I had just had a conversation with an IVY member the night before about how to “look” at modern art when his one-line email popped into my inbox. He mentioned that art felt inaccessible to him, that he didn’t “get” it and suspected his lack of experience with art was keeping him from being a more creative person. I responded with a few of my favorites, but then realized that he was not the only IVY member curious to learn more about art and wanted a few good book recommendations. Wondering what my colleague in the arts were recommending as well, I posed the question to a handful of them.

Perhaps consider adding one of these to your back-to-school reading list?

Leilani Lynch, Assistant Curator at The Bass in Miami says, “The #1 question I get as a curator is ‘Why is this art? I could make that at home.’” A few of her favorite primers are:

Why Is That Art?: Aesthetics and Criticism of Contemporary Art  by Terry Barrett

Look!: 100 Years Of Contemporary Art by Thierry de Duve

What Is Contemporary Art? by Terry Smith

Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

“This is a fun one. It reads as a “tell all” about the contemporary art world and gives readers an inside look at the Art World ecosystem.”

Dr. Alexandria Kotoch, an IVY member on the curatorial team at the Block Museum of Art and serves as an adjunct lecturer at the Art Institute of Chicago replied with two more recommendations:

The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas

“This is interesting read about Nazi-era looted art, a significant portion of which was modern.  The book discusses the “process” by which the Nazis acquired these works of art, how they safeguarded these treasures, and the subsequent liberation of this art by the Allies.  The book also considers the aftermath of the war and issues of restitution and repatriation, which is still ongoing.  Many readers may not be aware but a significant number of works of art in US collections were directly or indirectly a part of Nazi-era looting.  One would not be pressed to find a work of art in a major museum with a provenance that traces to World War II.“ 

The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 

“This title may ring a bell for many readers as it was the basis for a blockbuster film a few years ago, The Woman in Gold.  The book traces the history of Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Viennese Jewish socialite, Adele Bloch-Bauer.  The painting was seized by Nazis during WWII and a long battle ensued around the work’s ownership between Block-Bauer’s heirs and the Austrian government.  “

Christopher Pastor, Director of Major Gifts at the Perez Art Museum Miami, recommends:

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol

“This book delves deep into the psyche of one the 20th centuries most prolific and iconic artists. Written in the first person, this book is a front row seat to the rollercoaster that was Warhol’s career and personal life. The book is witty, snarky, and border on insane. It will make you fall in love with the artist behind the soup cans.”

Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Michael Gross

“I love this book because it explores the origins of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Working at a twentieth century institution, we often forget that the “grand dames” of the art world also had their rough and tumble starts. This excellently written book shines a light on all the sordid details that The Metropolitan would prefer to keep hidden in their vaults.  Salacious and cultural!”

Grace Astrove, Senior Development Officer for Exhibitions at the Jewish Museum, highlights:

Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader

“Linda Nochlin, the iconic art historian and critic, is a hero of mine so it should come as no surprise that I keep this comprehensive collection of her unrivaled and accessible writings, including the provocative and groundbreaking 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” on my bedside table. A pioneer scholar of feminist art history, her essays offer deeply meaningful and critical insight on women artists and feminism. I would recommend this book for anyone looking for new perspectives on well-known art movements or any feminist looking to learn more about women’s role in modern art history.”

The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes

“The Shock of the New was adapted from Robert Hughes’ 1980 BBC documentary series of the same name, which drastically changed the way people thought about modern art. I first read this beautifully illustrated book during college when it was assigned for my modern art history course, but unlike most textbooks the concepts and prose are incredibly insightful and accessible for all audiences. Hughes, a legendary art critic, enthusiastically correlates modern art with the history and culture of the time leaving readers with an exceptional understanding of art movements from Cubism and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. I would recommend “The Shock of the New” if you are looking to gain broad knowledge about modern art or if you just want to impress your date as you stroll through the Museum of Modern Art.”

Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton 

“Hoping to have a better understanding of my field, I read “Seven Days in the Art World” a few years after it was published when I first moved to New York and started working in the art world. Thornton plays the role of anthropologist in the entertaining, and often critical, exploration of seven different facet of the contemporary art world: an auction, an art school, an art fair, an artist’s studio, a prestigious art prize, a magazine, and a biennale. I would recommend “Seven Days in the Art World” for anyone interested in learning more about what goes on in the art world beyond museums.”

Josephine Ho, Development Officer at the MFA Boston, lists two of her favorites:

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee 

“With his background as an art critic and journalist, Smee has a easy to understand and straightforward writing style.  Focused on four pairs of artists, Smee explores the intimate details of several major figures of modern art and explores their biographies through engaging stories and analyses of select artworks.  I enjoy Smee’s approach of examining the relationships and interpersonal dynamics between key modern artists as a means to better understanding their art and persona. One downside, is that I wish it included more women artists.”

What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art by Will Gompertz

“This is my recommended go to for any “non-art” person who wants to learn more about modern art. Gompertz is quite witty and does a fantastic job contextualizing the numerous movements in modern art, and recounting the best-known legends and salacious tales.