Reading Beyond Art History

A List of Book Recommendations for Artists

Books are one way to get close to an artist. A printed monograph, whether artistic, philosophical, scientific, or literary, enriches our world and provides a kind of sustenance. I enjoy engaging thoughts of the creative mind, irrespective of the field. I pore over new discoveries online and at certain bookstores in New York City. The smaller publishers you come across at book fairs quite often provide exceptional finds. The more I read, the more I notice different areas of study intersecting with each other and bridging with my work. Here is a list of some of my favorites.

1. Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey by Trevor Schoonmaker

Schoonmaker’s book is a comprehensive survey of Mutu’s work, published to coincide with her show at the Brooklyn Museum. Mutu’s work resonates with what I do in my art practice. And I just enjoy her approach.

Mutu is considered one of the foremost contemporary African-American artists today. The Brooklyn-based, Yale grad weaves visual narratives into a culturally-rich hybrid of the twenty-first century. These range from installations and paintings to video and performance art. Mutu’s mixed-media pieces lean toward the surreal, using inks and watercolor-like paints combined with an unusual approach to collage. Her politically- and culturally-infused body of work merges into a wonderful visual balance that is anything but superficial and always unexpected. 

book suggestions for art students

2. Francis Alys by Cuauhtémoc Medina

I have included a book on this Mexico-based Belgian artist, Francis Alys, because of his significance today. Alys’ work relates to what I have been exploring recently in my own three-dimensional projects about the body that build on the concepts of space, time, and memory.

Alys has been practicing art for many decades. He moves away from the white box into the landscape where he interacts with the land and urban spaces. Working boldly in everything from painting to land art to performances, Alys embraces many areas that involve the individual as much as the collective. There is much I like about this artist, but most especially how he interacts with his environment: whatever the scale, whatever the medium, wherever it is.

book suggestions for art students

3. Art as Experience by John Dewey

Art as Experience remains a classic on aesthetic philosophy. I have developed some of my recent pieces from “open play” and other processes Dewey describes.

4. Anthem by Ayn Rand

Anthem remains a world apart from Ayn Rand’s other books. Literature, like poetry, opens doors to understanding life and can deepen and elaborate on what we already know or have learned through experience. Literature also fuels ideas that can be then transferred to our “visual-scapes”; these ideas are sometimes concrete, sometimes abstract, sometimes conscious, or sometimes a result of chance. They can surface like silent brushstrokes from the subconscious.

5. The Art of War by Sun Tzu by Samuel B. Griffith

Though long a staple in the business world, The Art of War should not limited to it. It can help any artist negotiate the ever-expanding world of art, or any profession. Here is advice that applied so long ago and is still relevant in today’s world, whatever the circumstances.

6. A Tree Within by Octavio Paz

Paz’s book of poems is rich, especially beautiful in its original Spanish that, in this edition, appears alongside Eliot Weinberger’s English translation. Paz’s artistry with words, distilled through his cultural background in vivid passages, provokes one’s imagination.

book suggestions for art students

7. Medardo Rosso by Luciano Caramel

A wonderful book about a wonderful artist, whom I care for greatly. Medardo Rosso takes the ideas of sculpture and looks at them from an original standpoint. His sculptures of shadows and work in wax over plaster are his hallmarks, which have inspired many followers. He photographed a selection of his own work for this book to enable the viewer to experience each piece just as he wanted. Though not as widely known as he should be, Rosso, to me, remains a stalwart among sculptors working today, especially appealing because his ideas can be applied into other areas of art.

8. Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

Poetry has a strong influence on my work, often becoming part of my art-making process. I have even incorporated aspects of works by a few contemporary poets whose ideas converge with mine. Dancing in Odessa is hard to put aside. Kaminsky, born in the former USSR, has taken on the English language with great agility. His poetry swings through a full range of emotions that drive the human spirit in a manner that is both intimate and freeing. Few can reach a level of writing that winds its way into your soul.

book suggestions for art students

9. Flow: Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts by Philip Ball

Ball’s book is just fun to read, bringing me back to some of the basic principles in science. Today we see many invocations of science in the realm of art. This book applies to ideas in painting as it does to any engagement with materials through movement.

10. Vitamin P2: New Perspectives in Painting by Peio Aguirre, et al.

This book offers a great overview of 115 international contemporary painters with 500 images that have been vetted by critics and curators. The range of artwork here is extensive and will keep you book-bound. Among the international list of noteworthy painters included are Wade Guyton, Hernan Bas, and Jules de Balinncourt.

book suggestions for art students

11. Gutai: Splendid Playground by Min Tiampo and Alexandra Munroe

This catalogue is one of my latest finds. It was published for the 2013 Guggenheim exhibition of the same name. It offers a selection of images and background about the Gutai, a postwar avant-garde collective in Japan that influenced art for decades. The Gutai, essentially, prompted the genesis of new ideas that anticipated happenings, performance art, and the conceptual art we have today. They were also responsible for the introduction of the first installations. Allan Kaprow, the Fluxus movement and Nam June Paik are some of the well-known results of the fruits of the Gutai’s inceptions.

book suggestions for art students

NAOMI ANDRÉE CAMPBELL (@naomi.campbell.7334) teaches Painting from Life: Expressive Figure Watercolor Painting at the Art Students League of New York.


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