8 Art Books to Read This March

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when you finish one art book, a dozen more pop up in its place. That’s where we come in with a list of titles to check out this month, including a charming Beatrix Potter catalogue in time for spring entitled Drawn to Nature, a guide to New York’s unparalleled subway art, and more. We’re also turning to visual artists’ literary lives through painter Charles Burchfield’s journal entries and critic John Yau’s recommendation of a book of poetry by Meret Oppenheim. —Lakshmi Rivera Amin, editorial coordinator

On Our List

Contemporary Art Underground: MTA Arts & Design New York by Sandra Bloodworth and Cheryl Hageman

The quality of subway art in New York City is unrivaled. From Ann Hamilton’s marble words at the World Trade Center station to the vibrant mosaics by Nick Cave in Times Square and the cut metal screens by Saya Woolfalk in East New York, the breadth of imagery is truly staggering. This coffee table book helps you learn more about the artworks many of us walk past without a second notice (how many people know there’s a Diana Al-Hadid in Penn Station, for instance, or a Jeffrey Gibson in Astoria?) and does so with large, vibrant photographs supplemented by short, clear text that illuminates why this is a remarkable town for public art. —Hrag Vartanian

Buy on Bookshop | Monacelli Press, April 2024

Clarity Haynes: Portals

clarity haynes portal book cover

Published in tandem with Clarity Haynes’s painting survey at the NYC gallery New Discretions, this feast of a book brings together the artist’s beguiling explorations of childbirth, queerness, gender, and ritual. In her new series Crowning, the soft, barely formed heads of brand-new humans peek out from stretchy, fleshy vaginas — perhaps one of the titular “portals” of Haynes’s exhibition and publication — eliciting a mix of wonder, curiosity, and even squeamish discomfort in the spectator (and giving Gustave Courbet a run for his money). Earlier paintings, such as those in the Breast/Chest Portrait Project (1997–2022), produce a similar perspectival and emotional shift by homing in on their subjects’ bare torsos; the artist’s photographs of her sitters in the final pages are a sweet, vulnerable surprise. Triangular and heart-shaped canvases, “altars,” she calls them, honoring different artists or states of being — Laura Aguilar, Ana Mendieta, “femme joy” — double as sites of documentation, tracing the myriad people, ideas, and mementos that serve as Haynes’s sources of inspiration and meaning. —Valentina Di Liscia

Buy on Bookshop | New Directions Publishing, February 2024

Pao Houa Her: My Grandfather Turned Into a Tiger … and Other Illusions

houa her cover

Pao Houa Her carries her Hmong community with her in artistic work that connects her diasporic community straddling many borders, including Laos, where her family originates. Her’s family arrived in the United States after the turmoil caused by the Vietnam War with only photographs, some of which are studio photos that seem to be a departure point for the Minnesota-based artist who has already found some success with this series that was on display as part of the 2022 Whitney Biennial. Her body of work oscillates between black-and-white and color images, between studio photography and landscape, and between the cryptically personal and the culturally staged scenes. In this monograph, the texts are short and the images truly sing. —HV

Buy on Bookshop | Aperture, January 2024

El Dorado: A Reader, edited by Aimé Iglesias Lukin, Tie Jojima, Edward J. Sullivan, and Karen Marta

el dorado reader book
AS/COA Web team

Few myths are as inescapable as that of “El Dorado,” the evasive city of gold hidden deep within the South American jungle. Nearly two dozen scholars hailing from fields ranging from art history to philosophy collaborated over the course of three years to explore the legend and its consequences, ultimately conceiving three exhibitions in Puebla, Mexico, Buenos Aires, and NYC, where the latter half of the two-part El Dorado: Myths of Gold is on view at the Americas Society through May 18. This show’s companion book is as thorough as the exhibition and its backing research. Contemporary essays and historic texts (including excerpts from famous figures such as Marco Polo and Edgar Allen Poe) probe El Dorado’s origins, iterations, means of dissemination, and impacts on resource extraction, colonialism, and internal and external conceptions of the Americas. The reader exposes just how pervasive the myth of El Dorado truly is; its glimmering insights only scratch the surface of the indelible legend’s effects. As curator Aimé Lukin notes in the introduction, the book is “destined for failure,” just like the scores of explorers who set out to find the city of gold and the ensuing colonialist projects that solidified wealth in the hands of a few. —Elaine Velie

Buy the Book | Americas Society, January 2024

Molly by Blake Butler

Blake Butler book cover molly

Yes, Molly is a memoir of marriage and grief that spawned a vast amount of online discourse and hand-wringing from people who haven’t read it over whether it’s exploitative to write about your deceased spouse. It’s also an incredible contemplation of what it means to make art, before and after loss. Author Blake Butler recounts his relationship with Molly Brodak, his wife; their tangled personal and professional lives as writers; and his search for clarity in the wreckage of her archive after her death by suicide in 2020. Brodak was herself a memoirist, and Butler writes about the complexity of narrating the story of someone who so carefully constructed herself in both nonfiction and poetry, the messiness of “truth” in the hands of an artist, the tension between what’s published and what’s kept. It’s scorchingly written, full of the kind of anger and pain that only comes from deep love, and captures the brutality of mourning with remarkable fluency. —Alice Procter

Buy on Bookshop | Archway Editions, December 2023

The Sphinx and the Milky Way: Selections from the Journals of Charles Burchfield, edited by Ben Estes

Charles Burchfield journals book cover

The American artist Charles Burchfield began keeping a diary in 1909 at the age of 16, and continued writing until his death in 1967. The diaries reveal the artist’s most intimate and sometimes crushing personal reflections interspersed with strikingly sensitive observations of nature. A sense of unity between landscape and feeling comes through in glowing works like “The Four Seasons” (1949–60). Year after year, he finds tender and even ecstatic meaning in the smallest plants, animals, and weather events in his native Ohio and later Gardenville, New York. I’ve always found Burchfield’s glimmering landscapes mysterious, but his diaries offer an important insight: He painted through a prism that amplified nature’s quiet energies. —Lauren Moya Ford

Buy on Bookshop | The Song Cave, October 2023

The Loveliest Vowel Empties: Collected Poems, translated by Kathleen Heil

Meret Oppenheim book cover poems

When the Swiss-born artist Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985) received the Art Award of the City of Basel in 1975, she said in her acceptance speech: “Nobody will give you freedom … you have to take it.” Oppenheim lived by this credo beginning early in her life. After reading Carl Jung when she was 14, she began the lifelong practice of recording her dreams. At 18, she moved to Paris to study art, and met Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp, who invited her to contribute work to the Surrealist exhibition in the “Salon des Surindépendants.” Best known for “Object” (1936), a fur-lined teacup, spoon, and saucer in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Oppenheim’s art cannot be categorized. In addition to making sculpture and painting, as well as everything in between and outside these practices, Oppenheim wrote poetry. The publication of The Loveliest Vowel Empties: Collected Poems of Meret Oppenheim, translated from the French and German by Kathleen Heil, reveals another facet of this fascinating, inspiring, trailblazing figure. Largely written between 1933 and 1944, the poems are enigmatic and strange. Inspired by Jung’s writings, Oppenheim rejected the binary of male and female, believing each gender possessed characteristics of the other, that men were capable of  “feeling, sensing, intuition. Her prose poem, “As though awake while asleep seeing hearing,” begins “Asleep Astor saw him hearing.” The poem ends with: “When he awoke the next day, he found himself hanging on an unfamiliar coat hanger. In the pocket he found a calling card, printed with his new name: Caroline.” —John Yau

Buy on Bookshop | World Poetry Books, February 2023

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, edited by Annemarie Bilclough

beatrix potter drawn to nature book cover

In an illustrated letter penned in 1900, English artist Beatrix Potter explains that she fought for her beloved children’s stories to be published as tiny, portable booklets that would be affordable for young readers, whom she affectionately called “little rabbits.” As a former such little rabbit, I deeply cherish the experience of reading Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, the delightful publication accompanying an exhibition currently on view at the Morgan Library in New York after a 2022 debut in London, Potter’s hometown. It was akin to meeting a younger version of myself, who tumbled wholeheartedly into the worlds of Jemima Puddleduck and Benjamin Bunny and once got stuck in a play area after trying to squeeze under a gate like Peter Rabbit. But instead of rehashing Potter’s now-ubiquitous stories, the book smartly pairs brief explanatory essays with exquisite paintings, letters to her young readers, evocative character sketches, early studies, and other ephemera. The result enriches our understanding of her work in the context of the incredibly productive and varied life she led, from sheep-raising to farming in the Lake District countryside that provided the backdrop for many of her books. This compilation of portals into the artist’s mind will give you a new appreciation for her work regardless of whether you grew up with her stories, and is second only to seeing the delicate illustrations in person at a small scale, just as Potter intended. —LA

Buy on Bookshop | Rizzoli Electa, February 2022

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