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The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own

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The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own, Part I

The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own, Part I
A few of ARTINFO’s 40 Books Every Artist Should Have: Phaidon’s “The Art Museum”, Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and more

ARTINFO has combed our bookshelves, looked through our dusty college syllabi, asked fellow artists, professors, and historians, and compiled a list of the tomes that every artist should read, own, and pass on. We’ve been careful to balance our selections between theory, history, reference, and practical guides, ranging from the semiotics of Roland Barthes to a gigantic biography of Pablo Picasso. Our list was so long that we had to break it into two parts. Here is Part 1, and check out Part 2 for even more books:

“Visual Thinking” by Rudolf Arnheim, University of California Press

Merging art and psychology, Arnheim (1904-2007) masterfully explains perception in the context of aesthetic imagery. His stance, specifically in “Visual Thinking,” is that all thought is based on perception. Its 35th-anniversary printing should be bought as a set with “Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye,” and read not just by artists, but also art critics, to understand the psychology behind our response to art.

“Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes, Farrar Straus and Giroux and Hill and Wang (MacMillan)

Barthes is the grand poobah of French semiotics, and his texts have laid the groundwork for the codification of culture. They range from the edgy ruminations of “Image – Music – Text” to the intimate reflections of “A Lover’s Discourse.” But “Camera Lucida,” with its lyrical yet rigorous reflections on the images of Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe, is perhaps one of his most lasting contribution to writing about art.

“Ways of Seeing” by John Berger, Viking (Pengiun Group)

Based on the original, highly successful BBC television series of the same name, Berger created a masterpiece in 1972 by digesting complex ideas about image reproduction and popular culture, bringing theory to the masses with “Ways of Seeing.” He covers subjects including imagery in advertising, the notion of originality, and subjectivity in perception. While others have gone into greater depth with many of the topics he covers, Berger’s opus is a must-have for its succinct mastery and impressive compilation of complex theory.

“Art/Work” by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber, Simon & Schuster

Not every artist needs a career guide, but for those that do this is one of the best. Written by a gallery director and an arts lawyer this is first handbook of advice on the management of a full-time art career, offering some savvy advice about the business end.

“The Continental Aesthetics Reader, 2nd Edition” Edited by Clive Cazeaux, Routledge

This is different to another anthology, “Art and Theory,” because of its unique organization, which is by art historical movement and cultural milestone. The seven sections of the book range from German Aesthetics to Postmodernism and set art history off against literature, sociology, and philosophy in the writings of Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and many more. Compared to “Art and Theory,” this text has a broader range and suitable for artists whose work is cross-disciplinary.

“Art History: 4th Edition” by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Pearson

While the art history textbook market has long been dominated by Gardner’s “Art Through the Ages” (now in its 13th edition) and “Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition” (in its 8th edition), a shift has been occurring in academia towards the use of Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren’s more recent, more student-friendly, inclusive, and participatory textbook “Art History.” Just as big, but not as costly as its ugly stepsisters, “Art History” strives to be more than just a survey, with engaging diagrams, materials, and methodological explanations, online complimentary software, and a decent revision to the art historical timeline which makes it more diverse. In addition, in comparison to Gardner’s tiny reproductions, Stokstad and Cothren are not skimping on the image quality and size, so the textbook is as good a visual resource for artists as it is a textual one.

“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Harper Collins

This is an original, psychology-oriented perspective on what some call “getting in the zone” but what unpronounceable Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi terms “flow.” What sets it apart, and makes it an apt text for art-making, is Csikszentmihalyi’s focus on satisfaction and happiness.

“History of Beauty” and “On Ugliness” by Umberto Eco, Rizzoli New York

OK, these are actually two books, but they are really two halves of a whole. For artists interested in aesthetic theory, the body, and kitsch, Eco is your man. A cultural critic, his sweeping knowledge unfolds in engaging story-like prose (he is also a celebrated postmodern novelist, of course) with direct visual examples. Well versed in art and philosophy, he cites an exhaustive list of examples, including Bosch, Brueghel, Goya, Milton, Goethe, and Ancient Greek amphorae.

“Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students” by James Elkins, University of Illinois Press

Elkins examines the structure of art education and fixes a microscope on art school’s elusive “crit” system. Whether you are preparing for your first critique, or about to mount a major retrospective, his insights on what works, what doesn’t, and how to take and dish out criticism are invaluable. No one has tackled this subject quite as thoroughly.

“Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation” by E.H. Gombrich, Princeton University Press

A classic (it was published in 1960) if one is seeking knowledge on the contentious merger of the sciences and humanities, Gombrich uses Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Ancient Greece as examples in the history of picture making and perception. His approach is a uniquely rationalistic one, and still a refreshing take on the subject.

“Art in Theory: 1900 – 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 2nd Edition” Edited by Charles Harrison and Dr. Paul J. Wood, Wiley

One of the most widely used anthologies of art theory texts, and significant for offering a heaping helping of primary resources. The newly revised edition, updated to include the ‘90s, has essays ordered by art historical movements, including writing by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, and many more. Like, many, many more. It’s big — but don’t let it intimidate you.

“Illuminations: Essays and Reflections,” Knopf Doubleday, and/or “Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926,” Belknap Press of Harvard University

Benjamin has been for decades the sensitive art theorist’s go-to guru. His essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is read widely by art history and studio art majors, and “The Task of the Translator” can also be mined for aesthetic insights. However, while “Illuminations” is both short and contains some of the most relevant essays Benjamin wrote on art, the first volume of Belknap Press’s “Selected Writings” series has some very poignant writings on illustration, children’s drawings, and perception that are incredibly suggestive for those interested in semiotics, color theory, and memory.

“The Pink Glass Swan” by Lucy Lippard, the New Press

Lucy Lippard wrote some of the most important essays on feminist art, politics, and activism in the 1970s, inspired by the women’s movement. This collection compiles highlights from her popular “From the Center: Feminist Essays on Art” and “Get the Message?: A Decade of Art for Social Change,” as well as pieces done originally for print in newspapers, magazines, and art catalogues. A must-have on the genre of feminist art writings, or for any artist navigating issues of politics and class in our troubled contemporary art world (see the title essay, a true classic).

“The Art Museum” Edited by Phaidon

All artists should have an image bible; something that is both an inspiration and a source for historical imagery. This book is it. While the quality of the reproductions might not be the best (they are a little dull, truthfully), Phaidon makes up for it with the tremendous trim size on this tome of images. This book is massive. The reproduction of the Sistine Chapel alone will take up half your dining room table. Try finding another version as complete, detailed, or as large in your Gardner’s, or even your Stokstad and Cothren. (Beware the price-tag, it’s expensive at $500.)

“Orientalism” by Edward Said, Penguin

The leading text on exoticism and “otherism,” Edward Said’s “Orientalism” blew readers away when it was published in 1979, creating a much-needed term to describe the way Western thinkers and artists had mistread the East as a fantasy projection of their own insecurities. This is mandatory reading for artists whose work focuses on issues of identity, race, culture, and history — and, now that we think of it, it should just be read by everyone in general.

“Anatomy: A Complete Guide for Artists” by Joseph Sheppard, Dover Publications

Every artist, whether interested in performance or painting, should arguably have a basic grasp of drawing — if not for the basic understanding of the human form in space, then for useful knowledge of composition and light. This is by far one of the most user-friendly and complete guides for artists of any medium to use in their studies. Take my word from having used this book myself.

“Seven Days in the Art World” by Sarah Thornton, W. W. Norton & Company

The first-person story of the journalist who infiltrated the art world and performed the impossible feat of making art the subject of a best-selling book. It’s an incredibly informative as a well-rounded view of the multiple cogs that keep the art world turning, from art publishing at Artforum to the well-assisted studio of a high-profile artist like Takashi Murakami. Thornton’s ethnography is an attempt to understand an unregulated, exclusive world of insiders, following a path from the making and selling of contemporary art to art school to the auction house.

“The Lives of the Artists” Giorgio Vasari, Oxford University Press

One might consider this a biography of the Italian Renaissance, told through the brief, individual biographies of the important artists of the day. Giorgio Vasari invented the term “Renaissance,” and simultanously invented its history by chronicling its progression from Brunelleschi to Da Vinci. The OUP edition features 36 of the most important entires, and is one of the most important sources an artist can have on this all-important period. (Nearly all of the text, in its unabridged English translation, can be found online here.)

“Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin” by Lawrence Weschler, University of California Press

What better way to learn than from the master himself? This is considered one of the most vital books on a single artist’s experience creating work over a multi-decade career, and the conversations author Lawrence Weschler has put together are a first-hand account at the unique way Irwin, the Light and Space maestro, sees the world.

“A Life of Picasso: The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916” by John Richardson, Random House

John Richardson is the Robert Caro of artist biographers. Pablo Picasso is surely a colossal figure in the realm of history, and Richardson manages to dissect his life into a generous three-volume epic. As far as artist biographies go, this is the one to own, cherish, and study the hell out of. Not only does it detail Picasso’s life and work, but it also captures the era in which he lived, the movements he helped create, and his complicated relationships with contemporaries like Braque and Apollinaire. The second volume is the one we have picked out here, specifically for its great detail about his relationships with other artists of the time, but the other two (“The Prodigy 1881-1906” and “The Triumphant Years 1917-1932”) are also worth owning. Picasso changed history, and the modern day art world wouldn’t be what it is without him.

For questions or further book suggestions, write amartinez[at]


The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own, Part II

The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own, Part II
A few of ARTINFO’s 40 Books Every Artist Should Have: Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”, Rosalyn Deutche’s “Evictions” and more
(Illustration by ARTINFO)

ARTINFO continues its list of the 40 books every artist should own, following up Part 1 with another 20 essential picks for your library.

“Witness to Her Art” Rhea Anastas and Michael Brenson, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College

Using the work of six key female artists (Adrian Piper, Mona Hatoum, Cady Noland, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker,Daniela Rossell, and magazine Eau de Cologne) as examples, this anthology of artist writings, primary documents, and criticism presents key insight into the legacy of the feminist movement.

“The Profitable Artist: A Handbook for All Artists in the Performing, Literary, and Visual Arts” Edited by Artspire, Co-published by the New York Foundation for the Arts and Allworth Press

The NYFA Web site is known to many as the first place to search for information on jobs, grants, and opportunities in the arts in New York. The non-profit organization has supplemented its online arm with this “best practices” how-to guide for managing a career in the arts. With valuable information on business, finance, marketing, and law balanced with interviews and case studies, the book is translatable to art careers in multiple disciplines. This book is about making a living. Who can sniff at that?

“Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland, Image Continuum Press

A grounded look at what it’s really like to sit down and make art. Made by artists for artists, this book is advertised as “not your typical self-help book,” with insights into the difficulties behind finding the rhythm in your art practice amid the other stresses of life. The book was a huge hit when it was first published in 1994, selling over 80,000 copies in its original Capra Press edition, mostly due to word-of-mouth endorsements.

“The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field” by Pierre Bourdieu, Stanford University Press

Leading social theorist Pierre Bourdieu continued his study on Flaubert’s influence on modern literature and crossed into the area of art, developing a theory of its autonomy in this 1994 work. Bourdieu builds a bridge between social relations and art, creating an indispensable interdisciplinary approach.

“Participation” Edited by Claire Bishop, MIT Press, co-published with Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

The CUNY professor sparked a whole line of books in this style with the now classic 2006 compilation of writing on relational aesthetics and performance art, featuring narrative analysis of historic works by El Lissitzky and Allan Kaprow, and essays by Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, Felix Guattari, Joseph Beuys, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Hal Foster, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and many more (and the first translation to English of French guru Jacques Ranciere’s “Problems and Transformations in Critical Art”). The book is the ultimate introduction and definitive go-to source on the subject of participatory practice.

“Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility” James P. Carse, Ballantine Books (Random House)

For the game-lover in all of us, Carse’s course on games in business, politics, and personal life is a brainteaser totally valuable to artists whose work is playful or performative. Carse explains winning, losing, the mystique of property and power, culture and community — all things that are applicable to the canvas or your social life.

“100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists” Edited by Alex Danchev, Penguin Classics

Discover the roots of all the ‘isms’ that your professor may have claimed your work derives from, as well as a few others. Danchev compiles 100 manifestos from the last 100 years written by artists from Rem Koolhaas to Billy Childish. If you’re interested in reading even more manifestos from outside of just the visual arts, check out “Manifesto: A Century of Isms” as well, although Danchev is our recommendation for the visual-art-centered bookshelf.

“Art As Experience” by John Dewey, Penguin Group

American philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (1859-1952) was one of the foremost respected authorities on literature, the effects of the arts, and aesthetic theory. His work still has the power to suggest new ideas. Summed up, a large portion of this volume is devoted to his argument about the centrality of the art object to culture.

“Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics” by Rosalyn Deutsche, MIT Press

The Columbia University feminist theory and modern and contemporary art scholar left her mark on theory with the 1996 critique “Evictions,” which combined urban theory and the history of art and architecture into a critique of democratic space. This text is valuable for the urban sociologist with aesthetic concerns as well as for artists whose work deals with space and class.

“Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckel” by Ernst Haeckel, Prestel

Haeckel was the John James Audubon of plant life and sea creatures. The natural scientist, who first published his portfolio between 1899 and 1904 in separate installments, left behind some of the most delicately rendered interpretations of organic forms, proving a valuable resource for both scientists and artists alike.

“True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World” Anthony Haden-Guest, Grove/Atlantic Inc.

Interjecting both humor and insider experience into our list, Anthony Haden-Guest’s tell-all account of the boom of the art world in the 1980s, and then its bust, continues to be gripping reading.

“The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri, Basic Books

Reading this 1924 book is still like having the most dedicated of teachers with you at all times. Robert Henri’s mentoring words offer technical and critical advice that is inspiring, encouraging, and easily translated into many areas of life.

“Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia” by Richard Hertz, Hol Art Books

The birth of the so-called “Pictures Generation” begins here, with the story of Jack Goldstein and his CalArts classmates, who led a shift from Conceptualism to Pictures art in 1970s New York. Hertz weaves his story from the narratives of the art world’s own, including contributions by Tom Wudl, John Baldessari, Matt Mullican, Robert Longo, and more. Together, they reveal the evolution of Chouinard into CalArts, the dynamics of New York’s art scene of the ‘70s, and, of course, the compelling story of Goldstein himself. Nearly all CalArts alumi have read this book, myself included, and the phrase “CalArts Mafia” has taken root as an affectionate term for the vast network of artists working internationally, post-Goldstein.

“Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy” by Dave Hickey, Art Issues Press

Meditating on art’s function, dysfunction, and position in a democratic American society, “Air Guitar” has become widely read as a piece of cultural commentary over the years by theory students, critics, and artists.

“After Modern Art 1945-2000” David Hopkins, Oxford University Press

Hopkins’s text offers a valuable history of postwar art, compressing the widely varied movements of American and European art into a sensible timeline — no small task. Our only wish is that this book be updated as soon as possible, seeing as it cuts off at 2000, and over a decade of artmaking has passed.

“Concerning the Spiritual in Art” by Wassily Kandinsky, Dover Publications

The father of modernism and abstraction was also heavily invested in capturing “spirit” on canvas, and he delivers still intriguing words on color theory and the nature of art. A good compliment to this is his other famous work, “Point and Line to Plane,” which dissects the place of the line, point, and building blocks of composition in non-objective painting.

“Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century” Edited by Steven Henry Madoff, MIT Press

With the price of higher education soaring, students falling into debt, and institutions subsequently reevaluating and reorganizing curriculums and education models, today’s art schools face new challenges. Steven Henry Madoff and MIT Press look at the current state and future of art education. With accompanying essays by artists and educators such as Hans Haacke and Marina Abramovic, as well as questionnaires with Shirin Neshat and Mike Kelley, the anthology is critical for its unique view of academia from the perspective of those who have passed through it at different points in the last century — creating a roadmap of the major historical art schools, and hinting at the possible structures of new schools to come.

“I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette” Edited by Paper Monument

This was the first pamphlet published by the art-focused offshoot of literary journal n+1. Paper Monument’s guidelines for how to behave in the art world are both funny and serious in a “take it with a grain of salt” kind of way. Featuring the contributions of 38 artists, critics, curators, and dealers, from Paddy Johnson to Rachel Uffner, “I Like Your Work” helps avoid the possibly disastrous social interactions that might occur at a Thursday night opening otherwise.

“On Photography” by Susan Sontag, Picador (MacMillan)

Her book “Against Interpretation, and Other Essays,” published in 1966 put Sontag on the map as an integral voice in the cultural debate, with her now famous essay “Notes on Camp” and musings on arts and literature. Nearly a decade later, she packed hit the art world with another punch in “On Photography,” famously comparing the camera to a loaded gun.

“The Practice and Science of Drawing” Harold Speed, Dover Publications

Missing from most art schools these days is concrete technical instruction, and though Harold Speed’s book was written over a century ago, it can still fill that void. Speed’s instruction on line drawing, mass drawing, visual memory, and materials (with accompanying plates and diagrams) serves as the perfect place to being learning the traditional skills.

For questions or further book suggestions, write amartinez[at]


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