Since so many art spaces were closed for much of the year, so many of us spent a lot of time indoors flipping through and reading books of all kinds. This year’s list reflects a wide range of topics and demonstrates that the field of art book publishing continues to impress (though can we stop publishing so many bad gallery-sponsored monographs, ugh). We asked some Hyperallergic contributors to offer their takes on the best art books of the year, and boy, they did not disappoint. —Hrag Vartanian
1. 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir by Ai Weiwei (Crown Books, 2021)
Chocked full of insight about the famous contemporary artist, this book is also a great introduction to the early communist history of China and the role of the arts in the formation of that autocratic state. The story starts with Ai Weiwei’s well-known poet father, Ai Qing, and discusses the writer’s relationship with the revolutionary Chinese state, its leader Mao Zedong, and his exile to Xinjiang in 1959 after he defended a colleague. The story continues with Weiwei’s own childhood in poverty in Xinjiang, and eventually transitions to New York, where the artist spends roughly a decade learning from his teachers (Sean Scully and Richard Pousette-Dart) and spending time with fellow artists (incl. Martin Wong and Tehching Hsieh) before he returned to China. There, he was propelled to fame as the country’s art scene was in the spotlight and the maverick artist started challenging the stranglehold the Chinese state has on truth and the lives of its citizens. The book contains not only a stash of photographs but also line drawings by the artist, and overall, I often felt like I was given a decoder ring to Weiwei’s practice, realizing what significance ceramics, newspapers, and other quotidian materials had for his work. —Hrag Vartanian
2. Mycelium Wassonii by Brian Blomerth (Anthology Editions, 2021)
Artist Brian Blomerth’s new book, Mycelium Wassonii, has something for fans of mycology, those simply looking for amazing graphic storytelling, or anyone interested in the cultural roots of mushroom as ritual and medicine and eager to learn about some of the unsung heroines that helped establish the taxonomy of Mexican psilocybin. The book is a visual biography of the early married years of R. Gordon and Valentina “Tina” Wasson — a couple who initially held radically different perspectives on mushrooms, and went on to coin the terms “mycophilia” and “mycophobia” to characterize their respective orientations toward mushrooming as a practice. As the narrative follows their return to city life, it witnesses their embarkment on a professional journey through ethnomycology, including cultural traditions and applications of psilocybin and amanita mushrooms — work for which R. Gordon Wasson eventually made a name in the field. Blomerth’s work here is a visual tour de force and a work of creative nonfiction that blooms on every page with color, detail, and gentle humor. The thick, matte paper quality evokes the underground comics of the 1960s, to which Blomerth’s work owes some of its line quality. Still, he represents psychedelic states with a morphing of media, including watercolor and colored pencil scribbles that emerge as characters commune in psychedelic states. Blomerth also acknowledges the lesser-sung researchers of the magic mushrooms — the Mazatec healers and medicine-people who used them for centuries before colonization. The last coda in the book is given to María Sabina, the medicine woman who assisted Gordon and his associates on their first mushroom trips. Ultimately, this is a book about the love of mushrooms, but its stunning visual storytelling and fascinating historical content make it a book with all-around appeal. —Sarah Rose Sharp
3. A Civil Rights Journey by Doris Derby (MACK Books, 2021)
A Civil Rights Journey is a crucial look at Black life and American citizenship in the South during the 1960s and early ‘70s. The book presents 110 of Derby’s black and white photos of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, where she and other activists faced great danger and violence from vigilantes and even local officials.
My review earlier this year explained more about the photographer and what pushed her to create this series: “Derby didn’t just chronicle the movement with her camera; she also actively contributed to its causes. The granddaughter of one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Derby came from a family dedicated to racial equality. She was a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and despite great risks to her physical safety, she campaigned for voting rights during her time in the South. She also co-founded the Free Southern Theater and Southern Media Inc, a documentary photography and film group that partnered with journalists from Mississippi and beyond.”
In the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing racial injustice, Derby’s poignant archive of the not-so-distant past feels especially urgent. —Lauren Moya Ford
4. Electronic Landscapes: Music, Space, and Resistance in Detroit by Isaac Diggs and Edward Hillel (Kris Graves Projects, 2021)
Electronic Landscapes takes readers inside the record shops and home studios of the most important — but often overlooked — Black musicians, producers, and other members of Detroit’s electronic music scene. Over the course of six years, Diggs and Hillel gained rare access to these creative and domestic spaces where intimacy, experimentation, and innovation intertwine. In sensitive photos and incisive essays, the book offers a dynamic look at the ways that race, culture, and the urban landscape intersect in the Motor City. —LMF
5. Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life by Debra Bricker Balken (University of Chicago Press, 2021)
Overlooking the tendency to write so many of the titles in lowercase, which gets grating after a while, Debra Bricker Balken’s book is the first comprehensive biography of the renowned art critic, who was very influential in the New York School. An enigma to most art lovers today, Harold Rosenberg’s impact was immense and this book gives you a sense of why that was. While his fellow critic Clement Greenberg tends to hog the spotlight nowadays, Rosenberg’s presence was pivotal in the art scene. His influence went far beyond the words he published and included speeches, late night gatherings, and the other aspects that make a scene vibrant. This biography is a formidable attempt at offering us some insight into a figure who lived in a city that, after the Second World War, was on fire with ideas, power, ambition, and art. I did laugh at the fact that the acknowledgments, endnotes, and index take up a formidable part of the tome (pages 479–640), but my nerdy soul loved every page of it. —HV
6. Sensation: The Madonna, the Mayor, the Media, and the First Amendment by Arnold Lehman (Merrell Publishers, 2021)
The former director of the Brooklyn Museum wrote a book about a controversy that took place at the museum soon after he got there, and the book is nonetheless a treasure trove about an incident that pitched a powerful mayor (Rudy Giuliani) and right wing forces against an institution that exhibited a private collector’s art collection (which should’ve been the real controversy here, but I digress). During this tenure, Lehman did his utmost to bring some populist spirit to the Brooklyn Museum and got criticized for it by the elitist Manhattan press and art scholars, who couldn’t handle his Star Wars and sneaker shows (someone get them some smelling salts), and maybe this is why he was well-suited to unpack this story; he seems to understand how temperamental and strange the media, pop culture, politics, and art can be when mixed together. The book goes into far too much detail about some aspects (the day to day format can get grating), but it’s a great time capsule that offers some insight into many figures who would go on to do much more prominent things (for instance, it’s hard not to see Giuliani’s eventual hard right turn being foreshadowed here). —HV
7. Vanishing Points by Michael Sherwin (Kehrer Verlag, 2021)
In the introductory essay to Vanishing Points by photographer Michael Sherwin, author Josh Garrett-Davis muses on the concept of longue durée — a phrase that frames an approach to history writing which focuses on events that occur in longform. This idea would seem to be deeply at odds with the medium of photography, which generally and by nature seeks to capture a fixed moment rather than an extended movement. And yet, as the work in Vanishing Points reveals, photography and the slow creep of history can become unsteady bedfellows, as long as the artist knows what to photograph. Michael Sherwin engaged in an exhaustive period of excavation for this work, visiting sites of historic and ritual importance to Indigenous people of North America. From there, the book finds him juxtaposing vast, sweeping landscapes with studio-staged details of bits of detritus found on these sites — a crush soda can, a fragment of animal bone, an abandoned child’s toy — and treating them with the same kind of anthropological reverence usually reserved for trash from thousands of years ago. There are people who take to the road to see the country by way of its current inhabitants, and people who do so by avoiding the living and seeking the spaces that still hold a sense of emptiness that suggests what once was. The poetics of Sherwin’s cultural study unfold slowly and powerfully, until everything gels into a tapestry of collective meaning. The investment made by Sherwin in assembling this evidence is not only singular and powerful, but an invitation and reminder that any one of us is part of that slow movement through history and possesses the potential to frame it, and in doing so, change it. —SRS
8. Japanese Screens: Through Break in the Clouds (Abbeville Press, 2021), edited by Claire-Akiko Brisset and Torahiko Terada
Japanese Screens is an exquisite escape into the beautiful, functional world of the Japanese folding screen. The book’s in-depth essays and full-color illustrations tell the story of the screen’s key role in Japanese culture, from its arrival from China in the eighth century to more modern iterations at the hands of artists like Tsuguharu Foujita. The book is an enchanting, illuminating asset to any appreciator of splendor. —LMF
9. Nonbinary: A Memoir by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (Abrams Books, 2021)
Just a few days before New York City went into pandemic lockdown, queer icon Genesis Breyer P-Orridge passed away from leukemia. For more than two years, P-Orridge was writing h/er life story from a hospital bed in Manhattan, and news of h/er death felt undermined by the collective shock of COVID-19. The fruits of these last days, released this summer in the memoir Nonbinary, serve as a fitting epilogue to P-Orridge’s lifetime of aesthetic and political subversion. Long before the term “nonbinary” went mainstream, P-Orridge defied gender roles and broke down divisions between life and art, earning censorship from Queen Elizabeth, scorn from tabloid journalists, and devotion from Throbbing Gristle fans worldwide. Writing from a knowing yet humble perspective, P-Orridge speaks directly to those who fall outside easy categorization, urging us to smash society’s expectations at every chance. —Billy Anania
10. LA Graffiti Black Book, by David Brafman (Getty Publications, 2021)
Brafman invited a number of prominent graffiti writers to contribute to Getty Museum’s “black book,” which is a common ‘autograph’ book format used by lovers of the genre. The result is a lively compilation of styles that capture the energy of the field, while creating a formidable record of its time and place. I wish more arts institutions engaged with artists this way, and the book contains a frenzy of aesthetics and visuals that seem perfectly suited to continue the manuscript and illumination traditions that are already major threads in the Getty collections. More of this, please. —HV
Humbug! The Politics of Art Criticism in New York City’s Penny Press by Wendy Jean Katz (Empire State Editions, 2020)
When scholars discuss art criticism, it’s usually a few names that are thrown around out of the thousands of writers who have engaged in that genre of literature. It does a disservice to the field and replicates the same star system that foregrounds various class and cultural biases. In Wendy Jean Katz’s book, which came out last year but I only got to recently (damn, pandemic!), she does a deep dive into the formative years of the New York media and how art criticism was used and abused by various political factions and interest groups.
While the book isn’t perfect (what book is, right?), and I do sense some favoritism towards traditional elitist forms in her writing, it’s an incredible trove of information that helps you see how media culture and politics influenced the world of art. This book should be essential reading for anyone interested in the history of art criticism. —HV
Raggin’ On: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s House and Journals, edited by Carole M. Genshaft with a foreword by Nanette V. Maciejunes (Ohio University Press/Distributed Titles, 2020)
Another one we missed last year but we think is worth including in this list is Raggin’ On. Published in conjunction with a career-spanning retrospective of Columbus-based artist Aminah Robinson, curated by Carole Genshaft and Deidre Hamlar at the Columbus Museum of Art, the catalogue is a vibrant documentation of a sprawling exhibition that presents an artist whose work both embodied and transcended her life and times. Following her death in 2015, Robinson entrusted her entire estate (including one dog, who was rehomed) to the Columbus Museum of Art, the culmination of a long relationship with the institution, and a gesture which seeded a five-year period of intensive research, processing, and preparation for a major exhibition and book about her work. This volume captures Robinson’s art in its many forms, from paintings on canvas and paper, to sculpture and installation, to fiber books whose pages swell with embellishments, and countless drawings — on envelopes, on boxes as small as matchbooks, and scrap paper of all sizes. One has the sense of a conceptual wellspring so deep that any strike brought water to the surface. Like the exhibition, the catalog includes pieces of Robinson’s house — which has been converted by CMA into an artist residency project in her honor — such as the wildly painted front door, artifacts from her sitting room, packed bookshelves, homemade holders for paintbrushes, trunks carved linocut-style with the words “precious memories” and “sacred pages,” and a literal throne that bristles with modeled and varnished human figures — totems to people of importance in Robinson’s life. This catalogue allows readers to enter Robinson’s house and engage with her life and work, and through it to connect with the ancestral voices that are of fundamental importance to Robinson’s worldview; in them, she connected to the obscured lineage of Africans brought to the Americas, and through them, accessed their collective, genetic wealth of memory and storytelling. She would translate this information and emotion into epic tapestries — sort of long-form fiber scroll that Robinson referred to as a “raggin’ on.” With this form, Robinson embraced the idea that her work will endure perpetually because each new person that encounters it will add new meaning — and this catalogue serves as both a document and an ambassador of Robinson’s signature raggin’ on process. —SRS
Editor’s Note: The review of Sensation mistakenly stated that the exhibition happened before Arnold Lehman became director, when in fact he was there at the time.
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