The Best Art Books of 2020

recommended by Romas Viesulas

Which art, architecture and photography books have we added to our library in 2020? Romas Viesulas, art & architecture editor at Five Books, takes us through his personal choice of beautiful reference books and biographies to add visual and conceptual interest to any well-appointed bookshelf.

It’s been a good year for art books, even though 2020 was terrible for exhibits and events. Virtual exhibitions in this year of quarantine have highlighted the website as a locus for visual experience and the book as art object. Hardcopy reproductions have often been the only way to enjoy visual art besides viewing from your screen, and in many respects are a richer experience than even the illuminated manuscripts of our digital screens can provide. Holding a reproduction in your hands slows down time more than viewing art on a screen. The book is something you can linger over, a characteristic that can heighten the effect of an artwork. Moreover, when a given artwork leaves a show or enters a collector’s home, it doesn’t disappear off the face of the earth. In book form it finds its way into a collective art history. That’s an important statement for an art work, beyond the immediate impact of being viewed first hand.

Art books can be a fine investment in 2020 and beyond too. Editioned books, monographs and artists’ books have all seen continued appreciation in spite of the oft-heard refrain about the ‘death of print’ and the proliferation of ebooks and ereaders. When it comes to art, architecture and photography books, readers and collectors like to have something to hold, and which holds its value. Some might go so far as to call art books an asset class. One volume that might qualify as an asset in its own right is the recently published, literally monumental 1:1 reproduction of the Sistine Chapel. While this $22,000 coffee table book may not be on every reader’s holiday list (you would need one hell of a table, for one thing…), other Old Master volumes that have commanded attention this year include the catalogues of landmark 2020 exhibits such as Jan Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, Titian: Love, Desire, Death and Artemisia (“I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do”) at the National Gallery in London. Maria Loh, previously featured on Five Books for a discussion about the lives of artists, has written Titian’s Touch, about the synaesthetic pleasures of the painter’s work. There’s still an outside chance I make it to the show about the hitherto under-appreciated Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, but we will certainly seek out the exhibition catalogue.

1. Bilderatlas Mnemosyne by Aby Warburg, edited by Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil

In spite of it all, 2020 has been a good year for Modern and Contemporary Art, and art books relating to the last century. Auction houses and art fairs appear to be taking the pandemic in their stride, honing their online exhibition prowess, even as they take a hit. One publishing milestone was the reconstruction and publication of Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, a legendary modernist epic of visual thinking from the founder of iconology, tracing the migration of symbols through art, history and cosmology. This visual dictionary of symbols encompasses everything from medieval manuscripts to coins, playing cards, postage stamps and modern photographs, always looking for deeper meanings carried by images—a reference volume akin to an encyclopaedia among art books.

2. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night by Isabella Maidment and Andrea Schlieker

This editor has a predilection for painting, and especially for the enigmatic portraits of fictional people by British painter Lynette-Yiadom Boyakye. Her exhibit at Tate Modern has been keenly anticipated this year, and her work may appeal to poetry lovers too; words take the place of paint when she finds they express ideas more forthrightly.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

Celebrated German painter Gerhard Richter’s exhibit Painting After All at the Metropolitan Museum in New York was open for all of nine days before lockdown hit. But the exhibition catalogue makes for an important entry in any reference library on painting, given his standing as one of the last centuries most celebrated practitioners. Finally, a shout out to Contemporary Art Issue, which I first signalled in a recent interview on figurative painting today. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of their first volume, ‘Apologia’, which launches soon and looks like a fanzine for figurative art junkies.

3. Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch by Svetlana Alpers

Artist biographies have been a staple in this editorial department. Regular readers will already be familiar with the magisterial biographies on Andy Warhol and Lucian Freud that have featured previously on Five Books. (Watch this space for forthcoming interviews on Goya, the Arts & Crafts movement and William Morris.) My current bedside table reading is a biography on American photographer Walker Evans, subtitled Starting from Scratch, by the notable art historian Svetlana Alpers. Evans approached his craft with the sensibility of a painter, Alpers argues, which may be why he is so close to my heart.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

In August 2020 Luchita Hurtado died, an artist associated with a vast network of internationally renowned artists and intellectuals, including members of the Dynaton group, the Mexican muralists, and the Surrealists. To mark her centenary, Hauser & Wirth have published an account of her extraordinary life, as related in a series of interviews with art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist, from beginnings in Venezuela, to New York, Mexico, and finally to California and New Mexico. Hurtado made the Time list of 100 most influential people, and crossed paths with some of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, such as Leonora Carrington, Marcel Duchamp, Arshile Gorky, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Robert Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi, Man Ray, Mark Rothko, and Rufino Tamayo, all of whom are referenced and remembered in this beautiful book, available via the publisher.

4. Albers & Albers: Equal and Unequal by Nicholas Fox Weber

Other ‘lives of artists’ worth exploring include Albers & Albers: Equal and Unequal, which documents a creative dynamo. This German-American power couple were pioneers of abstract art. For the first time, a single monograph presents both their beguiling relationship and exceptional creativity, from their formative years at the Bauhaus in Germany to their singular influence at the revolutionary Black Mountain College in the United States. Josef – painter, designer, and teacher – and Anni Albers – textile artist and printmaker – are among the twentieth century’s most influential artists, and this visual biography by Phaidon publishers does them justice, with a dazzling array of of bold colour photographs of their work in all its variety, certainly one of the most eye-catching art books of 2020.

5. Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide by Mohamed Elshahed

For those seeking architectural armchair travel experiences, I would heartily recommend Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide. This is an urgent volume for a rich, multi-layered city in the midst of a destructive redevelopment. It seems that one can find all of architectural history in this city, from turn-of-the-century revivalism and romanticism, to concrete expressionism, and modernist design. In contrast to Cairo’s ancient and medieval architectural heritage, the city’s modern architecture has to date not received the attention it deserves.

Confinement has limited our access to noteworthy spaces and places but given many a renewed interest in exploring home. For architecture books, how could I resist a book about libraries? For The Love of Books is a standout for ideas on how to curate your library, and ties in with recent debates about the value and virtue-signalling of libraries in lockdown. Home is where the heart is—and the Hi-Fi. As more music becomes digital rather than analogue, this design book presents an almost wistful look back at the designs that for many defined the acoustic experience of being homebound.

It may be some time before most of us fly again. The noise of overhead air traffic has become an ever more distant memory for many of us. What goes on in air terminals the world over when no-one is flying? Looking forward to perhaps boarding again next year, we also await the publication in January of Tom Hegen: Aerial Observations on Airports, from one of my favourite publishers of art, architecture and photography books, Hatje Cantz. Here, the German photographer known for his aerial photographs documents Germany’s airports at the height of 2020’s lockdown in all their geometric stillness.

Throughout the history of the medium, photography books played a rather under-appreciated role, but their value has been increasingly recognised.

Inundated with ever more digital imagery, as all of us have become content producers while corporations harvest our IP. Yet no matter the extent of the proliferation of photos, some images remain seared on the imagination, a retinal after-image on the mind’s eye. In 2020, we lost several who had captured images of lasting power. These included Chris Killip, perhaps best known for his unflinching series In Flagrante, which he made in the industrial north-east of England between 1973 and 1985. And Paul Fusco, whose most enduring image is perhaps the track-side family of mourners passed by Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train in 1968. I will be adding both photography books to my library in memoriam. Just published, The New Woman Behind the Camera presents a detailed survey of the many ways women around the world shaped modern photography in the mid twentieth century, and is also on order.

Lockdowns have been messing with our sense of both space and time, but we will all remember where we were during the quarantines of 2020. Many of us will remember what we were reading, and the art, architecture and photography books in 2020 that have left a lasting impression. Which art books left an impression on you this year?

Part of our Best Books of 2020 series

December 2, 2020

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Romas Viesulas

Romas Viesulas

Romas Viesulas is art and architecture editor at Five Books.

Romas Viesulas

Romas Viesulas

Romas Viesulas is art and architecture editor at Five Books.