Published  18/12/2020

The 20 best art books of 2020

The 20 best art books of 2020

With many galleries and museums shut, art books have become more important than ever. Here are 20 of the best to appear this year


A large percentage of paper production and book printing takes place in China, but, in January 2020, factories were forced to close in response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in Hubei province. Publishers around the world were affected and entire print runs of art books had to be put on hold. Yet with the subsequent pandemic leading to the closure of museums and galleries worldwide, and people having more time to read during lockdown, art books have become more important than ever.

While digital book sales shot up, the picture was grim for print for the first six months of the year, with global print book sales for UK publishers falling by 17% and many art publishers delaying publications into next year. But September saw an influx of books on to the market. In August 2020, New Statesman reported that: “210 titles were held back until September, causing chaos for publicity teams and bookshops, and leaving authors disappointed.” It predicted that, at an already traditionally busy time for publishers and bookstores: “There will be more new titles hitting shelves than ever before. Including academic and professional books, 590 hardbacks will be released on 3 September, a 28% increase on the number published on the first Thursday of September 2019.”

The high volume of books coming out at the same time favours the big publishers, who can command more shelf space and more attention than independent publishers.  Art publishing can be compared with more independent publishers if one factors in relatively small print runs and copyright fees.

Studio International has selected a short list of 20 books, from gorgeous productions that would make perfect Christmas gifts to scholarly studies that address loss and memorialisation. My top three all deserve first place because they are each, in their different ways, brilliant:

1. Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – The Original by Aby Warburg
Edited by Axel Heil and Roberto Ohrt; published by Hatje Cantz; €200; 184pp

This has been described as: “A legendary modernist epic of visual thinking from the founder of iconology, tracing the migration of symbols through art, history and cosmology -reconstructed and accessible for the first time.” From 1925 until his death in 1929, the great German art theorist and cultural scholar Aby Warburg created an unprecedented project that he called the Mnemosyne Atlas. It was a series of 63 large, themed panels, featuring groups of related visual motifs across time and cultures (postcards, maps, adverts, reproductions of artworks) that encapsulated the migration of symbols from antiquity to the present. His intention was to reveal that certain gestures and icons repeated themselves across history, constituting what he called a “pathos formula”, namely an enduring emotional metaphor. Warburg had the panels photographed, with the view to publishing a single volume.

The Mnemosyne Atlas, is an attempt by one of the greatest cultural historians to comprehend the patterns of history and human emotion. His use of visual forms and art historical references acted as provocative signs or shorthand that manage to sidestep longwinded, conventional explanation. The Bilderatlas Mnemosyne has long been held in high esteem by artists, theorists, writers and curators. Ernst Gombrich, who was asked to publish the project in the 1930s, thought it impossible, and compared it to the composition of a symphony. Reconstructing Warburg’s panels has made the atlas visually accessible to the world for the first time.

2. Abstract Art: A Global History by Pepe Karmel
Published by Thames & Hudson; £65; 344pp

This splendid book will serve as a challenge to the history of abstraction; it is also a superb book to dip into and enjoy, an essential addition to the established art library and a perfect gift for art students. Pepe Karmel debunks the Eurocentric and US history of abstraction. He asserts there is no such thing as pure form; that the true history of abstract art is not merely the narrative of formal innovations but that it offers, “a series of responses to social, to political and cultural change”. Breaking from conventional history, Karmel includes female artists (“Beatriz Milhazes has no respect for the rules of modernism”), artists of colour (Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi painted a calligraphic Prayer in 1960) and artists from diverse regions and cultures, and he discusses the complex global dialogue in the relationship between calligraphy and abstraction. Drawing on Huaisu, an 8th-century Chinese Buddhist monk, on the one hand, and Madiha Omar, who was the wife of an Iraqi diplomat and exhibited in Washington DC in 1949, on the other, Karmel’s account is a complex, exciting tour de force. With works by established figures such as Joan Miró and Jackson Pollock alongside pieces by lesser-known artists such as Wu Guanzhong, Hilma af Klint and Odili Donald Odita, this important new survey discredits conventional histories to accommodate artists from across the globe. It is a sumptuous production.

3. The Head & the Load by William Kentridge
Published by Prestel; $65, £49.99; 348pp

This tells the hidden history of the first world war in Africa. The South African artist and an international troupe of musicians, actors, dancers, writers, composers and video editors, along with costume, set and lighting designers, presented an epic production at Tate Modern, London, and Park Avenue Armory, New York, in 2018. Prestel’s book is a documentation of the remarkable production and includes the libretto, artworks and images of the performance. Kentridge says: “The production took as its principle the concept of history as collage, bringing different fragments together to find a provisional history.”

Two million Africans participated on both sides of the war, yet their sacrifice has not been acknowledged. To commemorate the centenary of the armistice, The Head & the Load memorialised the largely overlooked contributions of African veterans. The title is taken from a Ghanaian proverb, “The head and the load are the troubles of the neck,” which refers to the fact that Africans were conscripted by the French, British and German forces to work as porters, or “carriers”, to haul supplies and weapons between battlefields, under terrible conditions.

The production was akin to an ambitious operatic staging, and the vast venues enabled processions of actors carrying giant cut-outs of baggage and military hardware on a massive scale. They cast tall shadows on the upstage wall, dramatising the set designs and stunning costumes and, although the book does not include a sound track, the composers Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi created a piece with overtones of the European modernists Arnold Schoenberg and Erik Satie, together with traditional African music. The critic Zachary Stewart described the musical as: “A violent cacophony that occasionally settles into harmony of unspeakable beauty.” At a time of unprecedented global suffering, Kentridge asserts the importance of honouring hitherto overlooked support systems and individuals through artistic collaboration, itself a metaphor for pulling together in a time of crisis.


This year, Thames & Hudson relaunched its signature World of Art series with the publication of 14 new titles on art, architecture, design, photography and fashion. Originally launched in 1958, with Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting, the series was groundbreaking and brought cutting-edge art criticism with high-quality images within the reach of millions. Today, more than 300 titles later, World of Art stands at the vanguard of art scholarship for students and lovers of art and culture everywhere with authors of a guaranteed calibre and authority. The following three merit particular mention:

4. World of Art Series: Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick
Published by Thames & Hudson; £19.99; 600pp

5. World of Art Series: Latin American Art Since 1900 by Edward Lucie-Smith
Published by Thames & Hudson; £16.95; 240pp

6. World of Art Series: Aboriginal Art (third edition) by Wally Caruana
Published by Thames & Hudson; £12.95; 264pp

7. Matisse: The Books by Louise Rogers Lalaurie
Published by Thames & Hudson; £65; 320pp

This lavish publication has been reviewed in detail for Studio International; it followed on from the three-volume box set of Matisse in the Barnes Collection, published by Thames & Hudson in 2015. Matisse: The Books, is beautifully illustrated, with archival images and new photography, enabling individual researchers and libraries to share rare holdings of rarely exhibited images.  

8. Flower: Exploring the World in Bloom
Published by Phaidon; €49.95; 352pp

With a comprehensive introduction by the gardening expert Anna Pavord, this is a sumptuous production that explores the endless ways in which artists and image-makers have employed floral motifs throughout history. Perfect for a Christmas escape, Flower is aimed at a wide audience and will appeal to artists, designers and art historians. It offers large-scale images and accessible entries selected by an international panel of art historians, museum curators, botanists and horticulturalists. It includes works by well-known as well as lesser-known artists and image-makers, including: Nobuyoshi Araki, Cecil Beaton, David Hockney, Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Mapplethorpe, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Cedric Morris, William Morris, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pierre-Joseph Redouté and Constance Spry.

9. Coveted: Art and Illustration in High Jewelry by Melanie Grant
Published by Phaidon; €85; 208pp

This is a luxurious book on a luxury subject, and a perfect gift that explores the elusive line between jewellery, fashion and art. It profiles more than 70 of the most prominent designers internationally – including Bvlgari, Wallace Chan and Hemmerle, in China, India, the UK, France and the US – through their respective conceptual approaches, provenance of materials, design, composition, and workmanship. Coveted is an entrée into a rarified world.

10. The Fife Arms by Dominic Bradbury
Published by Phaidon, €120, 256pp

This tells the story of how a run-down building near Braemar, in the Scottish Highlands, a stone’s throw from Balmoral Castle, was brought back to life. It was discovered by Iwan and Manuela Wirth, co-founders with Ursula Hauser of Hauser & Wirth, who transformed each room to tell the story of a person, event, or theme, connected to its Highland location. This is the first book to be created about the Fife Arms, named The Sunday Times Hotel of the Year 2019. The hotel boasts specially commissioned artworks by Zhang Enli, Subodh Gupta and Guillermo Kuitca, as well as works by Lucian Freud, Louise Bourgeois and Pablo Picasso, making it a unique arthouse hotel. This book is an extravagant, fabulous gift for travel lovers and those who adore luxury design and art.


11. Derek Jarman: Protest! by Seán Kissane and Karim Rehmani-White
Published by Thames & Hudson; £48; 320pp

This major publication draws on previously unseen images from Derek Jarman’s personal archive as well as unseen works from all stages of his career as a film-maker, painter, gardener, writer and activist, with his distinctive and original voice. It offers a definitive overview of Jarman’s life and work. This year, Prospect Cottage, his home and workplace in Dungeness, Kent, was acquired for the nation after an appeal by the Art Fund raised £3.5m to buy it. Jarman turned the cottage in to an artwork in its own right, and it is where he created some of his best work.

12. Warhol: A Life as Art by Blake Gopnik
Published by Allen Lane; £35; 976pp

An extensive bibliography on Andy Warhol already exists, but Blake Gopnik’s study is a valuable addition to the existing literature.

13. Grayson Perry by Jacky Klein
Published by Thames & Hudson; £29.95, 364pp

This updated and expanded edition addresses the major themes and subjects of Grayson Perry’s career. It includes commentaries by the artist on individual pieces. Two new chapters have been added: one covers the house he built in 2015 with Living Architecture and the other is about identity politics. Perry created Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4 at the end of April to bring the nation together through collective creativity in lockdown. He and his wife Philippa, a psychotherapist, sought to tap the creative potential of individuals through art and it showed their commitment to the community beyond the art world. Books such as this assuage the disappointment of museum and gallery closures this year.

14. Cecily Brown by Courtney J Martin, Jason Rosenfeld and Francine Prose
Published by Phaidon; €45; 160pp

Cecily Brown is a British-born, New York-based artist who rose to prominence in the late 1990s. This is the first comprehensive publication on one of the most critically and commercially successful of contemporary painters. Her work displays the influence of a variety of painters, from Goya, Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon to old masters such as Rubens and Nicolas Poussin – yet from a distinctly female viewpoint. The interview with Brown by Courtney J Martin provides a natural account of her career, particularly pertinent to younger artists. The book is beautifully illustrated, with studio shots giving an organic feel to Brown’s remarkable, prodigious work.

15. Armin Mueller-Stahl: Rockets to the Moon, edited by Frank-Thomas Gaulin
Published by Hatje Cantz; €28; 88pp

A project-based book, this presents the visual art and poetry of the famous German actor that combines music with expressive painting to produce a powerful, overall work of art. The lyrics were written in the mid-1960s. In strongly rhythmic and onomatopoeic imitative words (such as hiss and buzz),  Mueller-Stahl protests the madness of the arms race and the appalling prospect of global war.


16. The Story of Contemporary Art by Tony Godfrey
Published by Thames & Hudson; £29.95; 280pp

This is an excellent addition to the literature on contemporary art, picking up where EH Gombrich left off. Godfrey asks the questions that many viewers want to ask when they confront inscrutable art works: “What does it mean?” “Is it really art?” and “Why does it cost so much?”, none of which were posed by Gombrich in his authoritative The Story of Art, first published in 1950. Contemporary art is an extreme departure from the world of Raphael, Dürer and Rembrandt. The Story of Contemporary Art offers at once, a bold and considered account of movements and individuals from pop art and performance, Andy Warhol to Marina Abramović. He addresses key debates over what constitutes art: object versus conceptualism, painting versus installation, and his narrative is not limited to a singular voice, but gives voice to the position of artists, curators, collectors and audiences. Key to Godfrey’s narrative is his far-reaching challenge of Eurocentric views and US cultural hegemony. The Story of Contemporary Art is an essential guide to this radical transformation, beautifully designed and illustrated.

17. Open Studio: Do-It-Yourself Art Projects by Contemporary Artists by Sharon Coplan Hurowitz, Amanda Benchley
Published by Phaidon; €69.95; 256pp

In a similar vein to Grayson’s Art Club, Open Studio combines a fascination for the creative spaces behind works in an exhibition with a desire for a creative outlet. Sharon Coplan Hurowitz and Amanda Benchley, with photographer Casey Kelbaugh, introduce readers to methods and styles of work to create in their own spaces. Patterns and templates are provided. Somewhere between a rainy-day craft book and a personal masterclass, Open Studio will have hit the spot for many people (and parents) during lockdown this year. Makes contemporary art accessible and understandable, and encourages creativity in readers of all ages and experience levels.

18. Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th-Century British Painting by Christopher Neve
Published by Thames & Hudson; £10.99; 248pp

This is a welcome reissue of a book that the writer Robert MacFarlane describes as: “A minor modern classic, to my mind, uniting art history and landscape thought by means of dazzling, dancing, unsettling sentences … I’m delighted it’s back in print in a new edition.”

19. The Art Book
Published by Phaidon; €49.95; 592 pages

This celebrated and award-winning title, published in more than 20 languages and in a variety of formats, has introduced millions of people worldwide to art and artists. The handsome new edition – the third since it was first published in 2004 – has been updated with more than 40 new artists. The new edition presents more than 600 artists from medieval to modern times. Challenging traditional classifications, The Art Book juxtaposes brilliant examples from all periods, schools, visions and techniques, presenting an unparalleled visual sourcebook and a celebration of our rich, multifaceted culture.

20. In Memory of: Designing Contemporary Memorials by Spencer Bailey
Published by Phaidon; €65; 240pp

This is a prescient title in the time of a pandemic, with essays on hope, strength, grief, loss and fear that help to contextualise the projects and address the emotional aspects of memorialisation. It is a well-designed, well-written study with marvellous photographs. In his foreword, the architect David Adjaye says: “This book comes at a time of rethinking spatial storytelling. I feel a call to action about visibility and form. The consciousness, nature and implication of form is profoundly important for architects to understand. With this, the narrative of memorials is a device to project the many things facing people across the planet: nationhood, citizen rights, human rights, climate action. Memorial form is an important act of un-forgetting.”

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