With July around the corner, we asked our contributors to consider which art books from the past couple of years are worth adding to your reading list during this season of restoration and replenishment. Whether you’re looking to sink your teeth into an amusing mystery set at The Met Cloisters, French artist Sophie Calle’s recollections of her daring conceptual artworks, essays alongside tarot designs created by Leonora Carrington, a playful ode to slime, or all of the above, here are 11 books we’re reading this summer that we think you’ll enjoy, too.
—Lakshmi Rivera Amin, Editorial Coordinator
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Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable, edited by Dawn Ades, Jennifer R. Gross, Ann Lauterbach, and Roger L. Conover
In her introductory essay to Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable, Jennifer R. Gross describes the artist as possessing “omnivorous creativity.” This is an apt characterization for a woman who managed to make a name for herself within poetry, experimental writing, performance, painting, fashion design, and other forms of visual art — all in the company of supporters and collaborators who included portraitist and Loy’s husband photographer Stephen Haweis, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and Peggy Guggenheim, among others. A committed modernist who was able to balance literary and academic interests within a faith-based worldview (following the miraculous healing of her comatose infant daughter, Joella, by a Christian Scientist practitioner), Loy’s work was groundbreaking and influential during the turn of the last century, and her social commentary on the experiences of women, the role of artists, and the economics of art under capitalism is as trenchant today as it was 100 years ago.
In addition to an abundance of archival materials that trace the twisting pathways of Loy’s life as a working international artist and society maven, there are poems, there are photographs, and there are Loy’s deeply surreal intermedia works. Strangeness Is Inevitable tries to keep the central focus on Loy’s visual art career, but the book is ultimately a creative buffet, produced by, about, and for creative omnivores. Delicious! —Sarah Rose Sharp
Dissident Practices: Brazilian Women Artists, 1960s–2020s by Claudia Calirman
In her introduction to Dissident Practices, Claudia Calirman makes the case that the work of many Brazilian women artists in the late 20th century has been read exclusively through the lens of various feminist movements, even when these creators did not principally affiliate with them. In fact, some artists saw the feminist movement as “one more hegemonic enterprise orchestrated by the United States,” she writes, and their decision to disavow it revealed a powerful stance against foreign imperialism. This sharp observation sets the stage for a revelatory reassessment of the legacy of women artists in Brazil during the tumultuous six-decade period from the rise of Brazil’s military dictatorship through the present. Major works by the likes of Anna Maria Maiolino, Lygia Pape, Lyz Parayzo, and Berna Reale, among others, are discussed to emphasize their anti-authoritarian, transgressive, and deeply radical contents and impacts. —Valentina Di Liscia, News Editor
Buy on Bookshop | Duke University Press, April 2023
When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting, edited by Koyo Kouoh
When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting is a must-read catalogue that accompanies the landmark, internationally touring exhibition curated by Koyo Kouoh and Tandazani Dhlakama at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town, South Africa. The sections of the book are arranged as powerful meditations on themes from the exhibition — the everyday, joy and revelry, repose, sensuality, spirituality, and triumph and emancipation. Each contribution from the curators and invited authors historicizes and poetically interprets the aesthetics and politics of Black figural paintings in Africa and its global diaspora. As opposed to solely offering a didactic overview of the exhibition, the book provides rich theoretical engagement with Blackness and figural representation from transnational and transhistorical perspectives. Such a text is necessary to unpack our current moment, a time when African and African diasporic portraiture is prolific and Black artists are consistently expanding the medium. —Alexandra M. Thomas
Buy on Bookshop | Thames & Hudson, March 2023
File Under: Slime by Christopher Michlig
File Under: Slime, Christopher Michlig’s wide-ranging exploration of the viscous material, is much like slime itself — “enthralling and boundaryless,” as he writes — oozing into the spaces between art, film, pop culture, and philosophy. Beginning with the ectoplasmic photography of early-20th-century spiritualist seances, Michlig’s inquiry flows chronologically, encompassing all manner of the formless and abject: artworks by Robert Smithson, Lynda Benglis, and Mike Kelley; sci-fi/horror films The Blob, Ghostbusters, and The Toxic Avenger; Garbage Pail Kids, frozen yogurt, seminal pornographic movie Behind the Green Door, lava lamps, nuclear annihilation, Buster Keaton, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the rapper Young Thug, and Stranger Things. The book’s scholarly approach, incorporating Jean-Paul Sartre, Georges Bataille, Julia Kristeva, Jean Baudrillard, and others, is made accessible through bite-sized chapters, Brian Roettinger’s smart design, and copious illustrations, including spot neon green printing. File Under: Slime makes the convincing argument that rather than the hard, clean, uniformity of “plastics!” — as a family friend of Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate (1967) exclaims — it is slime — ambiguous, unmanageable, transgressive — that best defines our contemporary condition. —Matt Stromberg
Buy on Bookshop | Hat & Beard Press, March 2023
Sophie Calle (Photofile)
In art as in life, our true heroes are those who devote themselves entirely to an idea, risky as it might be. Sophie Calle belongs to that category of people. She will go wherever a project takes her, often forfeiting autonomy and control in the process. She famously shadowed a man from Paris and all the way to Venice, asked her mother to hire a private detective to follow her, worked as a hotel maid to snoop through guests’ belongings, and opened her bed to strangers. She tells us the stories behind these works and others in this precious little book, combined with photographs, personal reflections, and anecdotes. However, I could’ve gone without art historian Clément Chéroux’s overly psychoanalytical introduction to the book, which imposes too much theory on an artist who has mastered the skill of letting go. —Hakim Bishara, Senior Editor
Buy on Bookshop | Thames & Hudson, February 2023
The Cloisters: A Novel by Katy Hays
“Have you read The Cloisters?” the director of a museum leaned over me to whisper to the director of another museum at the tipsy end of a recent art-world dinner. “It’s … not good. But I couldn’t resist it.” Of course I immediately downloaded the novel, the first by Katy Hays, and I agree. The sort of mystery you pick up when you want to read about murder without thinking about death, it should be a beach-read staple on Martha’s Vineyard come this summer — because the murder takes place in The Met Cloisters (specifically, in the library). Most of the characters are curators; the ingénue is an intern; the hunky love interest is the gardener. According to the bio in the book, Hays “holds an MA in art history from Williams College and pursued her PhD at UC Berkeley.” Some of the insider details seemingly pulled from this experience are hysterically spot-on, like a moment of light BDSM play involving the heroine being squeezed into compact shelving. But I was puzzled by other inaccuracies. Interns with swipe cards that grant them unsupervised access to collections storage? An academic article that comes out three months after it was submitted and “received wide-spear acclaim and generous reviews”? After an email exchange with Hays’s publicist, I understood. Hays is a pen name; the author began but abandoned a PhD. The truest thing about the book is thus its tone: the half-admiring, half-horrified vision of someone who started to enter into the strange world of museums and then thought better of it. Those of us still trapped in here will either enjoy Hays’s depiction of the allure of museum life or root for the murderer to keep picking off scholars. —Erin L. Thompson
Buy on Bookshop | Atria Books, November 2022
Lucio Fontana: Sculpture
How much do we really know about there early working life of Lucio Fontana, the Italian artist who is widely known as the maker of the “slash” paintings? As with sculptor Barry Flanagan, that fabricator of a thousand and one or more frisky hares, Fontana has been too readily pigeon-holed. Now the record has been set straight with the publication of Lucio Fontana: Sculpture. The sculptural works that pre-date the coming of the slashman are truly remarkable, rapidly improvised free-form fabrications, often made by hand in clay, which possess an extraordinary visceral power and energy, wrenching and kneading human forms into quasi-mythical beings, or creating abstract shapes which possess the weird forcefulness of elemental explosions. —Michael Glover
Buy on Bookshop | Hauser & Wirth Publishers, November 2022
I Paint What I Want to See by Philip Guston
In 2020, amid the heights of the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter movement, a major touring Philip Guston show was delayed. Born in Canada into a Jewish immigrant family, Guston addressed social and political issues via large-scale, faux naïve characters and symbols. Of these, the unmistakable hooded Ku Klux Klan figures, though clearly satirical, were deemed too risky to show given the political climate at the time.
Today, instances of racist police brutality remain as real and constant as ever. How can we best equip ourselves to appreciate Guston’s work in light of continuing race-based violence? Those visiting the rescheduled show at Tate Modern this coming October will do well to read I Paint What I Want to See, a collection of his writings, talks, and interviews. His words reveal the thinking behind his practical methods, like scraping and reapplying paint repeatedly and working on a single piece for several days without sleep, hypersensitive to the power of the image and the burden of the artist to communicate essential truth: “The canvas is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury and judge.” Guston’s words do not explicitly explain how his figures satirize racism. They instead offer the mindset behind his process as a contextual gateway to interpret his distinct visual style and the messages within. —Olivia McEwan
Buy on Bookshop | Penguin Group, September 2022
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The Tarot of Leonora Carrington by Susan Aberth and Tere Arcq
In this critical and soaring second edition of The Tarot of Leonora Carrington, scholars Susan Aberth and Tere Arcq bring out the occult and tarotic influences in the work of famed Surrealist Leonora Carrington. We learn about her mystical practice, informed by both Western occult traditions and Mesoamerican spirituality from her adopted home of Mexico, and the way tarot symbologies and meanings come through in her paintings, writing, and theater. Printed in a beautiful hardcover book at 9.45 by 11.81 inches, this new edition allows the gorgeous images to breathe, with a deep dive on Carrington’s deck of the Major Arcana, or the 22 archetypal forces in tarot. A short essay accompanies each card, and the book is available in both English and Spanish. While Carrington has received increased attention in recent years, this book examines her work explicitly through the lens of the tarot, making it essential reading for students of both Surrealism and divination alike. —AX Mina
Available at local independent bookshops | Fulgur Press, 2021
Remember the Details by Skye Arundhati Thomas
As nationalism in India continues to grow, Skye Arundhati Thomas’s succinct writings on art and image circulation during the 2019 protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens offer crucial lessons worth returning to this summer. From fall 2019 into the following year, demonstrations erupted across the country and the diaspora against the two pieces of legislation aimed at stripping Muslim people of citizenship, further solidifying Islamophobic, casteist rhetoric. Arundhati Thomas revisits the photos and videos of core events and figures that spread rapidly across social media, where they took on a life of their own. Among the Hindu right, fake videos of student leader Umar Khalid reinforced Islamophobic animosity, while companies like Facebook failed to take action as their platforms fueled communal violence, and footage of police brutalizing student protesters, especially women and girls, went viral.
In equal measure, the author writes of the art, images, and symbols that sustained the resistance movement. Drawings and paintings overflowed at Shaheen Bagh, where Muslim women led a 101-day sit-in; a steel sculpture in the shape of India with a slogan rejecting the laws was shared widely; and indelible photographs captured activist Chandrashekhar Azad holding up a copy of the Indian constitution bearing the likeness of one of its writers, the late Dalit thinker B. R. Ambedkar. This narration of protests on the ground linked to topics from Indian architectural history to public memory formation in a few compact chapters makes for a brief but impactful read. —LA
Buy on Bookshop | Floating Opera Press, November 2021
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Nobody remembers anything anymore. This contemporary condition may be why Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police feels so relatable, despite the nearly 30 years since its publication. In the novel, residents on an unnamed island experience the continual loss of objects, memories, and eventually even emotions and body parts. Most inhabitants only notice these changes briefly before they forget and adjust to the absences, and the Memory Police scour the island for residents who retain their memories. Nobody knows what happens to citizens inside the detention centers, but no one returns alive.
Translated into English in 2019, Ogawa’s dystopian novel uses art as a vessel for memory and resistance. The protagonist, a young novelist, squirrels away the sculptures her mother made, only to discover later that they were containers for disappeared objects. When residents forget the items and phenomena that disappear — birds, roses, the seasons — they also lose the concepts and emotions they conjure within them; freedom, love, and change.
The Memory Police speaks to our innate ability to adapt. No matter how much the residents lose, they find ways to survive, though it comes at a cost. As the novel reaches its conclusion, survivors no longer recognize emotions like fear or despair. Art becomes their last means of resistance, offering the protagonist a means of fighting against a life tethered exclusively to the present and enduring beyond an inevitable end. —Paddy Johnson
Buy on Bookshop | Pantheon, August 2019