The Best Black Art Books of 2023 explore the work of Simone Leigh, Benjamin Wigfall, Kerry James Marshall, Hughie Lee-Smith, Dalton Paula, William Edmondson, and more

A GLORIOUS TRIBUTE and essential overview, “Simone Leigh” is the first publication to document the singular artist’s practice, which focuses on sculpture and centers Black female subjectivity. The catalogue raisonné, “Kerry James Marshall: The Complete Prints, 1976-2022,” explores the celebrated painter’s printmaking practice over the past five decades. A new monograph of Hughlie Lee-Smith (1915-1999), showcases more than 250 works by the artist known for his surrealist paintings. “Benjamin Wigfall & Communications Village” brings to the fore the profound practice of a little-known artist and educator active in Virginia and New York. Landmark publications dedicated Leigh, Marshall, Lee-Smith, and Wigfall were published over the past year. The volumes are among Culture Type’s Best Black Art Books of the year. Many illustrated publications about an array of important artists were published in 2023. The 13 selections featured are particularly notable for their exceptional design, images, editorial strategy, and scholarship. New monographs of Deborah Roberts and Noah Davis and exhibition catalogs exploring the work of William Edmondson, Dalton Paula, and the intersection of hip hop and contemporary art also made the list. (Titles are listed in the order of their wide-distribution publication dates):

 


“Beauty Born of Struggle: The Art of Black Washington,” Edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart with essays by Rhea L. Combs, Adrienne Edwards, Gwendolyn Everett, Jacqueline Francis, Paul Gardullo, Michael D. Harris, Lauren Hayes, Steven Nelson, Robert G. O’Meally, Richard J. Powell, Jacqueline Serwer, Elsa Smithgall, John A. Tyson, and Tobias Wofford (National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts/Distributed by Yale University Press, 368 pages). | Published Jan. 31, 2023

 
Beauty Born of Struggle: The Art of Black Washington

Washington, D.C., and its artists, institutions, and scholars, were critical to the development of the field of African American art. “Beauty Born of Struggle: The Art of Black Washington” is a capsule of 20th century art history, exploring the legacy role and contemporary influence of “Chocolate City” through generously illustrated essays. The volume documents a landmark symposium (The African American Art World in Twentieth-Century Washington, D.C.) presented by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in 2017, where nearly all of the texts were delivered. The event included a historic discussion among eight seminal artists. Three key participants on the panel have since died: David C. Driskell, Sam Gilliam, and Lou Stovall.

 


“Frank Stewart’s Nexus: An American Photographer’s Journey, 1960s to the Present,” By Ruth Fine and Fred Moten, with introduction by Mary Schmidt Campbell, and contributions from Wynton Marsalis, Cheryl Finley, and Frank Stewart (Rizzoli Electa, 208 pages) | Published April 4, 2023

 
Frank Stewart’s Nexus: An American Photographer’s Journey, 1960s to the Present

The images of Frank Stewart never fail to fascinate, educate, and broaden perspectives, transporting the viewer to the many moments and varied places he has captured over the past half century. “Frank Stewart’s Nexus: An American Photographer’s Journey, 1960s to the Present” was published on the occasion of the artist’s first major museum retrospective, which was co-organized by The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and Telfair Museums in Savannah, Ga. More than 100 images are presented in the exhibition, dating from 1963, when Stewart first picked up a camera at the March on Washington, to 2020, when he shot images of California’s wildfires. In the intervening decades, Stewart has documented all manner of African American culture across art, food, and music and the Black experience throughout the diaspora; traveled the globe with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; and placed a premium on experimentation with the medium of photography—composing space, layering images, and working with light, shadow, and reflective surfaces. The fully illustrated catalog is overflowing with all of these images grouped by theme and interspersed with essays (Haunted by the Medium, Feast for the Senses, and Frank Stewart’s International Lens), a conversation with Stewart conducted by co-curator Ruth Fine, and a chronology of his life and work.

“No matter what subject matter Stewart is capturing, whether it is the itinerant life of the Jazz at Lincoln Center musicians, a family reunion, or the grief amid the losses of Katrina, Stewart beckons the view to join him in getting to know the place and people who inhabit his photographs.”
— Mary Schmidt Campbell

 


“Dalton Paula: Brazilian Portraits,” Edited by Glaucea Helena de Britto, Adriano Pedrosa, and Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, with contribution by Bárbara Catta, and texts by Vivian Braga Dos Santos, Marcelo Campos, and Divino Sobral (Museu de Arte de São Paulo/KMEC Books, bilingual, 383 pages). | Published May 9, 2023

 
Dalton Paula: Brazilian Portraits

Brazilian artist Dalton Paula works in a variety of mediums and formats, but is best known for his portraits, a tradition in Western painting where the enslaved and colonized have largely been absent. Paula researches significant figures in Brazilian history whose lives are documented, but for whom there is no visual record and creates imagined portraits, giving them visibility and recognition. “Dalton Paula: Brazilian Portraits” documents a recent solo show of the artist, which was on view at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) in 2022. Thirty portraits were presented in the exhibition. About 70 are included in the publication and each is accompanied by a biography of the subject adapted from Enciclopédia Negra: Biografias afro-brasileiras (Black Encyclopedia-Biographies of Afro Brazilians). The exhibition catalog also features accessible scholarly texts, and a conversation with Paula about his portraiture and broader practice. Published on mint green paper that complements the colored background of each portrait (but doesn’t detract from the legibility of the text), the volume is a treasure of Black Brazilian history and fortitude through portraiture.

“Dalton Paula’s portraits fill the void of the unrepresented with Black people who played important roles in history, but who were erased by the official historiography.” — Divino Sobral

 


“Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers,” By Brian Piper, Russell Lord, John Edwin Mason, and Carla Williams, with a foreword by Susan Taylor (New Orleans Museum of Art, 228 pages). | Published May 9, 2023

 
Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers

During the same period that James Van Der Zee was making radiant images documenting the Black community in Harlem, Black photographers in commercial studios across the United States were producing similar pictures, turning out striking portraits of public figures and ordinary people. The critical role of photography when it comes to representation and understanding the social, political, and cultural experiences of African Americans through the decades is exemplified here, beginning with the cover, which features a circa 1950 image of four students gathered at a table scrutinizing prints at the Hooks School of Photography. The catalog documents a recent exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, with many of the images published for the first time. The artistry and entrepreneurship of more than three dozen professional photographers active during the first 120 years of photography (from about the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries) is contextualized, exploring their contributions to early American photography and movements such as pictorialism, modernism, and abstraction.

More than three dozen professional photographers are showcased in the exhibition catalog, including James Presley Ball, Cornelius M. Battey, the Hooks Brothers, the Scurlocks, Rev. Henry Clay Anderson, Arthur P. Bedou, Florestine Perrault Collins, William P. Greene, Harvey C. Jackson, Emmanuel F. Joseph, Arthur L. Macbeth, William C. Maxwell, Paul Poole, James Van Der Zee, and Morgan and Marvin Smith.

 


“Benjamin Wigfall & Communications Village,” Edited by Sarah L. Eckhardt and Drew Thompson, with additional essays by Richard Frumess, Tosha Grantham, Cynthia Hawkins and Linda Holmes, and contributions by Connie Choi, Robin Holder, Nuelle R. Johnson, Hallie Ringle and Coutrney Tkacz (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 250 pages).

 
Benjamin Wigfall & Communications Village

Artist and educator Benjamin Wigfall (1930-2017) was a significant figure in his lifetime with ties to major artists and institutions, and yet he is little known today. Working in abstraction, he expressed himself through painting and assemblage before focusing on printmaking. Born in Richmond, Va., Wigfall received fellowships from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) that helped cover the costs of his undergraduate education at Hampton Institute. He went on to earn an MFA from Yale University (1959) and returned to Hampton, serving as a professor at the HBCU. In 1963, Wigfall landed at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he was appointed an assistant professor of design and became a founding member of the Black Studies department, one of the first in the nation. About a decade into his tenure at New Palz, Wigfall took possession of a building in nearby Kingston, N.Y., a Black community where he formed Communications Village. He wrote that the aspirations of the nonprofit were “to establish a new and contemporary relationship between artists and community and to develop a new public for the arts.” A community center, printmaking facility, and mentorship program with local teens learning art and photography from SUNY faculty and students, the project became Wigfall’s artistic practice. Romare Bearden and Ernest Crichlow were inaugural board members. Robert Blackburn was a key adviser. Benny Andrews, Mavis Pusey, and Melvin Edwards were among the New York City artists who visited to give presentations and conduct critiques. Charles Gaines made prints at Communications Village in 1974 and 1975. The catalog “Benjamin Wigfall & Communications Village” accompanied one of the year’s best exhibitions dedicated to single artist. While Wigfall was the focus of the exhibition, with more than 50 works on view, art by a variety of other artists was also included given the expansive nature of his artistic enterprise. The Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Palz and VMFA in Richmond co-organized the exhibition, which was curated by Sarah Eckhardt and Drew Thompson. The fully illustrated catalog is a fulsome tribute to the life and legacy of Wigfall, featuring scholarly essays, interviews with the late artist (conducted in 1976 and 2003), a detailed chronology, and a trove of artworks, archival material (letters, newspaper clippings, exhibition posters), and documentary photography.

Benjamin Wigfall “took kids on field trips to museums in New York City, just as he had visited VMFA, however he also made Communications Village the kind of place where teenagers did not have to leave their community to learn how to see the world differently. Instead, he pointed them to the stories of their own elders through conversations he recorded with their grandparents, taught them how to see art in the everyday, and brought some of the leading Black artists of their time to exhibit around them.” — Sarah Eckhardt

 


The Culture: Hip Hop & Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, Edited by Asma Naeem, with introductions by Gamynne Guillotte, and Hannah Klemm, and Andréa Purnell, with contribution from Todd Boyd, Greg Tate, Jordana Moore-Saggese, D. Watkins, Ekow Eshun, Msia Kibona Clark, Devin Allen, and Seph Rodney, etal. (Gregory R. Miller & Co., 306 pages). | Published June 27, 2023

 
The Culture: Hip Hop & Contemporary Art in the 21st Century

Coinciding with the widely celebrated 50th anniversary of hip hop in 2023, “The Culture: Hip Hop & Contemporary Art in the 21st Century” considers the powerful influence of hip hop on contemporary art and material culture. The volume was produced to accompany the landmark traveling exhibition organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and Saint Louis Art Museum. Housed between two thick cardboard covers, the publication’s design is influenced by its subject matter. The construction elevates basic materials and leaves the spine exposed to reveal the volume’s binding. The writing samples an array of content forms, including poetry, lists, conversations, and scholarly texts that are supported by images of artworks, album covers, graffiti, runway and street fashion, and documentary and street photography. Copper foil lettering on the cover adds some bling. Contributors include about 50 artists, curators, scholars, cultural critics, and poets. There are dialogues with Todd Boyd, Misa Hylton, and Sean Bankhead. A republished text by Greg Tate (1957-2021) asks “What is Hip Hop?” Jordana Moore Saggese writes about Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bebop, and Hip Hop. “I Suck at Love: Nas, Jay-Z, and Black Vulnerability” is authored by Ekow Eshun. Msia Kibona Clark contributed “Women, Hip Hop, and Social Discourse in South Africa.” Early in the volume, a thoughtful discussion with curators who have presented hip-hop related exhibitions in previous years is featured. The conversation informed the development of The Culture and also provides insights about the “pioneering and rich ways that hip-hop culture broke into museums…”

“In contemporary art today, whether through the poetics of the street, the blurring of high and low, the reclamation of the gaze, the homage to hip-hop geniuses, or the experimental collaborations across such vastly disparate fields as paintings, performance, architecture, and computer programming, the visual culture of hip hop along with its subversive tactics and its tackling of social justice surface everywhere in the art of today.”
— Asma Naeem

 


“William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision,” Edited by James Claiborne and Nancy Ireson, with contributions by Leslie King Hammond, Kelli Morgan, Christina Knight, and Brendan Fernandes (Barnes Foundation, 160 pages). | Published July 18, 2023

 
William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision

William Edmondson (circa 1874–1951) was employed as a hospital orderly before dedicating himself to stone carving in his late 50s. He made limestone sculptures, rough-hewn works with a poetic presence. Edmondson initially focused on making headstones for Black cemeteries in Nashville, Tenn., before expanding his practice beyond functional sculpture to include figurative artworks. Presenting about 65 sculptures, “William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision” was a sight to see at the Barnes Foundation last summer. For those who missed the incredible experience and rare opportunity to view a roomful of sculptures by the self-taught artist, this volume goes a long way toward documenting the breadth and depth of his output. Installation views of the exhibition are not included, but the works are beautifully illustrated with informative captions that explain the significance of his subjects, including nurses, teachers, various animal figures, and many Biblical references. The accompanying texts address some of the patronizing and problematic narratives that have surrounded Edmondson’s life and work, considering into his influences and inspirations; readings of documentary photography of the artist; and the framing of his 1937 Museum of Modern Art show, the New York institution’s first solo exhibition of a Black artist.

“Saturated in his culture of Blackness, fortified by his strong moral character, powers of observation, and profound religious and spiritual grace, [Edmondson] became a radiant beacon for a different modernism in an era that did not recognize the complexity and originality of African American expression.” — Leslie King Hammond

 


“Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at The Frick,” By Aimee Ng and Antwaun Sargent, with foreword by Thelma Golden and contributions from Derrick Adams, Hilton Als, Nick Cave, Awol Erizku, Rashid Johnson, Fahamu Pecou, Mickalene Thomas, and Kehinde Wiley (Rizzoli Electa, 160 pages). | Published Sept. 5, 2023

 
Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at The Frick

Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017) was a master portrait painter whose studies of character and color were defined by his cool subjects and their sense of style, self possession, and individuality. Hendricks loved The Frick Collection and made repeated pilgrimages to the New York museum to study paintings by the great masters of European portraiture, including Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Bronzino. The artist’s affinity for the institution, makes the exhibition “Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at The Frick” that much more meaningful and long overdue. Presented at Frick Madison, the exhibition is the museum’s first solo show dedicated to an artist of color since its founding in 1935! Drawn from public and private collections, 14 portraits by Hendricks, dating from 1969 to 1983, are featured in the exhibition, including five limited-palette paintings in which his subjects are wearing white clothing against white backgrounds. The accompanying catalog is a revelation, providing for the first time a wealth of background information about each of the featured portraits, identifying the artist’s models and showing the many inspiration photographs Hendricks made of his subjects. Along with a foreword by Thelma Golden and essays by co-curators Aimee Ng and Antwaun Sargent, the volume also includes contributions by a new generation of artists influenced by Hendricks.

“Hendricks’s pictures stood out because they were not portraying Black or white people with an agenda. Nonetheless, they participated in the conversations and artistic concerns of the day. Many of his photorealistic portraits have the shine or superficiality of pop art, the color play of abstraction, and the selective palette of minimalism. Moreover, in deploying fashion, his images conferred allure and status on often underrepresented figures, while at the same time drawing connections to contemporary culture.” — Antwaun Sargent

 


“Simone Leigh,” By Eva Respini (editor), Simone Leigh (artist), with a foreword by Jill Medvedow, and contributions by Vanessa Agard-Jones, Rizvana Bradley, Dionne Brand, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Malik Gaines, Saidiya V Hartman, Daniella Rose King, Jessica Lynne, Nomaduma Masilela, Katherine McKittrick, Uri McMillan, Sequoia Miller, Steven Nelson, Tavia Nyong’o, Lorraine O’Grady, and Rianna Jade Parker (DelMonico Books/Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 365 pages). | Published Oct. 3, 2023

 
Simone Leigh

Over the course of her two-decade career, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Simone Leigh has established a sculpture, video, installation, and social practice centered around Black feminist thought, the experiences of Black women, and larger questions about race, labor, and power. Closely identified with her celebrated sculptures, Leigh makes small- and large-scale ceramic and bronze works that combine the female figure, domestic vessels, African architectural forms, and material culture of the Black diaspora. An essential overview, “Simone Leigh” follows a series of high-profile events in her career. After receiving the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Wein Artist Prize in 2017, Leigh won the Hugo Boss Prize at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (2018), participated in the Whitney Biennial (2019), inaugurated the High Line Plinth commission with her monumental Brick House installation (2019-21), and was selected to represent the United States with a solo exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 (the first Black woman to do so). The first-ever monograph of the highly regarded artist accompanies a major traveling exhibition organized by ICA Boston, which also presented her Venice show. The hefty volume is brimming with beautiful photography capturing individual artworks, details of works, installation views in museums and public spaces, and images of works in the artist’s studio. Nearly two dozen writers and scholars contributed, including Saidiya Hartman, Steven Nelson, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Uri McMillian. A thoughtful wide-ranging conversation among Leigh, Lorraine O’Grady, and Malik Gaines, fellow artists she has been in dialogue with for many years, concludes the volume.

“…Leigh’s singular vision is enriched by considering the remarkable span of her practice, and, crucially, by reading her work alongside that of those whose writings and ideas are inextricably entwined with her art. Through the texts published here, readers can trace how Leigh has contested historical narratives and hierarchies, and, through her artwork, has proposed countertrajectories to the notion of modernity itself. This publication is more than a document of an exhibition; rather, it is essential reading that provides a series of pathways to consider Leigh’s groundbreaking, expansive art.” — Eva Respini

 


“Noah Davis: In Detail,” By Noah Davis, Helen Molesworth, with an essay by Franklin Sirmans, chronology by Lindsay Charlwood, and conversation among Thomas J. Lax, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, and Fred Moten moderated by Molesworth (David Zwirner Books, 208 pages). | Published Nov. 7, 2023

 
Noah Davis: In Detail

The incredible paintings of Noah Davis (1983-2015) are possessed with great emotion and mystery, capturing both the everyday and the surreal with muted palettes as captivating as his subjects and scenes. “Noah Davis: In Detail” zooms in on the details of his works examining both the content of his images as well as his surfaces where he applied paint with smooth brushstrokes and built-up layers and textures. Following the publication of “Noah Davis” in 2020, this companion volume matches its elegant details: fabric cover with gold lettering and pages with gilded edges. The fully illustrated publication features a largely new selection of paintings dating from 2008-09 and 2010-15. Accompanying essays by Helen Molesworth and Franklin Sirmans explore the artist’s persona and visionary practice. A conversation among prominent artists and curators highlights their experiences at the Underground Museum in Los Angeles and the powerful role of the now-shuttered institution co-founded by Davis. More than 20 pages are devoted to a detailed chronology of the artist, who died at age 32 from a rare cancer.

 


“Kerry James Marshall: The Complete Prints: 1976–2022,” By Susan Tallman ( D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 200 pages). | Published Nov. 21, 2023

 
Kerry James Marshall: The Complete Prints: 1976–2022

Whenever an artist is best known for one thing, it is refreshing to explore their work in another form. One of the great artists of his generation, Chicago-based Kerry James Marshall focuses on Black figures and the African American experience, painting powerful portraits and grand narrative scenes that challenge Western art history. He has been pursuing this project for decades, alongside a regular engagement with printmaking. “Kerry James Marshall: The Complete Prints, 1976–2022” showcases a half century of works, from a 7 1/2 x 5-inch “Happy Xmas” (1983) Christmas card and excerpts from his ongoing Rythm Mastr comic strip to Untitled (1998), a monumental 12-panel, eight-color woodcut spanning 48 feet. A cinematic scene depicting the exterior and interior space of a high-rise where six figures are socializing in the living room, the work is in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium. “Me” (2012), a self portrait of the artist, cover’s the volume. Marshall printed the linocut himself in his studio on a Morgan Line-O-Scribe press, which he has used over the years to produce many of the works represented in the book. Color plates spread across about 225 pages illustrate 94 works and series, many composed of multiple images and parts. Background details about the works and printmaking methods are woven throughout. The catalogue raisonné is authored by Susan Tallman. She wrote: “Like Rembrandt or Mary Cassatt or Edvard Munch, Marshall is a peintre-graveur—a painter who uses printmaking as a way of thinking, of aligning image and surface, of being in the world. ‘Printmaking does something that’s important to me,’ he acknowledges. The woodcut Nat (1982) graced the announcement for his first solo exhibition, and prints have figured regularly in his gallery shows, museum exhibitions, and projects for events such as Documenta and the Gwangju Biennale. For all their importance to the artist, however, Marshall’s prints have never been discussed as a coherent body of work, and many have never been documented. This book aims to fill that void.”

“Marshall’s prints have never been discussed as a coherent body of work, and many have never been documented. This book aims to fill that void.”
— Susan Tallman

 


“Deborah Roberts: Twenty Years of Art/Work,” Art by Deborah Roberts, foreword by Dawoud Bey, essays by Ekow Eshun and Carolyn Jean Martin, and a conversation with the artist conducted by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis (Radius Books, 239 pages). | Published Dec. 5, 2023

 
Deborah Roberts: Twenty Years of Art/Work

Deborah Roberts focuses on Black youth, making fractured portraits that explore the beauty, innocence, and complexity of childhood alongside the societal assumptions thrust upon Black boys and girls. Austin, Texas-based Roberts has won widespread recognition in recent years, but she has been developing her practice and honing her vision for two decades. This volume provides a definitive look at her work, delving into her archive, charting how the work has evolved, and showcasing her most recent collage portraits. She has been working on a larger scale, experimenting with dark backgrounds, adding text on occasion, and shifting the balance of her mixed-media work with more emphasis on painting. Beautifully composed and fully illustrated, the volume features a conversation with Roberts conducted by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis and new essays that consider both the visible joy and individuality of her subjects and the underlying references to the end of innocence and the “continued vulnerability of Black bodies to violence and othering.” The publication is produced with two different covers (“Subject: America #1,” 2021, shown, and “Red Crosses,” 2015, which features a dark background).

“I try to humanize those faces as much as possible, to break through some barriers, and maybe someone won’t treat someone negatively. That’s what I hope. That’s my goal for the work. It may not pan out for another 150 years, but I hope that’s there.” — Deborah Roberts

 


“Hughie Lee-Smith,” With contributions by Hilton Als, Lauren Haynes, Leslie King-Hammond, and Steve Locke, with a conversation about the artist among Kellie Jones, LeRonn P. Brooks, and Reggie Burrows Hodges (Karma Books, 391 pages). | Published Dec. 19, 2023

 
Hughie Lee-Smith

Over a period of six decades, Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999) worked in a variety of styles including portraiture and still life. He is best known for his wide angle, surrealist scenes focusing on isolated figures within barren landscapes, urban decay, and stark beach fronts. Karma Gallery in Los Angeles presented a rare exhibition of Lee-Smith paintings in the fall of 2022. Nearly 30 paintings were on view and the show was accompanied by a conversation about Lee-Smith and his work among art historians Kellie Jones and LeRonn P. Brooks and artist Reggie Burrows Hodges. A landmark publication was also produced in conjunction with the exhibition. An invaluable documentation of the artist’s output, the volume features color illustrations of more than 250 works, dating from 1938 to 1997-98. Titled simply “Hughie Lee-Smith,” the publication also includes essays by Hilton Als, Steve Locke, Leslie King-Hammond, and Lauren Haynes; a brief chronology of the artist; and a transcript of the conversation among Jones, Brooks, and Hodges. CT

 
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