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For centuries, art history was almost exclusively the domain of white men. Artists of color were largely excised from the record, and those who were acknowledged were relegated to a secondary role within the art-historical narrative. Once New York became the world center for art production in the middle of the 20th century, the number of African American artists who were working there made the lack of attention even more glaring.
Thanks to the civil rights movement, in the 1970s the art world began hearing demands for greater recognition of African Americans, and by the ’90s these demands had become increasingly difficult to ignore. In the 21st century, Black artists have at last begun to gain equal footing with their white counterparts, as the number of recent monographs on African American painters makes clear. Here are eight books on African American painters working today that deserve a place on your bookshelf.
1. Connie H. Choi and Eugenie Tsai, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic
Thanks to his presidential portrait of Barack Obama, Kehinde Wiley has become one of America’s most widely recognized artists. He exploded onto the art scene at the turn of the millennium, a recent MFA grad from Yale determined to challenge conventional art history as an exclusively white domain. To that end, he appropriates the triumphal style of history painting, boldly reworking compositions by Titian, Van Dyck, David, and Manet, among others. But instead of depicting military victories, heads of state, or allegorical scenes, Wiley fills his canvases with portrayals of young Black men in contemporary street wear such as puffy jackets, sneakers, hoodies, and baseball caps. To emphasize their swagger, he poses them against intricately patterned floral backdrops to eye-popping effect. Featuring a wide selection of images reproducing Wiley’s work, this catalog accompanied the artist’s 2015 midcareer survey at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which, along with paintings, included his forays into sculpture.
Purchase: Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic $42.29 (new) on Amazon
2. Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari, eds., Faith Ringgold: American People
Published as part of the New Museum’s exhibition of the same name, American People covers Faith Ringgold’s 60-year (and counting) career as a painter, mixed-media sculptor, performance artist, author, activist, and educator. Ringgold was a pioneer of intersectionality, battling racism and sexism in the art world by helping to organize protests demanding more inclusivity in museum collections and exhibitions. In her own art, she borrows craft traditions from Africa and Tibet to fashion a kind of narrative art that is accessible and grounded in feeling even as it unpacks inconvenient truths. Her best-known work is her series of Story Quilts, which cover a wide range of subjects both political and personal, from the depredation of Black neighborhoods to women’s body issues. Though her style can appear folksy or naive, Ringgold’s works are rich with art-historical references, and Picasso has had a particular influence. In addition to scores of illustrations, the book includes essays by noted writers such as Lucy Lippard and Amiri Baraka.
Purchase: Faith Ringgold: American People $59.99 (new) on Amazon
3. Ian Alteveer et al., Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
Kerry James Marshall is one of the most important artists of our time, a painter of rare intelligence and clarity who takes a profoundly humanistic approach to exploring the matter of Black lives in both American and art history. His approach could be called radically conservative in that it references figurative art from the Renaissance to the 20th century while turning its Caucasian character on its head by depicting African American experience past and present. Marshall, in other words, breaks the rules by adhering to them, giving his work the richness of tradition while subverting it. This hefty volume was published in conjunction with Marshall’s 2016 retrospective organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It covers some 100 paintings, many of them monumental in scale, grouped in categories such as domestic interiors, portraits, landscapes, and meditations on Black nationalism.
Purchase: Kerry James Marshall: Mastry $45.26 (new) on Amazon
4. Matthew Jeffrey Abrams, Stanley Whitney
Underappreciated until late in his career, Stanley Whitney is an abstractionist noted for straddling the line separating gesture from geometry. Dividing his time between New York and Italy, Whitney specializes in vividly hued blocks arranged into luxuriant grids softened by the artist’s hand. Born 1946 in Philadelphia, he came to New York City in 1968 and began to delve into abstraction with the encouragement of the artist Philip Guston. His influences were many, from the dynamics of Abstract Expressionism to the chromatic intensity of Color Field painting to the formal rigors of Minimalism, all of which he deftly combined into his own unique style. This book, released in 2020, represents the first monograph written about Whitney, and in it author Matthew Jeffrey Abrams delivers a chronological account of the artist’s background and career. With 100 color illustrations, the book affirms Whitney’s status as one of the most significant abstract painters of the last 50 years.
Purchase: Stanley Whitney $41.99 (new) on Amazon
5. Erin Christovale, Amy Sherald
Much as Kehinde Wiley did with his portrait of President Obama, Amy Sherald shot to fame after painting the likeness of First Lady Michelle Obama—which, like the president’s, had been officially commissioned for National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Sherald’s other sitters are everyday African Americans she spots on the street before asking them to pose. Her style of figuration is sober, flattened, and her oft-monumental canvases present their subjects within a shallow space, frontally situated against a flat, monochromatic field—though more recently she’s opened up her backdrops to include scenes that speak to the lives of the people she depicts. Though Sherald expertly employs color, she renders skin tones in grisaille as a way of de-emphasizing the issue of race in her work. This monograph, the first on Sherald, was published in conjunction with the artist’s 2018 exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Purchase: Amy Sherald from $250.00 (used) on Amazon
6. Charles Gaines et al., Henry Taylor
This substantial coffee table compendium from Rizzoli was published in 2018 as the first monograph on Henry Taylor, a renowned painter whose surrealistic/expressionistic figuration balances knowing sophistication with spontaneous naiveté to create indelible portraits and ensemble scenes. The former range from depictions of relatives to patients from the mental hospital where Taylor worked for 10 years to sports heroes to historical figures. The ensembles, meanwhile, chronicle the conditions of Black existence in America, touching on subjects that include police brutality and the deleterious legacy of segregation as well as everyday moments from life such as backyard barbecues, family gatherings, and visits to the barbershop. The book presents a comprehensive survey of Taylor’s career over 30 years and features 200 examples of his work along with essays by notable authors like Zadie Smith. Together they reveal Taylor’s uniquely poignant take on the complex state of race today.
Purchase: Henry Taylor Limited availability on Amazon
7. Dawoud Bey et al., Jordan Casteel: Within Reach
One of today’s hottest young painters, Jordan Casteel landed her first museum survey a mere six years after receiving an MFA from Yale. This catalog for the show, mounted at the New Museum in 2020, features 40 large-scale paintings in an oversize format that lends itself well to showcasing Casteel’s approach to portraiture, the genre for which she’s best known. The key to her success is the blunt earnestness she brings to bear on both subject and style, particularly in the way she imbues her sitters—who range from street vendors to personal acquaintances—with a pronounced sense of presence, whether they are posing in private or in public. Intimacy and monumentality collide in her compositions, whose considerable scale focuses attention on details like hand positions and facial expressions. This book covers works such as her Visible Man series of male nudes and her renderings of people on the subway.
Purchase: Jordan Casteel: Within Reach from $320.00 (used) on Abebooks
8. Marshall N. Price, Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush
This volume was published in concert with Nina Chanel Abney’s first museum show in 2017, which was jointly organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the California African American Museum. Like the exhibit, the book is a 10-year survey of the Chicago-born artist’s works, which are big on size, impact, and ambition. Offering piquant commentaries on race, sex, pop culture, religion, and politics, Abney’s paintings and collages comprise stream-of-consciousness outpourings of symbols, text, abstract imagery, narratives, ideas, stylistic borrowings, and art-historical references, all of which are rendered as sprawling, angular compositions in dazzling colors. They put one in mind of Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, but also Matisse’s cutouts, whose ebullience find their way into Abney’s work as counterpoint to its very serious subject matter. Illustrated with 150 color images, the book offers an in-depth look at the artist’s career to date.
Purchase: Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush $88.00 (used) on Amazon