The Best Art Books of 2012
From Indian folklore to Paris vs. NYC, by way of Japanese Wonderland and 80 years of loving of dogs.
By Maria Popova
After last week’s look at the best science books of 2012, the season’s indulgently subjective and non-exhaustive best-of reading lists continue with the year’s favorite art books, in no particular order. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)
DRAWING FROM THE CITY
From visionary Indian indie publisher Tara Books, who for nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books celebrating Indian folk art traditions. Their latest gem, Drawing from the City (public library) by artist Tejubehan, is both more exquisite and born out of a more moving personal story than just about any book I’ve come across. Its gorgeous black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings, brimming with expressive lines and dots somewhere between Yayoi Kusama and Edward Gorey, tell the partly autobiographical, partly escapist tale of this self-taught artist who came of age as a woman trapped between unimaginable poverty and a wildly imaginative inner world in a patriarchal society.
Tejubehan takes us on a journey from her small village into the big city, where her poor parents move to find work. Three years pass. Teju is now a young woman and she marries a man who sings for a living. With his encouragement, she becomes an artist.
It is like magic. I sit in one place with paper and pen, and it is my hand that starts to move. Lines, dots, more lines, and more dots, and you have a picture. I can bring to life things that I have seen and know, but also things that I imagine. I can even bring the two together.
I have been moving all my life, looking for ways to survive, but this is a new direction. My heart is full.
I see a girl going somewhere on a bicycle, and I draw a whole group of girls, all of them on the way somewhere.
We reach the city! Everything is on the move here, not just the train. People rush past, pushing their way through the streets. Only the tall buildings seem rooted to the spot, along with a few trees that stand guard on the other side.
I don’t mind the rush though. The sun is setting, and I marvel at the lampposts that can turn night into day. Nights in our village are really dark.
At its heart, however, the story is really a feminist story — a vision for women’s liberation in a culture with oppressive gender norms and limiting social expectations. In envisioning the woman of the city — biking, driving, flying — Tejubehan is really envisioning what it might be like to live in a world where to be female means to be free to move and free to just be.
I like cars. I wonder what it’s like to move at such a high speed and to be in control of where you’re going. There are always two women in my cars. One drives and the other looks out of the window.
I want to be both of those women.
But even in the plane, my women are not content to sit still. So I float them down, wondering where they should go next. Should they fly forever like birds? Or should I draw some lines taking them down to the sea?
I rest my pen here for a moment. I have time to decide.
Like many of Tara’s other books, Drawing from the City has been silkscreen-printed and bound by hand on handmade paper. The cover is colored with traditional Indian dyes, emanating an enchanting earthy smell that reminds you what it’s like to hold an analog labor of love in your analog human hands.
Originally featured, with more images, in October.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass endure as some of history’s most beloved children’s storytelling, full of timeless philosophy for grown-ups and inspiration for computing pioneers. The illustrations that have accompanied Lewis Carroll’s classics over the ages have become iconic in their own right, from Leonard Weisgard’s stunning artwork for the first color edition of the book to Salvador Dali’s little-known but breathtaking version. Now, from Penguin UK and Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, comes a striking contender for the most visually captivating take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yet.
Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.
Originally featured, with more photos and a trailer, in April.
STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST
Much has been said about how creativity works, what its secrets are, and where good ideas come from, but most of that wisdom can be lost on young minds just dipping their toes in the vast and tumultuous ocean of self-initiated creation. Some time ago, artist and writer Austin Kleon — one of my favorite thinkers, a keen observer of and participant in the creative economy of the digital age — was invited to give a talk to students, the backbone for which was a list of 10 things he wished he’d heard as a young creator:
So widely did the talk resonate that Kleon decided to deepen and enrich its message in Steal Like an Artist (UK; public library) — an intelligent and articulate manifesto for the era of combinatorial creativity and remix culture that’s part 344 Questions, part Everything is a Remix, part The Gift, at once borrowed and entirely original.
The book opens with a timeless T.S. Eliot endorsement of remix culture:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
Kleon goes on to delineate the qualities you’ll need to cultivate for the creative life — things like kindness, curiosity, “productive procrastination,” “a willingness to look stupid” — demonstrating that “creativity” isn’t some abstract phenomenon bestowed upon the fortunate few but, rather, a deliberate mindset and pragmatic ethos we can architect for ourselves. As he puts it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.”
He writes in the introduction:
It’s one of my theories that when people give advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.
This book is me talking to a previous version of myself.
These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others — I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.
These ideas are for everyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)
On doing what you love, Kleon urges:
Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.
Originally featured at length in March.
Since 2008, Christoph Niemann — LEGO-lover, imagination instigator, metaphorical chicken-chaser — has been delighting us with his visual blog for The New York Times, in which he has explored everything from his love-hate relationship with coffee to the fall of the Berlin Wall to his obsession with maps to the familiar drudgery of red-eye flights. Abstract City (public library) gathers sixteen of his visual essays, infused with his signature blend of humor, thoughtfulness, and exquisite conceptual freshness. An additional chapter on his creative process, echoing his excellent Creative Mornings talk on the same subject, presents the ultimate cherry on top.
Originally featured, with more images, in April.
100 IDEAS THAT CHANGED ART
100 Ideas That Changed Art (public library) offers a succinct account of the most influential developments in the history of art, from cave paintings to the internet, compiled by art historian and broadcaster Michael Bird. From conceptual innovations like negative space (#98), color codes (#33), and street art (#94) to landmarks of communication like making books (#21), propaganda (#12), and handwriting (#24) to ideological developments like “less is more” (#30), protest (#79), and the body as surface (#9), each idea is contextualized in a 500-word essay with key visual examples.
Bird writes in the introduction:
What does it mean to ‘change art’? Art, in any definition, is so much a business of transformation that change is always and everywhere part of its nature, whether you think of it in physical terms (stone into statue) or in intellectual or spiritual ones (giving form to invisible things). No sooner has an idea changed art that art reformulates that idea, allowing it to recognize itself. Around the early fifth century BC, for example, Greek sculptors changed the way they represented naked figures, probably under the influence of certain intellectual attitudes to the human body. At the same time, their nude statues endowed fifth-century Greek ideas about what it means to be human with an extraordinarily long and fertile posterity. As so often where art is concerned, the transformation works both ways, more on the analogy of a chemical reaction than the introduction of a new material in engineering or a new process in politics.
Whereas stories are diachronic — they take time in the telling and involve the unfolding of events through time — visual images work synchronically, being interpreted almost instantaneously by the viewer. Visual artists have therefore developed a wide range of strategies for the task of storytelling.
Originally featured in October.
MY IDEAL BOOKSHELF
In 2007, artist and illustrator Jane Mount began painting “portraits of people through the spines of their books” — those aspirational bookshelves we all hold in our heads (and, ideally, on our walls), full of all the books that helped us discover and rediscover who we are, what we stand for, and what we’d like to become. A kind of book spine poetry of identity. In 2010, she paired with Paris Review writer Thessaly La Force and the two asked more than a hundred of today’s most exciting creators — writers, artists, designers, critics, filmmakers, chefs, architects — what those favorite, timeless books were for them. Thus, My Ideal Bookshelf * (public library) was born — a magnificent collection of Mount’s illustrated “portraits” of these modern-day icons, alongside short essays by each contributor explaining why the books included are meaningful to him or her. Besides the sheer voyeuristic pleasure of peeking inside the personal libraries of great minds, the project is at once a celebration of bibliophilia and a testament to the fact that the most interesting people are woven of incredibly eclectic influences.
La Force offers a necessary disclaimer in the introduction:
So much depends on where you, the reader, are — physically and metaphorically — when you decide to pick up a book and give it a chance. Which explains why there’s no such thing as one ideal bookshelf; there is no ur-bookshelf. It would be a mistake to try to read this book with that goal in mind. In the end., the one element that links all the ideal bookshelves in these pages is the never-ending search. e’re all still hunting, still hoping to discover one more book that we’ll love and treasure for the rest of our lives.
Your style is still going to be constructed out of the material that you have inherited, but it’s going to be put together in some way that has, hopefully, never quite been heard before.
I love the architecture of public libraries, the very large windows. Inside it’s polished, it’s quiet; during the day, the sun is usually streaming through one room or another. And all the people are sitting there together, but they’re all going to completely different places through the books they’re reading.
Jennifer Egan contemplates the substance of life:
My goal as a writer is to do as much as possible at one time. Life itself is so cacophonous and complex. It’s not that I want to create a cacophony, but I want to do justice to the complexity around us. I don’t want to oversimplify it. I want to take one thing and build from that, and then keep building, until I begin to approximate the complexity of the world and our perceptions of it.
MoMA’s Paola Antonelli considers a book’s content in contrast to its thing-ness:
Hello World is a new book by Alice Rawsthorn, the one and only, the best design critic in the entire world. She keeps the banner of design flying high. Irma Boom designed it, and Irma is very simply the best book designer alive. I personally love reading books electronically. I proudly have a big wall of books in my apartment, but I’m continually getting rid of books that get on my nerves because I don’t think they’re good enough to deserve to take up space in my life. You can walk into a bookstore and find that 95 percent of the books on display might as well have been directly electronic. Mind you, they might be great texts, fabulous additions to human knowledge, but they did not need to have their own paper body. I want physical books to have a concept. Irma designs objects. her books are breathtaking as things.
The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passes the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it — it’s just an excellent way to waste your life.
Illustrator extraordinaire Christoph Niemann speaks to the indispensable value of influence and considers David Foster Wallace as a creative echelon:
I think the most successful illustrations are those that build on some other reference. You can’t completely reinvent something.
For me, David Foster Wallace is almost painful to read. It’s like he’s mumbling. You think he’s just writing down every single idea that comes into his head, but then when you reach the end, you realize that every sentence has been perfectly composed. I wish I could find something in his work that I could put to use in my own.
The one and only Patti Smith touches on that quality of literature that makes it the original “Internet” of hyperlinked discovery:
I longed to read everything I possibly could, and the things I read in turn produced new yearnings.
David Sedaris channels Henry Miller:
I really think you can’t progress as a writer unless you read, and the ideal time to read is when you can read generously. It didn’t even occur to me that I could have a book of my own in the library someday. That’s how you should read.
Design and typography maestro Stefan Sagmeister draws a parallel between his design process and his book selection:
As a designer, I often use a process described by the Maltese philosopher Edward de Bono. He suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random objet as a point of departure. So, let’s say I have to design a pen. Instead of looking at other pens, and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is, and so on and so forth, I’ll consider, say — I’m in a hotel room right now — beadspreads.
I started writing for children because someone asked me to. I thought it was a different skill set, even though it’s really not. I asked the editor to send me a bunch of children’s books that the publishing house had published. And they were all terrible. Every single one of them. Which inspired me.
But perhaps most poignant of all, or at least most resonant with my own relationship with books, is writer Pico Iyer:
What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart. The books on my shelf never asked to come together, and they would not trust or want to listen to one another; but each is a piece of a stained-glass whole without which I couldn’t make sense to myself, or to the world outside.
For the ultimate book-lover’s treat, Jane will paint your ideal bookshelf.
Originally featured, with more bookshelves and an important footnote, earlier this month.
I SAW A PEACOCK WITH A FIERY TAIL
Also from the wonderful Tara Books (see above) comes I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail (public library) — a die-cut masterpiece two years in the making, based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti, who brought us the magnificent The Night Life of Trees.
Each line of the “trick verse” builds upon the previous one, flowing into a kind of rhythmic redundancy embodied in the physical structure of the book as each repeating line is printed only once, but appears on two pages by peeking through exquisitely die-cut holes that play on the stark black-and-white illustrations. Thus, if read page by page the way one would read a traditional book, the poem sounds spellbindingly surreal — but if read through the die-cuts, a beautiful and crisp story comes together.
I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail is unlike any book you’ve ever held in your hands and in your heart, and outcharms even Originally featured, with more images and a trailer, in May.
NO MAN’S LAND
French comic artist and illustrator Blexbolex may be best-known for his contemplative meditations on people and time, aimed at children yet agelessly delightful and thought-provoking, but he is also a masterful explorer of complex grown-up themes. No Man’s Land (public library), from London indie publisher No Brow, is a poignant satire of the mind’s well-documented gift for fooling itself and seducing us into our own hand-spun illusory realities. Printed in three spot-colors, screenprint-like, on beautiful matte paper — Blexbolex’s signature style — it tells the story of a hero spiraling into an implausible dreamland in hopeless escapism from the processes of mortality.
And still, that insinuating, ever-growing silence.
Hell. I survived hell; you don’t even have the beginning of the slightest idea.
Originally featured in July.
PARIS VS. NEW YORK
For the past two years, graphic designer Vahram Muratyan, a self-described “lover of Paris wandering through New York,” has been chronicling the peculiarities and contradictions of the two cities through “a friendly visual match” of minimalist illustrated parallel portraits. This year, Muratyan joined the finest blog-turned-books with Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities (public library) — an absolutely charming collection of these vibrant visual dichotomies and likenesses. From beverages to beards, hands to houses, Muratyan captures the intricacies of cultural difference in a way that blends the minimalist and playful visual whimsy of Noma Bar’s Guess Who? with the side-by-side parallelism of Mark Laita’s Created Equal to deliver something entirely new and entirely delightful.
(You might recall the above from the excellent Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language.)
Also available as a set of postcards.
Originally featured, with more images, in January.
THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF DOGS
Dogs have enjoyed a long track record as fiction heroes, photography models, and subjects of scientific curiosity. But they’ve also had an admirable history of inhabiting the spectrum between trope and muse for some of literary history’s greatest talent. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library) collects such canine-themed gems — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — from a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including Brain Pickings regulars E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, the lavishly illustrated 400-page tome is an absolute treat from cover to cover.
Malcolm Gladwell writes in the foreword:
A few words about you. You bought this book: several hundred pages on dogs. You are, in other words, as unhealthily involved in the emotional life of dogs as the rest of us. Have you wondered why you bought it? One possible answer is that you see the subject of man’s affection for dogs as a way of examining all sorts of broader issues. Is it the case of a simple thing revealing a great many complex truths? We do a lot of this at The New Yorker. To be honest: I do a lot of this at The New Yorker — always going on and on about how A is just a metaphor for B, and blah, blah, blah. But let’s be clear. You didn’t really buy this boo because of some grand metaphor. Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.
From E. B. White comes a playful, heart-warming poem circa 1930:
DOG AROUND THE BLOCK
Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, least at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Loving old acquaintances, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.
In a piece bearing the deceptively unassuming title “Dog Story,” Adam Gopnik deploys his formidable dual storytelling torpedo of disarming personal anecdote and uncompromising scientific rigor to explore post-Darwinian views on dog domestication:
[C]ountering [Darwin’s] view comes a new view of dog history, more in keeping with our own ostentatiously less man-centered world view. Dogs, we are now told, by a sequence of scientific speculators … domesticated themselves. They chose us. A marginally calmer canid came close to the circle of human warmth — and, more important, human refuse — and was tolerated by the humans inside: let him eat the garbage. Then this scavenging wolf mated with another calm wolf, and soon a family of calmer wolves proliferated just outside the firelight. It wasn’t cub-snatching on the part of humans, but breaking and entering on the part of wolves, that gave us dogs. ‘Hey, you be ferocious and eat them when you can catch them,’ the protodogs said, in evolutionary effect, to their wolf siblings. ‘We’ll just do what they like and have them feed us. Dignity? It’s a small price to pay for free food. Check with you in ten thousand years and we’ll see who’s had more kids.’ (Estimated planetary dog population: one billion. Estimated planetary wild wolf population: three hundred thousand.)
A few pages later, Gopnik’s gentle arrow to the heart of our relationship with dogs:
Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle.
In another essay on Thurber, the magazine’s quintessential dog-lover, whose artwork graces the book cover, Gopnik does away with Gladwell’s disclaimer and offers an insightful A-is-a-metaphor-for-B analysis of Thurber’s meta-symbolism:
So why dogs? The answer is simple: for Thurber, the dog chimed with, represented, the American man in his natural state—a state that, as Thurber saw it, was largely scared out of him by the American woman. When Thurber was writing about dogs, he was writing about men. The virtues that seemed inherent in dogs—peacefulness, courage, and stoical indifference to circumstance—were ones that he felt had been lost by their owners. The American man had the permanent jumps, and the American dog did not. The dog was man set free from family obligations, Monastic Man. Dogs ‘would in all probability have averted the Depression, for they can go through lots tougher things than we and still think it’s boom time. They demand very little of their heyday; a kind word is more to them than fame, a soup bone than gold; they are perfectly contented with a warm fire and a good book to chew (preferably an autographed first edition lent by a friend); wine and song they can completely forgo; and they can almost completely forgo women.’ For Thurber, the dog is not man’s best friend so much as man’s sole dodgy ally in his struggle with man’s strangest necessity, woman.
Indeed, it is also Gopnik who, in the same essay, captures in just a few short sentences the entire ethos of the book — and the very heart of man’s relationship with dog:
Integrity, even grouchy growling integrity, in a world that doesn’t value it; nobility in a time that doesn’t want it—what Thurber’s dogs do is absurd or even pernicious (they bite people, or drag junk furniture for miles) but demonstrates the necessary triumph of the superfluous. Which is what dogs are all about; it is the canine way. Nothing is less necessary than a pet dog, or more needed. Thurber’s theme is that a dog’s life is spent, as a man’s life should be, doing pointless things that have the solemnity of inner purpose.
Originally featured, with more covers and cartoons, earlier this month.
Published November 26, 2012