My Favorite Art Books

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   Tyler Green, the eminently informed and informative writer behind the art blog Modern Art Notes, posted his list of the top art books of 2011 on his November 28 blog I was pleased to see that one of Green’s selections is John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury by Debra Bricker Balken, the catalogue for the Marin exhibition that just closed at the Portland Museum of Art and will re-open on January 27 at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury

My nomination for art book of the year would probably be the new 954-page biography of Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Jackson Pollock, but since I’m still wading into it, I’ll reserve judgment. My bookshelves are filled, however, with hundreds of art books from which, with your indulgence, I would like to share a few of my favorites.

Van Gogh: The Life

Be forewarned, I am not a deep intellectual, more of middlebrow, so for the most part my favorite art books tend to be those that speak intelligently to intelligent readers.

The Shock of the New

Still the best survey of modern art that I have found is Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New. Based on the 1979 BBC series, Shock of the New was updated in 2004, but I still rely on my 1980 edition when I want to understand our modernist roots.

This Is Modern Art

For a more recent survey, I’d recommend This Is Modern Art by British artist/author Matthew Collings. His irreverent and idiosyncratic take on contemporary art at the turn of the 21st Century is lively and well-illustrated.

Art In Its Own Terms

Fairfield Porter:Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism, 1935-1975 is not a book about Porter but by Porter. The realist painter of Maine and New York was also one of the best art critics of his day, able to appreciate the advances of abstraction even as he remained resolutely representational. Published in 1979, the year after I started writing about art, Art in Its Own Terms became what I strove for as a critic.

The Sense of Sight

The Sense of Sight by John Berger is just one of the many Berger books I own, but I re-read his essay “The Moment of Cubism” at least once a year. It explains the entire history of art in less than 20 pages.

Lives of the Artists

Calvin Tomkins of the New Yorker is my favorite art writer because he understands that the lives of the artists are inextricable from the meaning of their art. My two Tomkins favorites are Post- To Neo-:The Art world of the 1980s and Lives of the Artists.

The Painted Word

For theoretical approaches to art, I’d skip all the Derrida deconstruction talk and go with more common sense approaches. Has Modernism Failed? by Suzi Gablik argues that “when everything becomes art, art becomes nothing.” Las Vegas philosopher and social critic Dave Hickey argues in his landmark 1997 Air Guitar that he “would like to see some art that is courageously silly and frivolous, than cannot be construed as anything else.” And if you’re real philistine, I suggest The Painter Word in which the foppish Tom Wolfe tries to make the case that most contemporary art is devoid of meaning and requires verbal explanations to prop it up.

Seven Days in the Art World

Sarah Thornton’s 2008 Seven Days in the Art World is the best sociology of contemporary art with chapters devoted to the roles of auctions, art schools, art fairs, criticism, studio visits, and the Venice Biennale in the post-modern landscape.

   And Don Thompson’s 2008 The $12 Million Stuffed Shark (the title reference is to an art work by Damien Hirst) attempts to explain the economics of contemporary art, how works of art acquire their prices if not their value.

   Coming soon: my favorite artist biographies and novels of all times. Happy reading.


  • Cool list. I particularly like Tomkins’s book “Off the Wall” for its intimate history of the rise of the New York School, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop. The key thing I learned from the book was how obscure Marcel Duchamp was even into the 1960s. And that the Marcel Duchamp we think of as the starting point for so much art today is a result not so much of his early career, with those iconic “Readymades,” but of conversations he had with art folks in New York at midcentury. His inspiration was transmitted orally, through ideas, rather than the direct experience of his works. And it happened mainly in New York, plus some in L.A., which is why his influence is so much more evident in American art than on French.

    I’ve enjoyed Porter. Fascinated with him and his fellow writers at ArtNews then. Fascinated too by the early writings of Clement Greenberg and Christopher Knight, when their respective cities of New York and Los Angeles were still in the process of becoming major art centers, and they helped people see it and helped shape it by championing great local talent as well as giving tough love. Their work helps me think about how a critic can identify and then help foster a great art making community.

    And I’m fascinated with regional reports–which all the above are in the end. For example, a book I’ve turned to to help me understand where the Maine art scene is coming from is Edgar Allen Beem’s own 1990 book “Maine Art Now.” I should note that I’m no stranger to Ed personally, but, despite my bias, his intimate profiles of Maine artists in the first part of the book remain some of the best writing on those folks.


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