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’Tis the season, which means it’s time to start racking your brain for gift ideas. But if your list happens to include artists or art lovers, the choice is a no-brainer: Give them a book on art. Whether it’s an artist bio, a critical anthology, or a sumptuously illustrated catalog, it’s bound to be appreciated (unless you’ve seriously misjudged the recipient’s preferences in art—in which case, it’s the thought that counts). And you don’t have to limit yourself to art cognoscenti. There are plenty of art books that anyone can enjoy, and even if it’s never cracked open, there’s always a place for it on the coffee table as a signifier of your friend’s good taste (and of course your own). Needless to say, they are thousands of titles out there. To help you make the right choice, we offer our recommendations for the best gift books on art. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)
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Alex Danchev, Magritte: A Life
When someone describes something as “surreal” or “dreamlike,” chances are good that the images popping into in his or her head have been informed, consciously or not, by the work of René Magritte (1898–1967), a household-name artist who transformed our expectations of what’s real and what isn’t. He did this by creating ambiguity out of the certainty of realism, incongruously juxtaposing figures and items within traditional illusionistic space, morphing textures and objects, and deploying language to decouple imagery from its representational function—most famously in his painting of a pipe above the legend “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Featuring 32 pages of color images and more than 160 black-and-white illustrations, Alex Danchev’s book is the first major biography of the Belgian-born artist, whose façade of bourgeoise propriety concealed a subversive mind-set that produced one of the most recognizable oeuvres in 20th-century art.
Purchase: Magritte: A Life $31.49 on Amazon
Jodi Hauptman et al., Cézanne: Drawing
In all probability, Picasso—and indeed, modernism as we know it—wouldn’t have existed without Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), whose efforts set the table for Cubism and beyond (indeed, both Picasso and Matisse described Cézanne as “the father of us all”). A coeval of the Post-Impressionists, Cézanne departed from their approach of “painting modern life” by emphasizing how a painting was made. His faceted brushwork, and the way it deconstructed the difference between foreground and background, pointed the way to pure abstraction, and his works on paper (both in sketchbook form and on individual sheets) were key to this development. This volume accompanied MoMA’s extensive survey of this aspect of Cézanne’s career (one of the first to examine it), which revealed not only how crucial his watercolor and pencil studies were to his practice, but also how much more modern they appeared than his better-known canvases.
Purchase: Cézanne: Drawing $35.09 on Amazon
Gian Carlo Calza, Contemporary Japanese Posters
By the end of the Second World War, imperial Japan had been totally devastated, its cities razed by American B-29s dropping firebombs and atomic weapons. A mere 20 years later, however, it emerged as a democratic country with a vibrant economy—so much so that in 1964 it hosted the world’s greatest prestige event, the Olympics. Author Gian Carlo Calza uses that moment as the jumping-off point for this look at postwar and contemporary Japanese poster design, which reinterpreted the graphic arts legacy of Ukiyo-e woodblock printing for a new Japan. The book surveys various trends, stylistic shifts, and branding strategies embodied in such items as the logo for fashion powerhouse Issey Miyake as well as posters for the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka and the Pan-Pacific Design Congress (which has taken place in Japan on numerous occasions). The inclusion of 85 designers and 756 posters makes this book the most authoritative volume on its subject.
Purchase: Contemporary Japanese Posters $70.00 on Amazon
Laura Hoptman et al., David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979
David Hammons has spent more than 50 years creating trenchant commentaries on racism—not as identity politics but as a lived experience. His materials—basketball hoops, emptied bottles of cheap booze, hair from the floors of black barbershops—speak to the everyday rhythms and hassles of African American communities dealing with systemic discrimination. This book focuses on a breakthrough period early in Hammons’s career when he was living in Los Angeles. It involved a series of monoprints taken directly from his body or those of others in what was basically a form of performance art, applying baby oil and margarine to his skin before rolling across sheets of paper on the floor. Hammons would dust the sticky residue with powered graphite or pigment, leaving a ghostly image. Anticipating the conversation around the black body, these pieces also pointed the way to his future work.
Purchase: David Hammons: Body Prints $22.14 on Amazon
Glenn Adamson, Craft: An American History
Most people associate craft with the past or something like pricey beer, but for Glenn Adamson, it’s the secret sauce of American history. Long before steel mills belched smoke or Henry Ford cranked out Model Ts, craft, according to Adamson, was central to the country’s economic and social development. Just as important, it was instrumental in, well, crafting the American character, as evidenced by the legend of Betsy Ross sewing the America flag, say, or the countless pussy hats knitted as symbols of protest against Donald Trump. The first English settlers in North America survived thanks to the help and handiwork of Native Americans, and for them as well as for enslaved Africans, craft became the principal expression of cultural agency in the face of white oppression. Adamson concludes by noting that craft remains as relevant to American life as ever, as the emergence of Hobby Lobby and Etsy attests.
Purchase: Craft: An American History $26.99 on Amazon
Winfred Renbert, as told to Erin I. Kelly, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South
This as-told-by account by Winfred Rembert (1945–2021) relates his experience with the daily brutality confronting African Americans in the pre–Civil Rights South. Born in Cuthbert, Georgia, Rembert worked the cotton fields as a child, but his story really begins in nearby Americus where, in 1965, his was chased by shotgun-toting whites after participating in a civil rights march. After stealing a car to make his getaway, he was arrested and jailed. He escaped in 1967 but was recaptured and barely survived a lynching. Released after serving seven years, he moved north, where he became a self-taught artist renowned for brightly colored scenes of African American life under Jim Crow, tooled in leather (a skill picked up in prison). Recalled here in first-person narratives, Rembert’s own struggles during that time are brought vividly back to life.
Purchase: Chasing Me to My Grave $22.14 on Amazon.
Phaidon Editors, African Artists: From 1882 to Now
By now it’s no secret that contemporary art from Africa is one of the hottest commodities on the international art market. Auction houses are mounting exclusive sales of African art, and art fairs in Cape Town, Dakar, Johannesburg, and Lagos have joined the ranks of similar showcases around the globe. This richly illustrated volume serves as a completist guide to modern and contemporary art from Africa, spanning the latter part of the 19th century to the present and featuring 300 artists based or born there. Each profile features a luxuriously reproduced image of a representative piece accompanied by an explanatory text placing it within larger historical and geographical contexts. The examples are drawn from all mediums, including painting, drawing, sculpture, installations, film and video, performance, and textiles. Whether you’re a constant gallery-goer or an occasional one, this hefty, informative tome is a perfect addition to your library or coffee table.
Purchase: African Artists $59.02 on Amazon
Ruba Katrib et al., Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life
Born near Paris to an American mother and an aristocratic French banker ruined by the 1929 Wall Street crash, Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) grew up on Park Avenue in New York City before returning to France as a self-taught artist creating fanciful, Pop Art–adjacent evocations of female empowerment. Associated with the midcentury French Nouveau Réalisme, Saint Phalle gained notoriety with canvases sprayed by shotgun fire that opened pockets of color secreted within. But she’s best remembered for her monumental sculptures—like one of a recumbent female torso with massive legs opened to reveal a vagina-like opening that visitors could walk through. Saint Phalle was one of the few women artists operating on this kind of scale, and her efforts are covered in this survey of her architecture and public art. She funded these projects by selling perfume and jewelry she created, examples of which are also featured here, along with rarely seen studies and photographs that provide a fresh perspective on her boundary-defying career.
Purchase: Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life $30 on Amazon
Laurie Cluitmans et al., On the Necessity of Gardening: An ABC of Art, Botany and Cultivation
Arguably the original form of site-specific art, gardens have played a key role in human civilization from Babylonia to the present day, inspiring the work of artists, writers, poets, and thinkers. As this compilation of illustrated essays reveals, gardens and parks serve as the intermediary between culture and nature, reflecting attitudes toward the landscape as well as the uses and abuses thereof. During the Middle Ages, gardens provided food and herbal medicines but also meditative environments evoking heaven on earth. During the 17th and 18th centuries, they became symbols of power for absolute monarchs like Louis XIV. Beginning in the 19th century, they became instrumental to urban planning, providing public amenities from Central Park and the High Line in New York City to the Tuileries and Promenade Plantée in Paris. As the book’s title argues, gardens are necessary to understanding nature and the part that humans play in it.
Purchase: On the Necessity of Gardening $35.00 on Amazon
Jessica Niebel et al., Hayao Miyazaki
Walt Disney’s only rival as the greatest animator of all time, Hayao Miyazaki has spent more than four decades making incomparable films that combine exquisite artistry with dreamlike story lines that intertwine fantasy, science fiction, and real life. This book, the companion volume to a Miyazaki retrospective mounted for the opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, reproduces hundreds of previously unseen artworks from the archives of Studio Ghibli, the production house cofounded by Miyazaki. Featured are character sketches and background paintings spanning Miyazaki’s early career to signature features such as My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Many of these were rendered by Miyazaki himself, who routinely storyboarded his films in advance. Doing justice to its subject, the book offers a fascinating look into Miyazaki’s creative genius.
Purchase: Hayao Miyazaki $44.95 on Amazon
Kellie Jones and Roxane Gay, Mickalene Thomas
Mickalene Thomas is an African American artist known for what you might call a Foxy Brown aesthetic. She depicts strong Black women with blown-out Afros within interiors apparently ripped from blaxploitation movies or vintage copies of Jet magazine. Add landscapes resembling jumbled jigsaw puzzles that seem to map out some sort of psychological or emotional topography, and it’s easy to see why her work has garnered critical acclaim over the last 20 years. (It doesn’t hurt that she often bedazzles her canvases with attention-getting rhinestones, either.) In their survey of Thomas’s oeuvre, writers Kellie Jones and Roxane Gay lay out the artist’s approach to subverting collectively held notions of beauty, sexuality, and celebrity through the lens of race, gender, and personal empowerment. Featuring insightful texts and rich reproductions of Thomas’s efforts in photography, painting, collage, installation, and film, this volume represents the first-ever monograph on the artist’s career.
Purchase: Mickalene Thomas $118.50 on Amazon
Ai Weiwei, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows
This memoir by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei is both a biography of his father, Ai Qing, a poet and activist who often ran afoul of Chinese authorities, and an account of Ai Weiwei’s own career and political travails. The elder Ai was imprisoned by China’s prerevolutionary regime for subversive activities during the 1930s and also suffered a stint in a labor camp under Mao Zedong in the 1950s. During the Cultural Revolution, the entire Ai family was banished to remote northwestern China. Ai Weiwei, however, didn’t start out as a political agitator. Until being infamously jailed for 81 days in 2011, he’d enjoyed official backing, winning the commission to design the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Before that, he’d lived in New York City from the early 1980s to early ’90s, scraping by as a young artist. These details and more are relayed in this fascinating story of how Ai Weiwei’s father influenced the artist’s path to global prominence.
Purchase: 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows $25.99 on Amazon
David Smith Sculpture: A Catalogue Raisonne, 1932–1965
America’s rise to art superpower in the years just after World War II is best remembered for Abstract Expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. But sculptors played a significant role too, most notably David Smith (1906–1965), whose work has been comprehensively collected for the first time in this three-volume set published by his estate. Like a lot of American artists of his generation, Smith was influenced by Picasso, who almost offhandedly invented a whole new language for sculpture that eschewed traditional methods such as modeling or carving. Instead, in works like Guitar (1914) and Woman in the Garden (1929–30), Picasso constructed three-dimensional forms out of planar elements, a technique Smith took in purely abstract directions. He also placed his pieces outdoors in nature, so that they’d frame and interact with the surrounding landscape. Smith put American sculpture on the map, an achievement presented in its entirety here.
Purchase: David Smith Catalogue Raisonne $500.00 on Amazon
Charlotte Healy et al., Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction
Born in Davos, Switzerland, Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889–1943) wore a multitude of hats as a dancer, photographer, sculptor, abstract artist, illustrator, interior designer, and coeditor of an avant-garde journal titled Plastique. She was also married to the German-French sculptor Jean Arp, and despite her role as principal breadwinner, she was largely overlooked by art historians while her husband’s work was celebrated. In recent years, Taeuber-Arp’s reputation has been restored to its rightful place in the annals of art, as evinced by this richly illustrated catalog accompanying a major survey of her career. Originally a member of the Zurich Dada group, Taeuber-Arp employed a wide range of mediums to create the nearly 400 pieces reproduced here, including painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, textiles, beadwork, stained-glass windows, and even puppetry. Drawing on new research, the book makes the case that Taeuber-Arp was a key player in the development of 20th-century modernism.
Purchase: Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction $56.83 on Amazon
Catherine Hewitt, Art Is a Tyrant: The Unconventional Life of Rosa Bonheur
By the standards of mid-19th-century France, Rosa Bonheur lived unconventionally. As Catherine Hewitt writes in this biography, Bonheur was a rare woman painter in a male-dominated discipline, a lesbian artist who sported men’s trousers and openly cohabitated with two different “wives” over her lifetime. She indulged in male-reserved habits such as smoking and hunting but opined that men were generally stupid. Yet she traversed the highest circles of Parisian society thanks to her skills as an animalier, or limner of animals. Much like her English contemporary Edwin Landseer, she cornered the market for depictions of noble beasts, which in her case were especially well observed because she kept a menagerie of subjects in her atelier (including sheep, horses, and a pair of lion cubs). With the rise of Impressionism, Bonheur’s work fell out of favor and her name sank into obscurity. Hewitt’s book revives Bonheur not just as an artist, but also as a gender-fluid pioneer of feminism.
Purchase: Art Is a Tyrant $31.80 on Amazon
Jayna Brown, Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds
Despite the duress of systemic racism, African Americans have always managed to affirm their existence in the teeth of oppression and to look beyond its deleterious effects. Jayna Brown examines one aspect of this persistent claim to agency by focusing on an eclectic group of African American artists, writers, and intellectuals who proffer utopian visions as both metaphors and alternative modalities for Black existence. Among those whom Brown cites as examples are the preacher, abolitionist, and spiritualist Sojourner Truth; jazz mystics Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane; and science fiction writers Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, both of whom pondered the prospects of a transhuman future free of race. According to Brown, the work of these figures is less an expression of Black empowerment than it is a critique of the standard definition of humanism that routinely elides considerations of the Black body and soul.
Purchase: Black Utopias $25.95 on Amazon