If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, we may receive an affiliate commission.
With the pandemic hard upon us, what better time to settle in with a few of those art books you’ve always meant to read but never quite got to? Below, the editors of Art in America suggest a mix of their personal favorites. The recommendations, some old and some new, range from scholarly classics to provocative critical studies to essential catalogues to of-the-moment reflections on topics such as social justice, the psychology of color, and disability and art. (Price and availability current at time of publication.)
Maria H. Loh, Titian’s Touch: Art, Magic and Philosophy (Reaktion Books, 2019)
This critical study of the Venetian Renaissance master by A.i.A. contributor Maria H. Loh exemplifies contemporary art historical methodologies by offering a close study of Titian’s work and a detailed introduction to his intellectual and cultural world.
Purchase: Titian’s Touch $20.48 (new) on Amazon
Maura Reilly, ed., Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader (Thames & Hudson, 2015)
A towering intellectual, sharp critic, and frequent contributor to A.i.A. and ARTnews, Linda Nochlin produced myriad trenchant writings, generously sampled in this volume, that collectively define the field of feminist art history.
Purchase: Women Artists $22.07 (new) on Amazon
Mike Kelley, Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism (John C. Welchman, ed., MIT Press, 2002)
Known for artworks that probe the dark undercurrents of American culture, Mike Kelley was also an astute critic whose collected writings—idiosyncratic yet lucid—introduce major developments in late 20th-century art.
Purchase: Foul Perfection $34.95 (new) on Amazon
Barbara Haskell et al., Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2020)
The catalog for one of the most influential exhibitions of 2020, organized for the Whitney Museum of American Art by a team led by Barbara Haskell, offers a retelling of American art history, revealing the profound influence of politically radical Mexican muralists.
Purchase: Vida Americana $44.95 (new) on Amazon
Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (Yale University Press, 1980)
Michael Baxandall, a leading figure in social art history, combines a connoisseurial attention to craftsmanship with astute analysis of the changing social context of the Northern Renaissance.
Purchase: The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany from $109.99 (new) on Amazon
Craig Owens, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Scott Bryson et al., eds., University of California Press, 1994)
In his influential critical essays, Craig Owens, a former senior editor at Art in America, brought critical theory, psychoanalytical insights, and lessons drawn from AIDS activism to bear on the art of his time. This collection includes influential texts on Robert Smithson, Dara Birnbaum, Sherrie Levine, Jenny Holzer, and many more.
Purchase: Beyond Recognition $34.15 (new) on Amazon
Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture (Yale University Press, 1996)
Eminent art history professor Thomas Crow explores the intimate, continuous relationship between advanced art and mass culture, parsing examples that range from the Impressionists to experimental artists of the 1990s.
Purchase: Modern Art in the Common Culture from $81.66 (new) on Amazon
Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art (four volumes) (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951; multiple subsequent editions)
Schooled in art history, literature, economics, and sociology, the Hungarian-born scholar Arnold Hauser presents a magisterial multivolume overview of the development of Western art, from Paleolithic cave painting through the Renaissance to the age of film, with particular emphasis on the ever changing role of artists vis-à-vis the West’s successive socioeconomic and political structures.
Purchase: The Social History of Art $170.00 (new) on Amazon
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (Phaidon, 1950; multiple subsequent editions)
Laden with honors by fellow specialists, Austrian-born E.H. Gombrich, director of the Warburg Institute and professor of the history of the classical tradition at London University, wrote probably the single most engaging history of Western art we will ever have, largely because he addressed this perceptive, richly informative survey to “the most exacting class of critics”—readers in their teens, who he says are “quick to detect and resent any trace of pretentious jargon or bogus sentiment.”
Purchase: The Story of Art $42.26 (new) on Amazon
Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–89 (Reaktion Books, English trans., 2009)
This landmark study of postwar art in East-Central Europe by the late art historian Piotr Piotrowski, originally published in Polish in 2005, offers a nuanced, comparative overview of experimental art practices in Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany under state socialism, accounting for regional commonalities without flattening the distinct social and political circumstances of each country.
Purchase: In the Shadow of Yalta $30.00 (new) on Amazon
T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (Yale University Press, 1999)
In this melancholic essay collection, T.J. Clark, among the preeminent social historians of art, looks back on the history of modernism from what he describes in the introduction as an archaeological perspective, examining a series of “limit cases”—like Jacques-Louis David’s painting Death of Marat (1793) and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism—in which the relationship between art and politics was pushed in new directions.
Purchase: Farewell to an Idea $40.00 (new) on Amazon
Caroline A. Jones, The Global Work of Art: World’s Fairs, Biennials, and the Aesthetics of Experience (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Caroline A. Jones historicizes the contemporary globetrotting artwork, arguing that today’s international biennials, triennials, and art fairs belong to a much longer lineage of 18th- and 19th-century world’s fairs and colonial exhibitions.
Purchase: The Global Work of Art $65.00 (new) on Amazon
Georgina Kleege, More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art (Oxford University Press, 2018)
This essential read by literary scholar Georgina Kleege, herself blind, details the unique insights that blind audience members bring to visual art and cinema, providing indispensable lessons about both access and disability culture.
Purchase: More than Meets the Eye $33.95 (new) on Amazon
Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)
Informative, inspiring, and impeccably clear, Aimi Hamraie’s fascinating history of disability and design is a foundational text for the growing field that the author terms “critical access studies.”
Purchase: Building Access $30.00 (new) on Amazon
Eula Biss, Having and Being Had (Riverhead Books, 2020)
With her signature moving and relatable prose, Eula Biss wrestles honestly with the everyday contradictions that accompany the effort to be a good person (and a good artist) in a capitalist world.
Purchase: Having and Being Had $19.44 (new) on Amazon
Olivia Laing, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (W.W. Norton, 2020)
In this timely collection of artist profiles, literary criticism, and personal essays, Olivia Laing reminds readers how creativity can be used as a catalyst for change during times of crisis. The author addresses crucial topics such as climate change, the AIDS crisis, and gender in light of scholar Eve Sedgwick’s concept of “reparative reading.”
Purchase: Funny Weather $19.26 (new) on Amazon
Maggie Nelson, Bluets (Wave Books, 2009)
Maggie Nelson reflects on the emotional gravitas of the color blue by weaving together literary, historical, philosophical, and biographical references in a novella whose numbered passages are virtually prose poems.
Purchase: Bluets $14.50 (new) on Amazon