WHETHER YOU WISH TO ADD to your own collection or you’re looking for the perfect gift for your favorite art aficionado, several excellent books were published this year, expanding the scholarship on contemporary Black art. Significant volumes from Kara Walker, Theaster Gates and Lorna Simpson were among the best. Here is the list of top Culture Type picks:

Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America by Huey Copeland (University of Chicago Press, 256 pages).
IMG_9811In this 21st-century era of so-called post-Black art, some of the most acclaimed and innovative Black contemporary artists practicing today continue to revisit the subject of slavery in their work. Huey Copeland, a professor of art history at Northwestern University, identified this phenomena and examines its implications in “Bound to Appear.”
This fascinating exploration focuses on the work of four artists: Fred Wilson, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon and Renee Green. Why these four? “While by no means a formal group, the now-celebrated African American practitioners at the heart of this study are linked generationally and conceptually by a shared investment in critical artistic strategies developed since the 1960s, and their nearly simultaneous turn toward slavery…,” Copeland writes. The author devotes a section to the practice of each artist. Thorough and accessible, his scholarship is bolstered by images of their work throughout.

Kara Walker: Dust Jackets for the Niggerati by Kara Walker, et al. (Gregory R. Miller & Co., 144 pages).
Niggerati cover Best 2013Over the course of many years, and much-heralded series and exhibitions, Kara Walker engaged in an exhaustive probe of power, subjugation and race and gender roles in American slavery. Here, she explores the New Negro era, a period of emerging intellectual discourse and creative production in which many of the same issues figure. A complement to her exhibition, “Dust Jackets for the Niggerati—and Supporting Dissertations, Drawings, submitted ruefully by Kara E. Walker” at Sikkema Jenkins gallery, this amazing volume pairs a collection of narrative drawings and text-driven, tongue-in-cheek prints Walker describes as “potential book covers for unwritten essays, works of fiction, and missing narratives of the black migration” with writings by poet Kevin Young, The New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, writer and artist Christopher Stackhouse and novelist James Hannaham. The four texts are interspersed with plates from the exhibition, creating a lively dialogue between Walker’s art and the prose it has inspired.

The book’s design creates “a lively dialogue between [Kara] Walker’s art and the prose it has inspired.”

Lorna Simpson by Joan Simon, et al. (Prestel, 216 pages).
For more than 30 years, Lorna Simpson’s groundbreaking conceptual photography and video work has captivated scholars, critics, curators and collectors. Exploring perceptions of the body and gender and questions about memory, identity, stereotypes and history, her strength as a writer has distinguished her practice.IMG_9891 Some of her most acclaimed projects juxtapose language with images, employing wordplay, introducing labels and narrative. A comprehensive monograph, published to coincide with her Paris exhibition, “Lorna Simpson” begins with her early documentary photographs, and captures her many photo-text series, video installations, recent transition to watercolor works on paper (see below) and stills from “Chess,” a video work-in-progress in which she appears (a rarity), developed using 1950s photographs as source images. Writings by Elvan Zabunyan, Marta Gill, Thomas J. Lax and Naomi Beckwith, weigh in on her oeuvre. More than 100 image plates survey her career and the transcript of a conversation between Joan Simon and Simpson, provides insight about the artist’s early development, reflections on her work and the genesis of her projects.

Lorna Simpson: Works on Paper by Lorna Simpson, et al. (Aspen Art Museum, 336 pages).
IMG_9813There are graphite, ink and watercolor portraits of women, images of heads with flourishes of gold embossing powder, and a recent series of collages—black and white photographs of faces cut from vintage Ebony and Jet magazines embellished with watercolor coifs and, in some instances, text. Known for her photography and video installations, about five years ago, Lorna Simpson began to draw. The shift in her practice has produced countless portraits, primarily of Black women (and on occasion Black men and White women). The works are statements of beauty, studies of image and identity, and interpretations of African American experiences through historic representation. Anna Deavere Smith contributes the text from a performance portraying Simpson, and essays by Hilton Als, Franklin Sirmans, Connie Butler and Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson thoughtfully consider Simpson’s evolving practice and the four bodies of work included in the book. Published on the occasion of Simpson’s exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum and chock-full of images, this volume is a real treasure.

Lorna Simpson’s works “are statements of beauty, studies of image and identity, and interpretations of African American experiences through historic representation.”

Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art by Valerie Cassel Oliver, et al. (Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 165 pages).
IMG_9808Wresting performance art from the theater realm and situating it squarely in the contemporary visual art world, “Radical Presence” is presented as “the first comprehensive survey of performance art by Black artists.” Curated by Valerie Casel Oliver of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the exhibition was inspired by the under-appreciated work of 1960s performance artist Benjamin Patterson and propelled by discussions with contemporary performance artist Clifford Owens. Documenting “rich, bold and radical practice” and “live and lively” performances, the publication traces a 50-year through line of works—public interventions, studio actions, and performances before live audiences, photographers and video cameras. Essays by Oliver, Yona Backer, Tavia Nyong’o, Naomi Beckwith, Franklin Sirmans and Owens, introduce the work of 36 artists including Patterson, Owens, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Lorraine O’Grady, Terry Adkins, Theaster Gates, Carrie Mae Weems and William Pope.L, who appears on the cover. A celebration of the rich canon of Black performance art, the book includes an extensive chronology from the 1840s-2012, putting it all into context.

Radical Presence was “inspired by the under-appreciated work of 1960s performance artist Benjamin Patterson.”

Theaster Gates: My Labor Is My Protest by Theaster Gates, et al. (White Cube, 172 pages).
IMG_9837Bound in black leather and embossed with the program of songs Theaster Gates’s band, the Black Monks of Mississippi, performed at White Cube gallery in London, this hard-to-find volume, while entirely contemporary in its design, appears as if it has been plucked from the Johnson Editorial Library. The storied collection of books, accumulated over more than a half century by the Chicago publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, is a central part of “My Labor is My Protest.” Rife with images, this book captures the exhibition. An artist, curator and urban activist, Gates’s presentation at White Cube included the band, the library installation, performance art in the form of Fashion Fair makeovers at a beauty counter, scrap wood shoe shine stands, a “Soul Food Rickshaw for Collard Greens and Whiskey,” real fire trucks, works composed of fire hoses and others involving tar (the artist’s father tarred roofs in the 1960s). What’s it all about? A “critique of social practice, shared economies and the question of objects in relation to political and cultural thought,” compelling essays by Bill Brown, Fred Moten and Jaqueline Terrassa, provide further explanation.