Summer reading: 10 of the best art books of the past year

From Goya to Hogarth, histories to how-to guides — there’s something for everyone in our pick of light(ish) reads to enjoy on the beach or by the pool this summer

10 great art books to read this summer 2021

What Artists Wear by Charlie Porter (Penguin)

Fashion critic and lecturer Charlie Porter has spent his career dissecting what an outfit says about its wearer. Here he turns his eye to the clothes worn by the renegades and rule-breakers of the art world.

‘For the last few decades, artists have been putting themselves at the centre of their work,’ he said in a recent interview with Esquire. ‘Therefore, the clothing they wear is right at the centre of the work too.’


Take Francis Bacon posing in freshly pressed trousers and a clean, crisp shirt in the middle of his messy South Kensington studio in 1974. That’s because he was an artist of unremitting control who always wanted to be in charge, says Porter.

The Savile Row suits of Gilbert & George, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Comme des Garçons outfits peppered with joint-burns, are among the other items of clothing he analyses.

Goya: A Portrait of the Artistby Janis Tomlinson (Princeton University Press)

Francisco de Goya is often thought of as the reclusive, deaf and delusional artist who depicted drowning dogs, mutilated bodies and Saturn devouring his son — a haunting image he painted directly onto his dining-room wall.

In Goya: A Portrait of the Artist  the American art historian Janis Tomlinson goes some way to dispelling this perception, scouring primary resources — including the Spaniard’s letters, court papers and sketchbooks — to provide a more nuanced depiction.


As a young man, Goya was well-travelled, likeable and ambitious, rising to become one of the most influential and popular portraitists at Madrid’s royal court.

As for his infamous later years, the author suggests they represent a period of artistic liberation rather than a descent into madness.

Richard Hamilton, photographed circa 1970. Photo: Tony Evans / Getty Images. Artwork Kent Slate, 1970. © Richard Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021

Louise Nevelson in 1980. Photo: Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images

Full of brilliant archival imagery, What Artists Wear  provides a new and fascinating lens through which to examine artists and their output.

Chasing the Thrillby Daniel Barbarisi (Knopf)

After receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis in 1988, the American art dealer Forrest Fenn buried a chest filled with coins, jewellery and gemstones worth more than $1 million somewhere in the mountains north of Santa Fe in New Mexico.

Two decades later, having recovered from his illness, Fenn told the world about the hidden booty in his memoir The Thrill of the Chase, sparking the 21st century’s most infamous treasure hunt.


More than 100,000 people joined the race to find Fenn’s riches, following a trail of clues left by the hider. Five people lost their lives while searching for it.

In 2017, a reporter named Daniel Barbarisi picked up the story: Chasing the Thrill  documents the hidden treasure’s obsessive seekers, as well as the conspiracy theories and legal challenges it gave rise to. Barbarisi’s brilliant storytelling follows the hunt to its dramatic conclusion.

Video/Art: The First Fifty Yearsby Barbara London (Phaidon)

A little over half a century ago, the genre of video art didn’t exist. However, with advances in technology — including the shift from analogue to digital, and from clunky hardware to nifty software — it is now firmly established.


Bill Viola, Room for St. John of the Cross, 1983. Video and sound installation in a dark room, with a black cubicle with window, peat moss, wooden table, glass and metal pitcher with water, colour video, and one-channel mono sound; black-and-white video projection; amplified stereo sound; room: 14 x 24 x 30 ft (4.3 x 7.3 x 9.1 m); projected image: 8 ft 7 in x 12 ft 8 in (2.6 x 3.7 m); continuously running. Photo: Kira Perov

Someone who has promoted it throughout is the veteran curator Barbara London: she founded the video programme at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the mid-1970s.

In this book, London looks back at the first five decades of video art, paying homage both to well-known pioneers — including Nam June Paik and Bill Viola — and slightly less famous figures such as Shigeko Kubota, while also considering how social media is affecting the genre today.

Painting Timeby Maylis de Kerangal (Quercus)

The latest book by the French author of award-winning novels Birth of a Bridge  and Mend the Living  is a coming-of-age drama that begins at a trompe l’oeil painting school in Brussels, where the story’s protagonist Paula befriends classmates Kate and Jonas.

Between 2007 and 2008, the trio, high on turpentine fumes, form a close bond over nights out and lectures in the art of conjuring marble and wood from paint.


The book then follows Paula’s artistic career from Moscow film sets to Rome’s Cinecittà and, ultimately, the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, home to some of the world’s oldest mark-making.

The critic Beejay Silcox summarised the pleasure of the novel with a phrase lifted from one of de Kerangal’s own passages: ‘capsules of pure sensation’.

You Are an Artistby Bob and Roberta Smith (Thames & Hudson)

Bob and Roberta Smith is the pseudonym of the British artist, activist, musician and art teacher Patrick Brill. Over the years, he has worked hard to arrest what he sees as a drastic and lamentable decline in creative arts education in schools — and earned himself an OBE in 2017 in the process.


In this book, the author combines a smattering of art history with an invitation to the reader to fulfil his or her artistic potential. It is full of practical exercises designed to encourage a creativity that is largely absent from most people’s everyday lives.

Hogarth: Life in Progressby Jacqueline Riding (Profile Books)

William Hogarth tends to be remembered as the most British of artists: a beer-swilling chronicler of London life, who loved roast beef and disliked the French in equal measure.

In this new biography, Jacqueline Riding shows that Hogarth was, in fact, deeply engaged with the art of his European predecessors and peers — the likes of Watteau, Raphael and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.


She also explores his roles as founder of the St Martin’s Lane Academy (for aspiring painters) and philanthropic supporter of the Foundling Hospital (for abandoned children).

The Hogarth that emerges in this book is a much more rounded artist — and person — than many had previously imagined.

The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of Franceby James McAuley (Yale University Press)

James McAuley’s debut explores the central role that art and objects played in the assimilation and identity of prominent Jewish citizens in fin-de-siècle and early 20th-century France.

Weaving together the histories of such eminent collectors as the Camondos, the Rothschilds, the Reinachs and the Cahens d’Anvers, McAuley reveals how material things can demonstrate ideas and attitudes.


His real subject, however, is the depth of anti-Semitism that existed in France long before Hitler rose to power and subsequently occupied the country. Despite their riches, prominence and philanthropy, numerous members of the families in question succumbed to a tragic fate.

McAuley delicately revives the collections and stories of those the Nazis sought to annihilate. The result is compelling.

Talk Art: Everything You Wanted to Know about Contemporary Art But Were Afraid to Askby Russell Tovey and Robert Diament (Ilex Press)

From the creators of hit podcast Talk Art — actor Russell Tovey and gallerist Robert Diament — comes their first book, a joyous celebration of creativity in all its forms.


Actor Russell Tovey (foreground) and gallerist Robert Diament. Photo: Christine Ting

‘All we wanted to do was make art accessible, non-academic, non-elitist, gossipy and fun,’ Tovey told The New York Times.

Featuring interviews with the likes of Tracey Emin, Elton John and Grayson Perry, as well as full-colour reproductions of original artworks (some never before seen in print), Talk Art  offers a fascinating glimpse into today’s art world.

With its fast-paced, jargon-free narrative covering everything from starting a collection to photojournalism as art, this is an informative and enjoyable holiday page-turner.

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Walker Evans: Starting from Scratchby Svetlana Alpers (Princeton University Press)

Walker Evans, arguably the quintessential American photographer, wanted to be a writer as a young man. Baudelaire and Flaubert were his heroes; later he would befriend literary giants ranging from John Cheever to Ernest Hemingway.

With his discovery of the pocket Kodak camera, however, he pioneered a narrative style of photography that drew on his love of literature and paved the way for a generation of documentary photographers — the likes of Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand — to follow.


Svetlana Alpers’s biography takes a chronological approach to the life of an artist described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as having ‘the nuance of a poet and the precision of a surgeon’.

But before the text explores Walker’s aspirations, tastes, travels, career highs and love of the written word, the reader is presented with an uninterrupted 143 full-page reproductions of Evans’s photographs — an invitation to appraise the work before engaging with the man.

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