The best books on the spiritual dimension of modern art, 1800 to the present

Why am I passionate about this?

Having written several books on cultural history, I was puzzled in the late 1990s by the insistence of most American curators, art historians, and gallerists that there could not possibly be any spiritual content in modern art because the modern project (beginning, they assert, with the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874) was all about the rejection of tradition, religion, etc. This overarching narrative has dominated the professional art world since World War II. I knew it was false because I was aware that many prominent modern artists had spiritual interests, which were expressed in their art. So began a 17-year-long research quest focused on what the artists themselves had said.


I wrote...

The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present

By Charlene Spretnak,

Book cover of The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present

What is my book about?

A great underground river flows through the history of modern art, since its beginnings with William Blake around 1800: spirituality, far from being inconsequential to the supposedly strictly secular art of the modern period, was, and is, generative. To make this case, I tracked down direct statements by 250 prominent modern artists—culled from little-known historical documentation and from interviews I conducted with many well-known contemporary artists. I then constructed, for the first time, a chronological survey of the major art movements of the modern period that weaves together spiritual profiles of leading artists and situates their work within the cultural context of their time, including the spiritual orientations that intrigued artists in particular decades. The result is a significantly expanded understanding of the cultural history of modern art.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985

Charlene Spretnak Why did I love this book?

This is the grand exhibition catalogue that burst through the professional art world’s wall of denial that modern, especially abstract, art would have any spiritual content. The extensive exhibition this book accompanied opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986 and then travelled to The Hague, where it influenced young European art historians (though was largely ignored in the United States). This catalogue contains excellent articles by 17 noted “rebellious” art historians, including an overview by the head curator of the exhibition, Maurice Tuchman. The many color plates are stunning. This book is indispensable for anyone seeking to learn about the subject.

By Maurice Tuchman (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Spiritual in Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The seventeen essays in this provocative book provide a radical rethinking of abstraction, from the Symbolism that prefigured abstract art through the current manifestations of spiritual content in American and European painting.


Book cover of An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art

Charlene Spretnak Why did I love this book?

Lipsey, an art historian, was inspired by Coomaraswamy’s perception of spiritual interests in the work of early modernist artists who exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in New York in the 1920s. Lipsey had a hunch that many more prominent 20th-century artists most likely had a similar engagement with the spiritual. In seeking to present “the hidden side” of modern art, he discusses some 20 renowned artists and relevant movements that attracted many of them in various decades, such as Theosophy, Orphism, and Cubism. The title is taken from a quotation by the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who favored a nature-based spiritual sensibility that was distinct from church-based religious art: “It is time we had an art of our own.” Lipsey is an insightful and graceful guide in this area.

By Roger Lipsey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An Art of Our Own as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Book by Lipsey, Roger


Book cover of Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual

Charlene Spretnak Why did I love this book?

The Romantic painters of the early 19th century were intrigued with notions of the sublime, the Absolute, and the unity and divinity of all nature. After the mid-1880s the focus of the avant-garde painters became energized by the quest to escape the bounds of “materialism” (an umbrella term by which they meant positivism, the mechanistic worldview of Newtonian physics, as well as the destructive effects of industrialism). Lynn Gamwell illuminates the fascination many of the modern artists felt for various scientific discoveries in various decades. For instance, the first exhibition of x-rays by the Berlin Physical Society in 1896 was hailed by the artists as proof that an invisible structure underlies every surface, just as Theosophy asserts! Exploring the Invisible is subtle, thorough, and insightful engagement with this rich interplay.

By Lynn Gamwell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Exploring the Invisible as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How science changed the way artists understand reality

Exploring the Invisible shows how modern art expresses the first secular, scientific worldview in human history. Now fully revised and expanded, this richly illustrated book describes two hundred years of scientific discoveries that inspired French Impressionist painters and Art Nouveau architects, as well as Surrealists in Europe, Latin America, and Japan.

Lynn Gamwell describes how the microscope and telescope expanded the artist's vision into realms unseen by the naked eye. In the nineteenth century, a strange and exciting world came into focus, one of microorganisms in a drop of water and spiral…


Book cover of In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States

Charlene Spretnak Why did I love this book?

Most of the impressive artists in this exhibition catalogue did not call themselves Surrealists, but they all were engaged in the initial Surrealist project: to go beyond the tight constraints of Western “reason” to explore the subtle dynamics of the larger gestalt. Toward this end, many of them became interested in esoteric spirituality, portraying the female body as a site of creative energy as well as psychic and cosmological power. Some of them depicted shamanic initiation; some painted serenely detached goddess figures manifesting aspects of the physical world. More than 200 works were included in the exhibition. The featured artists include Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, Maya Deren, Lee Miller, Yayoi Kusama, and Francesca Woodman. Capsule biographies with striking photographic portraits of these extraordinary women close the book.

By Ilene Susan Fort, Tere Arcq, Terri Geis

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Wonderland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The surrealist movement in art is most often identified with male artists, many of whom objectified women in their paintings, casting them as sexual or symbolic ideals. Conversely, the female artists of the movement delved primarily into their own subconscious and dreams. This volume features the work of 48 Mexican and U.S.-based women artists whose contributions to the surrealist movement span more than four decades and whose work was both influential and radical in its own right. Thematically arranged, it includes more than 250 full-colour images along with several essays exploring the effects of geography and gender on the movement.…


Book cover of Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art

Charlene Spretnak Why did I love this book?

I noticed when I was interviewing prominent contemporary artists for my book that many of them had a Catholic childhood. Eleanor Heartney noticed the same thing when she began to research the art and artists who became a focus in the culture wars of the 1990s. This is a dimension of the art history of the modern era that has not been told. Heartney explores the influence of an “Incarnational consciousness” in works that transgress boundaries. Beyond that, she frames artistic manifestations of the “Catholic imagination,” tracing the influence of “the beauty of religious art, music, and literature and the slippage in sacramental rituals between the carnal and the spiritual.” Her final chapter is on “Knowledge Through the Body: The Female Perspective.”

By Eleanor Heartney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Postmodern Heretics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEWLY EXPANDED AND REDESIGNED 2ND EDITION. This redesigned, re-edited, illustrated new edition of the classic study "Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art" explores the Catholic roots of controversial artists and the impact of Catholicism on the 1990s Culture Wars. In the 1990s the United States was embroiled in a deeply divisive Culture War. "Postmodern Heretics" offers a radically original interpretation of the extraordinary cultural and political battles that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Examining this period from the perspective of religion, Eleanor Heartney discovers that the most controversial artists of the time came, almost…


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American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

Book cover of American Flygirl

Susan Tate Ankeny Author Of The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Susan Tate Ankeny left a career in teaching to write the story of her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France. In 2011, after being led on his path through France by the same Resistance fighters who guided him in 1944, she felt inspired to tell the story of these brave French patriots, especially the 17-year-old- girl who risked her own life to save her father’s. Susan is a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, the Air Force Escape and Evasion Society, and the Association des Sauveteurs d’Aviateurs Alliés. 

Susan's book list on women during WW2

What is my book about?

The first and only full-length biography of Hazel Ying Lee, an unrecognized pioneer and unsung World War II hero who fought for a country that actively discriminated against her gender, race, and ambition.

This unique hidden figure defied countless stereotypes to become the first Asian American woman in United States history to earn a pilot's license, and the first female Asian American pilot to fly for the military.

Her achievements, passionate drive, and resistance in the face of oppression as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a female aviator changed the course of history. Now the remarkable story of a fearless underdog finally surfaces to inspire anyone to reach toward the sky.

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

What is this book about?

One of WWII’s most uniquely hidden figures, Hazel Ying Lee was the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot’s license, join the WASPs, and fly for the United States military amid widespread anti-Asian sentiment and policies.

Her singular story of patriotism, barrier breaking, and fearless sacrifice is told for the first time in full for readers of The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia, Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown and all Asian American, women’s and WWII history books.…


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