The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue
Art Books

20 Best Art Books of 2020

To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Brooklyn Rail, our editors and writers have selected our favorite art books from the past year. Many of the titles reflect a year spent mostly at home, often in isolation. What follows is a selection of what kept us company during this difficult year, kept us thinking and dreaming about art and language, and kept us rethinking what looking and reading can and should be.

The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had To Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader

Edited by Lucy Ives (Siglio, 2020)

My favorite artist books work to relieve me of my preconceptions and instruct new modes of attention, vital work in 2020, a year when reading felt variously impossible. No book did this quite as excitingly, as emphatically, as The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had To Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader. Gins, an artist and conceptualist writer of great experiment and, later, a practitioner of anti-death architecture with her husband, the artist Arakawa, wrote across genre and form—poems, essays, novelistic interventions. The new volume collects six of these texts, including the extraordinary artist-novel, WORD RAIN. In it, Gins writes, “Read this aloud with your voice trailing your eyes: I am reading this aloud.” The second person becomes the first; the writer’s injunctive, the reader’s declaration. The words are a score of themselves. Writer and reader collapse. I am writing this. I am reading. I am here, in my chair, holding WORD RAIN, reading. WORD RAIN facilitates a state of elliptical presence, with Gins guiding the reader out of and then back into themselves. Amid lockdown, anytime—what a gift. –David Richardson

Constance DeJong

(Hunter College Art Galleries, 2020)

Bound from two discrete softcover books paginated in opposite order and cased in a deep red slipcover, the catalogue for DeJong’s retrospective at the Hunter College Leubsdorf Gallery (where she has taught for decades), Constance DeJong is not only meant to be read in various ways, but rather, like much of her work, to orient us towards the true dissonance of reading itself. A pioneer in literature, video, sound and performance art, DeJong has worked with time, space, sound, and—most of all—language, since she emerged in the downtown scene in the late ’70s. Themes from her works (sleep and sleeplessness, time and atemporality, silence and noise) pull one through the texts here: in addition to DeJong’s previously unpublished In a Cabin (2017), contributors include Lucy Ives, who compares her spoken words to “bits of architecture;” longtime collaborator Tony Oursler, who calls her work a “multiverse;” and her own niece and nephew-in-law who relay the singular experience of watching their aunt perform. This retrospective has yet to open to the public, postponed like the innumerable blithely laid and doomed plans for 2020, but Constance DeJong—a constellation of ideas manifest in an object—points to the show’s many readings. –Anna Tome

Colored People Time

(Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2020)

Time has certainly been a focal point of 2020. Certain moments feel elongated indefinitely in our indirect encounters with the world and with one another, while other moments seem to be cut short. Curator Meg Onli’s exhibition and publication, Colored People Time, considers a familiar concept in Black vernacular: “Colored People’s Time,” (CPT) referring to the stereotype that people of color (particularly Black people) are frequently late. As both an inside joke in the Black community and the title of Onli’s exhibition, the concept wields a special power—if time can be used as a tool to regulate the Black body, CPT allows it to refuse and refute the constraints of hegemonic time. Onli’s exhibition opened in 2019 at the Institute of Contemporary Art (University of Pennsylvania) with works by Aria Dean, Kevin Jerome Everson, Matthew Angelo Harrison, Carolyn Lazard, Dave McKenzie, Martine Syms, Sable Elyse Smith, and Cameron Rowland. The book, like the show, is divided into three sections—Mundane Futures, Quotidian Pasts, and Banal Presents—an order that intentionally negates chronology. Through new and reprinted essays, the book brings about a newly conceptualized definition of CPT, positing ways of not only reclaiming, but preserving Black time—past, present, and utopian future. –Re’al Christian

Michael Snow’s 1975 Cover to Cover

(Primary Information and Light Industry, 2020)

Originally published in 1975 and long out-of-print, Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover reappeared this year in a facsimile edition from Primary Information and Light Industry. Its 316 pages of full-bleed, black-and-white images are the result of two photographers capturing opposite and sequential views of the media between them: pages, windows, walls, a record, a truck, a figure (Snow himself). With doors at either end, the book is a sort of passageway, one which flips upside-down partway through, recalling the old tête-bêche Ace Doubles. Like Snow’s films, it plays a game of approach and avoidance, stretching tension across volumes of space and time, here with the cinematic grammar of the reverse shot. Each moment of domesticity, transit, and contemplation soon destabilizes and slips into a stack of images, until the book itself becomes the only fixed point. Key to Snow’s work is his willingness to break his own rules, to evade dry conceptualism in order to satisfy the expressive desires that emerge from a structure. His experiments anticipate an audience, not an auditor. There is density to ponder on every spread, but also a lithe urgency that keeps the pages turning. –Maxwell Paparella

Bernadette Mayer’s Memory

(Siglio, 2020)

Looking back through my March, April, and May iPhone photos, there are mostly images of meals I cooked—artfully plated pastas and shallots, attempts at elaborate meat roasts, cutting boards scattered with fresh spring vegetables purchased from temporarily shuttered restaurants—a strange and mundane catalogue of my daily life during a “pause.” I found a kinship with the daily snapshots from poet Bernadette Mayer’s own visual verbal diary of daily life Memory, produced long before social media revealed the private to always be a kind of public performance. In 1971, Mayer embarked on a performance project that involved exhaustive photographic and audio recorded documentation of her daily life for the full month of July. Previously presented as a visual and audio installation, this year the project took form as a hardcover book, uniting her words with scans of the original photographic slides (nearly 1150). Released into this strange “paused” world we currently inhabit, Mayer’s gridded images of details of green leaves, closeups of the various corners of her home—bedroom, bathroom, kitchen—and vantages onto the street from her windows, have a new resonance in my own daily practice of documenting the small things available to me to build routine into life at home. –Megan N. Liberty

Weng Pixin’s Sweet Time

(Drawn & Quarterly, 2020)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Drawn & Quarterly, the independent comics press in Montreal who dream the book as an artifact, a collage, a messy compilation of papers. Weng Pixin’s wonderful debut, Sweet Time, is a medium-defining work in its own right—a melancholic assemblage of boxes, papers, threads, inks, oils, and watercolors—that also happens to encapsulate a sensibility that come to define the publisher. Across ten or so dreamlike interludes, identity and autobiography, dreams and reality, are rendered disturbingly indeterminate. Pixin is acutely aware of the materiality of the image—she meticulously grafts notebook pages, index cards, and magazine photos onto her pages; as such, her experiences are represented non-chronologically. Important pieces (and, consequentially, the artist’s autobiographical self) are purposely withheld or distorted. What we are left with are haunting, hazy, and indeterminate impressions. –Wyatt Sarafin

Morgan Bassichis’s The Odd Years

(Wendy’s Subway, 2020)

One thing to know about Morgan Bassichis is that the performer and activist could make it fulltime as a comedian. And as a singer, too. I first saw Bassichis perform as part of a residency at Recess in 2017 and was instantly charmed by the warmth, wit, charisma, winking naïveté, and multi-hyphenate panache that has earned the artist a devoted fan club, of which I count myself a member. Reading The Odd Years, one feels as captivated as watching the artist live. The book amasses Bassichis’s weekly to-do lists from 2017 and 2019, a project that began during the year in residence at Recess. The lists, in essence, are working notes for comedic routines (“Study ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ for political strategy”; “Look up Chanukkah prayers so I can wow people”; “Find out if stealing from Dean & Deluca is activism”) but their meanderings on topics both profound and mundane, including abolitionist politics, queer life, Judaism, digestion, deodorant, Pret a Manger, and bone broth are also surprisingly touching. –Madeline Weisburg

Reading Room

Edited by David Richardson (dispersed holdings, 2020)

This pocket-sized volume documents an experiment in reading—both its practice and performance—as an act of research and reflection. In 2016, the artist-run platform and publishing initiative dispersed holdings, invited artists and writers to participate in their “reading residence.” During this time, the Bowery apartment space was transformed into a reading den, where readers were able to use the space and time at their leisure. Published years after the physical project, Reading Room both documents, reflects on, and continues this investigation into the activity of reading—what better year than 2020 to consider one of our most solitary practices. With a mix of visual-verbal essays and reflections from the residents, including Leigh Gallagher, Paul Soulellis, and Caroline Woolard, this volume offers a prescient reflection on an activity for which we have come to have a new appreciation. As co-founder David Richardson concludes in his editor’s contribution, “We offer this book to you such that you might use it to mark out some space and time in the world. Some space and time to read.” –Megan N. Liberty

Dorothea Lange’s Day Sleeper

Edited with an afterward by Sam Contis (MACK, 2020)

On the cover of Day Sleeper, a collection of photos by Dorothea Lange edited by Sam Contis, a young shirtless boy lies with a heavy fabric draped across the top of his face and head to evade the sunlight that bathes him. This boy (Lange’s son at the age of five in 1930) takes on the mantle of the book’s title, a supine role of languid physicality that belies what daydreams or inner visions he may be experiencing. The pose is one example of a repeated visual trope Contis found across Lange’s archive at the Oakland Museum of California while preparing this publication. The book introduces this body of lesser known work, invested in everyday details, in portraits of family members, and in quotidian street scenes from the Bay Area. Published to coincide with the MoMA exhibition Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures, which included photogravures by Contis that appropriated some of the images in this book, Day Sleeper emphasizes how looking is an act of collaboration that connects artists and viewers across time. And for those of us in a trying year who may feel like Lange when she speculated, “I think I was born tired”—readers, viewers, day sleepers all—this collection offers a moment to transcend the exhaustion and separation of our current everyday lives. –Phillip Griffith

Modern Artifacts

Written by Michelle Elligott, edited and designed by Tod Lippy, and additional text by Michelle Harvey (Esopus Books, 2020)

Modern Artifacts collects 18 features, originally published in the journal Esopus, which reproduce underseen holdings from the Museum of Modern Art archives. Contextualized with essays by MoMA’s chief of archives Michelle Elligott, as well as a foreword by Esopus publisher Tod Lippy and text by MoMA archivist Michelle Harvey, these captivating documents include correspondence between conceptual artist James Lee Byars and curator Dorothy Miller; drafts of director Alfred Barr’s famous teleological diagram for the Cubism and Abstract Art catalogue; scripts from the museum’s midcentury forays into educational television; memos for a scuttled 1940 exhibition code-named “Project X,” designed to promote American involvement in World War II; and tactile reproductions of folders, Christmas cards, and letters. Interspersed between these historical snapshots are six newly commissioned artist’s projects by Michael Rakowitz, Mary Lum, Mary Ellen Carroll, Clifford Owens, Rhea Karam, and Paul Ramirez Jonas, providing a more individualized perspective on the aesthetics, quirks, and themes of the archival documents. Through its inventive and reflective approach to the museum’s history, and to the larger story of 20th century art, Modern Artifacts replicates the unexpected pleasures of the archive in book form. –Jennie Waldow

Moyra Davey’s I Confess

Texts by Dalie Giroux and Andrea Kunard (Dancing Foxes Press/National Gallery of Canada, 2020)

Moyra Davey is known for her films, photographs, and books that use modes of reading as a means of exploring literature, history, and personal and political identity. I Confess is the latest of her books to transform a video work, transcribing the script of the titular film with selected stills. Published as a slim softcover volume in both French and English, with additional written contributions by Dalie Giroux (who speaks at length in the film about Candian writer Pierre Vallières) and Andrea Kunard, I Confess is a journey through reading, literary influences, and national identity. Much like her other books, it is nonlinear and fragmented, leaving space for the reader to consider their own practices and connections to the materials discussed, in this case, James Baldwin, Pierre Vallières, and Quebec’s history of colonization. Her conversational mode of address invites the reader (and viewer) into her layered method of reading, research, and re-presenting, through which her work reframes assumed narratives, facts, and figures, including her own personal history. –Megan N. Liberty

David Opdyke’s This Land: An Epic Postcard Mural on the Future of a Country in Ecological Peril

With texts by Lawrence Weschler, Maya Wiley (The Monacelli Press, 2020)

Five years ago, as the last terrible election cycle began its upswell, artist David Opdyke started amassing a collection of vintage, early 20th century postcards. The postcards’ portrayals of bucolic farmlands, heart-swelling national monuments, and bracing infrastructural renderings of buildings, bridges, and highways all depicted how Americans once envisioned their “dream.” Opdyke took these optimistic artifacts and carefully overpainted them, inserting pipelines, graffiti, tent cities, flood waves and other markers of eventual environmental catastrophe, converting the idyllic landscapes into images of our possible, desperate future. Last year, over 500 of these coalesced into Opdyke’s magnum opus, This Land (2019) an 8 × 16-foot wall accumulation arranged into a grid that slowly breaks apart as it grows closer to the ground, with the last few cards scattered across the floor. From afar, the piece as a unified entity resembles an abstracted map of the United States, with all its ruptures and fractures within the greater whole on display.

Now, derived from this work comes a book of the same name. This Land is divided into sections that give the reader an opportunity to scrutinize the postcards, all while fully becoming immersed in the potential terrors of climate change that unfold therein. So-called “Interludes” by author and cultural critic Lawrence Weschler situate the work amongst a continuum of artists that vary from Olafur Eliasson to George Carlin. Lawyer, professor, and New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley contributes an afterward that both substantiates the work’s political context and also provides a call to action, invoking “determination” to prevent Opdyke’s visions of apocalypse becoming reality on this planet. The physical book is wrapped in a smart dust jacket that unfolds to present the reader a complete reproduction of Opdyke’s withering, terrifying—and yes—even humorous work. –Jessica Holmes

Teju Cole’s Fernweh

(MACK, 2020)

In a year defined by the twin forces of isolation and restlessness, Teju Cole’s Fernweh proves remarkably prescient. While it was released early this year, the photographs were taken between 2014 and 2018, during Cole’s many trips to Switzerland. He was fascinated by the country’s sublime landscapes and its history as a tourist destination, as well as its potential to release him from the confines of America’s racial structure. Indeed, the book’s title most closely translates from German as “a longing to be far away.” In Switzerland, Cole examines the country as a sort of post-colonial observer. The resulting photographs both revel in the mirage of the country’s beauty and peel back the veil concealing the poverty, decay, and racism that lie below. There is a startling intimacy in his solitude and that of his subjects—by calling attention to the constructed nature of Switzerland’s tourist image, he brings us closer to the true landscape beneath. In this way, Cole’s project augurs the sense of restlessness spurred by restriction, as well as the observational potential of aloneness. –Jonah Goldman Kay

Joe Sacco’s Paying the Land

(Metropolitan Books, 2020)

After covering conflict zones in Palestine, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, comics journalist Joe Sacco turns his attention closer to home in Paying the Land. In this magisterial work of graphic non-fiction, Sacco examines the complex relationship between institutional powers that seek to extract oil in Northern Canada and the indigenous Dene people whose connection to that land predates recorded history. Sacco centers a range of Dene subjects who reveal diverse responses to fracking: straightforward opposition, a desire to participate in and exert control over the extraction project, and visceral need that welcomes the arrival of any economic activity to distressed communities. These perspectives are all informed by a traumatic history of colonization, which becomes Sacco’s primary subject. Putting his formidable skills in service of his subjects’ testimonies, Sacco weaves his finely detailed crosshatched drawings into fluid narrative compositions that enliven and reconstruct the memories and history of the Dene people as they share and confront what colonizing powers have taken away from them in light of what they now offer. Paying the Land details a painful and tragic history, but in it Sacco finds images of hope for the Dene people and, by their example, for a world facing environmental collapse. –Bill Kartalopoulos

Sarita Dougherty’s A Textbook for the Ecocene

(Co-Conspirator Press, 2020)

Imagine a future where all people are connected to the earth and its rhythms, histories, and abundance; where communities have no loyalty to colonial boundaries and education, instead economy, ecology, and culture are all dedicated to our relationship with nature and each other. This is clearly not the Anthropocene or Capitalocene, this is the Ecocene—an imagined and real geologic era where all humyns (a more gender-encompassing spelling) are living in reciprocity with their ecosystems again. Sarita Dougherty’s textbook for this era is full of the radical imagination and practical applications vital to making this a reality. Each chapter includes texts by the author, exercises to try, and interviews with community peers and leaders. The reader is encouraged to connect to ancestors and teachers, to map knowledges, abundance, and cosmologies, and to engage in deep listening, plant allyship, and ecosystem consciousness. The authoritative stance of the textbook—transferring information that has been approved or deemed correct—is challenged by its interactive nature. Conversation is necessary in any form of education, and the author makes extensive use of the interview format. As a self-proclaimed “DIY Phd,” Dougherty invites us to learn with her, and to make education a collaborative journey. –Nick Bennett

John Elderfield’s Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings

(Princeton University Art Museum, 2020)

Since his luminous and landmark exhibit Cézanne Portraits (2017–18) that occasioned the opportunity to fully immerse ourselves in Cézanne’s process of faithfully painting his sitters, John Eldefield now walks us through the master’s geographical inquiry of rock and quarry in this equally precious and timely exhibit Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings. Given the condition of our current pandemic and environmental crisis from which—just as we were told as children the earth is our body, rivers our vein, trees our hair, and rocks our bones—many of us have come to realize how fragile and vulnerable we feel when our air and water are polluted. As in one Cézanne letter written in 1897 to his friend, the poet and critic Joachim Gasquet, “In order to paint a landscape well, I first need to discover its geological foundations.” In the catalogue, Elderfield excavates Cézanne’s deep exploration of geological sites, including the forests of Fontainebleau, L’Estaque, and Aix-en-Provence, as Cézanne’s own excavation, evidenced in roughly two dozen paintings. Based on Cézanne’s commitment to paint from direct observation, Elderfield offers various incisive analysis of Cézanne’s various paint applications, from the use of a palette knife to achieve the effect of “mason’s painting,” to his “constructive brushstrokes.” As Elderfield writes, for the artist, “exactitude was not truth.” Elderfield straddles ambiguities with such terrific enthusiasm and exactitude, taking us through his consideration of the master’s pictorial intuition as it is applied differently in different paintings. –Phong H. Bui

Armin Zweite’s Gerhard Richter: Life and Work

(Prestel, 2020)

Of the many contemporary German painters who became highly important in American galleries, museums, and the art market in the 1980s, Gerhard Richter now is undoubtedly the most prominent. This massive well-illustrated book by the senior German curator Armin Zweite offers a very full account of Richter’s art and life. Organized thematically, its historical account traces Richter’s successive modes of art production, presenting his early years in the German Democratic Republic, the photorealist works and color charts, his use of glass and mirrors as media, the Atlas photographic archive, installations, figurative subjects, political works, abstractions, and the recent overpainted photographs. If American Abstract Expressionism is, as has been said, the artwork of the victors, then German post-World War II painting is the art of the defeated. Richter admires visual tradition, but he doesn’t believe wholeheartedly that it can be continued. Not a committed leftist, he has no attraction to conservatism. Permanently ambivalent about the value of painting, he is hard to place. All of his works, figurative or abstract, aspire to be political art. –David Carrier

Robert Storr’s Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting

(Lawrence King Publishing, 2020)

Due to the refusal to embrace the complexity of the images in the much-anticipated traveling retrospective Philip Guston Now, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s unjust death on May 25, 2020 that propelled the Black Lives Matter protests across the world, four major museums postponed the exhibition. Most of the artist’s admirers were outraged by such feeble-minded reduction of identity politics in favor of bureaucratic social engineering, hence missing out on a profound opportunity to confront controversy that may lead to a consensual solution between the cultural institution and the public. Fortunately, poetic justice was delivered in the form of Robert Storr’s monumental and comprehensive volume Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting

Storr’s arrangement of the book’s seven chapters is revelatory. It begins with a moving reassessment of the author’s admiration of the painter; traces Guston’s early formation that fortified his endurance and ambition; offers several intense confrontations with personal metamorphosis that enable the painter at an advanced age to completely surrender to the inseparability of art and life as one unified journey. In the finale, “Guston after Guston,” Storr confers Guston’s remarkable influence to artists of younger generations and his long-lasting eminence in American art and beyond. Written with a lucid and eloquent prose, infused with thoughtful analysis and personal insights, with a selection of the painter’s two lectures, a small essay, and an impressive chronology compiled by Amanda Renshaw, Storr has followed his first critical study of the painter Philip Guston (Abbeville Press, 1986) with the most formidable, generous, and essential literature on this master to date. –Phong H. Bui

Amy Sillman’s Faux Pas

(After 8 Books, 2020)

In a year of isolation, it is important to speak of the studio as a space of wrestling raw material into art, and of viewership as a bodily action. The painter Amy Sillman brings that visceral language to criticism, and this new book of writings feels as much like a studio visit as an art history lecture—Delacroix’s paintings, for example, “heave you around in an imaginary bellows that compresses, squeezes, and then releases you.” On the process of abstraction, she invokes Gregor Samsa, finding meaning in awkwardness and the slippage of control. Her focus inevitably rests on time: time spent in the studio and time spent looking, and the momentary improvisations that change the course of artworks. Responding to Louise Fishman in a pastiche of color commentary, Sillman leads the reader through nine innings of baseball/painting jargon, where brushstrokes become “cement mixers” and “laser shows.” Time is also the primary tension in Philip Guston’s paintings, “slowly devouring us even as our pictures unspool.” On Guston’s painter persona—who occupied much of the art world’s bandwidth this fall—she offers a prescient verdict: “doubt regenerates him.” –Louis Block

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah: Andy Sweet’s Summer Camp 1977

Edited with foreword by Brett Sokol. Introduction by Naomi Fry (Letter16 Press, 2020)

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah: Andy Sweet’s Summer Camp 1977 chronicles the Jewish sleepaway camp in North Carolina that the photographer attended as a camper, counselor, and photography teacher. A gawky blonde tween glares into the lens, her t-shirt shouts I LOVE THE FONZ. A pudgy boy bites into his ice cream, seemingly unperturbed by the after-hours chaos surrounding him. The bunks are a mess, the pool overcrowded, the canoes stored haphazardly. There’s something sticky and hot in the air, felt viscerally in these brightly-colored images; each page emitting a thick whiff of nostalgia. Sweet pulls off a powerful trick: I look at his memories and see my own. Throughout this year of solitude, I began to recall my awkward years with a new fondness. Forced comradery is no great pleasure in the moment, but it sure looks appealing now. Most photos here feature the subjects posed and primed, addressing the camera directly. These gangly teens are begging to be seen, defined, touched, embraced. I want to reach into the pages—Sweet nearly demands it of you—and share some advice. –Lily Majteles


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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