15. Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco, 2010)
“I thought I would be with him when I died, but I was not,” musician Patti Smith writes of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a close friend who died of AIDS-related causes in 1989. The subject of Just Kids is less Mapplethorpe’s provocative pictures and more him as a person—and the way that artists can alter our lives.
14. We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85: A Sourcebook edited by Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley (Brooklyn Museum and Duke University Press, 2017)
This book published during the run of a similarly titled exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum helped bring artists like Howardena Pindell and Emma Amos and curators such as Linda Goode Bryant to the fore. The writings assembled for it chart the rise of a group of pioneering black female artists, and they touch on topics that are now at the top of many minds—diversity in museums, exploitation of art workers, and the long-lasting impact of figures working for decades to change the course of history.
13. Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s by Nancy Princenthal (Thames & Hudson, 2019)
There’s a good argument for why art historian Nancy Princenthal’s magnificent 2015 Agnes Martin biography belongs on this list, but Unspeakable Acts got the nod because it is so deeply in touch with our cultural moment. A rough but necessary look at how women (and men, in very different ways) used art as a means to start talking about rape during the 1970s, it’s a galvanizing work that seems bound to inspire artists for many years to come.
12. South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s by Kellie Jones (Duke University Press, 2017)
Art historian Kellie Jones’s vibrant, thoroughly researched chronicle of the black artists in Los Angeles during the 1960s and ’70s focuses on figures who “willed an African American art community into existence with little traditional art world support.” It’s one of those key art-historical texts that might make you ask yourself why you didn’t know more about its subject matter, and it has been predictive, too, as some of the book’s subjects, including Betye Saar and Charles White, have recently been surveyed in major museum shows.
11. Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 edited by Jennifer Liese (Paper Monument, 2016)
Artist Mike Kelley insisted that there is a difference between artists and critics, but academic Jennifer Liese, the editor of this funky sampler of recent writings by artists, might disagree. Her book attests to the various ways that artists have taken to presenting texts as part of their work, from cryptic digital text animation by Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries (represented in the book solely by way of its URL) to essential activist writings by groups like W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy).
10. Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power by Susan E. Cahan (Duke University Press, 2016)
The result of more than 25 years of research, historian Susan E. Cahan’s account of the Black Power movement and its impact on the American art world during the 1960s and ’70s is vital. A thorough account of protests led by leftist collectives like the Art Workers Coalition and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, the book is also about the category of “black art” itself: how the label could be defined and what meaning it would have for the work of artists to which it has been applied.
9. Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age edited by Achim Hochdoerfer, David Joselit, and Manuela Ammer (Prestel, 2016)
This book (and the show that accompanied it, which first opened at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst in 2016) set out with the broad goal of “revis[ing] the history of painting since 1960.” Shockingly, for a legacy so deeply chronicled, it succeeded. Painting 2.0 effectively resuscitated a medium that had long risked “marginalization,” as art historian David Joselit put it in an interview with ARTnews, and it presaged a wave of figurative painting that would come out of Europe and America in the years since.
8. 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis (Haymarket Books, 2013)
Though debates about money in the art world might strike some as new, Artnet News critic Ben Davis presaged certain conversations of the kind by years. His prescient analysis of how class struggle is inseparable from art-making helped shape the thought lines of the art world as it stands today, and it’s worth reading even if just for a blistering essay that indicts a certain kind of art-world elite for partaking in what he terms “hipster aesthetics.”
7. Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel (Little, Brown and Company, 2018)
It seems impossible that it has taken until the latter part of the 2010s to properly assess the contributions of female Abstract Expressionsists, but here we finally are—thanks in large part to historian Mary Gabriel’s monolithic biography of five major figures from the movement. Gabriel’s mega-tome (more than 900 pages) is a thorough and heartfelt account of the difficulties these artists faced—having to take a backseat to their husbands, dealing with misogynistic dismissals about their work, and so on. It also provides much-needed insight into the changing role of women at a crucial historical moment. (And signs of the book’s endurance are already here: Amazon is soon turning it into a television series.)
6. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship by Claire Bishop (Verso, 2012)
Art historian Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells effectively defined a kind of art-making by crystallizing something that many had felt was in the air. Relying on the term “participatory art,” Bishop pondered work that made prominent use of audience participation, often to activist ends. But the book’s most radical gesture is a symbolic one: treating such artworks, which often took the form of a conversation or a confrontation and eluded critics trained to look mainly at painting and sculpture, as artworks in their own right.
5. Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts by Aruna D’Souza (Badlands Unlimited, 2018)
The timeliness of Whitewalling, a short but high-impact tome about three botched presentations of artworks that were deemed racist during their time, was startling, given the protests and public scrutiny at play in the art world when it came out. But more worth dwelling on is the way that critic and art historian Aruna D’Souza goes about telling these histories. She starts with the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket painting in the 2017 Whitney Biennial and works backward, showing how today’s roilings have lots in common—too much, one might say—with those from yesteryear. Whether anything has changed over the past several decades is a question D’Souza leaves pointedly open.
4. Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century edited by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter (The MIT Press and New Museum, 2015)
The closest thing to a movement that emerged this decade was a new kind of digital art—one that was termed “post-internet” by some for the way it moved the slick aesthetics of the web into the world at large. Mass Effect has become the go-to critical companion to this style and work made by the artists whose pioneering pieces inspired it. An anthology featuring writings by Mark Leckey, Karen Archey, Paul Slocum, and many more, it charts a history of art after the internet that helped make possible a number of survey shows about the subject that soon followed its release.
3. Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965 by Okwui Enwezor, Katy Siegel, and Ulrich Wilmes (Prestel, 2017)
Sometimes an exhibition catalogue is more than just an exhibition catalogue—and Postwar is one of those. Made to accompany a show of the same name at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the anthology radically upended everything we thought we knew about postwar art, doing away with Eurocentrism in favor of more international scope, with a focus on marginalized artists like Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Avinash Chandra. The show was one of the defining works of curator Okwui Enwezor’s amazing career (before he died earlier this year), and the book stands as a memorial to his impact and his genuine belief in a globalist version of art history.
2. The Wretched of the Screen by Hito Steyerl (Sternberg Press and E-Flux, 2013)
Artist Hito Steyerl, who is also responsible for a video that ranked on the ARTnews list of the most important works of the decade, has written several era-defining essays, and a few of her most influential ones appeared in this slim volume. Like her video installations, Steyerl’s essays thread together unlike topics—class struggle, image circulation, obscure historical happenings—and lyrically mine them for the often-unseen connective tissue that binds them all together. Included is Steyerl’s best essay to date: “In Defense of the Poor Image,” in which she incisively goes to bat for stealing low-quality images from the internet as a way of subverting power structures.
1. 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics by Andrea Fraser (Westreich Wagner Publications, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, and the MIT Press, 2018)
Where would we be without Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics? This book has become a touchstone at a time when activists are calling out board members for their political leanings. Fair criticisms have been levied against it—a volume consisting solely of listed contributions made by museum trustees to U.S. Presidential election campaigns shouldn’t cost $125, for one. (And most of the information is available for free online, anyway.) But seeing it all collected neatly in one tome is powerful—as a cool-headed study, an intelligent research-based artwork, and a clarion call for change all in one.