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Top 10 Art Books – the Best Books of Art


For you budding artists, art majors, people interested in painting books or biographies of artists, or just collectors looking for something new and interesting – Michael Bracewell of The Guardian made a list of his top 10 indispensable visual art books.

1. The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe
As contrary as it is hilarious, Wolfe’s classic analysis of the world of modern art seems if anything to have become more astute since its first publication in 1975. The relationship between downtown talent (“warm and wet from the loft”) and uptown patronage is described with a comedic verve that remains as relevant to our own era of supersized art fairs as it did to Manhattan’s pioneer collectors of pop art. This is essential reading for any art student and all art teachers. Ironically, Wolfe’s distrust of pop art is confounded by the fact that his own prose style seems surely to be pop at its most classic.

2. Edie: An American Biography by Jean Stein and George Plimpton
A biography created entirely out of interviews with those who knew the socialite, actress and one-time Warhol “superstar” Edie Sedgwick, this non-fiction novel seems to say more about the shadow of Warhol’s obsession with glamour and money than any other treatise on the artist. Once read, you can never look at Warhol’s work in the same way again. The ultimate tragedy of the tale is that Edie herself – so hopelessly desirous of a role and so unequipped to deal with life – remains eclipsed in death by Warhol’s achievements as an artist.

3. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again
A handbook for living, Warhol’s philosophy should perhaps be read in conjunction with Edie and preferably followed by a dip into his extensive Diaries – edited by Pat Hackett, who co-authored the Philosophy with film critic, biographer and socialite Bob Colacello. It is hard not to believe that Warhol pretty much prophesised our own times, fixated on wealth, consumer products, celebrity, glamour, scandal and death.

4. The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac
This short story – originally published in the early 1830s and mysteriously dedicated “to a lord” – has had a profound effect on artists from Cézanne to Richard Hamilton. In its conflation of artistic allegory and erotic love, this story of a master painter’s deluded obsession with creative perfection appears to hold up a mirror to the darkest fears of artists – that their ambitions might be impossible to realise and their vocation a spiritual dead end. Seldom has the psychology of art been analysed with such insight, and with the page-turning drama of a thriller.

5. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne
Duchamp is generally regarded as either the saviour of art or its antichrist. In these compelling interviews, granted when Duchamp was over 80, the artist presents himself as drily affable, charmingly open and utterly inscrutable.

6. Collected Words by Richard Hamilton
The delight in Hamilton’s writing is his clarity, enthusiasm, good humour and elegant wit. His various writings, gathered together in this volume with an autobiographical commentary, confirm his place as one of the great pioneer artist-intellectuals of modern and postmodern society. Refreshingly free of critical jargon, Hamilton explains his subjects in terms of technique, craft and design – revealing the workings of mass media and mass production through a detailed understanding of their mechanics and technology. The book was also designed by Hamilton, and is as visually cool as it is beautifully written.

7. The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley – Collected Writings, 1965-2009
“No painter, dead or alive, has ever made us more aware of our eyes than Bridget Riley.” So wrote Robert Melville in the New Statesman magazine in 1971. In these essays, Riley recreates in prose the sensory and intellectual processes that have guided her development as an artist dedicated to the cause of abstraction and modern painting. Above all, these writings inspire anyone who is interested in art to return to the business of looking – an activity that is as simple as it is rewarding.

8. The Story of Art by EH Gombrich
The title says it all. Essential.

9. A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain, 1938-1955 by David Mellor
Mellor should be read for the sheer pleasure of his prose and the intellectual thrill of his cultural historical connection-making. This volume, along with Mellor’s The Sixties Art Scene in London and No Such Thing As Society, is the best survey of 20th-century British visual culture – bringing a past world to life through a bravura cultural history of its art, photography, cinema, illustration and mass media.

10. The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner
Strictly speaking a book of literary criticism, The Pound Era explains the beginnings of modernism in terms of a series of cultural vortices, as one civilisation – brought to its conclusion at the end of the 19th century – gave way to another: the beginnings of our own times. It is a book that helps one understand the crisis and seismic shift that would shape the modern history of art. Kenner’s prose style itself brings to mind sections of The Waste Land. An astonishing and brilliant merger of scholarship and poetics.

If those don’t have quite the feel you’re looking for, maybe you’re wanting something in a Lichtenstein or other Pop Art Books. Or if you’re interested in a great read that’s also a pleasure to look at, find a book illustrated by a famous artist. There are also publishers dedicated to and famous for their work with gorgeous and unforgettable books of art like Phaidon Press and of course, Taschen Publishing.

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Beth Carswell

About Beth Carswell

I've been reading, selling, researching, loving and writing about books with AbeBooks since 2000.

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