Recommended Reading from Museum Director James Steward
Readings on Race in America
The late, great Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others (Harvard University Press, 2017) draws on the Norton Lectures she gave at Harvard in 2016, in which she asks such questions as “What motivates the human tendency to construct Others?....Why does the presence of Others make us so afraid?” This slim volume of barely 100 pages is a lyrically written meditation on racism and intolerance, on mass migration and the desire for belonging, on the value of a Black life. It is also ultimately about the possibilities and responsibilities of literature and thus of art.
W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (Dover; The Library of America) was originally published in 1903, just 38 years after the abolition of slavery in the United States, and remains a vital study of the history of a people and of the neo-enslavement that followed the Civil War. Among many other things a pioneering championing of the African American sacred vernacular, this study considers the conflicting ideas of being black and being American that remains powerfully relevant today. As Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates put it, “Race relations in our wonderful country would measurably improve if all students were required to read this book.”
Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race (Basic Books) has experienced a renaissance of interest 23 years after its initial publication. Written by a former president of Spelman College, this powerful book arose from workshops that Tatum conducted for teachers and school principals to help them discuss race with younger children more successfully. Considering self-segregation, how racial issues play out on an everyday basis, the psychology of race, and racial identity, it remains a useful conversation opener.
Looking at Art
Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance, by Carl Brandon Strehlke and others (Thames and Hudson), is the catalogue of the brilliant exhibition at the Prado in Madrid. Born on the cusp of the fifteenth century, Fra Angelico was both a priest and an artist at the heart of the artistic, political, and social movements of his time. If you don’t already know the work and life of this Florentine master, now you must—and then, when you can, discover a quiet masterpiece on our walls.
Hokusai’s Landscapes: The Complete Series, by Sarah E. Thompson (MFA Publications), gives us the life and work of the best known of all Japanese artists. His Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji were produced in an extraordinary burst of creative energy between about 1830 and 1836, and went on to influence artists across Asia, Europe, and North America.
The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture, by Princeton’s own Susan Stewart (University of Chicago Press), considers the ruins that captivated the imagination of artists and writers from Renaissance humanism to European Romanticism, including such figures as Goethe, Piranesi, Blake, and Wordsworth. Ruins were no mere relics of the past; they proved to offer new ways of seeing and of reinventing art.
Dogs in Art, by Susie Green (Reaktion Books). From ancient Roman mosaics to Pop art, humanity’s best friend has been a constant presence in the world of art. I imagine if you opt for this one you already understand why dogs, as sentient, emotional beings, are loved by people the world over. But if you’re not already persuaded, this lavishly illustrated tome will do its best to convert you.
Women of Abstract Expressionism, by Joan Marter and others (Yale University Press), is the long overdue catalogue of the recent exhibition at the Denver Art Museum looking at the women who played fundamental roles in the development of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s. From Jay DeFeo to Helen Frankenthaler to Grace Hartigan to Joan Mitchell and many more, these are artists whose work is central to art of the twentieth century but who have not received the attention they deserve—until now.
John Updike, Always Looking: Essays on Art (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). The great novelist and short story writer wrote regularly, incisively, and brilliantly on art and exhibitions. This posthumously published collection—the third and last in a series—brings together essays that are remarkably elegant even as they reveal a novelist’s psychological concerns, driving the reader’s eye from work to work. Updike proves a remarkably engaging guide; highly recommended at a time when armchair travel truly matters, even as the author engages with artists—Copley, Homer, Eakins, Degas, and more—whose meaning never diminishes. (Out of print but available remaindered from Labyrinth Books)
Nina Amstutz, Caspar David Friedrich: Nature and the Self (Yale University Press, 2020). The great German painter of atmospheric landscapes, night skies, and morning mists—often populated with a single, contemplate figure—still deserves to be better known. This volume proves to be a wonderful guide, inserting Friedrich clearly in the German Romantic philosophical movement of his time, including the naturalists who believed that observations about the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds could reshape our thinking about human life. This new study is both richly interdisciplinary and committed to fresh visual analysis, and offers up new insights into one of the nineteenth century’s most compelling artists.
When you need a break from the visual,
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell (Penguin Random House), an invigorating critique of all the forces vying for our attention that might well be preventing us from seeing what really matters in the world. Odell challenges us to start paying a new kind of attention, and in so doing, to discover new relationships with the environment, new forms of political engagement, and ultimately new understandings of happiness. No mere self-help manual, it’s also a timely political manifesto.
And if you really want to get away from it all, or imagine the virtues of doing so:
The Illustrated Walden, or, Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau (Sterling), is, as E. B. White memorably put it, “an invitation to life’s dance.” Thoreau’s vivid prose gives us nature as a richly evocative metaphor in a volume whose search for “the essential facts of life” seems more timely than ever.