UPDATED OCTOBER 13, 2021 1:30 PM
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Ars longa, vita brevis, the old saying goes, though it’s worth noting that a principal tool for disseminating our knowledge of art—the exhibition—is as transitory as life itself. Shows open, then close, and even major traveling surveys are usually around for only a year or so. If you aren’t a globe-trotting art professional, or you somehow missed an important exhibition even though it was just down the street, you can still see a show through its catalog. Like the best exhibitions, the best exhibition catalogs are works of scholarship often years, even decades, in the making. Many of them, in fact, offer a deeper reading of the subject at hand than the original show and deserve a place on any bookshelf devoted to art history and critical theory. Here are our recommendations for best exhibition catalogs of the past 10 years. (Price and availability current at time of publication.)
“Women of Abstract Expressionism”
Excessive drinking, womanizing, and brawling were among the diversions associated with the Abstract Expressionists, a group heavy on the XY chromosome. Surprisingly, though, the movement encompassed a number of women artists who’ve only recently received their full due in exhibitions like “Women of Abstract Expressionism.” Organized by the Denver Art Museum, this 2016 show revivified the careers of 12 female painters associated with AbEx on both coasts, including Jay DeFeo, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner. and Joan Mitchell. As edited by Joan Marter, the lavishly illustrated catalog for the show expands the roster even further by featuring biographies of more than 40 artists in all. With texts that include an interview with noted New York School chronicler Irving Sandler, the book, like the exhibition itself, offers a refreshing revisionist update of the crucial chapter in postwar history that made the United States the uncontested art capital of the world.
Purchase: “Women of Abstract Expressionism” $53.99 (new) on Amazon
“Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World”
One sure metric of superpower status is the extent to which a particular country manages to project its cultural influence—especially the degree to which its artists wind up commanding the global stage. Since 1989 that nation has been China, which became the planet’s second-largest economy after the Tiananmen Square massacre of that year. It’s no wonder, then, that the Guggenheim made 1989 the starting point for its 2017 survey of Chinese contemporary art—the largest of its type ever mounted in North America—which fielded 70 artists (both well known and not so well known) contributing 150 artworks. The equally hefty, 324-page catalog delves further into this transformational period in Chinese art and history, one sparked by the ruling Communist Party’s marriage of Western-style capitalism and authoritarian rule—a development that, not so ironically, perhaps, made new art from China the house favorite of 21st-century neoliberalism.
Purchase: “Art and China After 1989” $71.30 (new) on Amazon
“Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968”
Like the rest of mid-century society and culture, Pop Art was dominated by men, though it did count a goodly number of women artists among its ranks. Not coincidently, they were largely overlooked until recently, when exhibitions like the Brooklyn Museum’s 2010–2011 show “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968” began to rescue their careers from obscurity. Both the show and its catalog made the case that the work of female Pop artists differed significantly from that of their male peers: Instead of elevating Hollywood, advertising, and comics books to the realm of high art as Warhol and others did, artists such as Rosalyn Drexler, Marisol, Marjorie Strider, and Niki de Saint Phalle focused on the ways in which popular imagery fashioned women as both objects and consumers, foreshadowing the work of contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman and Sarah Charlesworth.
Purchase: “Seductive Subversion” from $126.07 (used) on Amazon
“Pacific Standard Time: Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980”
Part of Pacific Standard Time—a sweeping 2011 exhibition initiative undertaken by 60 SoCal institutions to trace the history of Los Angeles’s then burgeoning art scene—“Now Dig This” at the Hammer Museum in L.A. took a deep dive into the city’s African-American artist community during the 1960s and ’70s. Among the group were art stars like David Hammons and Betye Saar, as well as less familiar figures such as Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge. While they engaged different trends and ideas, these artists formed a network of mutual support and shared the vicissitudes of Black identity during a turbulent period bounded by civil rights activism, the Black power movement, and urban unrest. The catalog, authored by Kellie Jones with additional essays by five contributors, delves further into this critical chapter in L.A.’s history, which helped to fuel the city’s rise as a major art center.
Purchase: “Now Dig This!” from $400.00 (used) on Amazon
“Outliers and American Vanguard Art”
By now, the distinction between insider and outsider artists has become moot, as the latter draw the attention of curators, gallerists, and MFA grads looking for inspiration. Indeed, the word outsider has been increasingly deemed wanting—which is why curator Lynne Cooke used the term outlier for the title of this 2018 survey and its catalog. The show, which opened at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., featured 250 artworks by 80 trained and untrained artists, juxtaposing their contributions in themed groupings. (One installation, for example, hung a Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still near a photo-booth self-portrait by the quasi-homeless Chicago street artist Lee Godie.) Focusing on junctures in American art history when the mainstream art world took particular notice of folk and self-taught makers, the show and its catalog present the work of these outliers as a kind of avant-garde pitched against the academic orthodoxies of 21st-century art.
Purchase: “Outliers” $65.00 (new) on Amazon
“Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon”
A noun as well as a verb, trigger denotes a dynamic at once active and reactive. And no issue in recent memory has embodied both meanings better than the culture war surrounding the definition of sexuality and gender—which is why the New Museum’s 2017 exhibition on the subject used the word as its organizing principle. Featuring some 40 artists employing a wide variety of media, “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” explored the concept of gender beyond male and female, arguing that each is a construct, a silo into which individuals are slotted by society. In addition to documenting the exhibition, this catalog addresses its main problem: Much of the critical reaction to the show described its installation as confusing—a disadvantage that becomes irrelevant in book form.
Purchase: “Trigger” $72.92 (used) on Amazon
“Art Post Internet”
During the 19th and 20th centuries, vanguard artists wrestled with the profound transformative effect of the Industrial Revolution as it unleashed the power of mass production, mass media, and mass consumption. Today the 800-pound gorilla confronting artists is digital, an arguably more disruptive phenomenon thanks to the near-instantaneous dissemination of their work. How, then, does art respond to the turmoil of the information age? When this exhibition opened at the UCCA Beijing in 2016, it didn’t exactly provide answers, which remain more out of reach today than ever, thanks to the post-truth discourse of myriad chat rooms. Still, the contributors to the show—Cory Arcangel, Bunny Rogers and Jordan Wolfson among them—offered provocative suggestions for dealing with our oversaturated environment of memes, misinformation, and mishegas. Befitting a show about the internet’s impact on culture, the catalog isn’t an analog book but rather a downloadable PDF file, confirming that for all of its creative destruction, the online world is an ephemeral one.
Download a free PDF of “Art Post Internet” here