10 Best Art Books of 2014

Matthew Israel
Dec 22, 2014 8:50PM

At the end of every year I love reading lists of the year’s best books. This year I thought I would write my own about art books. But the historian/academic in me had a difficult time. My mind quickly presented me with many reasons I shouldn’t write such a list.

Among other things:

–Who am I to make such a list?
–Isn’t 2014 an arbitrary boundary?
–Why just books?
–By making a list of just art books am I reinforcing an arbitrary division between the arts?
–Doesn’t any list like this just boil down to a matter of taste?
–Am I qualified to recommend books outside my specialty/academic focus?
–Why just 10? (Why not 100 or 1,000 or two)?
–Shouldn’t my list be collaborative? Can anyone say anything of quality wholly on their own?
–Would this be better as a narrative list (even if such narratives seem artificial)?
–Should this list have one theme, since it could be seen as irresponsible to group together books that function in so many different ways for so many different audiences?

However, the educator in me eventually won out. Above all I find “best books lists”—problematic as they are—to be a great way to share excellent publications. So here’s my list—with brief rationalizations below them—in no particular order. 

Robert Gober: The Heart is Not A Metaphor
Hilton Als & Ann Temkin
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Gober is one of my favorite artists. I frequently am in awe of his ability to. in the words of critic John Russell, infuse his “minimal forms with maximum content." He also gave the best artist talk I have ever been to (at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU). The catalogue accompanying his current MoMA retrospective includes an essay by critic Hilton Als. As MOCA Los Angeles chief curator Helen Molesworth explains, “who could ask for a more affective and intelligent pairing?”

The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume V: The Twentieth Century, Part 2: The Rise of Black Artists
Ed., David Bindman; by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Associate Editor Karen C. C. Dalton
Belknap Press

This is the final volume in The Image of the Black in Western Art, Harvard University Press and the Du Bois Institute’s project to republish and extend the original series, which was catalyzed in the 1960s by art patrons Dominique and Jean de Menil’s image archive to present the ways in which people of African descent have been represented in Western art, from the ancient world to the present.

Untitled 9 (Guides), 2013
Xavier Hufkens
Untitled, 2012
Xavier Hufkens

David Altmejd
Text by Robert Hobbs. Contributions by Trinie Dalton, Christopher Glazek, and Kevin McGarry

A retrospective monograph tracing 20 years of the work of Altmejd, one of the most important and influential sculptors working today.


Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness

Matthew S. Witkovsky, Mark Godfrey, Roxana Marcoci, Christopher Williams
Yale University Press

Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times of Williams’s recent MoMA exhibition: “It conveys the complexity of Mr. Williams’s achievement and of art making itself with a wondrous lucidity. And just wait until you tackle the catalog.” Williams’s catalogue is the most thought-provoking of the year. It’s a compendium of almost all writings about production—particularly those of other artists, architects, and musicians. Another book by Williams, Printed in Germany, and published by Walther König, functions as a companion, and is all pictures, no text. And there is a third publication planned for 2015 that will include installation images from the exhibition’s three venues and image captions absent from Printed in Germany.

Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection
Eds., Emily Braun and Rebecca Rabinow
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

An encapsulation of an incredible, landmark exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this book is both for serious Cubism nerds but also for anyone interested in the most influential movement in the history of modern art. The Met’s collection of Cubism has dramatically improved the museum’s ability to tell the story of modernism. It fills one of the biggest gaps in the museum’s collection and makes its history of Cubism comparable to that of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Goya: Order & Disorder
Text by Stephanie Loeb Stepanek, Frederick Ilchman, and Janis A. Tomlinson, with contributions by Manuela B. Mena Marques, Gudrun Maurer, Juliet Wilson-Bareau, et al.
MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This is the catalogue for the current Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Goya exhibition, “Order & Disorder,” on view through January 15th—the largest U.S. exhibition of  Goya since 1989. It’s been called “titanic”; and most importantly, it’s not travelling, so if you don’t see the show, this catalogue is the closest you’ll get.  

33 Artists in 3 Acts
Sarah Thornton
W. W. Norton & Company

I greatly appreciate Thornton’s approachability—which is very difficult to do with the complex content of the art world—and there is a serious amount of research that goes into her accessible writing. I also greatly respect her foregrounding artists’ words, something not done enough. I look forward to re-reading this book.

Michael Benson
Harry N. Abrams

Benson’s book presents the discovery and our increasing understanding of the universe through 1,000 years of illustrations and maps. Maria Popova (of Brainpickings) calls Benson’s book a masterwork of scholarship, particularly for its presentation of imagery that is “ungoogleable.”

The Long March of Pop
Thomas Crow
Yale University Press

The long-awaited, “paradigm-changing,” expansive narrative on Pop Art by the esteemed NYU professor of modern art. Crow explores the American-ness of Pop, as well as its relation to folk art, music, and graphic design.

Rendez-vous with Art
Philippe de Montebello & Martin Gayford
Thames & Hudson

Critics have praised this series of edited  conversations between Montebello, Director of the Met for 31 years—the longest directorship in Met history—and art critic Gayford. The authors’ emphasis on first-person accounters is presented in accessible language and the insight into Montebello’s sentiments, affections, and prejudices have been praised in particular.

Matthew Israel