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In a 1971 essay published in ARTnews, the critic and art historian Linda Nochlin posed the provocative question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” She immediately acknowledged that of course there had been plenty, though you wouldn’t know it from any art history written by men. Nochlin’s article, and the larger feminist movement from which it sprang, signaled a turning of the tide. Today, more female artists than ever are being exhibited and inscribed into the historical record, though admittedly not nearly in numbers commensurate with the percentage of women in the population. But long-forgotten careers are being resuscitated and contemporary women artists have become a major presence, as the number of monographs published within the past 20 years can attest. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)
1. Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari, Faith Ringgold: American People
In her foreword to this catalog for the New Museum’s six-decade survey of the acclaimed African America artist Faith Ringgold (b. 1930), Director Lisa Phillips describes Ringgold as an “artist, educator, activist, and mother [who] has been part of a struggle for rights, acceptance, and artistic freedom that has stretched across many generations.” These overlapping identities are crucial to understanding Ringgold as a participant in the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and ’70s who championed intersectionality avant la lettre. This volume is abundantly illustrated with both color and black-and-white images of artworks spanning her entire oeuvre, which, besides portraiture, protest posters, and story-quilt celebrations of Black life, also included a children’s book, Tar Beach. It also contains essays by noted authors such as Lucy Lippard and Amiri Baraka, and by young African American artists—Jordan Casteel, Tschabalala Self—indebted to her example.
Purchase: Faith Ringgold: American People $63.99 (new) on Amazon
2. Claudia Schmuckli, Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?
Dividing her time between New York and Nairobi, Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu (b.1972) has been a notable presence in the art world since she emerged in the 2000s with images of chimerical beings who seemed to have been transported to our world from some alternative, Afro-futuristic dimension. Combining elements of the human, the nonhuman, and the post-human with allusions to the natural world, Mutu critiques the real-world issues of colonialism, racism, and sexism while also allegorizing the kind of transformative change needed to save mankind from itself. Though Mutu works in multiple mediums, she’s best known for her sculptures, the most recent of which are showcased in this catalog accompanying a 2021 exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum, where Mutu’s work was installed alongside Old Master paintings and sculptures in a meeting of multicultural present with monocultural past.
Purchase: Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? $32.70 (new) on Amazon
3. Peter Eleey et al., Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You
One might argue that Barbara Kruger invented the meme, or at least the sort now common on social media: an image covered with some aphorism in chunky letters. In truth, Kruger’s work underwent its own version of going viral when it was first exhibited during the 1980s, as images like the one of hand holding a card reading, “I shop therefore I am,” engaged a wide public. Kruger’s signature style (black-and-white stock photos overlaid with oversize italic texts within blocks of bright red) and her propensity for scale (from large-format photographs to room-swallowing installations) delivered subversive messages in ways that a media-indoctrinated public could readily understand. This 2021 volume, published for the Kruger retrospective organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum, offers an extensive view of the artist’s seminal achievements over 40 years.
Purchase: Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You $44.49 (new) on Amazon
4. Scott Rothkopf, Owens, Laura
Laura Owens (b. 1970) initially attracted attention at the turn of the millennium as part of a wave of artists who pursued painting by taking it apart and putting it back again—usually by mixing figuration, abstraction, pop-cultural referents, and art-historical quotations. This approach has since become something of a default mode in current painting, but even so, Owens’s idiosyncratic take stands out. Her compositions range from hyper-graphic squiggles to a sort of faux-naïve symbolism devoid of symbolic meaning—eccentric meanderings that often take the artist deep into the postmodern weeds to retrieve, for example, stylistic roadkill like 1970s Abstract Illusionism. Owens was featured in MoMA’s 2014–15 exhibition “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” which was followed by the Whitney’s 2018 mid-career survey documented in this book. Featuring more than 1,000 images, the catalog takes the reader all the way from Owens’s high school days in Euclid, Ohio, to the present.
Purchase: Owens, Laura $45.00 (new) on Amazon
5. Robert Storr, Elizabeth Murray
Thanks to Conceptual Art, the late 1960s and early 1970s were one of those painting-is-dead interregnums that have periodically cropped up since the 19th century. Some artists, however, didn’t get the memo, most prominently Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007), whose vibrantly offbeat shaped canvases first garnered acclaim at a time when painting was deemed suspect. Murray’s influences were many—Joan Miró, Stuart Davis, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, and Philip Guston; she took a little something from each, assimilating it as her own. Although her work appeared abstract, it included figurative allusions to household objects (shoes, coffee cups, furniture) taking shape as exuberant forms twisted and warped into knots—still-lifes, as it were, of an everyday order shadowed by chaos. In 2005 MoMA’s comprehensive survey of Murray’s career cemented her legacy, recalled here in the exhibition catalog detailing her output, its sources of inspiration, and its continued impact on contemporary painting.
Purchase: Elizabeth Murray $41.22 (new) on Amazon
6. Timothy Anglin Burgard and Daniell Cornell, The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa, Second Edition: Contours in the Air
Featuring essays by 10 contributors, this illustrated volume covers the life and career of Ruth Asawa (1926–2013), a first-generation American born near Los Angeles into a Japanese family that was forcibly relocated to an internment camp during World War II. Though Asawa attended the legendary Black Mountain College and appeared in several Whitney Biennials, her reputation was largely limited to the San Francisco Bay Area until about a decade or so ago, when the wider art world began to take notice of her sublime biomorphic sculptures that were often hung from the ceiling like lanterns. Their genesis lay in a 1947 trip to Toluca, Mexico, where Asawa observed villagers crocheting baskets out of galvanized steel wire. She adopted the technique to fashion works that included slender, undulating columns resembling fishnet stockings that had suddenly taken shape as extraterrestrials—airy, open-weave constructions that appeared to dissolve the distinctions between surface and volume, inside and outside, and transparency and opacity.
Purchase: The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa (Second Edition) $35.49 (new) on Amazon
7. Lydia Yee, Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures
Like Elizabeth Murray, Mary Heilmann embraced painting at time when Minimalism and Conceptualism were in vogue. Heilmann, born 1942 in San Francisco, moved to New York in 1968 after receiving an MFA in ceramics and sculpture from UC Berkeley. The artist initially created three-dimensional constructions splashed with color. She considered them paintings and even got into an argument with Robert Smithson over whether she should, an incident that only reinforced her determination to make it in a male-dominated world. Moving on to canvas, she produced brightly hued, light-filled abstractions resonating with elements of the 1960s left-coast zeitgeist including the free speech movement, the counterculture, and the surfing scene, in which she participated. Heilmann’s relaxed geometric forms and light, gestural hand also conveyed a tendency to mix the personal with the formal. This catalog, which accompanied a 2016 exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, contains 100 reproductions of Heilmann’s work over 50 years, including her continued interest in ceramics and her forays into furniture making.
Purchase: Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures $35.99 (new) on Amazon
8. Elisabeth Sussman and David Joselit, Rachel Harrison Life Hack
Since 1996, Rachel Harrison (b.1966) has been creating consistently funny, fearless, in-your-face artworks that aggressively interrogate and satirize male privilege and how it manifests in both art history and popular culture. Although Harrison has worked in drawing and video, her métier is sculpture, a discipline with a rich tradition of erecting phallic encomiums to male egotism. Her signature mode is a kind of jumbled, ramshackle assemblage in which found objects or images are combined with invented elements—often resembling boulders or stalagmites—made from chicken wire covered in shells of cement defaced with bright splotches of paint. The results evoke the curdled festivity surrounding society’s celebrations of male power. This catalog accompanied Harrison’s mid-career survey at the Whitney in 2019. In addition to essays and reproductions, it features photo-collages that the artist made specifically for the book.
Purchase: Rachel Harrison: Life Hack $63.70 (new) on Amazon
9. Massimiliano Gioni and Helga Christoffersen, Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories
Nicole Eisenman (b.1965) first made a splash at the 1995 Whitney Biennial, where she presented a mural of herself painting amid the ruins of the museum’s old Breuer building as firemen pull victims from the rubble of some unspecified catastrophe. That piece seemed eerily prescient, considering the events of 9/11 six years later, and arguably, Eisenman has been a chronicler of America’s unwinding ever since. This catalog accompanied the artist’s mid-career survey at the New Museum, which opened in 2016 at the disastrous dawning of the Trump years. It offers an in-depth look at Eisenman’s paintings and sculpture, which are characterized by the artist’s gimlet-eyed view of humanity and her affinity for the gallows humor of Weimar art. Indeed, Eisenman’s work could be described as a sort of Neue Sachlichkeit for our era of resurgent authoritarianism—examining mainstream society and finding it comically wanting, describing a world where the center has exploded and there is no prospect of rescue.
Purchase: Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories from $450 (used) on Amazon