Some of our picks for 2013 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Some of our picks for 2013 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

2013 was a great year for art-related books, so we selected some of our favorites. We should note that all of our selections are printed volumes, since it feels like art ebooks still have a long way to go before they’re as impressive and attractive as their physical peers. Here are our picks for the top art non-ebooks of the year (in no particular order).

#1 — Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde and From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945–1989


This was the year of Japanese Modernism in New York, marked by major exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). 2013 led to an increased understanding of the influence and power of Japanese modernity on contemporary art, and that’s a good thing. Accompanying MoMA’s Tokyo 1955–1970 show earlier this year, these two volumes are a must-have for art fans curious about the explosion of creative fervor in a country that only a decade before had been devastated by war and the atomic bomb. This was a time when cities like Tokyo were happily reinventing themselves for a contemporary reality free from the restraints of the past, and the art, as you can see, was fresh and exciting. Other books about modern art in Japan that came out this year and are also worth a look include the Guggenheim’s Gutai: Splendid Playground catalogue and Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan by William Marotti from Duke University Press (MoMA). [BUY Tokyo 1955–1970 and From Postwar to Postmodern]

#2 — Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits


This book has been haunting me since I laid eyes on it earlier this year. These large close-up “portraits” by Matthew Rolston of ventriloquist dummies at the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, make you realize the individuality of these (largely) arcane performers that convey their age through cracks, wear, and other curious details. The brief history of ventriloquists and their partners at the back is very insightful, and may I suggest pairing this book with Marco Anelli’s Portraits in the Presence of Marina Abramović (Damiani, 2012), because the inadvertent similarities and parallels will kind of blow your mind. (Pointed Leaf Press, LLC) [BUY]

#3 — Burtynsky: Water


To allow your eyes to wander the pages of a book of photographs by Edward Burtynsky is to allow yourself the pleasure of looking at some of the most stunning images of the contemporary era. From rice terraces in China to pivot irrigation in Arizona and the banks of sacred rivers in India, each page is saturated with color and strong compositions that have an air of the otherworldly about them. With essays by Wade Davis and Russell Lord, this book is a must-have for anyone who believes that photographers are crucial in our understanding of the world around us. When Burtynsky points his lens at something (usually from the sky), he has a knack for revealing details others largely ignore. (Steidl/Noma) [BUY]

#4 — The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti


While Rafael Schacter’s book is a little more academic than most street art–related books (not a bad thing), it’s also a fantastic journey through a global art movement, questioning the role of the public artwork and revealing regional accents that most people don’t realize are there. For the street art haters out there (and there are lots), this book offers such a range of artistic talent that you’ll finally see why the genre continues to fascinate people the world over with, in the author’s words, this “practice of image-making that remains untethered by the restraints of the white cube.” (Yale) [BUY]

#5 — Emily Dickinson: The Georgous Nothings


The cult of Emily Dickinson is a strong as ever, so if you’re a member of this tribe we would definitely suggest Marta Werner and Jen Bervin’s attractive (and very white) archive of Dickinson’s envelopes and letters. As Bervin writes in the book’s introduction: “Dickinson’s poems and correspondence attest to the considerable care she gave to the ritual act of opening a letter. These envelopes have been opened well beyond the point needed to merely extract a letter; they have been torn, cut, and opened out completely flat, rendered into new shapes. To understand how forcefully Dickinson is manipulating the form of the page itself, take a simple household envelope and see how many of these forms you can re-create. You will quickly find that what looks simple, simply is not.” Flipping though this book is like going into the poet’s mind in a very intimate way, and we’re including this in “art books” because it’s a very visual journey that may alter your perception of Dickinson and her life and work. (New Directions/Christine Burgin) [BUY]

#6 — The Art of the Salon


This beautiful boxed tome by art historian Norbert Wolf explores the salon industry of the 19th century in lush color, with insightful essays demonstrating that the salon (like the art fair today) was an international and commercial affair. If today we remember the salons mostly for those artists who were not allowed to exhibit their works there (many Impressionists, for instance), it’s still important to examine the styles and language that dominated this important artistic institution for a very long time. The reproductions in this books are fantastic, and they tell a very different story about 19th-century art than we’re taught in art history courses, which often concentrate on the margins of the art world during that era rather than the mainstream. Reading this book, you can see what many of the modernists we study today were reacting against. (Prestel) [BUY]

#7 — The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium


This book by Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue Scott explores the state of female artists today. The premise may be wide and sprawling, but the book is inspiring after you read and understand the different strategies that women have engaged with to make their mark on art. By bringing together very established artists with emerging ones, the book can feel like a mixed bag, but it’s exactly that exchange between history and the future that makes this volume exciting. The charts of female participation in major exhibitions around the world make you realize there’s a still long way to go until we reach gender parity in the art world, but, between you and me, I think books like this will ensure we get there … eventually. (Prestel) [BUY]

#8 — Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950


Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, this catalogue focuses on one impulse in contemporary art and explores its historical antecedents and modern-day influences.

World War II, the Cold War, vandalism, and terrorism loom large in this attractive volume, but what makes the book notable is that the authors obviously look for poetry as much as they do power in their artistic selections. Don’t expect answers in this book, because the urge to destroy is as complex as the urge to create. (Prestel) [BUY]

#9 — Bright Nights: Photographs of Another New York


A consummate observer, Tod Seelie’s photo book is a deep dive into the hipster New York that likes to live on the edges of gentrification. All the images are filled with energy and convey a sense of transience and being on the precipice of something new. For anyone who questions New York’s eternal love of the margins, this book is proof for the skeptics. New York is — and will always be — a city of exiles, rejects, artists, thrill seekers, and experimenters … this is a city that loves adrenaline, and that’s obvious in most of Seelie’s images. (Prestel) [BUY]

#10 — 7 Miles a Second


Written by renowned contemporary artist David Wojnarowicz, 7 Miles a Second was originally published by DC Comics in 1996 but was rereleased this year by Fantagraphics Books. This is a memoir comprised of personal stories mixed with dreams, hallucinatory images, and social commentary. When Hyperallergic Senior Editor Jillian Steinhauer reviewed this book earlier this year, she raved about the graphic novel, which centers, she explains, “on Wojnarowicz’s incredibly weighty relationship with his own body — a body that he sold for money so he could survive; a body that was abused by those to whom he rented it; a body that was infected with HIV, that dragged him down with its virus. ‘I can’t abstract my own dying any longer,’ he writes on the second-to-last page. That must be among the most poignant expressions of the reality of illness ever written.” (Fantagraphics) [BUY]

Honorable Mentions

#11 — 9.5 Theses on Art and Class


Ben Davis’s book is a fascinating exploration of the art market using Marxist theory. His discussion of artists’ role in the middle class is quite extensive and groundbreaking, but the major contribution of this book, in my opinion, is that it brought the discussion of class, artists, and the art market center stage in a way that went beyond fleeting auction reports and perpetual gallery gripes. And the book offers some new perspectives on some very old problems. Davis’s passion for art is obvious, and his intellectual curiosity for a wide range of topics makes this a thoroughly interesting read that’s sure to generate further discussion. (Haymarket Books) [BUY]

#12 — Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists


We were overwhelmed by the response to Sharon Louden’s book when we published an interview with her earlier this year. Aimed at artists, Louden gathered together stories of 40 working artists (written in their own words), and she came up with a creative way to share the profits for the book with her “co-authors” (she’s splitting them evenly with ALL of the contributors). As Louden explains in the preface: “The idea that one needs a gallery to justify one’s existence as an artist is, I believe, outdated: the gallery is just one venue through which to share a visual vocabulary with others.” The stories in the book outline how artists continue to forge paths that suit them and their work — it’s a book that will inspire artists everywhere. (Intellect) [BUY]

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

6 replies on “10 Best Art Books of 2013”

    1. You’re right, I should’ve mentioned them but since it was a short blurb I mentioned the person most people knew. I will correct that . The collaborators for 7 Miles a Second are James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook. Thank you for pointing out my oversight, Derik. And I’m sorry if I inadvertently offended the other artists involved.

    1. Thank you ever so much! I feel honored that our book is listed here. I’m so proud of these artists who have contributed thoughtful essays that start important conversations as to how artists can sustain their creative lives in realistic ways. A very happy New Year to you! Warmly, Sharon

      1. My wife got me your book for graduation from artschool here in Nashville,I know Adrienne Outlaw,and have been very pleasantly surprised by your book.

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