Best Art Books of 2021

In a lockdown year, with travel reduced, there was no movable feast quite like an art book. Art is made by all sorts of people, everywhere, all the time, along many different paths, some of which are illuminated by these intriguing publications chosen by our critics.

The maverick American artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995), who managed to be nowhere and everywhere in the art world through his invention of Mail Art, was lucky in his longtime friend William S. Wilson, to whom, over 60 years, he gave thousands of letters, collages, drawings and clippings. Wilson saved every last scrap, and a jampacked sampling of them makes up this gold mine of a book, edited and curated by Caitlin Haskell with Jordan Carter. Funny, biting, morbid, it’s a page-turner for sure, and accompanies a show at the Art Institute of Chicago through March 22). (Art Institute of Chicago, distributed by Yale University Press)

Edited by the curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, this catalog for one of the outstanding exhibitions of the season — originating at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, it’s now in Houston — proposes that the culture of the African American South, as defined by music and vernacular art, is the bedrock of American culture itself, with a strong influence on new art today. The book vividly illustrates and deepens the show’s powerful argument. (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, distributed by Duke University Press)

This book lovingly excavates the career of a Greek modernist painter who designed sets for Maria Callas and kept a Greek Classical figurative tradition alive in paintings of homoerotic nudes. Tsarouchis (1910-1989) was both too radical and too conservative for the art world of his time and fell into oblivion outside of Greece. Edited by Niki Gripari and Adam Szymczyk (and including a selection of the artist’s writings), this tender tribute brings him back. (Sternberg Press)

The London exhibition by this name reunited six major mythological paintings that Titian produced for the Spanish court. One of them, “The Rape of Europa,” belongs to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where the show, now called“Titian: Women, Myth & Power,” is making its final stop (through Jan. 2). A slender Gardner-issued publication devoted to that picture is an indispensable companion volume to the handsome London catalog. (National Gallery, London; published by Yale University Press)

Edited by Christine Macel and Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska and produced for a major show at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, this book documents the contributions of more than 100 female painters, sculptors, photographers and performers to the history of modernist abstraction and, by including artists from Asia and South America, demonstrates that abstraction itself has always been a global phenomenon. That many worthy figures aren’t included only makes the case for a continuing corrective art history stronger. (Thames and Hudson)

Edited by Howie Chen, this compendium brings together archival documents related to the formation, in New York City in 1990, of Godzilla, a collective of artists and curators intent on pointing out the exclusion of Asian American artists from the contemporary art world and pushing for their presence in that world. The book includes protest letters, news releases, and the minutes of group meetings. The result is a how-to in advocacy politics, a study in the complexities of identity politics, and a chorale of treasurable voices. (Primary Information)

Following the Guggenheim’s 2018 reveal of the mystical abstractions of Hilma af Klint, the Museum of Modern Art, Kunstmuseum Basel and Tate Modern further expand the mostly male ranks of European modernism to include Sophie Taeuber-Arp, one of its greatest polymaths (and colorists), whose egalitarian view of art and craft proved that abstractions in woven wool can trounce the oil on canvas kind. Edited by Anne Umland and Walburga Krupp. (Museum of Modern Art/Kunstmuseum Basel)

The painting on the cover of this exceedingly large volume recently set an auction record for the artist, but don’t let that spoil it for you. This lavish book, edited by Luis-Martín Lozano, contains many rarely seen paintings bolstered by numerous drawings, extensive photographs from her life and reproductions of related works by other artists. (Taschen)

This catalog, with a leading essay by the curator Katherine Jentleson, accompanies the largest show of the great visionary Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), painter, sculptor, doll-maker, environment-builder and Christian, at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (through Jan. 9). Some of her drawings announce “God is Not Dead,” in bold colorful cursive writing. Rowe is the fourth great American outsider artist to receive a major catalog since 2007, after Martin Ramírez, Bill Traylor and Joseph Yoakum. May the trend continue. (DelMonico Books — D.A.P., New York)

This small cornucopia of a book, edited by Alison M. Gingeras, accompanies the first American exhibition of the formidable Polish artist and activist Erna Rosenstein (1913-2004) at Hauser & Wirth (through Dec. 23). It shows the stunning variety of her work, not just its many shades of Surrealism and biomorphic abstraction, but also its affinities with Fluxus, Nouveau Realism and Art Povera. Her life and work are detailed against the vivid tapestry of postwar Eastern European history — itself an education. (Hauser & Wirth Publications)

Doris Lee (1905-1983) worked simultaneously as a fine and a commercial artist, illustrating “The Rodgers and Hart Songbook,” while exhibiting paintings with the still-extant AAA Galleries in Manhattan. The paintings, which combined Grandma Moses with the textured color fields of Milton Avery cheerfully reflect this duality. This catalog, by Melissa Wolfe, and a traveling show at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa., (through Jan. 9) should begin to end her obscurity. (Westmoreland Museum of Art and Giles Ltd., London)

This year’s unhappy Tokyo Olympics at least leave an architectural legacy: the lean, low-impact New National Stadium, made of the unfinished cedar that Kengo Kuma has made his authorial and ecological signature. This immense architectural tome — spanning three decades, weighing in at 11 pounds — establishes once and for all that sustainability and style need not be set at odds. New photography highlights his serene Nezu Museum and brawny V & A Dundee; temporary experiments in New York and Milan; and a Fukuoka storefront whose 2,000 intersecting cedar struts frame the world’s most elegant Starbucks. (Taschen)

He first declared a bicycle wheel to be a work of art in 1913, but it took nearly half a century — with the 1959 publication of Robert Lebel’s catalogue raisonné of his early painting, his ready-mades and his cryptic notes — for the New York art world to crown the discreet and debonair Duchamp as King Marcel. Long out of print, it’s now been re-editioned and bundled with a supplement that maps the influence of Lebel’s book over the decades, all housed in a handsome slipcase. (Hauser & Wirth Publishers)

Few photobooks have the mythic status of “Chizu” (“The Map”), first published in Tokyo in 1965, for which the Japanese photographer Kikuji Kawada shot worn flags, dented Lucky Strike boxes and the walls of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima as haunted abstractions in blown-out, high-contrast black-and-white. The 1965 edition is a single volume with gatefolds — but a maquette in the New York Public Library shows that Kawada initially conceived “Chizu” as a two-volume project. The N.Y.P.L. curator Joshua Chuang and the historian Miyuki Hinton have overseen this painstaking reproduction, while a new bilingual supplement offers further perspectives on this rarest and most mysterious artistic response to the nightmare of World War II. (Mack)

Statues also die; some get a second life. The year’s most beautiful exhibition, at the Capitoline Museums in Rome, brought to public view the world’s finest privately owned Greek and Roman sculptures — and its catalog, edited by the archaeologists Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri, is as handsome as it is learned. But if it’s Roman grandeur you’re after, get the lush coffee table book “Villa Albani Torlonia,” for which Massimo Listri photographed the aristocratic family’s Neoclassical mansion, its chipped goddesses and rusting heroes standing against acres of trompe l’oeil marble and gold leaf. (Both, Rizzoli)

The Impressionists were gripped by social life at the opera, the cafe, the seaside; the Nabis, two decades later, saw just as much modernity at home. This catalog of an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Portland Art Museum (through Jan. 23) presents the sometimes tender, sometimes stifling domestic imagery of Maurice Denis, Félix Vallotton, Pierre Bonnard and — above all — Édouard Vuillard, whose dense, crosshatched scenes in the boudoir or at the kitchen table captured what one critic called “the daily tragedy and mystery of ordinary existence, and the latent poetry of things.” The curators Mary Weaver Chapin, Heather Lemonedes Brown and other contributors offer insight into domestic music performances, home garden design, and even pet ownership in fin-de-siècle Paris. (Yale University Press)

The seventh continent is not frozen but in constant flux — and changing faster than ever thanks to us. Probe the 1,000 engrossing pages of this landmark publication, edited by Giulia Foscari and UNLESS and inaugurated at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, and you will learn everything you never knew you needed to know about human society on an uninhabited landmass: Antarctic law enforcement, Antarctic communication technology, Antarctic water management. Terra Australis stands here as a nearly utopian built environment, and the book concludes with an indispensable “Archive of Antarctic Architecture,” with site plans and photography of more than a century’s efforts to inhabit the most extreme of environments. (Lars Müller Publishers)

Kara Walker offers an extraordinary tome: some 650 drawings, sketches and texts from her archive since the 1990s. It’s all here — Trump, Obama, the plantation, sexual demand and degradation, all the American phantasmagoria of her famous silhouette works and monumental installations; but also clippings, notecards, dream diaries, the artist wrangling with the fetters of prominence and racial expectations. In an essay, Walker wonders why she kept all this stuff; there must have been “some urge to talk about it later, an urge toward radical openness that any proper and studied artist would prefer to keep in check.” It’s a treasure. (JRP Editions)

This volume showcases 17 photographers from nine countries, graduates of a 2008-18 mentorship program founded by Simon Njami, a respected curator (and co-editor of this book, with Sean O’Toole). A few have become recognized — Sammy Baloji, Lebohang Kganye — while others, like Gosette Lubondo, are emerging just now into the continent’s photo vanguard, with a full spectrum of documentary and conceptual approaches. Here, 13 essays by critics approach the subject by theme — “Knowledge,” “Fiction,” “Desire”— and broaden their discussion to other emerging photographers as well as the archive. It’s a generous approach that proposes African photography as a fertile and expansive field of collective inquiry. (Kerber)

In an exhibition this year at MoMA, Black architects and designers imagined interventions in 10 American cities that would not only make visible but repair the effects of anti-Black planning, policy and spatial violence. It was an important show, if dense and all-too-brief. Fortunately, the catalog (edited by Sean Anderson and Mabel O. Wilson) supplements these propositions with texts by prominent scholars and critics that give the project an open feel and cross-disciplinary weave. In preparing for the exhibition, the architects and designers formed the Black Reconstruction Collective, modeling the self-determination and liberation values they insist are necessary. (MoMA)

Shahzia Sikander is known for disruptions of the Indo-Persian miniature painting tradition, which she expanded compositionally and infused with feminist and political themes. Rich with essays and conversations (edited by Sadia Abbas and Jan Howard), this catalog accompanies an exquisite exhibition on her early career (1987-2003). It follows her training in Pakistan, move to the United States in 1993, and navigation of U.S. social and racial realities; it leaves off in the frenzy of the War on Terror. It proves instructive to re-examine those years through Sikander’s keen grasp and artistic choices. (Distributed for Hirmer Publishers by University of Chicago Press)

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