The most recommended modern art books

Who picked these books? Meet our 21 experts.

21 authors created a book list connected to modern art, and here are their favorite modern art books.
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What type of modern art book?


Book cover of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: From Slashed Canvas to Unmade Bed, Modern Art Explained

Gareth Southwell Author Of Pale Kings

From my list on understanding the crazy world of contemporary art.

Who am I?

From the moment I could pick up a pencil, I’ve loved to draw. Since then, my art career has developed alongside my writing, and I’m now a professional illustrator. Despite this background, I still feel alienated from the “art world”. Contemporary art seems like a scam. Its pieces leave me cold, there’s rarely any skill to be appreciated, and their “meaning” is often obscure or trivial – at the end of the day, a pickled sheep is a pickled sheep, right? Pale Kings is a satire of all this, where a group of chancers set out to scam the scammers at their own game. But would anyone really buy a hole?

Gareth's book list on understanding the crazy world of contemporary art

Gareth Southwell Why did Gareth love this book?

Before you judge contemporary art, it’s only fair that you try to understand it.

As such, Susie Hodges’ book does a valuable service, collecting together one hundred of the most important, influential, and controversial artworks from the last century or so. This ranges from Picasso to Damien Hirst, from Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints of tins of tomato soup to Tracy Emin’s unmade bed.

Each entry gives some background to the work, some critical analysis, and attempts to justify why, although your five-year-old might indeed leave their bed unmade, they could not have done so in a way that explores the poignancy of the human condition (or something like that…).

A partisan book, defending the importance of modern art, but an informative introduction.

By Susie Hodge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Come on, you know you've thought it-while viewing a "masterpiece" of abstract art, you mutter, "A kid could do that." Here Susie Hodge, author of How to Survive Modern Art, explains why the best examples of modern art are actually the result of sophisticated thought and serious talent. From Marcel Duchamp's notorious Fountain and the scribbles of Cy Twombly to Mark Rothko's multiforms and Carl Andre's uncarved blocks, Hodge addresses critical outrage with a revealing insight into the technical skill, layering of ideas, and sheer inspiration behind each work. In cleverly organized chapters such as "Objects/ Toys," "Provocations/Tantrums," and "People/Monsters,"…

Book cover of The Innocent Eye

Ellen Winner Author Of How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration

From my list on the value of children’s art.

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.

Ellen's book list on the value of children’s art

Ellen Winner Why did Ellen love this book?

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.

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…

Book cover of How Photography Became Contemporary Art: Inside an Artistic Revolution from Pop to the Digital Age

Philip Gefter Author Of What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon

From my list on for understanding photography as art.

Who am I?

My interest in photography began as a student at Pratt Institute, a preeminent art school, and I have worked in the field my entire adult life, not as a photographer but as a picture editor and photography critic. I was the Page One Picture Editor of The New York Times and wrote regularly about photography for the paper. I have published two biographies: one on Richard Avedon, among the more significant artists of the 20th century, and another on Sam Wagstaff, one of the earliest collectors who established the art market for photography; a book of collected reviews and essays called Photography After Frank; and essays on individual photographers for museum catalogues and artist’s monographs. I produced the 2011 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York.

Philip's book list on for understanding photography as art

Philip Gefter Why did Philip love this book?

As a photography critic for The New York Times, Grundberg was present when a generation of artists began to take apart the photographic image and transform its meaning in society. He wrote about post-modern practice in the present tense, as it was happening. This book is a collection of his reviews and essays from the 1980s when the medium was at a crossroads; the factual veracity of photography was enduring challenges at every turn and the valuation of the photograph as an art object was under critical scrutiny.

By Andy Grundberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Photography Became Contemporary Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A leading critic's inside story of "the photo boom" during the crucial decades of the 1970s and 80s

"Grundberg . . . is a vibrant, opinionated, authoritative guide to the medium's past and present."-Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times, "Best Books of 2021: Visual Arts"

When Andy Grundberg landed in New York in the early 1970s as a budding writer, photography was at the margins of the contemporary art world. By 1991, when he left his post as critic for the New York Times, photography was at the vital center of artistic debate. Grundberg writes eloquently and authoritatively about photography's "boom years,"…

Book cover of Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Nancy Reyner Author Of Create Perfect Paintings: An Artist's Guide to Visual Thinking

From my list on for painters to stay creative.

Who am I?

When I was nine years old, I saved enough allowance money to buy a big box of oil pastels. I was mesmerized by its amazing display of gorgeous colors. Never could figure out why my girlfriends played with dolls when it was more exciting to paint. It wasn’t until high school, and time to apply to colleges that I made the decision to go to art school. Another key moment for me was after graduating from art school and landing in New York City. It was then that I made a brave decision to never waitress again, and instead do whatever it takes to stay in the arts. 

Nancy's book list on for painters to stay creative

Nancy Reyner Why did Nancy love this book?

This book is an absolute must-read for all painters. Kandinsky is known as the father of modern art who brought abstract painting into the realms of art history. As an important aside, there is now controversy over his title, as new information has come up about a woman painter Hilma af Klint, that preceded Kandinsky for abstract painting ideas. Even so, Kandinsky was the first to write about spirituality and art for painters. His ideas still feel fresh on how color plays an integral role to express emotion in painting. He originally wrote this book in German, and so the translation to English along with his determination to express inner motivation for painters, makes this read a bit of a challenge. A worthy task guaranteed to surprise even the savviest painter, on how Kandinsky points out our inner thoughts as contemporary painters, but more than a century ago.

By Wassily Kandinsky,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A pioneering work in the movement to free art from its traditional bonds to material reality, this book is one of the most important documents in the history of modern art. Written by the famous nonobjective painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), it explains Kandinsky's own theory of painting and crystallizes the ideas that were influencing many other modern artists of the period. Along with his own groundbreaking paintings, this book had a tremendous impact on the development of modern art.
Kandinsky's ideas are presented in two parts. The first part, called "About General Aesthetic," issues a call for a spiritual revolution…

Book cover of Romanticism

Michael K. Ferber Author Of Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction

From my list on how romanticism transformed western culture.

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.

Michael's book list on how romanticism transformed western culture

Michael K. Ferber Why did Michael love this book?

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.

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…

Book cover of Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up

Michael Findlay Author Of Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art

From my list on making modern art exciting.

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.

Michael's book list on making modern art exciting

Michael Findlay Why did Michael love this book?

Of the many biographies of Andy Warhol this early one remains the best, written by a man who worked and partied with the artist in the heyday of the artist’s glamorous world (and I make another brief cameo appearance). Everything about the enigmatic icon of contemporary art continues to inform our culture and I was deeply influenced not only by Warhol’s paintings but by my friendship with him from 1964 until his death in 1987. In books and movies he has been transformed into a cultural icon rather than the complicated amusing hard-working artist I knew. Bob Colacello wrote this book shortly after Warhol died and for me is the best portrait of the “real” Andy Warhol and the era he helped to define.

By Bob Colacello,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s paintings redefined modern art. His films provoked heated controversy, and his Factory was a hangout for the avant-garde. In the 1970s, after Valerie Solanas’s attempt on his life, Warhol become more entrepreneurial, aligning himself with the rich and famous. Bob Colacello, the editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine, spent that decade by Andy’s side as employee, collaborator, wingman, and confidante.

In these pages, Colacello takes us there with Andy: into the Factory office, into Studio 54, into wild celebrity-studded parties, and into the early-morning phone calls where the mysterious artist was at his most honest and…

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

David Joselit Author Of Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization

From my list on art and globalization.

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. 

David's book list on art and globalization

David Joselit Why did David love this book?

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.

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,…

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

Charlene Spretnak Author Of The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present

From my list on the spiritual dimension of modern art.

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.

Charlene's book list on the spiritual dimension of modern art

Charlene Spretnak Why did Charlene 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…

Book cover of The Story of Art Without Men

Jacqui Furneaux Author Of Hit the Road, Jac!: Seven years. Twenty Countries. No Plan

From Jacqui's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Who am I?

Author Motorcyclist Optimist Word lover Swimmer Handy

Jacqui's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Jacqui Furneaux Why did Jacqui love this book?

As a regular visitor to art galleries, I noticed the scarcity of old paintings by female artists. In this rather cheekily titled book, the author explains the reasons for so few artworks by women in our museums and galleries.

She illustrates women’s artistic talent and the incredible and often physically violent struggles they have endured in order to be recognised.

I learned so much, and it’s rekindled my determination to keep riding my motorbike! Now, you may think motorcycle travel and art history have nothing in common, but not so! There is still a belief that women are not as capable or talented as men in all fields. And I still find people are often surprised that, as a woman, I achieved a round-the-world, seven-year motorcycle journey. 

By Katy Hessel,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Story of Art Without Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How many women artists do you know? Who makes art history? Did women even work as artists before the twentieth century? And what is the Baroque anyway?

Guided by Katy Hessel, art historian and founder of @thegreatwomenartists, discover the glittering paintings by Sofonisba Anguissola of the Renaissance, the radical work of Harriet Powers in the nineteenth-century United States and the artist who really invented the "readymade." Explore the Dutch Golden Age, the astonishing work of postwar artists in Latin America, and the women defining art in the 2020s. Have your sense of art history overturned and your eyes opened to…

Book cover of Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century

Barry Sandywell Author Of Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms

From my list on beginning the study of visual culture.

Who am I?

I'm currently an Honorary Fellow in Social Theory at the University of York, U.K. For more than five decades I've been working to promote more reflexive perspectives in philosophy, sociology, social theory, and sociological research. I've written and edited many books in the field of social theory with particular emphasis upon questions of culture and critical research in the expanding field of visual culture. Recent projects include Interpreting Visual Culture (with Ian Heywood), The Handbook of Visual Culture, and an edited multi-volume textbook to be published by Bloomsbury, The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Visual Culture. The passion to understand the thought and visual culture of both the ancient and modern world continues to inform my work. 

Barry's book list on beginning the study of visual culture

Barry Sandywell Why did Barry love this book?

Crary’s work provides a theoretical and empirically informed synthesis of the work of theorists like Berger, Debord, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Sontag. Like these earlier writers, the technological transformations of visual culture are at the heart of the social transformations of the modern world. To understand modernity is thus first to make sense of its visual logics, procedures, and practices. This general argument allowed the author to enter the granular historical details of how seeing and 'observation’ have become essential to the concerns of modern life. What he calls 'techniques of the observer’ are in fact the core sensory apparatus that has helped to shape the institutions and practices of modern life.

What can be visualized is correlated to the technical affordances and historical development of representational practices. This makes technologies of the visual central to social analysis. Some of the most powerful drivers of modern life are thus linked to…

By Jonathan Crary,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer provides a dramatically new perspective on the visual culture of the nineteenth century, reassessing problems of both visual modernism and social modernity. This analysis of the historical formation of the observer is a compelling account of the prehistory of the society of the spectacle.

In Techniques of the Observer Jonathan Crary provides a dramatically new perspective on the visual culture of the nineteenth century, reassessing problems of both visual modernism and social modernity.

Inverting conventional approaches, Crary considers the problem of visuality not through the study of art works and images, but by analyzing…