Much of the labor of the art community goes unnoticed, hidden under the myths that perpetuate old ideas about artists as heroes and singular geniuses rather than part of a robust community that elevates ideas, aesthetics, and larger social, political, and cultural movements.
One of the most overlooked staples of our industry is art catalogues, which require a great deal of labor, thought, resources, and research, not to mention the tedious work of acquiring image rights, working with artist estates, dealing with all the creative egos involved, and other frustrations only spoken about in private, behind closed doors.
We, at Hyperallergic, love art catalogues, and we know how much work they entail, so this Sunday, we are focusing this issue on some of the best art museum catalogue essays of the year. We decided to limit the scope of our selection to US museums and found some gems that illuminate, educate, and enliven conversations around art. We applaud those who toil on the largely thankless tasks of publishing catalogues, knowing that they’re not always read as often as they’re displayed prominently on shelves and coffee tables everywhere. We read them though, and we appreciate all of them.
Here are seven outstanding museum catalogue essays from seven institutions across the country:
- Lorraine O’Grady uses the occasion of being invited to discuss her collage piece “The Strange Taxi: From Africa to Jamaica to Boston in 200 Years” in relation to the exhibition Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent to give readers insight into what Sargent’s model experienced as a Black migrant to Boston during the early 20th century. Her work doubles as a cogent socio-political history and a window into a story of her own experiences as a child growing up in Boston in the 1930s and ’40s with vivid memories of her own father Edwin O’Grady, also an immigrant — like McKeller a stranger in a strange land. The essay is an effort to uncover who McKeller, who was the primary model in some significant paintings for Sargent, might have been outside of the artist’s studio. It is an attempt to give color, shading, and context to a human life.
- Legendary music writer and critic Greg Tate offers his perspective on the downtown New York Hip-hip and art scenes. He ties together the artistic figures of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rammellzee with ideas and events such as Afrofuturism and Brooklyn’s annual West Indian Day Parade into a fascinating essay that pushes us outside the rarified museum into the streets where new culture most often ferments and emerges. The catalogue in which his essay appears, Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation, sought to contextualize Basquiat’s work in an art and culture scene of his co-conspirators who really meant to remake the world they had inherited.
- Lowery Stokes Sims finds in Jeffrey Gibson’s show, This Is the Day, displayed at the Wellin Museum, several reasons to celebrate the artist. Among these reasons are him being a leading voice in what Sims calls a “moment where handwork has found a new context.” This is to say that the line between so-called craft and fine arts is being slowly and intentionally obliterated. This development, Sims shows, is happening most capably in the hands of artists like Gibson who uses Native American dance regalia, tapestries, capes, ceramics, paintings, video, and still imagery to weave together his own history with the histories of LGBTQ+ folk and Anglo-American popular culture to find and broadcast complex and sophisticated ways to think of identity.
- Nicole R. Fleetwood’s essay is a customized combination of parts of the preface, sections of the introduction, and some new text explaining her book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration which has been translated into a current exhibition at MoMA PS1. What is most remarkable about this piece (and the book from which it is derived) is that it looks at the production of art behind prison walls, where it is typically unseen and unrecognized by the contemporary art scene. Fleetwood makes that work visible and palpable and important in its ability to humanize those it touches.
- Edward Bleiberg’s essay, which accompanied Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, explores the political and religious factors that impact historical artifacts and their preservation. He starts with a simple question, one we’ve all certainly pondered at one time, “Why are the noses broken?” What follows is a fascinating scholarly answer that will likely surprise you as it did us.
- Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a Senegalese philosopher who discusses the ontology underlying West African traditional cosmologies in order to explain what underlies Sahelian forms of artistry. His essay “Praying for Life,” which is featured in the catalogue Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara looks to disabuse the reader of some popular assumptions made of that art — such as the idea that Islam sought to destroy traditional African artistic creativity. More, Diagne informs us of the fundamental beliefs that span the many distinct cultures and genres of art making, asserting that they are connected by a belief that art production both increases and intensifies the life force that exists in all extant things.
- Ekow Eshun has written a kind of celebratory song in praise of the development of a Black British cultural space that has been brought about by a wave of immensely talented, young, Black creatives who began to make their presence known in the UK during the mid-1980s. As Ekow writes, “for the first time in the nation’s history,” these visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, pop stars, and writers made it possible “to identify with the desires and concerns of a people hitherto voiceless now articulated with thrilling urgency and sophistication.” “A New Language: Duro Olowu and the Becoming of Black Britain” appears in the catalogue Duro Olowu: Seeing.
While all these essays first appeared in print — we excluded online essays already widely available on the internet in our selection — we tried to maintain the look and feel of the texts as much as possible, accompanying them with the same images when possible. We’ve also included links to the exhibitions these texts accompanied as well as links to purchase the full catalogues themselves.
We encourage you to read, share, and discuss these essays full of insights on art that helps us all feel connected and reflects our lives, hopes, and histories.