1. Cy Twombly Gallery: The Menil Collection, Houston, Nicola Del Roscio and Julie Sylvester, eds. Yale University Press, 220 pp, €58 (hb)
Edye and I love reading art books and our homes are filled with them. One of our favourites this year is Cy Twombly Gallery. It is a tribute to the stewardship of art, which we look to with special interest as we build our museum, The Broad, in downtown Los Angeles. Twombly is also one of our favourite artists, and we have a number of his works in our home and in the Broad Art Foundation collection. In the early 1990s, the Menil Collection, architect Renzo Piano and Cy Twombly worked together to create a beautiful light-filled space where Twombly’s paintings could be enjoyed for the foreseeable future. The book is a testament to that effort and is filled with lush images of some of Twombly’s best work, including sculptures and paintings from 1953 to 1994.
2. Kafka was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard. Vintage Books, 160pp, $15 (pb)
Anatole Broyard offers a window onto New York’s art scene in the late 1940s. He recalls his experiences of Greenwich Village’s counterculture while studying at The New School for Social Research and gives us a glimpse into what he describes as “a time when Kafka was the rage, as were the Abstract Expressionists and revisionism in psychoanalysis”. Recalling jam-packed classes given by the brilliant Meyer Schapiro, Broyard and his generation believed that “art was the truth about life—and life itself was more or less a lie. Art, modern art, was a great, intense but at the same time a vague promise or threat.” Not only that: “If civilisation could be thought of as having a sexuality, art was its sexuality.” Characters, including Anaïs Nin. Dylan Thomas and Clement Greenberg, as well as tales of sexual escapades, weave in and out of the textured narrative. For many, Broyard remains a problematic figure, but this small memoir creates a nostalgic mood for a time when an intimate yet intense art world converged with critical thinking in a small part of New York, looking to re-establish itself after the war.
3. Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, Arne Glimcher, Phaidon, 240pp, £95, $165 (hb)
In an unapologetic love poem to the artist Agnes Martin and her work, dealer Arne Glimcher captures the tender and inspiring spirit of their 40-year friendship. Martin’s nuanced paintings are always challenging to reproduce, but the care taken here to get the images just right makes them glow on these pages. Perhaps most moving are the artist’s own words, captured beautifully in facsimiles of her notebook pages interspersed throughout the book. The result is an intimate portrait of Martin’s struggle with her art and the power of the relationship that sustained it.
4. Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350, Christine Sciacca, ed. Getty Publications, 448pp, £44.95, $65
Beautifully produced and scholarly, this catalogue breaks new ground in our understanding of the connections between manuscript illumination and panel painting in Florence during the first decades of the 14th century. Of particular importance is the attention given to the work and personality of Pacino di Bonaguida. His illuminated manuscript of 1335-40, Carmina regia: the Address of Prato to Robert of Anjo (in the British Library), a polyptych with the Crucifixion and Saints Nicholas, Bartholomew, Florentius and Luke, 1315-20 (in the Galleria dell’Accademia), stained glass depictions of a Deacon-Saint and Pope-Saint of around 1310-15 and his Chiarito Tabernacle tryptych of the 1340s (in the Getty’s collection) demonstrate his technical range and consistent high quality and inventiveness. All this is explored with subtlety and in detail in Yvonne Szafran and Nancy Turner’s exceptional essay, which offers a deeper understanding of the Medieval workshop system in Florence and the place of both illumination and panel painting within it. This book is a model scholarly exhibition catalogue.
5. How Music Works, David Byrne, McSweeney’s, 352pp, $10
One of the best recent books about the creative process is David Byrne’s. Byrne draws on his extensive experience as a musician and performer and his impressive knowledge of music history to explain to the reader how music is made and experienced. The book combines fascinating recollections of the early days of punk rock at the New York music club CBGB (Country, Blue Grass and Blues) with stimulating insights about the evolution of musical performance. The author is an artist and a musician, admired for his photography and videos and for his ambitious sound installations such as Playing the Building, 2005, in which a large building is converted into a giant musical instrument. Many of his insights about musical composition and performance can also be applied to the creation of visual art. In addition to anthropological and philosophical explanations about musical history and theory, Byrne also offers practical advice about how to make music, recounting amusing and instructive anecdotes about collaborating with other musicians in the studio. The book is handsomely designed by the novelist Dave Eggers, the founder of McSweeney’s.
6. Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas, Eric Fischl and Michael Stone, Crown Publishing Group, 368pp, $26
I thoroughly enjoyed Eric Fischl’s autobiography about his life and career as an artist. The booming 1980s have quite a lot in common with the art world of today and it was fun to read about the artists at the top of the mountain back then and think about what the lives of today’s stars might look like in 30 years. The stories about his friendship and rivalry with the likes of Julian Schnabel, Ross Bleckner, David Salle and Peter Halley, not to mention the ever-fascinating Mary Boone, made the book a very easy and quick read. The real highlight for me, though, was in reading about the wonderful love story between Eric and April Gornick that is at the heart of the entire book. Celebrity, art-world status and auction price records clearly come and go but, after it all, he will still have April’s love. What more can anyone ask for?
7. Österreich und die Biennale di Venezia, 1895-2013,Jasper Sharp, ed. Verlag für Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 540pp, €58, in German only
Jasper Sharp, the young British-born curator of the Austrian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, has put together, with the help of his team, a vast range of material gathered from international archives, especially the Archivio Storico in Venice. His purpose is to trace the history of the Biennale, with special emphasis on Austria’s contribution. Drawing on lists of works, transport manifests, exhibition posters, letters and photographs, Sharp details which Austrian artists have taken part in the Biennale. He discusses when and in what context they each participated, and names the curator in post at the time. In its 500-plus pages the book not only deals with art and architecture, but focuses on topics such as famous rejections, nationalism, zeitgeist and forgotten art and artists. The Biennale, set up in 1895 as a marketplace for contemporary art, was until 1914 largely an avant-garde institution, but later came to influence cultural and educational policy within the art world. Sharp’s book is a much-needed new take on the history of the world’s most important art exhibition, hosted by the city on the lagoon.
8. Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, Hongxing Zhang, V&A Publishing, 360pp, £40 (hb)
Chinese painting is everywhere, but the great classical tradition of painting in China is surprisingly invisible and little known. This book, which grew out of the exhibition at the V&A (until 19 January), is full of ravishingly beautiful paintings which remind us that a tradition once seen in the West as unchanging and dull, gave birth to some of the most astonishingly original images ever made. Here are ideas about the relation between illusion and reality, the two and three dimensional, the object represented and the gesture recorded on paper, all of which seemed new to Western artists in the 19th century. The relationship between text, the canon from which it is drawn and the image to which it relates is at once astonishingly similar to – and fascinatingly unlike – the realisation of similar ideas in the European Renaissance. And a tradition of the artist as outsider, withdrawn from and critical of the apparatus of power and the culture of the court, irresistibly reminds us of the emergence of the romantic conception of the artist in Europe, centuries later and in circumstances which could hardly have been more different.
9. Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas, Strelka Press, 336pp, 576 rubles (pb)
Some of my friends drew my attention to this book, which has just been translated into Russian. It is truly epochal. New York is a city of legend but, to my mind, Moscow is also an extraordinary megalopolis. As I was reading, I constantly compared the experience of New York with the reality of Moscow, comparing their histories and the divergent American and Russian views of capital. I cannot say that what I found here could be applicable to Moscow, except a hope for the future. Special thanks must go to the publisher and the translators who have assured that this book in now available in Russian.
10. The Russian Avant-Garde Encyclopedia: the Fine Arts; Architecture, Vasiliy Rakitin, Andrei Sarabyanov, eds. Global Expert & Service Team, two volumes, 1,252pp, 28,900 rubles (hb); in Russian only
The Russian avant-garde has been my professional focus for many years, and its great achievements are crucial additions to the global art pot. Voluminous books (from both Russia and abroad) are devoted to this phenomenon but, in my opinion, there have not been enough. We need to know more about the masters of Russia’s avant-garde, as well as its lesser known artists. It’s a book that gives us a better understanding of international contemporary art. The encyclopedia contains the fundamental information as well as a wealth of little-known but important facts. Over the course of 12 years, the authors united 169 art critics, the collections of 70 museums (Russian and foreign) and many art collectors. It’s an undertaking as big as the Pyramid of Cheops.
11. Anthony Caro, Volume 1: Anthony Caro: Park Avenue Series, 88pp, Volume 2: Caro at Museo Correr, 96pp, Anthony Caro, with Michael Fried and Gary Tinterow, eds Gagosian Gallery, $100 (hb)
These two elegant and eloquent catalogues for tremendous Caro shows in London and Venice published together in one slipcase ought to have marked both a momentous year for an 89-year-old artist and heralded his tenth decade. Instead they are the last publications in a lifetime which has produced some of the most vital and resonant sculpture of the last half century. Michael Fried, who wrote one of the most influential essays on Caro in the 1960s, adds two more to the Caro canon here and commends the “89-nine-year-old perfectionist artist’s indefatigable will”, among other attributes. Caro's work, like his personality, was full of life. This publication celebrates that but is tinged with an unintentional and deep sadness.
12. When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013. Germano Celant, ed Fondazione Prada, 604pp, £75 (hb)
My art book of the year is the catalogue of the ambitious experiment that replicated Harald Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition, “When Attitude Became Form”, at the Fondazione Prada, Venice in June this year. The show was significant not only for bringing together some of the key works of the original exhibition, but also for its complex architectural installation, which cleverly prompted a more in-depth consideration of the very act of restaging a historic exhibition. This publication includes a brilliant essay-interview with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas and is the book of books for the art of the period.
13. The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey, Faber and Faber, 288pp, £12.99 (pb)
This haunting novel describes the conception and construction of an intricate mechanical silver swan – seemingly inspired by the Bowes Museum’s much-loved musical automaton. The narrative is structured as a time-travelling dialogue between 19th-century industrial heir Henry Brandling, who commissions this “magical amusement” for his consumptive son, and Catherine Gehrig, a metals conservator at the fictional Swinburne Museum, who 150 years later finds herself reading Brandling’s journals as part of her task to revive the swan after decades of dormancy. Carey’s book is a wonderful reminder of the allure of archives-based research in museums, and the power these documents have in bringing to life the diverse and fascinating characters that populate the history of an object’s provenance.
14. Love and Devotion: from Persia and Beyond, Susan Scollay, ed. Bodleian Library, 240pp, £40 (hb)
In these Persian manuscripts, a page becomes so much more than a page; it becomes a palace, a room, a wall, a vista, a marbled floor, a garden, an alcove, a tapestry, a carpet. Some of the works included, such as the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, with its epic battles, mythic heroes and seething cast of monstrous, supernatural and human characters, are better known than others and some of the poets – Rumi and Omar Khayyám in particular — are highly popular in translation. Other texts, such as The Romance of Alexander are part of our common imaginary, while The Conference of Birds by Attar and the Seven Pavilions of Nizami are very close to later, European fabulism and fairy tale, but much of the literature is a revelation in itself. A splendid array of contributors throws light on the varied works and their authors, and on the passions and aesthetics of the tradition.
15. Book From the Ground: Point to Point, Xu Bing, Guangxi Normal University Press, 112pp, RMB48
Book From the Ground: Point to Point is a proper, ISBN-accredited publication, yet it is unconventional in that it does not feature a single “ordinary” word—not even on the copyright page. Its content is derived from marks and symbols that have been collected, filed and catalogued from all around the world, weaving a day-in-the-life account of the peculiar life of a certain “Mr Black” a white-collar worker living in a modern metropolis. You can read this book no matter where you are or what language you speak—it treats everyone in our contemporary world with absolute equality. Book From the Ground also exemplifies my vision of the future of languages, and the ideal of one language shared by all.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘If you read one book this year...'