17 Riveting Books About Art to Read Right Now, From a Novel About the New York Art Scene to a Compendium of Startling Art Crimes
Here's what we're reading on the beach.
If you’re fortunate enough to be able to look forward to taking some time off this summer while galleries have their summer hours and the auction-house action quiets down, maybe you’re looking for a good book to dive into. You’ve come to the right place. We scoured lists of new releases to put together this list of books that will keep you riveted, informed, and downright entertained.
By Marlowe Granados
Happy Hour is a brisk, perceptive, and cutting satire that chronicles two working-class, European-raised best friends’ fake-it-til-you-make-it escapades through New York’s art, literary, fashion, and entertainment worlds during the summer of 2013. As the young women find themselves among a cultural elite they simultaneously look up to and down on, their tactics raise a fundamental question: Are they really the grifters when so many people at the top seem to be doing the same thing on an even grander scale?
Art Is Everything
By Yxta Maya Murray
Meet our protagonist: Amanda Ruiz, a queer, L.A.-born, Chicana performance artist on the cusp of fame who is laying the groundwork for an auto-critical documentary she plans to film in Mexico with her forthcoming NEA grant. This idiosyncratic novel traces Ruiz across the better part of a decade as this promising young artist faces real-life upheavals, from the death of her father to questions of whether to start a family with her girlfriend, Xōchitl’. The book’s text takes the form of Ruiz’s internet presence, from Instagram captions to Yelp reviews.
The Quiet House: Stillness in Lake Eden
Edited by Hannah Lack
In 1942, artist Alex Reed singlehandedly built a small stone structure as a tribute to a friend on a grove in Lake Eden, North Carolina. He intended the building to be a quiet place for reflection and meditation, “a place to get away, if only for an hour, from the pressure and busyness of the College.” The “college” in question is the famous Black Mountain College. This slim little gem of a book (it can literally fit in your back pocket) traces the house’s unique history through photographs by Robert Rauschenberg and Hazel Larsen Archer, works on paper by Ruth Asawa, text from writers Michael Beggs, John Colman Wood, and Ellen Mara De Wachter, and a meditative exercise from Yael Greenberg.
How have the acute global crises of our times—climate change, the pandemic, unfettered capitalism—transformed aesthetic culture? This collection of essays by Artnet News critic Ben Davis takes seriously what many in the traditional art world would prefer to ignore—the populist surge of immersive Van Gogh experiences, AI art, memes, and even sneaker culture—to show how a new era of “after-culture” art fuses creative and capitalist identities to disturbing effect, even when there are signs of hope.
Portrait of a Thief
By Grace D. Li
In 2018, a fascinating GQ article raised the possibility that a rash of thefts of Chinese antiquities from Western museums were actually conducted at the behest of the nation’s government, bypassing the legal red tape of traditional restitution channels. Grace D. Li, a Stanford University medical student, imagines just such a scenario in this fast-paced heist novel, in which Chinese American college students are enlisted by the state-run China Poly auction house to recover treasures looted from Beijing’s Summer Palace. It defies disbelief that this unlikely Oceans 11 crew could pull off these high-stakes robberies, but it’s perfect beach reading material.
By Karen Archey
As curator of contemporary art at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, Karen Archey worked to organize an exhibition called “After Institutions” that was ultimately canceled due to Covid-19. The ironic incident led to her new book by the same name, an incisive and well-timed look at the crisis-ridden museum. To bring institutions with us into a future now changed in the wake of important movements, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, Archey lucidly argues that we need to broaden and renew the definition of institutional critique to make sure that museums continue to evolve.
By Chloë Ashby
Eve is a woman in crisis from the very first page of Ashby’s debut novel. Her best friend Grace died five years ago, her mother abandoned her when she was a small child, her father is an alcoholic, and her latest gig working at a restaurant has ended in spectacularly disastrous fashion. The one point of solace for our protagonist is visiting Edouard Manet’s painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère at the Courtauld, where she assesses the haggard barmaid, a victim of the male gaze much like herself. When Eve gets a job as a life model, literally casting herself as an object of collective scrutiny, she devolves further and is ultimately forced to confront her deep-seated traumas.
Tom of Finland: An Imaginary Sketchbook
By Juerg Judin
The prolific Tom of Finland depicted a very specific utopia: an alternative universe inhabited by sailors, bikers, cowboys, soldiers, and every other macho archetype from central casting. He rarely (if ever) strayed from his theme. This book collects his preliminary drawings and rough sketches of rough trade. It’s a somewhat dreamlike and abstracted take on homoeroticism and reveals a softer side of butch.
—William Van Meter
Portrait of an Unknown Lady
By Maria Gainza
Combining two of my favorite subjects, art forgery and forgotten female artists, this newly translated tale by María Gainza stars a washed up art critic. The unnamed narrator has become singularly obsessed with tracking down a former friend of her deceased mentor, an artist named Renée who may very well be behind some of the best-loved masterpieces of famed Argentinian portraitist Mariette Lydis. The story weaves together tales of all three women in a dreamlike narrative that spans decades—but don’t expect to get neat answers to all your questions about these mysterious figures. “The stuff of my tale has slipped through my fingers,” the narrator warns at the beginning. “All that remains now is a little of the atmosphere.”
Art and Crime: The Fight Against Looters, Forgers and Fraudsters in the High-Stakes Art World
By Stefan Koldehoff and Tobias Timm
A collaborative effort by German journalists Stefan Koldehoff and Tobias Timm, Art and Crime is an expansive follow-up to their acclaimed False Pictures, Real Money (2012) and takes readers on a journey through the opaque world of the most notorious art crimes. This topical book includes a chapter about Donald Trump and the art he owned, as well as proposals for changes in the art market and museums that could benefit everyone.
Yield: The Journal of An Artist
By Anne Truitt
This posthumously published work is the fourth and final volume in Anne Truitt’s series of journals, which she began to keep in spring 1974, initially only for one year. For half a decade after that, she continued the task, and through her writings, honesty shines as she considers her place in the world and grapples with intellectual, practical, emotional, and spiritual issues in her life.
The Lives of the Surrealists
Surrealists have been having a resurgence of late, especially the lesser-known practitioners of the genre, including women and artists outside France and the U.K. But Desmond Morris, himself part of the younger generation, offers a compelling compendium of all the major players in this page-turning volume, now out in paperback. The book strikes the right balance between recognizing the artistic achievements of the milieu, as well as their colorful personal lives. Their sexual exploits are remarkably incestuous: the overlap is clearly laid out in lists of each artist’s romantic partners.
By James Cahill
In this riveting novel, art historian Don Lamb demonstrates a keen understanding of the academic side of art and a glaring blindness to its emotional power. From his post at a university in Cambridge, he immerses himself into research on the technical prowess of a Venetian master’s paintings of the sky. However, Lamb’s internal axis is thrown off when a controversial, conceptual piece of contemporary art comes to the college’s lawn, provoking him to leave academia altogether and immerse himself in England’s rebellious art scene in the 1990’s. Tiepolo Blue will take you through what it’s like to lose yourself entirely, and find yourself all over again by way of Soho’s anarchic underground.
Pure Colour: A Novel
By Sheila Heti
An aspiring art critic turns into a leaf while grappling with the loss of her father and unrequited love in this a metaphysical parable, which is, in short, about the creation of the universe as well as the creation of art. Heti’s writing is searching, soaring, sparklingly strange. If you’re thinking a lot about the meaning of life lately and trying to make sense of… everything (who isn’t?), Pure Colour has philosophical heft, but isn’t too heavy.
The Perfect Golden Circle
By Benjamin Myers
Crop circles—those massive, mathematically precise geometric formations that appear seemingly by magic in corn fields—have long inspired conspiracy theories of alien visitations and supernatural forces. But inspired by the true story of Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two Englishmen who admitted to making them starting in 1976, Benjamin Myers has explored the very human motivations behind such a large-scale creative act—and why one might keep it secret. The two protagonists in the story are truly driven by their art, and their deep-seated need to bring their increasingly grandiose visions to life.
Piet Mondrian: A Life
By Hans Janssen
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Piet Mondrian’s birth, and two major museums in in Europe—the Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands and the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland—are honoring the occasion with a pair of monographic exhibitions dedicated to the artist. Now comes another resource to help fill out the Mondrian image: and English translation of the first-ever comprehensive biography of artist, written by Hans Janssen. The author, who previously served as chief curator at the Kunstmuseum, culled scholarly research, previously unknown letters, and a cache of other archival materials for the book, which follows Mondrian from his days as a student to those just before his death in New York in 1944.
By Rachel Cusk
Now in paperback, this slight but emotionally dense volume by Rachel Cusk features a male artist, L. Past his prime and coasting on the strength of earlier work and the ability to still attract young women, he embodies every cliche of toxic masculinity. M, a would-be arts patron, feels a strong connection to L’s art. When she invites him to come stay at her otherwise peaceful home on an isolated marsh, the experience is painful for everyone involved—but does it spark artistic genius?
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