Books USA

Books for Christmas

Recommended reads, old and new, from the great and the good of the art world

Literary stocking stuffers (clockwise from top left): What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye; Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism; Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th-Century Art; Lucian Freud: Portraits; A Little History of the World

A Little History of the World, E.H. Gombrich, Yale University Press, 304pp, £8.99 (pb); What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye, Will Gompertz, Viking, 464pp, £20 (hb)

I recently read E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World (first published in 1935), a work firmly aimed at educating young readers, and marvelled at Gombrich’s uncomplicated presentation and brilliantly digestible prose when grappling with such awe-inspiring subject matter. I had a similar sensation in reading Will Gompertz’s What Are You Looking at? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye. Like Gombrich, it probably did not take him long to write this book, but it’s exactly the speed and irreverence of the approach that makes it so enjoyable. When it comes to demystifying modern art I can think of no better place to start than Gompertz’s wonderfully entertaining prose, his anecdotes, and his straightforward style. Gompertz relishes inviting us into the canon of modern art and allow the reader to marvel at its explosive 150-year history. Art shouldn’t be on a pedestal to be enjoyed by the highbrow, it needs to be knocked off, and this is exactly where he strides in. He’s got a kind of street cred about him, wild and wacky, and the book comes accompanied by a wonderful tube-type map laying out the significant movements of this productive era. — Oliver Barker, deputy chairman, Sotheby’s Europe, and senior international specialist in contemporary art

Lucian Freud: Drawings, William Feaver, Mark Rosenthal and Lucian Freud, Blain-Southern and Acquavella Galleries, 256pp, £34.35 (hb); Lucian Freud: Portraits, Sarah Howgate, ed, National Portrait Gallery Publications in association with Yale University Press, 256pp, £40 (hb)

Thinking of 2012 exhibition catalogues, I would choose the books published for the “Lucian Freud Drawings” exhibition at Acquavella, New York, and the “Lucian Freud Portraits” show at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Separately and as companions, they provide a thoughtful examination of one of the greatest artists of our generation. I am also revisiting the late Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (1980), savouring the memory of my first encounter with its powerful prose and ideas—both of which still resonate today. — Thomas Campbell, director, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Contemplating Rocks, Marcus Flacks, Sylph Editions, 192pp, £120

The Chinese scholar’s rock is an esoteric and challenging subject, seldom addressed in the West; it represents a pure aesthetic, beyond culture and style, finally beyond the constraint of one’s imagination. To those who approach Oriental art via a Western education, there can be a barrier to understanding; this Marcus Flacks removes in a readable, visually stunning publication, combining scholarship with enthusiasm and playfulness, thanks also to Ornan Rotem’s excellent photographs and design. While exploring philosophical aspects of scholars’ rocks, the book is enhanced by lively images including line drawings, related artforms, architecture and gardens. The author presents them all approachably, never compromising the deep respect in which the scholar’s rock is held among cognoscenti. Flacks is probably best known as an expert in Chinese furniture but here he explores the journey towards his own personal passion. The book is a beautiful achievement, graphically exciting and perfectly printed; it should appeal to those familiar with the subject as much as those making their first steps towards its understanding. — John Eskenazi, dealer, owner of John Eskenazi Ltd

Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th-Century Art, Leo Steinberg, University of Chicago Press, 448pp, £23.45 (pb); Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism, Mike Kelley; John C. Welchman, ed, MIT Press, 208pp, $29.95 (pb)

In the best of times my reading is moody and fitful—and these are not the best of times. This year mourning played a large part in stocking my bedside table, prompting me to reread essays by friends and colleagues from whom I had already learned much. At the top of the pile were Leo Steinberg’s Other Criteria, along with photocopies of as yet uncollected essays, and Mike Kelley’s Foul Perfection. Neither author ever lost sight of the tricks Eros plays on Reason, and were both were writers’ writers with unfailing ears for the pleasures of the text. — Robert Storr, critic, curator and dean of the Yale School of Art

To read more Christmas book recommendation from our December issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or subscribe to our digital or print editions.

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