The Best Art Books of 2021

recommended by Romas Viesulas

Which art, architecture, design and photography books have we added to our library in 2021? Romas Viesulas, art & architecture editor at Five Books, takes us through his personal choice of beautiful reference books to add visual and conceptual interest to any well-appointed bookshelf.

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2021 gave many of us a window of opportunity to see art in person. Nonetheless, much of my appreciation has once again been mostly remote, the most rewarding of which came in book form. This year has given us a kaleidoscopic array of wonderful books to satisfy creative cravings. Lockdowns have messed with our sense of both space and time, but we are all likely to remember where we were during the quarantines of 2020 and 2021. Many of us will also remember what we were reading. These are a few of the best art, architecture and photography books in 2021 that have left a lasting impression on me. Which art books left an impression on you this year?

The Sleeve Should Be Illegal by Adam Gopnik et al.

“Masterpiece for masterpiece, the Frick is the best small museum in the United States for western painting before 1900…. Empowered by its new setting, work once considered frivolous becomes visual thunder.” There’s no quarrel with Pulitzer prize-winning art critic Jerry Salz’s assessment of the Frick’s collection, only impatience to visit the Frick’s new digs. That the Gilded Age founder was a vicious robber baron exemplifies the many contradictions that we’ve inherited with our art spaces into the 21st century.

We can still marvel at the masterpieces even as we question their provenance and original purpose as capitalist trophies. Can’t we? Unable to visit in person, I’ll console myself with this superlative collection of essays about the masterworks at the Frick. It’s no surprise that two of the finest art critics – Salz and the poet Peter Schjeldahl – live in New York, my old home town, nor that they share a love for this institution, so dear for being so idiosyncratic. “More than one contributor to The Sleeve Should Be Illegal invokes a sensation of walking on air after a visit to the Frick, a payoff of renewed faith in the powers of art and a forgivable pride in our own perhaps untrained and underused capacities to comprehend the aesthetic and spiritual stakes of a timeless game.” This beautifully produced book includes 61 reflections on the Frick’s collection, which holds masterpieces by some of the most celebrated artists in the Western tradition―among them Bellini, Gainsborough, Goya, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Whistler.

Other books about museums that I’ve added to my reference library include Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, a look at the thorny issues of provenance and restitution, and the subject of a forthcoming Five Books interview. Watch this space.

The Mirror & The Palette by Jennifer Higgie

Right up to our present day, art history has been mostly written by white men admiring or analysing the work of other white men. In parallel, women have continued to produce art – with the odds so often stacked against them, be they social, religious or economic. The Mirror and the Palette relates the stories of women artists who show us the many ways that art is made and looked at. Through the lens of the self-portrait and over the span of five centuries, Jennifer Higgie weaves art history and biography into a compelling  narrative to celebrate women whose creative expression bears witness to the courage and resilience with which they lived their lives. “Despite the immense hurdles that have been placed in her way, she sits at her easel, picks up a mirror and paints a self-portrait because, as a subject, she is always available.”

Other best art books 2021 that I’ve added to my reference library include Hilma Af Klint: Occult Painter and Abstract Pioneer, available in English for the first time since its original publication by Åke Fant in 1989; Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon, by the artist who maintains that ‘beauty is a basic service’; and the catalog from Jennifer Packer’s show at the Serpentine Gallery in London, The Eye Is Not Satisfied with Seeing.

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Non-Extractive Architecture by Space Caviar

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal were this year’s winners of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Through their design of private and social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public spaces, and urban developments, Lacaton and Vassal “reexamine sustainability in their reverence for pre-existing structures, conceiving projects by first taking inventory of what already exists”, in the words of the jury. Architecture, and by extension architects, have tremendous influence in defining the way we live, work, and interact individually and collectively. As we’ve discussed elsewhere on Five Books, architecture is in some ways the very social process through which our collective priorities take shape in the built environment. What about the collective priority of environmental consciousness? Construction is on the front lines of climate concern. Buildings today generate nearly forty percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. In this book – field guide, manifesto and call to action – the architectural practice Space Caviar invites us to consider what kind of architecture will be born once its primary purpose is serving communities and not capital accumulation? “The first step architects can take towards a more just, harmonious, and non-exploitative designed environment is to redesign themselves, and what the word ‘architect’ stands for.”

Another book about architecture that I’ve added to my ‘best art books 2021’ reference library include this thoughtful dialogue between architect and artist, David Adjaye, Adam Pendleton.

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What Artists Wear by Charlie Porter

Architects wear black. This seems to be a given, and has been addressed in the literature about the profession. Similar quantities of ink have been spilled on the subject of artists’ studios. Only this year, however, do we have an assessment of how and why artists dress as they do. In What Artists Wear, style luminary Charlie Porter gives us a written catwalk of outfits worn by artists, in the studio, on stage, at work, at home and at play. There are iconic looks that will be familiar to even casual observers: Andy Warhol’s signature denim, Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots. And there are the more subtle style signifiers like Georgia O’Keefe’s prairie minimalism or Yves Klein’s impeccable tailoring. “Part love letter, part guide to chic, and featuring generous photographic spreads, What Artists Wear is both a manual and a manifesto, a radical, gleeful, inspiration to see the world anew-and find greater pleasure and possibility in the clothes we all wear…. Most of us live our lives in our clothes without realizing their power. But in the hands of artists, garments reveal themselves. They are pure tools of expression, storytelling, resistance and creativity.”

Other books about fashion and design that I’ve added to my ‘best art books 2021’ reference library include: Woman Made, the most comprehensive illustrated manual to women in design to date; and No Compromise: The Work of Florence Knoll, who was responsible for so many design hallmarks of the modern era.

Masterworks of Modern Photography by Sarah Hermanson Meister

If one were to have a single volume of photography for one’s reference shelf dedicated to the twentieth century, this one might be it. In 2001, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired an unprecedented survey of modern photography from longtime collector Thomas Walther, who amassed one of the most impressive private collections of photography in the world. Focused on the era between the two World Wars, a time of experimentation and movements such as pictorialism, abstraction and candid street photography, this was a moment in image-making that set the stage for modernism. 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. Among the pieces included in this clothbound volume are some of the definitive examples of the medium: Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, John Gutmann, André Kertész, Alexander Rodchenko, Man Ray, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Edward Weston.

Other photography books I’ve added to my ‘best art books 2021’ reference shelf this year include the beautiful documentary fairy tale The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams by Argentine photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti; American Protest: Photographs 2020–2021, an urgent look at our troubled times by Mel D. Cole; Lee Friedlander, an American master; and rare photographic glimpses by celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, Byways.

Part of our best books of 2021 series.

December 2, 2021

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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.