You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Best Art Books of the Year

The kind you can’t read on your Kindle.

Here is a gathering of books that appeal to the sense of touch and the sense of sight. You will want to read them, of course, but in many cases you will also want to feel the quality of the paper and the binding and let the beauty of the reproductions fill your eyes. There could be no better gift at a time when the book business is on the defensive. These are books that cannot be repackaged as eBooks. They are magically physical objects.  

Irving Penn: Small Trades, by Virginia A. Heckert and Anne Lacoste (The J. Paul Getty Museum). Among the books dedicated in the past few years to the work of Irving Penn, who died in October at the age of 92, none is more beautiful than this collection of studies of working men and women, done in London, Paris, and New York half a century ago. Penn photographed his subjects in the clothes in which they did their jobs—as waiters, carpenters, taxi drivers, butchers, and so forth—sometimes holding the tools of their trade. He brought an elegant dispassion to the project, so that each figure—whether young, middle-aged, or old; whether grave, jolly, or impassive—appears as a unique, fascinating individual. The power of these photographs, originally created for Vogue, has only increased as the years have passed. By now the half-shadowed heads of Penn’s working folk strike with a startling force, like visitors from a lost world. 

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, by Jeff Rosenheim (Steidl). One of the inspirations for what the photographer Walker Evans called his lyric documentary style was the picture postcards of small American towns that he collected obsessively all his life. Turning the pages of this book, with its dozens of beautifully reproduced photographic images, you can feel the heat of Evans’s high modern infatuation with popular taste. You see why this mandarin was in love with Main Street. What do we discover when we look at these postcards, the work of generally anonymous photographers, with their casual compositions and unnaturally bright color? We discover an unselfconscious modernism, with a Surrealist’s feeling for the absurd and a Cubist’s sense of abstract design.   

Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages, by Melanie Holcomb (Yale University Press). Shut away in the pages of medieval manuscripts is a story about the beginnings of modern drawing, a story brought to light in this terrific book, the catalogue of an exhibition last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The drawings, which date from the ninth to the fourteenth century, range from diagrams of one kind or another to figures of an expressive power—a power that we tend to associate not with the generally anonymous artists of the Middle Ages but with the legendary individualists of the Renaissance. Holcomb makes the case—a case I find entirely convincing—that as early as the ninth or tenth century, artists were fully aware of the lyric eloquence of a line, and were experimenting with the expressive possibilities of a considerable variety of graphic techniques.  

The Woodcut in Fifteenth-Century Europe, edited by Peter Parshall (Yale University Press). This latest volume in the National Gallery of Art’s Studies in the History of Art carries us back to the beginnings of the mechanical reproduction of visual images. Here we discover the prehistory of our image world, with woodcuts spreading information in ways we tend to associate with newspapers and magazines and, now, the Internet. This is the beginning of the European love affair with the printed page—a love affair that many now say is coming to an end. But anyone who lingers over the woodcuts in this book—in styles ranging from bluntly beautiful to elegantly elaborated, generally in pure black and white, sometimes with color added—will be forced to reconsider the power of printer’s ink on paper, a power that pixels cannot eclipse. 

New Retro: Classic Graphics, Today’s Designs, by Brenda Dermody and Teresa Breathnach (Thames and Hudson). Don’t be put off by this volume’s razzmatazz title—or by the somewhat formulaic overview of the history of twentieth-century graphic design in the first part of the book. The bulk of New Retro is an exploration of the traditional consciousness of contemporary designers who bring--to everything from books to packaging to business cards and stationery--a sense of the design history that is at once easygoing and erudite, eye-filling and intellectually engaging. I found some work that I already know and admire—Mucca Design’s packaging for Sant Ambroeus Restaurant and Peter Mendelsund’s covers for Knopf (confession: Mendelsund has designed covers for two of my books)—and much that I did not know and would like to know better. Some of the best work has a nerdy elegance.  

Picasso and the Allure of Language, edited by Susan Greenberg Fisher (Yale University Press). “Letters and words are woven through the fabric of Pablo Picasso’s art,” Susan Fisher observes at the outset of this volume, the catalogue of a wide-ranging exhibition that originated at the Yale University Art Gallery. Though nobody would ever think to call Picasso bookish, he was close to many writers and produced some of the most ravishingly illustrated volumes of the twentieth-century. A passion for storytelling--for narrative particularity and literary tradition—runs all through his work, bringing psychological shadings to formal inventions. He helped shape our sense of Balzac, of Ovid, of Apollinaire, and of many others as well. 

The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse, by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino (Abrams). The most famous photograph of Luisa Casati, who was born to great wealth and spent every cent she had, was taken by Man Ray in 1922; in this double exposure her dark eyes are cubified, creating a shimmering, shivering stare. But before Man Ray made her into a Surrealist icon, this woman with the dramatic looks and the haute bohemian life style had already been a fin-de-siècle icon, albeit a late blooming one, and then an Art Deco icon, perhaps a pioneering one. Ryersson and Yaccarino must have corralled every portrait ever made of the Marchesa Casati. The resulting book, although it perhaps contains more of the Marchesa than some of us ever wanted to see, has a fascination—the fascination of a tarnished but still alluring cult.  

Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age, byAndrew Piper (University of Chicago Press). “What renders a book more valuable as a keepsake than almost any other,” Leigh Hunt wrote in 1828, “is, that, like a friend, it can talk with and entertain us.” Andrew Piper—who quotes Hunt’s words—has written a book about the nineteenth century’s romance with books, looking at the many ways in which the physical character of a book and its illustrations shaped a reader’s avidity. Piper’s scholarly history is fueled by a bookish ardor—you can feel the love that went into his footnotes. This writer’s thinking comes straight out of the long afternoons he must have spent in the library, pulling book after book off the shelves, experiencing the power not only of words but also of bindings, typefaces, and illustrations.

Jed Perl is the art critic of The New Republic.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.