Art books are forever, but the past decade brought forth what very well might have been more than ever before. What follows is a survey of the best art books published from 2010 to 2019, ranked in order of importance. They run the gamut from fiction to photo-books, and some have altered art history along the way.
(For more best-of-the-decade coverage, see the ARTnews editors’ list of the most important artworks and some personal favorites from the past 10 years.)
26. Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil by William Middleton (Random House, 2018)
William Middleton’s essential biography of two of the most important art collectors of all time is a formidably detailed account, with extended digressions about the family activities of Dominique and John de Menil and the Houston art scene of the mid-20th century spanning more than 700 pages. Middleton was able to dig up surprising tales about the de Menils: Did you know, for example, that John, a Frenchman to the bone, first tasted barbecue in 1938 and called it “très sympathique”? And the book offers valuable insights into how personal histories informed the couple’s forward-thinking collecting of work by the most meaningful Abstract Expressionist and Pop artists of their time.
25. Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology edited by Jennifer A. González, C. Ondine Chavoya, Chon Noriega, Terezita Romo (Duke University Press, 2019)
One of many efforts in recent years to create a fuller picture of art history, this anthology is the first of its kind: a collection devoted to a range of Chicanx artists—from Amalia Mesa-Bains to Carlos Almaraz—who have long been kept out of displays at American museums and are now slowly making their way into the spotlight. Though focused on particular identities, the book broaches larger questions that have pervaded debates about representation overall. In her introduction, Jennifer A. González writes, “How will marginalized populations respond creatively to ongoing, systematic economic and racial injustice?”
24. The Notion of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier (Aperture, 2014)
LaToya Ruby Frazier is among the best photographers working today, and her first photo-book offered an intense preview of what has happened since. Centuries-long histories of racism and economic oppression are made personal through Frazier’s stark black-and-white images of her family, and her approach has informed the way a host of young Black photographers are taking pictures now.
23. The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011)
Why are we so obsessed with art that involves violence and power imbalances? Maggie Nelson mulls that question in this lushly written and occasionally shocking book of essays. Among their subjects: a Nao Bustamante performance involving white audience members being made to eat a burrito from the artist’s crotch, Kara Walker works about the horrors of slavery, Chris Burden’s various forms of self-immolation, and a whole lot more.
22. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2015)
Valeria Luiselli’s second novel, translated into English by Christina MacSweeney, began as part of a catalogue for a show at the Museo Jumex in Mexico City and evolved into a wonderfully weird book that tells the story of an auctioneer who peddles teeth purportedly from the mouths of famous people. Later on, there are meditations on an artwork by Ugo Rondinone at an institution founded by Jumex juice magnate Eugenio López Alonso. Written in collaboration with workers at the juice factory, the book explores the bizarre and idiosyncratic process of assigning market value—different from historical value, as Luiselli tells it—to art.
21. The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2010)
Tender, precious, and voraciously readable, Edmund de Waal’s book is something of an experimental memoir—a family history seen through a collection of netsuke, a form of Japanese ceramics dating back to the 17th century. The author’s account of works of the sort—which pass through generations of his family and occasionally end up in the hands of people who are unrelated, including the Nazis—explores how art can be such an integral experience for some that it might as well be encoded in their DNA.
20. Before Pictures by Douglas Crimp (Dancing Foxes Press, 2016)
What makes critics significant—the art they cover or the people whose company they keep? For Douglas Crimp, the lodestar of postmodern art theory who died in 2019, the answer was “both.” In his obscenely entertaining and sometimes salacious memoir—you can’t forget the part about his brief romantic liaison with Ellsworth Kelly—Crimp recounts his early years as a writer, stopping along the way to meditate on some of his favorites from the New York art scene’s collection of queer watering holes.
19. Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility edited by Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton (New Museum and the MIT Press, 2017)
Trap Door is an essential tome that focuses loosely on work by trans-identified artists and the paradoxes inherent within it. The book is “resistant to the canonization of trans art,” as its editors note in an introduction, and the writings and interviews included in an expansive anthology—showcasing figures such as Chris E. Vargas, Geo Wyeth, Wu Tsang, Park McArthur, and Constantina Zavitsanos—provide valuable ways of redefining what a canon might entail.
18. Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012)
A painstaking work of research, Cynthia Carr’s biography of David Wojnarowicz is the definitive account of an artist who was a cornerstone of the 1980s New York art world. One of the best artist biographies of the decade, it offers penetrating insights into Wojnarowicz’s rough upbringing, which later spurred on his rage against a world that refused to acknowledge the crisis of AIDS.
17. Among Others: Blackness at MoMA edited by Darby English and Charlotte Barat (Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
As museums across the world reevaluate their histories while acknowledging past instances of racism and sexism, Among Others, an anthology about the Museum of Modern Art’s maligned ways of dealing with blackness over the decades, serves as a critical tome. It takes to task the very premise that the institution is built on—that Europeans and Americans are somehow exceptional while everything else is secondary. As its editors write, “In what conception of ‘importance’ do only white men—and the odd woman or black person—get to be MoMA-great?”
16. Black and Blur by Fred Moten (Duke University Press, 2017)
The first entry in Fred Moten’s influential trilogy “consent not to be a single being” is a formidable series of essays that explicate and complicate ideas about black identity. Interwoven are rigorous, poetic meditations on the work of artists likes Jimmie Durham, Benjamin Patterson, Wu Tsang, and others who work in service of the “disruption of ethnography, art, history, and what is not in between,” as Moten writes in the book’s complex first chapter—a mind-blowingly brilliant must-read on its own.