The increased interest among some museums in mounting exhibitions featuring the work of African American artists has translated into a growing number of catalogs published to document them, which is wonderful. Many of those catalogs made Culture Type’s 2018 list of best illustrated art books, along with a few monographs, and a volume documenting a private collection.
The selected titles were chosen based on how they stood up as individual publications, not because they accompanied a “groundbreaking” exhibition or featured the work of an “important” artist. Each volume provides an absorbing experience and captures its subject in a thoughtful, informative, and accessible manner, often with an elevated design. As an added bonus, many include insights from other artists.
Black Art Books
THIS VOLUME IS A REAL TREASURE. Hundreds of contemporary artworks by artists of African descent are illustrated. Peggy Cooper Cafritz (1947-2018), the passionate and inveterate collector, purchased the works over two periods of time. (She lost her first art collection to a house fire in 2009, and soon began assembling another.)
CELEBRATING BLACKNESS through legacy sites, Theaster Gates mounted a grand immersive exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario that proposed “new ways of honoring and remembering Black experience and explore[d] the potential of these spaces through music, dance, video, sculpture and painting.” The 2016 exhibition was the largest presentation of Gates’s work to date.
BEAUTY, WIT AND TURMOIL co-exist in the imaginative beadwork of Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott. Her figurative sculptures, wall hangings and jewelry address politics, racism, violence, and gender issues.
A PIONEERING CONCEPTUAL ARTIST, philosopher, and yoga devotee, Adrian Piper’s work challenges assumptions about race, identity, gender, and class. This volume documents her 50-year retrospective presenting some of the most profound and relevant work she’s produced over her career.
WORKING WITH ADVERTISING IMAGES from vintage Ebony and Jet magazines, Lorna Simpson has created countless collages defined by imaginative hair treatments—crowns of glory made with strokes of watercolor and elaborate geological formations clipped from old textbooks.
IN HIS OPENING ESSAY to this volume, Kerry James Marshall, a student of Charles White, speaks about a “physical sensation, a shiver induced by the mere sight of a thing,” a kind of religious experience, and “the ineffable dimension of art often labeled ‘sublime.’”
HAIL THE DARK LIONESS indeed. More than 90 powerful and evocative images from Zanele Muholi’s ongoing self-portrait series are collected here, the South African photographer and visual activist’s first monograph. Muholi came to international attention for her documentary-style portraits of South African LGBTQ and gender-nonconfirming individuals.
CHICAGO-BASED PHOTOGRAPHER Dawoud Bey received the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant in 2017, providing confirmation of sorts that in his mid-60s his practice is singular, distinctive, and has “potential.” His latest book, a mammoth retrospective volume, makes clear that a genius vision has coursed through his work for more than 40 years.
OVERFLOWING WITH MORE THAN 200 IMAGES, this new monograph documents the practice of Henry Taylor, the Los Angeles artist known for his bluesy approach to abstract figuration. It’s a wonderful book and a genuinely good read.
MANY VOLUMES AND EXHIBITIONS have paid tribute the Harlem Renaissance, the period generally regarded as dating from 1918 to the stock market crash of 1929. Celebrating the centennial of the creative and intellectual flowering, “I Too Sing America” is a unique exploration of the subject that brings a journalist together with his hometown museum and the community where he grew up in Columbus, Ohio.
AN EXPERT PRINTMAKER who co-founded the Chicago artist collective AfriCOBRA in 1968, Barbara Jones-Hogu (1938-2017) produced political, pro-Black, color-charged images that combined figuration with dynamic graphic lettering. Two months after she died in November 2017, her first-ever solo museum exhibition opened at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago.
PIANIST AND COMPOSER Jason Moran’s unique practice bridges visual and performing arts. He’s worked with an impressive list of artists, including Stan Douglas, Theaster Gates, Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker.
A HOMETOWN EXHIBITION is shining a long overdue light on the many contributions of Harlem Renaissance-era sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962). The pioneering artist/activist mentored two generations of artists—Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Robert Blackburn, Selma Burke, Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, and Ernest Crichlow, among them—and campaigned for equal treatment and opportunity for African Americans in the arts.
A SERIES OF MUSES have inspired Mickalene Thomas over the years, expanding her vision of black female beauty and influencing her powerful representations of the black female body. Her elaborate rhinestone embellished paintings and layered collages cast her subjects in eclectic surroundings that replicate her immersive installations.
TEN YEARS AFTER the publication of his first monograph, “Pitch Blackness,” a new volume surveys the career of Hank Willis Thomas. Published in advance of his exhibition of the same name at the Portland Museum of Art in Oregon, “All Things Being Equal” features key bodies of work from 2002-2018 that display the artist’s dexterity with representation and interpretation of images and language.
LEAFING THROUGH THIS VOLUME, readers are met with a symphony of color. Page after page brings a rush of greens, yellows, pinks, blues, and purples, countless installation images of Sam Gilliam’s color-washed abstract canvases folded, draped and stretched, hanging from walls and ceilings and laying over a wood sawhorse.
INVARIABLY IDENTIFIED as the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine, Gordon Parks had a decade of experience when he was hired in February 1949. Those early years were incredibly fruitful and are explored in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and this accompanying catalog. A self-taught photographer, Parks’s work appeared in the St. Paul Recorder newspaper in 1939, providing a launch pad. In the 1940s, he trained his camera on life in Chicago, where he was connected with the South Side Community Art Center.
ENCAPSULATING THE WORLD of Purvis Young (1943-2010), this volume presents full-color illustrations of more than 250 works by the prolific Miami-born artist who said he painted what he saw—around his neighborhood and in the world, the problems and some good things, too.
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