ARTINFO has combed our bookshelves, looked through our dusty college syllabi, asked fellow artists, professors, and historians, and compiled a list of the tomes that every artist should read, own, and pass on. We've been careful to balance our selections between theory, history, reference, and practical guides, ranging from the semiotics of Roland Barthes to a gigantic biography of Pablo Picasso. Our list was so long that we had to break it into two parts. Here is Part 1, and check out Part 2 for even more books:
“Visual Thinking” by Rudolf Arnheim, University of California Press
Merging art and psychology, Arnheim (1904-2007) masterfully explains perception in the context of aesthetic imagery. His stance, specifically in “Visual Thinking,” is that all thought is based on perception. Its 35th-anniversary printing should be bought as a set with "Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye," and read not just by artists, but also art critics, to understand the psychology behind our response to art.
Barthes is the grand poobah of French semiotics, and his texts have laid the groundwork for the codification of culture. They range from the edgy ruminations of “Image – Music – Text" to the intimate reflections of "A Lover's Discourse." But "Camera Lucida," with its lyrical yet rigorous reflections on the images of Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe, is perhaps one of his most lasting contribution to writing about art.
Based on the original, highly successful BBC television series of the same name, Berger created a masterpiece in 1972 by digesting complex ideas about image reproduction and popular culture, bringing theory to the masses with “Ways of Seeing.” He covers subjects including imagery in advertising, the notion of originality, and subjectivity in perception. While others have gone into greater depth with many of the topics he covers, Berger’s opus is a must-have for its succinct mastery and impressive compilation of complex theory.
Not every artist needs a career guide, but for those that do this is one of the best. Written by a gallery director and an arts lawyer this is first handbook of advice on the management of a full-time art career, offering some savvy advice about the business end.
This is different to another anthology, “Art and Theory,” because of its unique organization, which is by art historical movement and cultural milestone. The seven sections of the book range from German Aesthetics to Postmodernism and set art history off against literature, sociology, and philosophy in the writings of Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and many more. Compared to "Art and Theory," this text has a broader range and suitable for artists whose work is cross-disciplinary.
While the art history textbook market has long been dominated by Gardner’s “Art Through the Ages” (now in its 13th edition) and “Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition” (in its 8th edition), a shift has been occurring in academia towards the use of Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren’s more recent, more student-friendly, inclusive, and participatory textbook “Art History.” Just as big, but not as costly as its ugly stepsisters, “Art History” strives to be more than just a survey, with engaging diagrams, materials, and methodological explanations, online complimentary software, and a decent revision to the art historical timeline which makes it more diverse. In addition, in comparison to Gardner’s tiny reproductions, Stokstad and Cothren are not skimping on the image quality and size, so the textbook is as good a visual resource for artists as it is a textual one.
This is an original, psychology-oriented perspective on what some call “getting in the zone” but what unpronounceable Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi terms “flow.” What sets it apart, and makes it an apt text for art-making, is Csikszentmihalyi’s focus on satisfaction and happiness.
OK, these are actually two books, but they are really two halves of a whole. For artists interested in aesthetic theory, the body, and kitsch, Eco is your man. A cultural critic, his sweeping knowledge unfolds in engaging story-like prose (he is also a celebrated postmodern novelist, of course) with direct visual examples. Well versed in art and philosophy, he cites an exhaustive list of examples, including Bosch, Brueghel, Goya, Milton, Goethe, and Ancient Greek amphorae.
Elkins examines the structure of art education and fixes a microscope on art school's elusive “crit” system. Whether you are preparing for your first critique, or about to mount a major retrospective, his insights on what works, what doesn’t, and how to take and dish out criticism are invaluable. No one has tackled this subject quite as thoroughly.
A classic (it was published in 1960) if one is seeking knowledge on the contentious merger of the sciences and humanities, Gombrich uses Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Ancient Greece as examples in the history of picture making and perception. His approach is a uniquely rationalistic one, and still a refreshing take on the subject.
One of the most widely used anthologies of art theory texts, and significant for offering a heaping helping of primary resources. The newly revised edition, updated to include the ‘90s, has essays ordered by art historical movements, including writing by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, and many more. Like, many, many more. It’s big — but don’t let it intimidate you.
"Illuminations: Essays and Reflections," Knopf Doubleday, and/or “Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926,” Belknap Press of Harvard University
Benjamin has been for decades the sensitive art theorist's go-to guru. His essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is read widely by art history and studio art majors, and “The Task of the Translator” can also be mined for aesthetic insights. However, while “Illuminations” is both short and contains some of the most relevant essays Benjamin wrote on art, the first volume of Belknap Press’s “Selected Writings” series has some very poignant writings on illustration, children’s drawings, and perception that are incredibly suggestive for those interested in semiotics, color theory, and memory.
Lucy Lippard wrote some of the most important essays on feminist art, politics, and activism in the 1970s, inspired by the women’s movement. This collection compiles highlights from her popular “From the Center: Feminist Essays on Art” and “Get the Message?: A Decade of Art for Social Change,” as well as pieces done originally for print in newspapers, magazines, and art catalogues. A must-have on the genre of feminist art writings, or for any artist navigating issues of politics and class in our troubled contemporary art world (see the title essay, a true classic).
All artists should have an image bible; something that is both an inspiration and a source for historical imagery. This book is it. While the quality of the reproductions might not be the best (they are a little dull, truthfully), Phaidon makes up for it with the tremendous trim size on this tome of images. This book is massive. The reproduction of the Sistine Chapel alone will take up half your dining room table. Try finding another version as complete, detailed, or as large in your Gardner’s, or even your Stokstad and Cothren. (Beware the price-tag, it’s expensive at $500.)
The leading text on exoticism and “otherism,” Edward Said's "Orientalism" blew readers away when it was published in 1979, creating a much-needed term to describe the way Western thinkers and artists had mistread the East as a fantasy projection of their own insecurities. This is mandatory reading for artists whose work focuses on issues of identity, race, culture, and history — and, now that we think of it, it should just be read by everyone in general.
Every artist, whether interested in performance or painting, should arguably have a basic grasp of drawing — if not for the basic understanding of the human form in space, then for useful knowledge of composition and light. This is by far one of the most user-friendly and complete guides for artists of any medium to use in their studies. Take my word from having used this book myself.
The first-person story of the journalist who infiltrated the art world and performed the impossible feat of making art the subject of a best-selling book. It’s an incredibly informative as a well-rounded view of the multiple cogs that keep the art world turning, from art publishing at Artforum to the well-assisted studio of a high-profile artist like Takashi Murakami. Thornton's ethnography is an attempt to understand an unregulated, exclusive world of insiders, following a path from the making and selling of contemporary art to art school to the auction house.
One might consider this a biography of the Italian Renaissance, told through the brief, individual biographies of the important artists of the day. Giorgio Vasari invented the term "Renaissance," and simultanously invented its history by chronicling its progression from Brunelleschi to Da Vinci. The OUP edition features 36 of the most important entires, and is one of the most important sources an artist can have on this all-important period. (Nearly all of the text, in its unabridged English translation, can be found online here.)
What better way to learn than from the master himself? This is considered one of the most vital books on a single artist's experience creating work over a multi-decade career, and the conversations author Lawrence Weschler has put together are a first-hand account at the unique way Irwin, the Light and Space maestro, sees the world.
John Richardson is the Robert Caro of artist biographers. Pablo Picasso is surely a colossal figure in the realm of history, and Richardson manages to dissect his life into a generous three-volume epic. As far as artist biographies go, this is the one to own, cherish, and study the hell out of. Not only does it detail Picasso’s life and work, but it also captures the era in which he lived, the movements he helped create, and his complicated relationships with contemporaries like Braque and Apollinaire. The second volume is the one we have picked out here, specifically for its great detail about his relationships with other artists of the time, but the other two (“The Prodigy 1881-1906” and “The Triumphant Years 1917-1932”) are also worth owning. Picasso changed history, and the modern day art world wouldn’t be what it is without him.
For questions or further book suggestions, write amartinez[at]artinfo.com