MANY OF THIS YEAR’S BEST African American art books were published to coincide with exhibitions. The correlation is not surprising given the caliber of exhibitions on view in 2015, including innovative (“Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now”) and long overdue (“Noah Purify: Junk Dada” and “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis”) presentations. Other notable volumes document important collections (“Black Dolls” and “Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston”). Several new monographs also made Culture Type’s list, namely “Muse: Mickalene Thomas: Photographs,” the first publication to gather Brooklyn-based Thomas’s photographic work, and “Theaster Gates,” the Chicago-based artist’s first monograph. Overall, 14 books ranked among the best this year. (Titles listed in order of publication date.)

 

common wealth - art by african americans at mfa boston

“Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,”
Edited by Lowery Stokes Sims with contributions by Dennis Carr, Janet Comey, and Elliott Bostwick Davis (MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 258 pages). | Published Jan. 27, 2015, hardcover

1. Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Greene Street,” a 1940 painting by Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) covers this important volume of 20th and 21st century art. The image-rich documentation of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s collection of African American art, acquired over the past four decades, includes detailed descriptions of each of the works featured. Presented in sections such as “Landscape and Place,” “Men,” “Women,” “Family and Community,” “Street Life,” “Spirituality,” “Masks and Symbols,” and “Abstraction,” the collection spans a range of mediums by artists from the United States, South America and the Caribbean, including Edward M. Bannister, Dawoud Bey, Eldzier Cortor, Aaron Douglas, Robert S. Duncanson, Richard Hunt, Jacob Lawrence, Al Loving, Kerry James Marshall, Harriet Powers, Joyce J. Scott, Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems, among many, many others.

 

kehinde wiley - a new republic

“Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” Edited by Eugene Tsai, with a foreword by Arnold L. Lehman, and contributions from Connie H. Choi, etal. (Prestel, 192 pages) | Feb. 20, 2015, hardcover

2. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

Artist Kehinde Wiley is known for challenging notions of representation by recasting European master paintings with contemporary images of young men of color. The publication of this exhibition catalog coincided with the opening of “Kehinde Wiley: The New Republic” at the Brooklyn Museum. Both the exhibition and this volume offer a comprehensive overview of Wiley’s 14-year career—including early works; selections from his World Stage project in Africa, Asia, Latin American and the Middle East; bronze sculptural busts; the Economy of Grace series, his first depicting women; and the artist’s more recent stained glass and small-scale works in artist-designed frames. Color plates of the paintings are juxtaposed with the historic portraits that inspired them, along with brief essays by more than 30 contributors including Naomi Beckwith, Jeffrey Deitch, Christine Y. Kim, Franklin Sirmans, Toure, and Deborah WIllis, among others. Now touring, the exhibition is currently on view at the Seattle Art Museum.

 

jacob lawrence - migration series

“Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series,” Edited by Leah Dickerman and Elsa Smithgall, with contributions by Elizabeth Alexander and Jodi Roberts, and poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove and Kevin Young, etal. (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 192 pages) | Published March 28, 2015, hardcover

3. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

This volume complements “One-Way TIcket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North” (April 3-Sept. 7, 2015), which was on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The dynamic exhibition gave context to Jacob Lawrence‘s visual exploration of the African American migration from the rural South to the Industrial North by juxtaposing novels, poems, music, photographs and paintings by other artists with the series. This volume presents full-page images of the 60 migration paintings (which are commonly referred to as panels). The captions for each panel are included, along with more lengthy write-ups that detail each panel’s aesthetic and historic significance—content unique to this publication. Half of the panels belong to MoMA, the other half are owned by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. “One-Way Ticket” marks the first time the entire series has been shown together in more than two decades. This provenance of the paintings, along with the cultural context of their subject matter are explored in accompanying essays.

 

basquiat - the unknown notebooks

“Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks,” Edited by Dieter Buchhart and Tricia Bloom, with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and contributions by Franklin Sirmans and Christopher Stackhouse
(Skira Rizzoli/Brooklyn Museum, 246 pages). | Published April 14, 2015, hardcover

4. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks

Looking at a Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) canvas, really observing it closely, usually involves deciphering the language of the painting. Basquiat integrated text, images and symbolic motifs into his work, signaling his perspectives on a range of cultural, social, and racial issues. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks” presents rarely seen notebooks from 1980 to 1987 filled the artist’s musings. Featuring handwritten notes, lists, poems, and drawings, the pages provide insight to the language that defines his work and further reveals his observations and engagement with the world. This volume, which coincides with the exhibition, reproduces more than 160 pages from the notebooks and also includes images of Basquiat’s related paintings and drawings.

 

david adjaye - form, heft, material

“David Adjaye: Form, Heft, Material,” Edited by Okwui Enwezor and Zoe Ryan in consultation with Peter Allison, with contributions by David Adjaye, Andrea Phillips, and Mabel O. Wilson (Art Institute of Chicago, 296 pages).
| Published April 14, 2015, paperback

5. David Adjaye: Form, Heft, Material

A beautiful lattice-work pattern designed by Adjaye Associates covers this catalog and bleeds onto the edges of the pages. The graphic is adapted from the facade of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian museum sited on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Designed by global architect David Adjaye, the landmark museum is scheduled to open in 2016. The unique exterior of this volume portends the interior contents—an engaging mix of colored pages, essays, photographs, architectural renderings and floor plans. “Form, Heft, Material” accompanies the most extensive survey of Adjaye’s career. An exploration of 50 built projects, the exhibition was organized by Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

noah purifoy - junk dada

“Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada,” Edited by Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipschutz, with contributions from Katrina McKenna, Lowery Stokes Sims, Dale Davis, Judson Powell, Ed Ruscha, C. Ian White, Sue Welsh
(Prestel, 128 pages). | Published April 21, 2015, hardcover

6. Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada

An artist and social change activist, Noah Purifoy was an important figure in the assemblage movement in Los Angeles and the founding director of the Watts Towers Art Center. Accompanying “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the first monographic museum exhibition of Purifoy, this volume balances important scholarship that gives context to the work of this under-regonized artist with plenty of images of his sculptures and installations. Page after page of amazing photographs by Fredrik Nilsen amplify the book’s impact. Capturing Purifoy’s Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum, the photo essays open and conclude the catalog.

 

black dolls cover

“Black Dolls: Unique African American Dolls, 1850-1930 From the Collection of Deborah Neff,” Edited by Frank Maresca with contributions from Margo Jefferson, Faith Ringgold, and Lyle Rexer (Radius Books/Mingel Museum, 192 pages). | Published April 28, 2015, hardcover

7. Black Dolls: Unique African American Dolls, 1850-1930 From the Collection of Deborah Neff

Composed of everyday found materials—wood, leather, cotton and other mixed fabrics—the handmade dolls acquired by Connecticut collector Deborah Neff span 1850 to 1940. Antique dealer Frank Maresca, who edited this catalog, describes the collection of more than 100 black dolls as “the finest of its kind ever assembled.” The artists are unknown, but the dolls are believed to have been made by African Americans for children in their own families, as well as for white children they may have cared for. The collection provides an important and unique exploration of American identity, culture and history. Two dolls, a well-dressed couple circa 1890-1910, found in Cape Cod, Mass., are outfitted in a precisely pleated blouse and a tailored plaid vest. Many are just as refined. Others found in Georgia, Kentucky, Maine and Alabama, with stitched or button eyes, creative hair, and simple frocks or no clothes at all, are less sophisticated but just as significant. All of the dolls are beautifully and generously photographed. Published to coincide with an exhibition of the dolls at the Mingei international Museum in San Diego, more than 170 full-page color plates define the catalog.

 

mark bradford - scorched earth

“Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth,” Edited by Connie Butler with Mark Bradford, and contributions by Ann Philbin, Hamza Walker, Marlon T. Riggs, and Jamillah James, etal. (Prestel, 208 pages).
| Published June 3, 2015, hardcover

8. Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth

Mark Bradford‘s layered abstract paintings address poignant social, cultural and economic issues. This catalog coincided with “Scorched Earth” at the Hammer Museum (June 10-Sept. 20, 2015), an exhibition of new works that referenced “formative moments in his life and ruminations on the body in crisis,” the AIDS epidemic, queer and feminist politics, and the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. A mash up of content formats that resembles a refined artist zine, this volume is a serious exploration of Bradford’s work and the issues that inspired it. Featuring a blend of images, essays, graphic illustrations of AIDS diagnoses and the Ebola epidemic, a script for Bradford’s Spiderman comedy routine, an interview with the artist, and a selected chronology, among other elements, the volume is produced on both matte and glossy pages.

 

glenn ligon - a people on the cover

“Glenn Ligon: A People on the Cover,” by Glenn Ligon
(Ridinghouse, 144 pages). | Published June 12, 2015, paperback

9. Glenn Ligon: A People on the Cover

The all-white cover of artist Glenn Ligon‘s small-scale tome stands in stark contrast to the full-collor book cover images featured inside. Fifteen years ago, Ligon wandered around the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota and it soon became clear to him that “one could trace a history of black people in the United States simply by examining how we were represented on book covers.” The discovery resulted in an exhibition from which this book is adapted. From an early age, reading has been central to Ligon’s life and literature is the inspiration for the text-based paintings for which he is most known. This project bridges the two, exploring African American images on book covers and examining the use of photography, typography and graphic design in the interpretations. Ligon considers more than 50 covers of books authored by the likes of James Baldwin, Alice Childress, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Eldridge Cleaver, Gordon Parks, Richard Wright, Norman Mailer and June Jordan, as well as Dick Gregory, Elijah Muhammad, Toni Morrison, Hilton Als and Suzan-Lori Parks.

 

freedom principle cover

“The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,” Edited by Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete (University of Chicago Press, 320 pages). | Published Aug. 11, 2015, paperback

10. The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now

“Freedom Principle” considers the intersection of art, music and politics, as well as performance. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the exhibition connects the legacy of the 1960s African American avant-garde in Chicago with the art and culture of today. Featuring an inter-generational slate of artists—including Terry Adkins, Sanford Biggers, Nick Cave, Stan Douglas, Charles Gaines, Renee Green, David Hammons, Rashid Johnson, Jennie C. Jones, and Glenn Ligon—the exhibition is amplified by a fully illustrated exhibition catalog. Noami Beckwith, co-curator of the exhibition, opens a conversation published in the catalog by saying three main principles guide “Freedom Principle”: collectivity, experimentation and improvisation. These qualities also define the catalog. It’s a vibrant mix of content formats—photography, essays, artist pages, and historic context, both written and visual—all produced on both matte and glossy pages.

 

theaster gates

“Theaster Gates,” With contributions by Carol Becker, Lisa Yun Lee and Achim Borchardt-Hume
(Phaidon, 160 pages). | Published Oct. 19, 2015

11. Theaster Gates

Trained as a potter, over the past decade, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has built a globally recognized practice that combines object making and performance with neighborhood redevelopment, demonstrating innovative ways to revitalize abandoned properties, foster cultural programming, and transform the relationships everyday people have with their city. This is Gates’s first monograph and it presents his many works, projects, exhibitions, and initiatives together for the first time. There are images throughout, a pair of essays, and an interview with the artist conducted by Carol Becker. “I have a lot of resistance when people say the work is a kind of activist practice. …When black artists do things in the ‘hood, it becomes ‘community art,’ rather than place-based work,” Gates says. “The term ‘community,’ while it encompasses a part of the work’s aspiration, doesn’t quite match the larger investment that I am engaged in. I’m engaged in an open dialogue concerning the challenges of people’s right to the city—our total right to live fully, govern thoughtfully and have our desires fulfilled as much as our needs met.”

 

question bridge cover

“Question Bridge: Black Males in America,” Edited by Deborah Willis and Natasha Logan
with contributions by Jesse Williams and Andrew Young (Aperture/Campaign for Black Male Achievement,
268 pages) | Oct. 27, 2015, paperback

12. Question Bridge: Black Males in America

A multi-screen, documentary-style video installation, “Question Bridge: Black Males in America” presents a dynamic series of “exchanges” among black men, who span generations and backgrounds, about a range of contemporary issues particularly relevant in this post-Obama era and in the wake of Ferguson and countless other police involved killings of African American men that have dominated the news for more than a year now. Conceived by Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Kamal Sinclair, and Bayeté Ross Smith, “Question Bridge” has gathered more than 1,600 questions and responses from black men in nine U.S. cities and has been exhibited since 2012 in more than 30 venues. The presentation of this small-format volume—an interplay of photographs, text and graphic design—remarkably recreates the tenor of the project. It is almost as if the book is yet another venue in which the installation is on view.

 

muse - mickalene thomas - photographs

“Muse: Mickalene Thomas: Photographs,” by Mickalene Thomas
(Aperture, 120 pages). | Published Nov. 24, 2015, hardcover

13. Muse: Mickalene Thomas: Photographs

Recognized for her large-scale, rhinestone-embellished paintings of powerful black women and pattern-rich interiors, Mickalene Thomas has also pursued photography throughout her career, since her MFA days at Yale. This volume gathers her photography for the first time, including portraits, prints and Polaroids, all depicting women—herself, her mother (and muse), lovers and friends. Long-inspired by her late mother’s femininity and sense of style, the studio portraiture of Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee and Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, as well as historic European portraiture, Thomas uses photography to interpret black beauty, identity, and sexuality. Thomas’s engaging images appear on almost every page of the volume. The exception, is a section celebrating the photographic work of fellow artists—including Derrick Adams, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Zanele Muholi, Malike Sidibe, Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems—whose work explores representations of the black body, providing Thomas with inspiration and insight into her own practice. A conversation between Weems and Thomas, in which Weems constructively challenges and compliments the work of Thomas, is the highlight of these pages.

 

procession - the art of norman lewis

“Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” Edited by Ruth Fine with contributions from Dave Acton, Adrianna Campbell, David C. Driskell, Jacqueline Francis, Helen M. Shannon, and Jeffrey C. Stewart (University of California Press, 288 pages). | Published Nov. 13, 2015, hardcover

14. Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis

This volume accompanies “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” the first major museum retrospective of abstract painter Norman Lewis. The exhibition is currently on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia through April 3, 2016, when it will travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Chicago Cultural Center. I asked curator Ruth Fine what she wanted to accomplish with this catalog, and she said, to be candid, she wanted it to be entertaining and for it to visually convey the importance of Lewis’s practice. Many coffee table books are admired rather than read, so if someone were to simply leaf through the catalog, Fine wanted them to be able to grasp the significance of the work. Toward that end, the volume is rife with full-color images of the Lewis’s paintings, which are balanced with rigorous scholarship in the form of essays and extensive new research and documentation of his life, works and exhibitions. CT