A couple of months ago I moved the bulk of my art book collection to another room. I decided to keep a small part, favorites, on my regular shelves. I’ve written a bit on each of those 20 titles below – 20 being just a coincidence by the way.
It is very much intended as a book list, not a list of favorite artists, as that would include a lot more names. The titles are mainly from established contemporary artists, with just three older painters – three big ones, yes.
Click on the covers to be taken to the publisher’s website or some other resource – with more extensive text on the book and the artist.
I’ve included images of artworks too: click those to enlarge.
Here’s an index of all my other art book reviews, most of which are not included in this list.
KADER ATTIA – The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures
Greenbox, 2014, 176 pages
In 2012, my visit to dOCUMENTA (13) would have been a bit of a disappointment if it weren’t for two artists. One of those is Kader Attia. His installation The Repair From Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures was jaw dropping, the highlight being slides showing repaired African statues and the likes next to the mended faces of mutilated soldiers from the First World War. The book has all slides, and more. A beautiful edition, full of the uncanny.
MATTHEW BARNEY – Cremaster 3
Guggenheim Museum, 2002, 204 pages
I saw Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 together with the 4 other films in the Ludwig Museum in Cologne in 2002. Three hours of bizarre, glossy, neo-gothic film, set in the Chrysler Building, the Guggenheim Museum and on Giant’s Causeway. Featuring zombies, gangsters, Richard Serra, Aimee Mullins and Barney himself. My twenty-something self was blown away.
Cremaster 3 is the most accomplished of the cycle, and this book is simply a series of film stills, capturing all scenes. As the movie is unavailable on dvd, this is the closest you’ll get experiencing it – if you buy the soundtrack that is: Jonathan Bepler’s music is available. The 360p YouTube uploads of the entire movie do not do it justice.
BERND & HILA BECHER – Typologien Industrieller Bauten
Schirmer/Mosel, 2003, 206 pages (in English: MIT Press)
If I had to name a top 3 of favorite 20th century artists, chances are Bernd & Hilla Becher would be in it. Their work is simple, deceivingly so, as it has so many implications. It might not show, but a lot of work went into all these pictures: traveling across Europe and the USA, to places that aren’t meant for tourists, waiting for the right weather (fully clouded, so there won’t be any shadows in the photograph), finding the right spot to take the photo from always the same angle.
From 1959 to Bernhard’s death in 2007 the married couple have photographed thousands of structures – mainly of barns, water towers, coal tipples, cooling towers, grain elevators, coal bunkers, coke ovens, oil refineries, blast furnaces, gas tanks, storage silos, and warehouses. Their pictures might seem of interest only to those with an appetite for industrial architecture, but carefully considered, they provide a catalogue of human development, the inevitability of emerging patterns and creativity.
Each and every one of their books is great, but this one provides the best, broadest overview of their work, albeit with rather small illustrations compared to the books singling out one type of structure.
Update: Early 2023 I reviewed two Becher monographies, one by Susanne Lange from 2005, and the first posthumous one by Jeff Rosenheim from 2022. The review turned out in a post about why the Becher’s work resonates so deeply with me. It’s here.
OLAF BREUNING – Home
JRP/Ringier Kunstverlag, 2004, 160 pages
What can I say? The cover says it all. Who would travel to Easter Island to make Easter bunnies?
Breuning was born in 1970 and is Swiss. He lives in NY at the moment. Very diverse body of works. A lot of his video work is up on his own Vimeo page. Home 2 runs for 30 minutes, and is fantastic: https://vimeo.com/user11580373
PIETER BRUEGEL – Pieter Bruegel (by Larry Silver)
Abbeville, 2011, 474 pages
This is a big 8.3 pound book. It’s complete: it includes (nearly) all etches, all paintings and all surviving drawings. Authoritative, detailed text. The definite Bruegel publication, say some – I agree, but with a big BUT, as not all reproductive prints are of good quality: the book of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has a lot sharper and more colorful print, but it doesn’t have all of Bruegel’s art. Anyhow, the bulk of the images in this mammoth are fine, so for now this is indeed the go-to Pieter Bruegel the Elder book.
I have to stress how much I like Bruegel. I’ve twice been to that wonderful room in Vienna where 14 of his paintings are on display – the most sacred room on Earth, if you ask me. I know of no other room on the planet that has the same importance in art history. Lascaux maybe? Tutankhamen’s tomb? Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments! And no, the Sistine Chapel doesn’t even come close.
HANS EIJKELBOOM – People of the Twenty-First Century
Phaidon, 2014, 512 pages
I’m just going to be lazy here, and quote the text on the Phaidon website. It’s marketing, yet it’s all true:
“People of the Twenty-First Century is an enormous and completely fascinating collection of ‘anti-sartorial’ photographs of street life by the Dutch conceptual artist/street photographer. From Amsterdam to New York and Paris to Shanghai, these photographs, taken over a period of more than twenty years, provide a cumulative portrait of the people of the twenty-first century. (…) Democratic, apolitical and unique, the archive of thousands of images offers an engrossing and engaging cross-section of society.
(…) First he would select a busy pedestrian area – his favourite spots were often near shopping centres – where he would stay for 30 minutes up to a few hours. He then spent time observing passers-by before recognizing a common type, normally based on a garment, sometimes a behaviour: people in band T-shirts, fur caps or beige trench coats; young couples walking arm-in-arm; women in suit dresses; men with gelled hair or pushing shopping trolleys… He snapped them with a camera hung around his neck, attached to a trigger in his pocket. (…) Their simplicity of form and presentation belies their complex anthropological, social and artistic commentary.”
BERNARD FRIZE – Bernard Frize
De Pont Tilburg, 1998, 48 pages
The above is not the cover of this charmingly thin book of 48 pages. I couldn’t find an image online, as it’s an edition of only 1250 from 1998 – before the Internet became the norm. It’s also an extremely bland one color cover, with just Bernard Frize’s name on it, so I didn’t bother to take a picture of it myself.
De Pont in Tilburg (NL) might be the best-kept secret of European contemporary art museums. In 1998 they had a Bernard Frize exhibition. Frize is a minimalist painter, simple as that. Quite diverse canvases that often focus on the process. The result usually is beautiful, colorful, and uplifting.
THOMAS HIRSCHHORN – Les plaintifs, les bêtes, les politiques
Centre genevois de gravure contemporaine, 1995, 208 pages
I first discovered Thomas Hirsschorn at Documenta 11 in 2002. His monument for Georges Bataille there showed a different way of making art. This booklet are scans of all the collages Hirsschorn made for the seminal Présentoir: Les plaintifs, les bêtes, les politiques and a few copies are themselves part of the installation. It’s a work from 1995, and it was acquired in 2005 by the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht (NL) where it’s on permanent display – they have excellent wooden sculptures from the 13th century too, as well as a Pieter Bruegel the Younger, and an impressive dome, painted by Sol LeWitt.
The work mainly consists of semi-naive, highly political writings on cardboard, as a comment on magazine clippings. There are five of those below.
A new edition of this catalogue is being prepared – it’s still a pertinent work of art, and I’m guessing it’ll remain so for the foreseeable future.
JIŘI KOVANDA – Actions and Installations 2005-1976
Tranzit & JRP/Ringier, 2006, 146 pages
I’ve never seen Kovanda’s work in real life, but was intrigued by this book’s cover. I glanced through it, and I bought it. Jiři Kovanda is a Czech conceptual & performance artist. The book’s main attractions are pictures from Kovanda’s performances. It also includes an interview.
I rake together some rubbish (dust, cigarette stubs, etc.) with my hands, and when I’ve got a pile, I scatter it all again.
I arranged to meet a few friends… we were standing in a small group on the square, talking… suddenly, I started running; I raced across the street and disappeared into Melantrich Street…
WOLFGANG LAIB – Ailleurs
Carré d’Art, Musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes, 1999, 104 pages
One of my first art books, and still one of my most cherished ones.
Wolfgang Laib is medical doctor turned minimal artist that made fame by painstakingly collecting pollen by hand, and then using that pollen to make dense, vibrant color surfaces on museum floors.
His later work doesn’t really grip me as much, but just think of all the work that must have gotten into collecting that pollen.
Obviously Zen Buddhist and Taoist influenced.
Just look at that color.
GORDON MATTA-CLARK – Works and Collected Writings
Ediciones Polígrafa, 2006, 430 pages
A bulky, sturdy volume on Gordon Matta-Clark, the American ‘anarchitect’ who died of pancreatic cancer at 35 in 1978. He was the godson of Marcel Duchamp (yes indeed) and had a twin brother that committed suicide in 1976.
There’s something truly uplifting – a sense of freedom – in his cuttings into buildings. I can’t explain it. There’s a lot more to his thoughts and works, and this book provides a detailed look: apart from texts he wrote himself, there’s also some interviews.
PAUL McCARTHY – Piccadilly Circus. Bunker Basement.
Scalo, 2004, 348 pages
Paul McCarthy is easy to like: he is “a critical analyst of the mass media and consumer-driven American society and its hypocrisy, double standards and repression.” This two-volume book, sold in a slipcase, catches his most overtly political work. The marketable products around McCarthy are ironic given his usual targets, to say the least. I guess everybody turns into an overaged hippy living the life sooner or later.
The two installations/performance art/video works feature G.W. Bush, the Queen Mum, Osama Bin Laden. Piccadilly Circus is set in a former London bank. Aside from some of the characters and that setting, there’s nothing directly political: the characters engage in typical McCarthyan slapstick behavior: what starts with glossy oversized heads & shoes, ends gross, nude, and smeared in fluids.
The books only contain stills and photographs, and capture the world’s eerie madness well.
ROMAN ONDÁK – Observations
Walther König, 2012, 148 pages
Roman Ondák – born in 1966 in Slovakia – is the second guy that saved dOCUMENTA (13) for me. (For the first, see Kader Attia above.)
Observations is such a poetic work. It consists of found photos, for which Ondák invented captions, presented as being cut out as such from magazines. At times funny, at times sharp, at times heartfelt, always on point. Ondák manages to frame regular, everyday existence as what it truly is: a wonder.
The book reproduces all photos with their captions, and is always a 100% delight when I show it to people.
RAYMOND PETTIBON – Here’s Your Irony Back. Political Works 1975-2013
Hatje Cantz / David Zwirner / Regen Projects, 2013, 212 pages
Raymond Pettibon is known in alternative music circles as the guy that did that Sonic Youth and that Black Flag album cover, but to reduce him to those 2 drawings would be shortsighted. He has a vast amount of work – not that strange since his medium is mostly ink & paper – and a portion of his drawings are political. This book collects them.
The cover above is a prime example of the work that’s in this tome. Not all have text, and they’re not all as overtly political as Bin Laden’s portrait, but you get the idea.
There’s a good text about Pettibon’s political works – with a lot more images – on PBS.
REMBRANDT – The Late Works (by J. Bikker & G.J.M. Weber)
National Gallery London / Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2014, 304 pages
The above is not the cover of the book, as that’s hideously unrepresentative of Rembrandt’s later life incredible, visionary experimental power. Just look at those brushstrokes of the cap on his head, in this magnificent Self-Portrait with Two Circles – painted ca. 1665-1669.
I’ve already reviewed this book more extensively: the review is here.
REMBRANDT – Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited – A Complete Survey: A Reprint Of A Corpus Of Rembrandt Paintings VI (by Ernst van de Wetering)
Springer, 2017, 690 pages
This is a cheaper edition of the final scientific publication by the Rembrandt Research Project. The previous, extremely detailed installments of the Corpus (I-V) are available for free online, but in certain aspects these are at times a bit dated, as Ernst van de Wetering explains. His foreword and the first few chapters of this final publication read as a kind of artistic thriller – an instructive page turner on how the scientific study of old paintings has advanced over the last half century.
If you have a serious interest in Rembrandt, or even painting in general, you cannot go without this book. Rembrandt’s oeuvre borders on the incredible, and seeing it all together, presented chronologically with detailed notes has been my artistic experience of 2018.
You can get this edition new for about 70 euros or 100 dollars, and that’s a real steal: the original costs over a 1000 euro. ‘Cheaper’ doesn’t mean inferior quality: all prints are outstanding.
GERHARD RICHTER – Übermalte Fotografien
Hatje Cantz / Museum Morsbrioch / Centre de la photographie Genève, 2008, 390 pages
Talking about brushstrokes. What can I say? There’s no denying Gerhard Richter’s influence on painting as an art form, even if his most recent work is becoming a bit boring and repetitive. What can you expect from a guy that’s 85, let alone a visionary with such a broad, diverse body of work? The most expensive living artist, that’s got to count for something, right?
What’s on display in this book uses Richter’s abstract techniques on top of photographs – a medium as important for Richter as paint, creating something of a hybrid.
I’ve read there is a complete edition of his overpainted photographs in the works. Until that appears, you’ll have to do with this book – luckily it already feels like a complete edition.
GERHARD RICHTER – Wald
Walther König, 2008, 395 pages
It’s not that Richter is my favorite artist, but I couldn’t help including 2 of his books here. This one is lesser known, and again offers a combination of photography & abstraction. Aside from a few pages of cut up text, this book simply consists of photographs taken in the woods near Cologne, where Richter lives. The photos were taken during autumn & winter, and show how a camera can easily transform a three-dimensional entity into something resembling abstract painting. It also shows a different way to look at nature. The cover is an excellent example, and there’s plenty, plenty more. Maybe single-minded and easy, but executed with perfection, yielding surprisingly varied & beautiful results.
ROMAN SIGNER – Werküberzicht 1971-2002
Unikate Zurich, Walther König, 2004, 1439 pages
For a long time Roman Signer was my favorite artist. I’m sad to report his current body of work is stale and lifeless: Signer is just repeating himself, often bigger, yes, as he gets better funding, but with a lot less poetry. But why dwell on the present: he once was my favorite, most inspirational artist, and I’ve collected nearly all of his publications. None of the sad turn of events here, in this massive, 1439 pages, 3 volume overview of his work. (There’s an English edition too!)
Signer is a sculptor, and he sculpts using time & the forces of nature as his tools. As such, most of his work has the character of a performance, and is captured only on photo & video.
A lot of his work is minimalistic and lighthearted. Signer likes using fireworks & explosions, like this 27″ clip on YouTube (the soundtrack isn’t his). There often is a kind of deadpan comedy involved too. His best work is extremely poetic, at least to these eyes.
JAMES TURRELL – A Retrospective
LA County Museum Of Art / DelMonico, 2013, 304 pages
Drake’s 2016 Hotline Bling video massively increased James Turrell’s exposure, funny, for somebody that has been working steadily since 1966. A true pioneer of light art – more important, more broad, more radical and much more refined than the awesome Dan Flavin.
One sad thing is that this here is art you truly, really, really truly have to experience in reality, on site, to understand it’s unparalleled quality. Such often goes for paintings too, of course, but it’s even more so for Turrell’s work. You simply can’t catch the ethereal quality of light in a printed book. Luckily, there’s quite a few ‘Skyspaces’ – his decivingly simple contribution to public art – across quite a lot of continents. A list of the current 49 in existence can be found on Wikipedia. Get on the bus already, and be sure to spend more than a minute there.
Another sad thing is that Turrell might not live through the completion of his larger than life Roden Crater project – a monumental sky and light observatory in an extinct volcano in an Arizona desert. I hope to visit it someday. If you’re intrigued, read up on it in in the text on Turrell on the website of the LACMA, here.
Update: I’ve reviewed this book more extensively in 2021, together with a 2018 publication on Turrell, here.
CY TWOMBLY – Cy Twombly
Sieveking / Centre Pompidou, 2017, 320 pages
I have been searching for a good Cy Twombly publication for a long, long time. There simply was none. A week ago my eye fell on this fresh 2017 publication in the bookshop of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany. Apparently there has been a big Twombly retrospective in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. When I bought the book, it ran for just another week, and my schedule didn’t permit a day on and off the TGV to Paris. I can’t believe I missed it, but I guess that’s life.
At least I have this book now. It’s perfect – the only thing that is missing is a large reproduction of Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) – there’s only a small photo of that canvas included, as it wasn’t part of the Paris show. I guess I’ll have to fly to Houston one day.
VINCENT VAN GOGH – The Complete Paintings
Taschen, 2012, 704 pages
Luckily, the Museum Square in Amsterdam is only 1.5 hours away, maybe 2, depending traffic. Vincent Van Gogh does not need an introduction. Probably the most important painter ever?
This Taschen book is amazing: it collects all his surviving paintings, in good quality reproductions. It presents the paintings chronologically, and has extensive biographical texts, zooming in on all his life’s phases. All that for under 30 euros… Really! Best bargain ever!! Go buy it online somewhere already!!! I’ve reviewed the book more extensively here.
THAT’S A WRAP!
A very inspirational list! A curious detail: what’s rendered as “Melantrich street” in the English version of Kovanda’s caption is just “the nearest street” in Czech – perhaps there is another photo of him running down Melantrichova? Because if not and the translator just decided to be more specific, I’d like to point out that Kovanda rather seems headed in the direction of Železná:-)
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Thank you! Maybe the mistake comes from the fact that in the Czech caption the word has been written with a capital M? I’m guessing that’s not the normal way to do that?
(There’s probably some confusion here, since I don’t see any capital M in the Czech caption – but let’s not get entangled in something so trivial.)
This post also makes me even more excited for Richter’s exhibition that’s coming to Prague in two weeks. I only have a glancing familiarity with his most familiar work (had no idea about Übermalte Fotografien, for example) and it seems I’m in for a very multi-faceted experience.
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Aha, the book’s caption is different than the picture I posted. It says “a zmizel v Melantrichove ulici…”
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You’re in for a treat then, 50 of his works! Enjoy!
This post totally captivated me for about 30 minutes. Thank you.
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Thank you for those kind words! It was a joy to write!
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