Surveying art publishers’ catalogues for 2020 is a little like looking through old school yearbooks: I’m reminded of past loves but also the unsettling passage of time. This column considers the vogues, flashbacks and oddities that will hit your bookshelves in the coming year and ponders the virtues of the familiar and the faddish.
Publishers have recently caught on to the public interest in women artists. And now they’re starting to deal with the emancipation of materials, as a flurry of new books address the less canonical, less patriarchal media of ceramics, textiles, glass, woodwork, even floristry.
Artists are embracing increasingly obscure elements, as illustrated in Neri Oxman: Mediated Matter (MoMA, February). The Israeli-American designer and MIT professor uses tree bark, silkworms and the shells of crustaceans in works that operate at the “intersection of biology, engineering, materials science, and computer science”.
Contemporary Ceramic Art (Thames & Hudson, April) introduces a whole new world of firing and glazing. There are imaginary bestiaries, life-size ceramic characters and dresses decorated with thousands of porcelain butterflies. Things have moved on from the days of Picasso’s Provençal pots.
Last year sometimes felt like the year of Lucian Freud, with several books dedicated to the London painter. While there is no headliner in 2020, a few of the usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects appear in the line-up. Most notably, there is Warhol by Blake Gopnik (Allen Lane, February) which delivers almost 1,000 pages on the Pop maestro in what is being touted, understandably, as the definitive biography.
Two new titles, both out from Thames & Hudson in June, focus on Van Gogh’s relationship with the written word. “Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing for me,” wrote the artist. One book, Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters provides an epistolary portrait while the other, Vincent’s Books, examines his reading matter (not beach reads, one suspects).
Other European figures under the spyglass include an oddly intuitive pairing in Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul, which explores how the Nordic existentialism of Munch informed the British existentialism of Emin (Munch Museum, May). And from small Swedish publisher Booxencounters comes A Foujita Diary: 12 Panoramas by Tsuguharu Foujita, a small volume of 12 unpublished sketches by the artist, whimsical studies created to pass the time on a journey across Japan in 1934.
Art books often throw a curveball and 2020 provides some delightfully peculiar pitches. In Orange (Steidl, June) the novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk walks around Istanbul with his camera capturing its distinctive, cosy and elegiac orange glow. Meanwhile, sparking up Duchamp’s Pipe: A Chess Romance—Marcel Duchamp and George Koltanowski (North Atlantic Books, February) is the friendship between Dadaist Duchamp and Belgian chess master Koltanowski. Author Celia Rabinovitch reveals how a $87,000 pipe fits into the picture.
There is more strange ephemera in Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Film-making (Phaidon, March). Designer Annie Atkins explains how she created CIA documents for Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies, and pink cake boxes for The Grand Budapest Hotel. “Annie makes the unreal seem hyper-real,” says actor Jeff Goldblum.
Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels (4th Estate, February) could be the most indefinable art book of the year. Part memoir, part philosophy, part art odyssey, it follows Toby Ferris’s pilgrimage—22 galleries across 19 countries—to see the extant paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It is being billed as a mortality-inflected examination of art’s place in life’s sometimes brief journey.
Obsessive stalking also features in The Golden Flea: A Story of Obsession and Collecting (WW Norton, April), which recounts Michael Rips’s love affair with the Chelsea Flea Market on the west side of Manhattan. There he joins the melee of magpies vying for “Old Master” paintings, “Afghan” rugs and “ancient” swords. Collectors everywhere will no doubt recognize themselves in the dusty hunters scanning the stalls for yesterday’s forgotten gems and tomorrow’s masterpieces.