The Best Art Books of 2015
Urban dogs, underworld dragons, the unseen Peanuts, and every living person in New York.
By Maria Popova
I think of my annual best-of reading lists as Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — unlike traditional resolutions, which frame our aspirational priorities for the new year, these reflect on the books that emerged as most worth prioritizing over the setting year. To kick off reverse-resolutions season, here are the best art books of the year. (And since creative genius is timeless, revisit the selections for 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.)
1. BELOVED DOG
“A lot of us humans,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her magnificent meditation on aging and what beauty really means, “are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like.” But humanity’s abiding love of dogs has to do with something deeper than this psychological kinship — in loving us, dogs clarify our own size and shape by mirroring back to us who we really are.
The magnetism of that mutuality is what artist, visual memoirist, and champion of attentiveness Maira Kalman explores in Beloved Dog (public library) — a tender, quirky, scrumptiously sincere love letter to our canine companions, part memoir of and part manifesto for the adoration of Dog.
Composed of Kalman’s vast existing body of work celebrating the canine spirit — spreads from her children’s books and illustrated memoirs, New Yorker covers, portraits of dog-loving literary icons, and more — the book is both quintessentially New York and astonishingly universal, a reminder that however much we may think with animals, we feel with them infinitely more.
Kalman, an irrepressible humanist and patron saint of presence, writes:
When I go out for a walk, there is so much that makes me happy to be alive. Breathing. Not thinking. Observing. I am grateful beyond measure to be part of it all. There are people, of course, heroic and heartbreaking, going about their business in splendid fashion.
There are the discarded items — chairs, sofas, tables, umbrellas, shoes — also heroic for having lived life in happy (or unhappy) homes.
There are trees. Glorious and consoling. Changing with the seasons. Reminders that all things change. And change again. There are flowers, birds, babies, buildings.
I love all of these. But above all, I am besotted by dogs.
A passionate reader, Kalman communes with literary history’s famous dog-lovers: Kafka, for whom dogs (along with books) were the only light amid his existential darkness, Gertrude Stein, whose French poodle named Basket was central to her daily routine, and E.B. White, literature’s greatest champion of dogs.
Take a closer look here.
2. BEASTLY VERSE
Half a century after Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, legendary artist Tomi Ungerer’s illustrated compendium of famous authors’ verses about brothers and sisters, another singular illustrator of our own era applies the concept to a different domain of the human experience — the inclination toward thinking with animals in making sense of our own lives.
In Beastly Verse (public library), her spectacular picture-book debut, Brooklyn-based illustrator and printmaker JooHee Yoon brings to vibrant life sixteen beloved poems about nonhuman creatures, real and imagined — masterworks as varied in sentiment and sensibility as Lewis Carroll’s playful “The Crocodile,” D.H. Lawrence’s revolutionarily evolutionary homage to the hummingbird, Christina Rossetti’s celebration of butterfly metamorphosis, and William Blake’s bright-burning ode to the tiger.
What makes the book doubly impressive is the ingenuity of its craftsmanship and the striking results it produces. Trained as a printmaker and fascinated by the traditional, industrial techniques of artists from the first half of the twentieth century, Yoon uses only three colors — cyan, magenta, and yellow — on flat color layers, which she then overlaps to create a controlled explosion of secondary colors.
A gladdening resonance emerges between her printmaking process and the craftsmanship of poetry itself — using only these basic colors and manipulating their layering, Yoon is able to produce a kaleidoscope of emotion much like poets build entire worlds with just a few words, meticulously chosen and arranged.
Yoon explains her process:
Seen alone, each layer is a meaningless collection of shapes, but when overlapped, these sets of shapes are magically transformed into the intended image. To me the process of creating these images is like doing a puzzle, figuring out what color goes where and to make a readable image… There is a luminous brilliant quality to the colors when images are reproduced this way that I love.
The project, four years in the making, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — creator of consistently rewarding treasures — and was a close collaboration between Yoon and ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, an immense poetry-lover herself, who became besotted with poetry early and has remained bewitched for life:
For my 8th birthday, my dad gave me a book called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle: a book that now sits on my teenage son’s shelf. His inscription: Stories are a meal. But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life. At the age of eight, I didn’t fully understand what he meant, but I came to, and have ever since thought of poetry as water: essential, calm, churning, a vortex of light and shadow, refreshingly cool, pleasingly warm, and sometimes just hot enough or cold enough to jolt, charge, render slightly uncomfortable, and bring one fully, deeply to life once again.
Adding to the pictorial delight are four gatefolds out of which the elephant of Laura E. Richards’s “Eletelephony” marches into the living room, Palmer Brown’s spangled pandemonium hides from its hunter, D.H. Lawrence’s hummingbird stretches its beak across evolutionary time, and Blake’s tiger marches majestically into the jungle.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
I believe there were no flowers, then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.
Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.
Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk,
Or what not,
Which may be the chosen spot.
No toad spy you,
Hovering bird of prey pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again a butterfly.
Twilight, starlight —
Gloaming at the close of day,
And an owl calling,
Cool dews falling
In a wood of oak and may.
Darkness at the shut of day,
And lions roaring,
Their wrath pouring
In wild waste places far away.
Touchwood-light and toad-light,
And the sea a shimmering gloom of grey,
And a small face smiling
In a dream’s beguiling
In a world of wonders far away.
Walter de la Mare
Complement Yoon’s immeasurably wonderful Beastly Verse with French graphic artist Blexbolex’s similarly printed, very differently bewitching Ballad, then revisit this fascinating exploration of why animal metaphors enchant us.
Take a closer look here.
3. THUNDER & LIGHTNING
“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer,” E.B. White wrote in his elevating letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, adding: “I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly.” Our most steadfast companion since the dawn of our species, the weather seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, affects the way we think, and continues to lend itself to such apt metaphors for the human experience. Its reliable inconstancy constantly assures us that neither storm nor sunshine lasts forever; that however thick the gloom which shrouds today, the sun always rises tomorrow.
That abiding and dimensional relationship with the weather is what artist, Guggenheim Fellow, and American Museum of Natural History artist-in-residence Lauren Redniss explores in the beguiling Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (public library).
Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.” Although Redniss’s selections might give the impression of trivia at first brush, make no mistake — these are not random factlets that trivialize their subject but an intentional kaleidoscopic gleam that shines the light of attention onto some of the most esoteric and enchanting aspects of the weather.
Like Redniss’s previous book — her astonishing visual biography of Marie Curie — this project is enormously ambitious both conceptually and in its execution. Redniss created her illustrations using copperplate etching, an early printmaking technique popular prior to 1820, and typeset the text in an original font she designed herself, which she titled Qanec LR after the Eskimo word for “falling snow.”
Take a closer look here.
4. THE ART OF PEANUTS
For half a century, Charles M. Schulz (November 26, 1922–February 12, 2000) made an art of difficult emotions while delighting the world with his enormously influential Peanuts. The 17,897 comic strips he published between 1950 and 2000 are considered, in the words of cultural historian Robert Thompson, “the longest story ever told by one human being.”
In Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts (public library), beloved graphic designer Chip Kidd offers a guided behind-the-scenes tour of Schulz’s genius. With tremendous reverence and unprecedented access to the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Kidd delves into the raw material of Schulz’s creative process — his sketches, his correspondence, rare early editions of his comics, a wealth of previously unpublished artwork, and various never-before-seen ephemera that emanate the singular spirit of this irreplaceable creative force.
Kidd writes in the preface:
If bringing joy to other people is proof of a meaningful existence, then Charles M. Schulz led one of the most meaningful lives of the twentieth century.
From the heartening origin story of how teenage Charles Monroe “Sparky” Schulz had his first drawing of the family dog published in the popular Believe It or Not! in 1936, to the evolution of his pre-Peanuts characters, to the stratospheric success of Peanuts, this glorious tome is equal parts museum and monument, a masterwork of curatorial rigor and an affectionate homage.
Jeff Kinney writes in the introduction:
In creating Macbeth, William Shakespeare embodied a single character with a full and often contradictory range of human traits — ambition, weakness, gullibility, bravery, fearfulness, tyranny, kindness. A character as complex as Macbeth could only be created by someone with a complete understanding of what it means to be a human being, and suggests that Shakespeare himself shared many traits with his most famous literary character.
In the same way, the characters in Peanuts reflect the multiple dimensions of their creator. Interviewers asked Schulz if he was really Charlie Brown, expecting, perhaps, an uncomplicated confirmation. But Schulz was all the characters in Peanuts — Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Pig-Pen, Franklin, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, even Snoopy. Each character represented a different aspect of Schulz, making Peanuts perhaps the most richly layered autobiography of all time.
But Peanuts was in many ways a cultural biography as well, speaking in ways both subtle and profound not only to the abiding complexities of our inner lives but also to the singular concerns of the era. Nowhere is this osmosis of timelessness and timeliness more pronounced than in the story of how Schulz’s Franklin character was born.
See that story here.
In his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm — author of what is perhaps the most insightful treatise on love — popularized the word biophilia as a term for a positive psychological state of being. Literally translated as “love of life,” it is more vibrantly captured in Fromm’s own translation as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive… the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.” Many decades later, the great Mary Oliver — whose poetry is among humanity’s highest celebrations of biophilia — would come to call this feeling the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”
That passionate love of aliveness and that exulted awareness of the citizenry of all beings is what artist, designer, and photographer Christopher Marley captures in Biophilia (public library) — an exquisite collection of his artwork incorporating various life-forms, from insects to reptiles to marine creatures. A modern-day Ernst Haeckel of photographic art, Marley painstakingly arranges his specimens into mesmerizing patterns and stages them for individual portraits that reveal the dazzling grandeur of these humble creatures, from butterflies that would’ve made Nabokov proud to fish that outshine the greatest natural history illustrations.
Marley, a self-described “chronically afflicted biophiliac,” writes:
It is our biophilia that causes us to find so much beauty and satisfaction in nature. We do not love nature because it is beautiful; we find beauty in nature because we are a part of it, and it is a part of us.
It is a symbiotic relationship. The more we grow in understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the more we invest in it, the greater the peace, satisfaction, and joy we receive from our association in return, just as we involuntarily develop love for those people we truly understand and serve. As with all ordained goodness, the more we give, the more we receive.
That goodness permeates Marley’s work. After growing up in a family of hunters, he developed an aversion to killing any creature — even an insect — and spent years developing ethical, sustainable ways of collecting and preserving the specimens he uses in his artwork, working with a worldwide network of researchers, citizen scientists, and institutions.
A century and a half after Emerson contemplated how beauty bewitches the human spirit, asserting that “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting,” Marley makes infinitely interesting — or, rather, illuminates the inherent interestingness of — various species with which we share our shimmering world but which we, blinded by the momentum of our prejudices and phobias, ordinarily consider ugly or unremarkable. He uses beauty — “the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world,” per Emerson — as a tool of translation, shifting our frame of reference from one of antipathy or apprehension to one of appreciation and even affection.
I have found that when my subjects are meticulously composed, it makes the translation more intelligible for the public at large, just as random music notes, once properly orchestrated, can enter the heart and sway it almost against our volition. Once an appreciation for the aesthetics of insects is born, it is amazing how quickly old prejudiced and stereotypes fall away. When people begin to see beauty where they had previously known only a mundane, distasteful, or even frightening world of arcane organisms, positive changes in their perceptions of arthropods as a whole are sure to follow.
If the work I do provides no other benefit than to kindle a new appreciation of insects (and any other creatures that evoke trepidation in the human heart), that is enough for me. It is the primary reason why I do what I do: because it brings people — myself and others — joy.
The joy his work brings is of the most colorful, ebullient kind — the kind that emanates an exuberant celebration of biodiversity and an invitation for us to belong to this world more fully, calling to mind Mary Oliver’s unforgettable verse: “I know, you never intended to be in this world. / But you’re in it all the same. / So why not get started immediately. / I mean, belonging to it. / There is so much to admire, to weep over.”
Take a closer look here.
6. EVERY PERSON IN NEW YORK
“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to New York, adding: “The city is like poetry.” In 2008, illustrator Jason Polan set out to capture the enormous human poetics compressed in Gotham’s geographic smallness by drawing every person in the city. The first seven years of this ongoing project, totaling drawings of 30,000 people, are now collected in Every Person in New York (public library) — a marvelous tome of Polan’s black-and-white line drawings, colored in with the intense aliveness of a city where, as White wrote more than half a century earlier, “wonderful events that are taking place every minute.” What emerges is itself a kind of poetry — fragmentary glimpses of ideas and images, commanded by an internal rhythm to paint a complete whole of this human hive.
Alongside the lively jumble of faces at Grand Central and the staple of sleeping strangers on just about every train line and the taxi drivers and the subway cellists and the many, many Taco Bell patrons (a recurring locale that tells us something about Polan’s own habitual affections) are some of the city’s most beloved public figures — there’s Marina Abramović performing her now-legendary The Artist Is Present show at the Museum of Modern art, Nick Cave at the Armory, Don DeLillo at Grand Central, Marc Jacobs in Soho, and Joan Didion walking, allotted an entire page in a subtle act of reverence.
Here and there, snippets of overheard conversation invite us to cast these anonymous citizens as characters in imaginary dramas that, however fanciful, might just be true — this, after all, is New York.
The seed for the project was planted many years earlier: While still in art school in Ann Arbor, Polan did a project titled I Want to Know All of You, in which he drew every single person in the school, offered the portraits for $10 each at a local gallery, and gave the $10 to the schoolmate whose likeness the drawing depicted. Eventually, Polan took to a canvas decidedly larger than the 800-person college and approached the whole of New York City with the same creative curiosity, openheartedness, and generosity of spirit.
Polan describes the aliveness of his process:
I try to be as authentic with the drawings as I can. I only draw the person while I can see them. The majority of the drawings are done (mostly) while looking at the person, not at the paper. If they are moving fast, the drawing is often very simple. If they move or get up from a pose, I cannot cheat at all by filling in a leg that has been folded or an arm pointing. This is why some of the people in the drawings might have an extra arm or leg — it had moved while I was drawing them. I think, hope, this makes the drawings better.
Take a closer look, plus an illustrated cameo by yours truly, here.
“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” Douglas Rushkoff wrote in contemplating consciousness, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” And we don’t have to believe in such a god to appreciate the beautiful and imaginative ways in which the origin myths of the world’s various spiritual traditions capture this wonderful strangeness — from our earliest depictions of the universe to the marvelous mythic creatures that populate our legends. In advising parents on what to tell kids about Santa Claus, Margaret Mead made the crucial distinction between “fact” and “poetic truth,” and this is precisely what origin myths offer — an invitation to celebrate these ancient masterworks of storytelling, even if we recognize that they aren’t rooted in scientific fact.
Nowhere does this celebration come more vibrantly alive than in Creation (public library) by Bhajju Shyam — the best-known artist of India’s Gond tribe and the talent behind the extraordinary London Jungle Book. Shyam captures ten origin myths from Gond folklore in absolutely breathtaking illustrations.
A master of the traditional folk art style for which his tribe is known, Shyam conveys the core symbols and stories of Gond cosmogony in this simple yet enormously evocative masterpiece of visual storytelling. There are the blue crows, “whirling out from the eye of a storm, from the center of creation” to bring the birth of air; the seven types of earth that arise from the mud — sand, clay, loam, rock, chalk, silt, and marsh; the Sacred Seed, which “holds a miraculous possibility within itself, and when the time is right, lets it unfold.”
Hand-bound in a limited edition of 5,000 numbered copies and silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes, this beautiful book comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books. For the past two decades, founder Gita Wolf and her team have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in their fair-trade workshop in Chennai — treasures like The Night Life of Trees, Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit, and Waterlife.
Life exists because there is death — one contains the other. Just as joy has no meaning without sorrow, a beginning must have an end. But every end makes a new beginning possible.
In Gond villages, when you see smoke rising from a house, you know someone has passed away. Everyone gathers in the house of mourning, bringing the family food and comfort. There is no food cooked in the bereaved household until the third day, when they invite the whole village to a meal of fish. This signals the beginning of normal life again. You cannot accompany the dead, and in the course of time, will have to return to your own life.
One can’t help but notice the intriguing parallels with other spiritual traditions and secular philosophies: The fish, also found in Christian scripture, is the Gond symbol for water — Shyam depicts this “fish-shaped emptiness, bubbling in the water,” the first something that appeared out of the nothingness as the world was born, not unlike how evolution unfolded; the duality of day and night, sun and moon, symbolizing the male and female — two inextricably linked parts of one whole — call to mind Virginia Woolf’s notion of the androgynous mind; the Egg of Origins, “from which all life emerges,” mirrors the science of reproduction; the notion of life and death as complementary counterpoints evokes Rilke on mortality as a vitalizing force.
Day and night, beginning and end, life and death — creation is made of opposites. For human beings, life is measure din time.
Time for human beings is made up of day and night. Each is a half of one whole. Human beings themselves are made up of two halves: man and woman. A man is associated with the sun, and a woman with the moon — together, they stand in for day and night. They are opposites that make the whole.
The most delicate timekeepers are insects. Their short lives measure time in hours and days.
The project itself has a most heartening origin story. Read about it and take a closer look at the art here.
Published December 8, 2015