Off the Shelf: Summertime Reading

With the passing of the solstice this week, I’ve already seen not just one, but two posts from my various art blogs of choice recommending books for summer reading. Those fine edu-ma-cating types at Art 21 mix artist biographies like Patti Smith’s amazing Just Kids with some beefy textbooks whose unsuitability for the beach is fairly forewarned, while Modern Art Notes goes straight for the fictionalizing jugular.

It’s a constant frustration of mine that my impulsive and sometimes fetishistic buying habits consistently outpace my ability to read all the books on my shelves. Provided I ever finish reading the endless tome that is Vanity Fair (still sharply relevant some 160 years later, but long), I’m looking forward to finally sinking my teeth into some of these long-neglected nuggets in my collection.

Steve Martin, An Object of Beauty, Grand Central Publishing, 2010.

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I scooped Steve Martin’s latest novel about the New York art world of the 1990s at Epic Books on Locke Street, initially seduced by the seamlessly placed full-colour art historical plates throughout the text and the vague memory of his play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, being quite good when I saw it at Theatre Aquarius who knows how many years ago. Reviews I’ve read since have been critical of its frothy and stereotypical take on the gallerina’s rise through the art world, making it perfect backyard-and-beer reading.

Scott Chantler, Two Generals. McClelland & Stewart, 2010.

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In another case of being taken in by pretty pictures and outstanding book design, I justified the purchase of this Canadian graphic novel by convincing myself for all of one day that I would give it as a Christmas present. Naturally, that was a lie. The promise of a beautifully ordinary tale of soldiers during the Second World War, backed up by a sombre visual narrative in sepia and red, was just too good to give up.

Christoph Menke, Daniel Loick and Isabelle Graw, The Power of Judgment: A Debate on Aesthetic Critique, Sternberg Press, 2010.

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A heady lecture and ensuing arguments on the role of judgment in art criticism may seem an unlikely choice of summer reading, but finding this in the Tate bookstore in London made me bounce like a child and let’s face it, it’s a very slim book. Heavy theory aside, it’s the perfect size for lounging, leisurely reading.

Richard Cork, Everything Seemed Possible: Art in the 1970s, Yale University Press, 2003.

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The same probably can’t be said for my second choice of summer art criticism because even in paperback Richard Cork’s survey of revolutionary artists of the 1970s is quite hefty. All the same, the 1970s represent an era of art history in which I remain deeply interested but understand not nearly enough, and I’m looking forward to reading about each radical new development of the time through the eyes of someone who originally wrote about those revolutions as they happened.

Kara Walker, My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, Walker Art Centre, 2007.

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For a more equal balance of critical insight and visual pleasure, I’m well overdue to delve into my (signed!) copy of this exhibition catalogue for Walker’s 2007 show at the Walker Art Centre. I’ve been a long-standing fan of Walker’s combination of incisive historical inquiry and reverence for art-making techniques often seen as outmoded. The many lengthy essays from various contributors and a strong complement of reproduced drawings and paintings – and a contextualizing visual essay on the history of black representation by the artist – is no doubt going to make the reading and viewing of this beauty both challenging and satisfying. And here’s hoping I don’t spill a drink on it because, again, it’s simply a gorgeously designed object.


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