Essential Books: 7 Enduring Works of Art Criticism

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While art history and art criticism overlap as disciplines, we usually tend to think of the latter as writing the first draft of the former. This isn’t to say that art critics don’t write about history proper, only that they offer a look into issues being contested during a particular period—even if it those arguments are eventually deemed irrelevant in retrospect. It’s a truism that while artists are remembered, the critics who supported them are largely forgotten; at any rate, critics—if they’re not also artists, which can sometimes be the case—usually don’t have anything to show for their efforts that could be hung in a museum. But they do leave behind their writings, and in doing so, they offer a window into how the sausage of art-historical reputation gets made. What follows are seven examples of the form that do just that. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)

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1. Lowery Stokes Sims, Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists 1925–1945
African-American artists are getting more attention these days than they ever have before, their visibility standing in sharp contrast to the dearth of recognition Black artists faced during the 20th century. Started in Europe, modern art was a white man’s club, though in America, surprisingly, a small though significant coterie of artists of color (including Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Jacob Lawrence) emerged to put their spin on the movement. Their efforts are featured in Lowery Stokes Sims’s Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists 1925–1945, which accompanied a 2003 exhibition of the same name at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The period it covers represents the zenith of Jim Crow and the concomitant Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to big northern cities, and as Simms notes, this transformational shift from rural life to urban existence shaped a uniquely African-American view of modernity pitched between oppression and liberating potential.
Purchase: Challenge of the Modern $85.00 (used) on Abebooks

2. Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audience
To the victors go the spoils, and for a triumphant United States after World War II, that included claiming for New York City the title of world’s art capital. In the early postwar era, Abstract Expressionism exploded onto the international stage as the ne plus ultra of innovations marking modernism’s arrival (indeed, it would take nearly a decade before artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol upended AbEx’s dominance). However, by the time critic Harold Rosenberg published The Anxious Object in the mid-1960s, worries about how to sustain the avant-garde commitment (which Rosenberg described as “the tradition of the new”) to revolutionary progress had settled over the art world. The question “Where does it all lead?” prompted Rosenberg’s book, though he didn’t provide an answer. Instead, the book reveals his struggles with the beginnings of modernism’s retreat. Often obscure and self-contradictory, Rosenberg’s tome nonetheless became a classic of midcentury criticism.
Purchase: The Anxious Object $25.66 (used) on Amazon

3. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship
Throughout its existence, performance art has tied elements of theater and spectacle to ideological, or at least socially subversive, ends. That is the thesis, anyway, of Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, which provides a critical exegesis of the genre and its century-long history. The book opens with the author’s 2006 Artforum article thrashing out the aesthetics and anti-aesthetics of participatory art, then dives into a chronicle touching on Constructivist theater; the public outrages of Dada and Futurism; Cold-War Happenings in Eastern Europe and South America mounted against repressive regimes; the Situationist International involvement with the May 1968 uprising in France; and the work of London’s Artist Placement Group, founded in 1965 to embed artists within government agencies and businesses as way of finding new avenues for art. Artificial Hells concludes with contemporary examples of participatory art, providing a definitive account of this complex and malleable practice.
Purchase: Artificial Hells $22.53 (new) on Amazon

4. Linda Nochlin, Realism (Style and Civilization)
The term realism is usually associated with naturalistically rendered imagery. But according to Linda Nochlin’s seminal tome, it had a profoundly different meaning during the 19th century, a period of social and political upheaval wrought by the Industrial Revolution. This was especially true in France, where art had been governed by the Académie des Beaux-Arts since the 17th century. Realism represented a radical break with academic standards enforced through an annual public salon that ranked subjects by importance, placing larger-than-life allegorical or historical narratives on top in a hierarchy that persisted even as different styles (Rococo, Neoclassicism, Romanticism) found official favor. In contrast, Realism introduced everyday scenes—once reserved for the lowly “genre” category—on a scale commensurate with celebrations of mythology and monarchy. Although Nochlin focuses on French painters who led the charge—Courbet, Manet, Degas—she also widens her survey to Germany, Italy, and other countries where Realism took root and changed art history.
Purchase: Realism $81.68 (new) on Amazon

5. Barbara Rose, American Art Since 1900
Noted art historian and curator Barbara Rose was a major proponent of the artistic developments roiling 1960s and ’70s New York, a period when Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art supplanted Abstract Expressionism, which had enjoyed an artistic monopoly during the early postwar era, as the mainstays of contemporary art. Published in 1967 in the thick of these developments, Rose’s book offered a critical take on 20th-century American art, examining art movements within the social contexts of their day. Starting with the Ashcan School (which practiced a gritty realism focused on the fervid pace of urban, working-class life), Rose plotted out a decades-long quest by American artists for independence from European modernism—which they did, in effect, by hijacking it. Though pitched to broad readership, Rose’s prose could be difficult at times, but that didn’t prevent the book from becoming a go-to text for college students and other nonspecialist readers.
Purchase: American Art Since 1900 $6.40 (used) on Amazon

6. Lucy Lippard, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art
Critic Lucy Lippard was best known in the late 1960s and early ’70s for promoting Conceptual Art, but this collection of essays also put her in the forefront of feminist art. Its 1976 publication came soon after the emergence of feminism as a widespread phenomenon, making Lippard’s book a retelling, in part, of how she became woke to its tenets. The first half of the book consists of Lippard’s catalog essays and articles for Artforum, Art in America, and Ms. magazine; the second half focuses on women artists such as Adrian Piper, Nancy Graves, and Marjorie Strider. Lippard considers such questions as why women artists tend to emerge in late career. Intriguingly, she puts partial blame on rampant sexism in art schools, where condescension to female students can promote low self-esteem. In From the Center, Lippard details her “process of consciousness” and dawning awareness of the pervasive misogynism of the art world.
Purchase: From the Center, from $96.05 (new) on Abebooks

7. Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness
As successful as they have been of late, African-American artists remain burdened by the expectation that race is the defining feature of their work. This not-coincidentally white view is the thesis of Darby English’s book, in which he focuses on five artists of color—Kara Walker, Fred Wilson, Isaac Julien, Glenn Ligon, and William Pope.L. English contends that seeing their work through the prism of race robs it of agency and relegates it to a reductive reading that English metaphorically dubs “total darkness.” For example, he compares Walker’s silhouetted murals, which appropriate a proto-photographic technique of 19th-century portraiture, to the coeval practices of landscape painting, arguing that Walker’s scenes of antebellum plantation life employ a similarly expansive approach to composition. English’s basic point is that his subjects aren’t simply black, but artists operating within an art-historical framework, and that seeing their work in that light is crucial to understanding it.
Purchase: How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness $40.45 (new) on Amazon