in today. This is essential reading and you can also check out my podcast with the author if you want to learn more. —Hrag Vartanian

4. Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art by Michael Shnayerson

Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art by Michael Shnayerson (Public Affairs Books)

For those of who should know better, yet continue to exclaim: “they paid how much? for what?” every time Jeff Koons sells a sculpture, Schnayerson’s Boom is here to explain how we got here. It’s an engaging, gossipy history of how the art world morphed into the art market, from Peggy Guggenheim to Larry Gagosian and many other artists, collectors, curators, and dealers in between. With meticulous research and interviews with some of the biggest mega dealers, Boom illuminates how those prices got so high, who got them there, and whether there’s any end in sight. —Ilana Novick

5. C.R.E.A.M. by Sable Elyse Smith

C.R.E.A.M. by Sable Elyse Smith (Wendy’s Subway)

Sable Elyse Smith’s art, which spans performance, video, photography, writing, and publishing, often explores the painful intersection of the personal and the political, particularly regarding race, the prison system, and the over-policing of black bodies in America. A slim paperback that is a difficult, choppy, and disturbing to read, C.R.E.A.M. includes visual and verbal prose poetry and narrative by Smith, critic Jessica Lynne, and poet A. H. Jerriod Avant. Flipping through, the pages jump between glittery gold and historical black-and-white photographs. It is non-linear and refuses easy summary. But it succeeds fully in breaking the reader from the comfort of casual reading space, and throwing her into the place of discomfort often felt by those whose personal is always made political. —Megan N. Liberty

6. Sun Seekers: The Cure of California by Lyra Kilston

Sun Seekers — The Cure of California by Lyra Kilston (Atelier Editions)

Southern California is famous for its health-obsessives and modern homes. Lesser known, perhaps, is the connection between the two. In this excellent book, Lyra Kilston (also a Hyperallergic contributor) reveals how the open architecture of European sanatoriums influenced the homes nestled in Southern California’s hills, such as Richard Neutra’s famous Lovell Health House. From natural medicine to nudism, Sun Seekers covers a fascinating history and its playful, vivid writing makes it a pleasure to read. —Elisa Wouk Almino

7. The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion by Antwaun Sargent

Tyler Mitchell, “Untitled (Hijab Couture),” New York, 2019 (© Tyler Mitchell) from The New Black Vanguard by Antwaun Sargent (Aperture)

With The New Black Vanguard, which hybridizes the glossy coffee table book and operates as a notable record of contemporary Black photography, Antwaun Sargent offers insight into Black image-making, from historic portraits of Frederick Douglass, to a young generation of photographers working today. The book brings together images by 15 young Black fashion photographers including Ruth Ossai, Awol Erizku, and Nadine Ijewere. As Sargent explains, the photographers “are working internationally, across the African diaspora, and using their cameras to create contemporary portrayals of black life that are reframing established representational paradigms.” The New Black Vanguard ensures that unlike many Black photographers who came before them, the contributions of these artists will not be stifled by an industry that would have in years past rendered them to the margins; it simultaneously proves itself as a criticism of fashion and art’s exclusionary legacies, while also heralding a young class of artists at varying stages of their careers. A counterpart to the book, an exhibition curated by Sargent, is on view at Aperture Gallery through January 18, 2020. —Jasmine Weber

8. Making Comics by Lynda Barry

Making Comics by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)

The follow-up to Lynda Barry’s acclaimed Syllabus, Making Comics (Drawn & Quarterly) is a creative curriculum composed of exercises, revisions, and instructions on how to think less and draw more. Barry is a treasure and her latest book is, in true form, clever, quirky, and wise. Any creative person will benefit from this practical and joyful instruction manual.  —Ellie Duke

 

9. Life with Picasso by François Gilot and Carlton Lake

Life with Picasso by Fraçoise Gilot and Carlton Lake (NYRB Classics)

The artist Françoise Gilot’s newly reissued memoir about her years as Pablo Picasso’s mistress deserves to be a classic of art history for two reasons: first, for her writing about Picasso and his cohort’s paintings, sculptures, and artistic processes, and second, for her clear-eyed descriptions of her own artistic self-discovery. Gilot’s creative drive powers Life with Picasso, from her first visits to Picasso’s studio to her decision to choose her painting career over her relationship with him. —Lily Meyer

10. Parks by Brian Kelley

Parks by Brian Kelley (Standards Manual)

Brian Kelley’s Parks, published by Standards Manual, is a gorgeous compendium that traces the visual history of the National Parks Service through its maps, pamphlets, and other materials dating back 100 years. As Lyz Nagan-Powell’s insightful introduction describes, our National Parks have always been fraught with tension “between preservation and use, between indigenous people and white explorers, between local rights and federal oversight, between wild freedom and human control, between park purists and park recreationists, and between commercial exploitation and historic value.” The concepts and designs of parks are traced alongside this complicated legacy. For those interested in the history of the Parks service, the evolution of informative graphic design, and the long overlapping history of artists in National Parks, Brian Kelley’s latest is a delightful visual-historical feast. —Ellie Duke

11. Becoming Mary Sully by Philip J. Deloria

Becoming Mary Sully by Philip J. Deloria (University of Washington Press)

Author, Harvard professor, and historian Philip J. Deloria describes the era captured in the nearly lost art of his great aunt, Mary Sully, as a “critical moment — sometime in the 1920s, perhaps — when many American Indian people crafted new and different lives for themselves.” Deloria writes this characterization as part of an introduction to Becoming Mary Sully (University of Washington Press), a detailed survey of the extant works of the Dakota Sioux artist. The book underscores her unique position as an American Indian Modernist and examines the wider historical context of her surprising and original work, and the political, social, and aesthetic forces that shaped it. Emerging from potential obscurity, Sully’s work deepens cultural perceptions of American Indian abstraction. —Sarah Rose Sharp

12. The Canary and the Hammer by Lisa Barnard

The Canary and the Hammer by Lisa Barnard (Mack)

In response to the 2008 global financial crisis, photographic artist Lisa Barnard undertook a quest in pursuit of one of the most sought-after materials in human history. Her resulting book, The Canary and the Hammer, presents a heady combination of images and thoroughly researched essays that carve out a core sample from mankind’s ages-old obsession with gold. Barnard’s contemporary photographic work, compiled over the course of four years, chases gold across four continents — moving, like the material itself, through a complex series of international dynamics. For some people in Barnard’s stories, gold seems to represent a kind of transcendent pursuit, that might be equated with religious ecstasy or clinical obsession — though Barnard asserts that no matter one’s interest: “Ultimately, however, gold is an act of faith.” —Sarah Rose Sharp

13. Optic Nerve by María Gainza, trans. Thomas Bunstead

Optic Nerve by María Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead (Catapult)

Part novel, part memoir, part art history, a neat description of María Gainza’s English-language debut Optic Nerve is difficult to pull off. What you can be assured of is this will be the sort of book that readers will be recommending to each other for a very long time. Optic Nerve is a hallucinatory trip into the experience of being spilled out in front of a great piece of art. It follows in the spirit of its epigraph from Lucretia Rojas: “Just going to take a look at the painting, said Liliana Maresca after her shot of morphine.” —Nathan Scott McNamara

 

14. An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels by Josh MacPhee

An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels by Josh MacPhee (Common Notions)

The third edition of Josh MacPhee’s Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels, he admits is not really encyclopedic. Rather it’s a personal deep dive into political, left-leaning records created (for the most part) between 1970 and 1990, in geographies across the globe: the Americas, across Africa, throughout Europe, to Asia and Oceana. He’s driven by both a love of the labels’ graphics as well as the music they distribute, not to mention the political intent behind records created to distribute a set of ideas. Laura Raicovich

 

 

 

15. The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis

The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis (Drawn & Quarterly)

Eleanor Davis, one of America’s most acclaimed contemporary graphic novelists, has put her characters under the pressure cooker of rising fascism amidst dire inequality and a collapsing ecosystem in The Hard Tomorrow (Drawn & Quarterly). The question of just what can be made of the future, and whether anything is worth fighting for, haunts the book. —Dan Schindel

 

 

 

16. Temple of Silence: The Forgotten Works of Herbert Crowley by Justin Duerr

Temple of Silence: The Forgotten Works of Herbert Crowley by Justin Duerr (Beehive Books)

For those with a niche interest in strange and surreal newspaper funnies, encountering the work of Herbert Crowley is a revelation. His life and work has seen the light of day after many decades in obscurity, thanks to a generously-sized monograph that compiles much of his extant drawings, comics, and sculptures, as well as a detailed personal history — all researched by Philadelphia artist, musician, and scholar Justin Duerr. There is something deeply moody, bitterly romantic, and ultimately poignant about Crowley’s circuitous path through life, seeming always to snatch obscurity from the jaws of recognition. Ultimately he is most appealing to those with a love of the absolute purity and fanaticism of an artist so true to his vision, he was nearly eclipsed from history. —Sarah Rose Sharp

17. BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore

BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore (Fantagraphics Books)

BTTM FDRS (Fantagraphics Books) is a coy, gruesome satire of gentrification. Taking place in the fictional Chicago neighborhood Bottomyards (riffing on Back of the Yards), it blends discussions around race relations, cultural appropriation, and urban injustice with a creepy plot centered around a mysterious force which metaphorically feeds on those very phenomena. —Dan Schindel

18. Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith (Knopf)

Patti Smith never ceases to inspire awe and amazement, not least for her prolificity. In a narrative that traverses seamlessly between dreams and wakefulness, Year of the Monkey wanders through 2016, the year of the monkey, the year she turns 70, the year people very dear to her are dying. With the landscapes of California, the Arizona desert, and a Kentucky farm in the background, Smith’s latest is a profound, funny, and moving meditation on death and a life well lived. It is, above all, a testament to hope in a year that was, now in hindsight, to leave the world deeply fractured and its people wildly changed. —Deepa Bhasthi

19. The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript from Genocide to Justice by Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh

The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript from Genocide to Justice by Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh (Stanford University Press)

The Missing Pages is a detective story about a gorgeous Armenian illuminated manuscript and its convoluted history and survival through one of the worst horrors of the 20th century, the Armenian Genocide. Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh does extensive research on the objects that were acquired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles earlier this century, but not without legal objections by the local Armenian Apostolic Prelacy as to who truly owned the sacred work. Watenpaugh’s books tells the story — in an accessible manner — and relays the history not only of the communities it was made and preserved in (particularly the Ottoman town of Zeitun), but also the complicated realities that religious objects face when displaced into secular settings. The details are astounding, and it’s amazing she was able to compile research like this almost a century after the calamity that tore the pages from the original manuscript that exists in Yerevan’s Madenataran manuscript library today. —Hrag Vartanian

20. Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob (One World)

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (One World) is Mira Jacob’s illustrated memoir that uses comics, handwritten text word bubbles, and collaged photographs to tell a story across generations, navigating Jacob’s youth as first generation American whose parents emigrated from India, her early years in New York as a single woman dating, and her eventual marriage and parenthood. The conversations weave in and out across these experiences, including painfully honest dialogues with her husband, who is white and Jewish, about raising their son in the ever-shifting racial climate of America and how to continue a relationship with his conservative parents after the 2016 election. Jacob is unafraid to ask the hard questions and to admit when she doesn’t have an easy answer. —Megan N. Liberty

21. Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers

Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers (Drawn & Quarterly)

Ebony Flowers uses hair-salon scents and yanks on the scalp to evocatively dip into her childhood memories and to re-conjure her realizations about gender, class, and race. Hot Comb (Drawn & Quarterly) is funny, infuriating, and gorgeous. An ethnographer as well as an artist, Flowers renders her stories with a meticulous textural sense, finding the details that vividly invoke her life through her hair. —Nathan Scott McNamara

 

22. Hinge Pictures: Eight Women Artists Occupy the Third Dimension, edited by Andrea Andersson

Hinge Pictures: Eight Women Artists Occupy the Third Dimension, edited by Andrea Andersson (Siglio)

Though published to coincide with an exhibition of the same name, Hinge Pictures: Eight Women Artists Occupy the Third Dimension, is much more than an exhibition catalogue. It includes a section dedicated to each of the eight women artists in the exhibition, offering them the page-as-exhibition space to respond to Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare and Her Bachelors, Even” and the texts Duchamp wrote describing it in “The Green Box.” The work is conceived as a “hinge,” opening and functioning on multiple planes, yet tied to an initial point. Thus the title of this exhibition and book, and the design choice to create a delicate hinge binding with visible red string. The book is hyper-specific without being overly explanatory and offers a seamed (as the concluding essay by Alex Klein, titled “At the Seams,” suggests, the book actually and figuratively exposes its seams and binding) reading experience, a call-and-response of groundbreaking pre-war modernism and the vibrations of its legacy in the radical work of women artists today. —Megan N. Liberty

23. Supper Club by Lara Williams

Supper Club by Lara Williams (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

Roberta, the protagonist of Lara Williams’s intensely assured debut novel Supper Club, is bitterly funny, extremely quick-witted, and an excellent cook. She’s also so socially anxious she wants to disappear — until she befriends an aspiring artist named Stevie who persuades her to spin her culinary gifts into a secret supper club that will be equal parts art project, fine dining, and druggy, rowdy fun. Before long, Roberta turns her whole life and body into performance art, and, in the process, learns to love taking up space in the world. —Lily Meyer

24. Changes: Notes on Choreography by Merce Cunningham

Changes: Notes on Choreography by Merce Cunningham (The Song Cave)

Changes: Notes on Choreography, written by legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham in 1968 and recently reissued by the Song Cave on the occasion of what would be his centennial, offers a compelling peek into the inner workings of an artist’s mind. More of an art- or archival collection than a typical book, Changes gathers sketches, notes, photographs, programs, and all other manner of ephemera in a creative package that often takes some maneuvering to read in the traditional sense. Printed text is frequently overlaid on top of handwritten notes or images; sometimes one must turn the book upside down to read a full sentence. —Abbey Bender

25. Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker by Marcia Tucker

Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker by Marcia Tucker (Getty Publications)

Marcia Tucker is one of the art world’s legendary “difficult women.” Most famous for critically unpopular shows at the Whitney Museum, which lead to her firing and ultimate founding of the New Museum in order to exhibit new kinds of contemporary shows, in many ways this legacy has hindered the appreciation of her writing as a critic and cultural pioneer. Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker (Getty Publications), remedies this by presenting nearly two dozen texts — some published in magazines and others written as lectures published here for the first time. At a time when there is renewed interest in the role of the museum, the critic, and the artistic activist, Tucker’s writing offers a much needed push to radical change. —Megan N. Liberty

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