The best modern art books

5 authors have picked their favorite books about modern art and why they recommend each book.

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Duty Free Art

By Hito Steyerl,

Book cover of Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War

Hito Steyerl is one of the most prominent artists and media theorists in the world. Her essays draw unexpected and always stimulating connections between media technologies, surveillance, war, and political power. They are short, concise, and a pleasure to read, but they always engage with big ideas around the ethical and social challenges of a world made global through the framework of the Internet and digital communication more broadly.

Duty Free Art

By Hito Steyerl,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Duty Free Art, filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl wonders how we can appreciate, or even make art, in the present age. What can we do when arms manufacturers sponsor museums, and some of the world's most valuable artworks are used as a fictional currency in a global futures market that has nothing to do with the work itself? Can we distinguish between creativity and the digital white noise that bombards our everyday lives? Exploring artefacts as diverse as video games, Wikileaks files, the proliferation of spam, and political actions, she exposes the paradoxes within globalization, political economies, visual culture,…

Who am I?

I have been professionally involved with contemporary art since the 1980s, when I was a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. In the forty years since I've seen an enormous shift in the orientation of American curators and scholars from Western art to a global perspective. After earning my PhD at Harvard, and writing several books on contemporary art, I wanted to tackle the challenge of a truly comparative contemporary art history. To do so, I've depended on the burgeoning scholarship from a new more diverse generation of art historians, as well as on many decades of travel and research. My book Heritage and Debt is an attempt to synthesize that knowledge. 


I wrote...

Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization

By David Joselit,

Book cover of Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization

What is my book about?

If European modernism was premised on the new—on surpassing the past, often by assigning it to the “traditional” societies of the Global South—global contemporary art reanimates the past as a resource for the present. In this account of what globalization means for contemporary art, David Joselit argues that the creative use of tradition by artists from around the world serves as a means of combatting modern art's legacy of Eurocentrism. Modernism claimed to live in the future and relegated the rest of the world to the past. Joselit analyzes not only how heritage becomes contemporary through the practice of individual artists but also how a cultural infrastructure of museums, biennials, and art fairs worldwide has emerged as a means of generating economic value, attracting capital and tourist dollars.

The Spiritual in Art

By Maurice Tuchman (editor),

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

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.

The Spiritual in Art

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.


Who am I?

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.

An Art of Our Own

By Roger Lipsey,

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

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.

An Art of Our Own

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.


Who am I?

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.

Postmodern Heretics

By Eleanor Heartney,

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

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.”

Postmodern Heretics

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.


Who am I?

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.

Cosmos

By Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Centre De Cultura Contemporania De Barcelona, Jean Clair (editor)

Book cover of Cosmos: From Romanticism to the Avant-Garde

This book brilliantly revives the concept of cosmography, the visual depiction of the universe, from the beginnings of Romanticism to images from the Hubble telescope. By intermingling images from art and science, the book underscores the powerful visual parallels between the two disciplines, their discoveries equally strange, wondrous, and insightful. 

Cosmos

By Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Centre De Cultura Contemporania De Barcelona, Jean Clair (editor)

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I make prints and visual books. I founded Bridge Press, now in Kennebunk, Maine, 1989 to publish limited edition artist's books and etchings. The name of the press underscores the collaborative nature of book making. Visual books offered possibilities for the continuity, connection, and unfolding of images—each image is complete yet linked to every other through the structure of the book. Books seemed an ideal vehicle to assemble and connect my prints, to order and unfold a sequence of images, with defined and recurrent shapes, motifs, and composition, and to create a setting in which each image is complete yet linked to every other through the structure of the binding or enclosure.


I wrote...

Bestiary: A Book of Animal Poems & Prints

By Brian D. Cohen, Chard deNiord,

Book cover of Bestiary: A Book of Animal Poems & Prints

What is my book about?

Printmaker Brian D. Cohen and poet Chard deNiord have maintained an ongoing dialogue about animals since their first collaboration on the theme in the artist’s book What the Animals Teach Us. Animals have never ceased calling to artist and poet in silent and strange languages that have beckoned them to listen, observe, and wonder. To Cohen and deNiord, animals offer “tokens of ourselves” (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself) as they continue to inspire and surprise. Bestiary pairs over thirty poems and prints of a range of animals in their natural environments.

Carolyn Forché has written an introduction to the book in which she places Bestiary in historical, mythological, moral, and scientific context, and exhorts readers to behold these animate wonders of the world with their full awareness and open hearts.

The Innocent Eye

By Jonathan Fineberg,

Book cover of The Innocent Eye

This book by art historian Jonathan Fineberg will open your eyes to the fundamental connections between young children’s art and the art of famous 20th century modern artists like Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and others. You might be surprised to learn that many of these artists collected children’s drawings and were profoundly influenced by child art. This book will help you understand the images that inspired these modern masters. It will change how you look at both modern art and child art,  and you will come away with a greater appreciation of both.

The Innocent Eye

By Jonathan Fineberg,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"When I was the age of these children I could draw like Raphael. It took me many years to learn how to draw like these children."--Pablo Picasso, upon viewing an exhibition of children's drawings, as quoted by Sir Herbert Read in 1945 The idea that modern art looks like something a child can do is a long-standing cliche. For some modernists, however, the connection between their work and children's art was direct and explicit. This groundbreaking and heretical book, centered on such modern masters as Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, and Miro, presents for the first time material from the collections of…

Who am I?

I’ve had a life-long love affair with the arts. I intended to become an artist, but ultimately became a psychologist researching psychological aspects of the arts. My first book, Invented Worlds, examined the key questions and findings in the psychology of the arts. In Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, I wrote about gifted child artists. My Arts & Mind Lab at Boston College investigated artistic development in typical and gifted children, habits of mind conferred by arts education, and how we respond to works of art. The walls of my home are covered with framed paintings by young children, often side by side paintings by professional artists.


I wrote...

Book cover of How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration

What is my book about?

How Art Works explores puzzles about the arts (visual art, music, literature) that have preoccupied philosophers as well as the broader, reflective public: Can “ART” be defined? How do we decide what we think is a good or great work of art? Why do we seek out works of art that elicit negative emotions like sadness or fear? What’s wrong with a perfect fake? Does reading fiction enhance empathy? Does arts education raise test scores? What is particularly special about the visual art of the young child?  These puzzles are explored from the perspective of empirical evidence from my own lab as well as from labs of psychologists around the world.

Beyond the Brotherhood

By Anne Anderson,

Book cover of Beyond the Brotherhood: The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy

The Pre-Raphaelites were not just limited to the Victorian era, and this is a brilliant exhibition catalogue that explores how we are still loving the Pre-Raphaelites today in programmes like Game of Thrones and movies like The Lord of the Rings. It also reveals the way the 1960s responded to deeply unfashionable Pre-Raphaelite art and how important women were to the Pre-Raphaelites past and present.

Beyond the Brotherhood

By Anne Anderson,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I absolutely love the Pre-Raphaelites, they are my utter passion and these books are the fuel for that fire. Who wouldn't want to be a Pre-Raphaelite woman? Smart, talented, resourceful, these women define what it is to make a mark and great some of the most ground-breaking art in history. I'm particularly obsessed with Pre-Raphaelite women, the artists and muses who created the art we love so much today. After spending almost 30 years researching their lives and loves, it's now my absolute pleasure in telling everyone about these astonishing women, and why we should love them and learn from them.


I wrote...

Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era

By Kirsty Stonell Walker, Kingsley Nebechi (illustrator),

Book cover of Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era

What is my book about?

Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang will introduce readers of all ages to the remarkable women of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. From models to artists, these women all contributed something personal and incredible towards the most beautiful and imaginative art movement in the world. Rich or poor, black or white, these women redefined what it meant to be beautiful and influential in a male-dominated world and broke new ground in art, business, and women’s rights to pursue the life they loved.

Spanning almost a century and uncovering the truth behind some familiar and less familiar faces, this collection will offer new information to readers already interested in Pre-Raphaelite art and open the doors on an enchanting and revolutionary band of women who are unlikely and compelling role models.

Book cover of Portrait of Dr. Gachet The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece (Modernism, Money, Politics, Dealers, Taste, Greed and Loss)

This journey of a masterpiece through the hands of some of the most memorable characters of the twentieth century is more than art history, for me, it illuminated the motives, pure and impure, of collectors from Paris to Tokyo and the turbulent times in which they lived.

This tale of one painting by a great artist of a very peculiar patron provides an amazing journey from late nineteenth-century Paris to Amsterdam in the 1920s to Nazi Germany to late twentieth-century New York and, finally Tokyo. I make a cameo appearance towards the end.


Who am I?

I have spent an exciting half-century in the New York art world as a dealer and an author and while my passion is to encourage people to enjoy art for art’s sake (rather than money or prestige) my many close friendships with artists demonstrate how much their life informs their art. The authors of these five books bring the art as well as the artists to life.


I wrote...

Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art

By Michael Findlay,

Book cover of Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art

What is my book about?

When it comes to viewing art, living in the information age is not necessarily a benefit. So argues Michael Findlay in this book that encourages a new way of looking at art. Much of this thinking involves stripping away what we have been taught and instead of trusting our own instincts, opinions, and reactions. Including reproductions of works by Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Jacob Lawrence, and other modern and contemporary masters, this book takes readers on a journey through modern art. “The most important thing for us to grasp,” writes Findlay, “is that the essence of a great work of art is inert until it is seen. Our engagement with the work of art liberates its essence.”

Romanticism

By David Blayney Brown,

Book cover of Romanticism

Art history also knows a Romantic movement, as does music history. Brown’s book has 250 color plates, mostly of painting from Constable, Turner, Blake, Friedrich, Delacroix, Goya, and many others, but also of some architectural wonders. Brown makes continual connections to the poetry and philosophy of the time, and to political events, as he organizes his chapters by theme: the cult of the artist, the religion of nature, the sense of the past, orientalism, and the exotic, and so on. There are several fine books on Romantic painting, but this is probably the best place to begin.

Romanticism

By David Blayney Brown,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Romanticism was a way of feeling rather than a style in art. In the period c.1775-1830 - against the background of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars - European artists, poets and composers initiated their own rebellion against the dominant political, religious and social ethos of the day. Their quest was for personal expression and individual liberation and, in the process, the Romantics transformed the idea of art, seeing it as an instrument of social and psychological change.

In this comprehensive volume, David Blayney Brown takes a thematic approach to Romanticism, relating it to the concurrent, more stylistic movements…


Who am I?

I fell in love with the British Romantic poets when I took a course about them, and I fixated like a chick on the first one we studied, William Blake. He seemed very different from me, and in touch with something tremendous: I wanted to know about it. Ten years later I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Blake, and then published quite a bit about him. Meanwhile there were other poets, poets in other countries, and painters and musicians: besides being accomplished at their art, I find their ideas about nature, the self, art, and society still resonate with me.


I wrote...

Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction

By Michael K. Ferber,

Book cover of Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

In this book I explore Romanticism during the period of its incubation, birth, and growth, covering the years from 1760 to 1860. It incorporates not only the English but the Continental movements, and not only literature but music, art, religion, and philosophy. It sheds light on such subjects as the "Sensibility" movement, which preceded Romanticism; the rising prestige of the poet as inspired prophet; the rather different figure of the "poetess"; Romanticism as a religious trend; Romantic philosophy and science; and Romantic responses to the French Revolution, the Orient, and the condition of women. Some two hundred people are cited or quoted, many at length, including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Emerson, Hugo, Goethe, Pushkin, Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin, and Delacroix.

Flaubert and Madame Bovary

By Francis Steegmuller,

Book cover of Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait

One of the most moving accounts I know of how literary creation takes place. With extraordinary sensitivity, Steegmuller reveals the mind and soul of the perturbed young bourgeois, Gustave Flaubert, and shows him growing, bit by bit, page by page, into the writer who set new terms for the art of the novel for the next hundred years. Art remains a mystery, but Steegmuller brings us uncannily close to the heart of it.

Flaubert and Madame Bovary

By Francis Steegmuller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Flaubert and Madame Bovary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I’m a poet, literary critic, translator, and biographer, and I grew up partly in France. I became obsessed with Max Jacob when I was twenty. Max Jacob—mystic, poet, painter, and suffering lover—took hold of me, and I found myself writing poems to him, in his voice, in my sketchbooks. They were among my first published poems: he redirected my life. A few years later I stumbled into writing his biography, never imagining that it would take thirty-five years: it came out from W. W. Norton in 2020, along with my most recent book of poems So Forth. I teach Comparative Literature in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.


I wrote...

Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters

By Rosanna Warren,

Book cover of Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters

What is my book about?

My book is about art, religion, anti-Semitism, and queer life in France in the 20th century.

Max Jacob (1876-1944) was a French poet and painter: Jewish, Breton, and a homosexual. Best known for his radical prose poems, The Dice Cup, he was Picasso’s first French friend, creating with him the nucleus of Modernist art in Montmartre before World War I. After a vision in 1909, he formally converted to Roman Catholicism (with Picasso as his godfather) in 1915. An ardent Catholic, he spent fourteen years as a lay associate of the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, where the Gestapo arrested him in February 1944. He died in the Nazi transit camp of Drancy, the day before his scheduled transport to Auschwitz.

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