8 Best Books About Painting Update 05/2022

Books About Painting

At its peak in the 1970s, critics said that painting was dead. As more and more artists start painting, people aren’t writing their own obituaries for painting before it’s time, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. Painting’s strength comes from a long history that, no matter what period or genre you like, is best seen at a museum or gallery. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made it more difficult to go to either place. So there’s a next best thing: Reading a book about painting. There are a lot of books on the subject, of course, and they come in a variety of forms, like exhibition catalogs, artist monographs, and critical writings. But they all give you a way to see into a medium that won’t let you go. Here are eight books that would be great additions to any painting fan’s bookshelf. If you can, get them while you can. (Price and availability were correct when this was written.)

Philip Guston: Now by Harry Cooper, et al.

Philip Guston Now by Harry Cooper, et al.

Philip Guston started out as a social realist in the 1930s, then switched to abstract expressionism in the 1950s. He became a big influence on the next generation of painters by committing a late-career apostasy: Gestural abstraction and cartoonish figuration from underground comics were used in his work after he moved to Woodstock, New York in 1967 and started making his own comics. The results, which were not well-received at the time, came to be seen as important. Because of Black Lives Matter, a planned show of Guston’s work in 2020 has been put on hold. His paintings and drawings from the late 1960s with hooded Klansmen were meant to be an indictment of racism. But the catalog for the show is out, and it has 288 pages of color photos and text, including praise for the artist from some of the best modern painters.

Notes from the Woodshed by Jack Whitten, edited by Katy Siegel

Until recently, African-American artists have only been given a small amount of attention or not at all by the white art world. Despite the odds against them, they didn’t give up on their art. Jack Whitten, an abstract painter, was one of these people. He used unconventional methods to make his paintings look interesting, like chiseling away at the painted surface and building them up with tesserae of hardened acrylic color. He was also a sculptor and a writer, and his thoughts and essays have been put together in this book. Whitten kept a studio log filled with lists (some of which have been reproduced in facsimile) that show how he thought about things. These lists lay out the rules of his art practice. They show a person who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he thinks is right.

The Painting of Modern Life by T.J. Clark

T.J. Clark’s book on French painter Edouard Manet and his followers is a classic. It puts their work in the context of the redevelopment of Paris in the mid-19th century, which was done by Napoleon III’s head of public works, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Over the course of 17 years, the ancient French capital became a modern city that was home to a new group of people and the subject of new art. Clark looks at three paintings by Manet and one by Georges Seurat and asks a chicken-and-egg question. Was it the Impressionists who came up with modernity, or did modernity come up with the Impressionists?

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, by Ian Alteveer, et al

This Kerry James Marshall book came out in 2016, and it came with a traveling show of Marshall’s work. The book, like the show, helps Marshall’s work come together. How does Marshall break down the rules of modernist and Old Master paintings to show how black lives are shown in new ways? The book has 100 reproductions and essays by well-known critics, curators, and the artist himself.

The Forever Now by Laura Hoptman

The Forever Now by Laura Hoptman

During the second decade of the 21st century, painting was thought to be the most important way to express oneself. This catalog for the 2014 MoMA show looks at how painting was used in that time. As a co-curator for an art show, Laura Hoptman admits that there isn’t a way to tell how painting has changed over the last 100 years. For example, Cubism changed into Surrealism, then into Abstract Expressionism, then into Pop Art and Minimalism, and so on. In science fiction, author William Gibson talks about “atemporality,” which means “a new and strange world where, thanks to the Internet, all eras seem to be alive at the same time.” If you look at Hoptman’s work, he says that atemporal painting “revives…historical styles” by “sampling motifs from across the timeline of 20th-century art.” For people who want to see the show in full, this book is a must-have. Whether or not you agree with her thought-provoking thesis, you can see how her ideas come to life through the work of the 17 artists.

Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel

If you think of Abstract Expressionism as a group of white boys who swagger around, drink a lot, and fight at the Cedar Tavern, this book should change your mind. Author Mary Gabriel looks at the careers of five women painters, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler, through a feminist lens. They were all very much a part of the art world at the time. It turned out that two of them, Krasner and de Kooning, were married to other artists whose work was better than their own. However, the New York School has become more and more aware of how important the women here are to it over time. Gabriel’s story is very different from the mythos that usually surrounds postwar American art.

We Flew Over the Bridge by Faith Ringgold

With her politically-charged paintings and quilt stories, Faith Ringgold is one of the best-known African American artists in the country. She is also a best-selling author of kids’ books. This inspirational memoir is the first one she has written for people over the age of 18. Her life as a black woman who had to deal with sexism and racism starts with her birth in 1930s Harlem. Ringgold then talks about how she used the emotional bonds of family, friends and community involvement to fight those barriers and eventually beat them.

The Observer Effect: On Contemporary Painting by Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky, a critic, has been writing about painting for more than 20 years. In this collection of essays, he looks at the state of painting in the 21st century, using a wide range of artists from around the world to show his ideas. Takeaway: The main thing he learned is that modern artists don’t seem to care very much about what painting is, which is a question that was a big one in the development of modernism. Instead, they mix and match styles and techniques from a seemingly endless buffet of historical styles and techniques. The question about painting now is not why it should be done, but how. Furthermore, he says that meaning in painting is no longer based on a shared ideology, but on what each viewer thinks and feels about a piece of art. He takes the old museum pick-up line, “What do you see?” and makes it the most important question for painting today.

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