gifts they might actually want

The 20 Best Coffee-Table Books to Give, According to Art People

Photo: Courtesy of the publishers.

We all have that one friend whose artistic stack of coffee-table books inspires envy (some of us are that friend). Delicately embossed titles and glossy, thick paper stock make the books solid décor, but great art books are more than props — they can also teach and stir emotion and document decades (or centuries) of work. To find the coffee-table books art people love, we asked artists, collectors, and gallerists which art books they would be happy to give or receive this holiday season. Each one is a perfect gift for displaying and for reading cover to cover. Don’t miss all of the Strategist’s holiday gift coverage right here, too.

“The ‘Heavenly Bodies’ exhibition catalogue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art features one of the most compelling exhibitions of 2018. The catalogue is comprised of a two-volume set: the first volume has abstract images of the garments from the Vatican and the second volume delves into how those creations have influenced designers in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s the perfect scholarly analysis of religion’s influence on fashion and makes a great gift. That’s how I got mine.” — Carla Camacho, partner, Lehmann Maupin Gallery

“A charming, quirky, and sentimental tribute to the life of Sara Berman, beautifully illustrated by her daughter, artist Maira Kalman. It is an immigrant’s tale of reinvention and finding contentment in the simple things later in life. The contents of Berman’s closet were the subject of an installation, meticulously recreated by her grandson Alex Kalman, for his Mmuseumm space in Tribeca. The display was later installed at the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in 2017. I loved Berman’s minimalist approach to wearing only white and her modest regard for her possessions. To me, the book is a precious tale about transformation and taking control of one’s life.” — Michael Lyons Wier and Deanne Shashoua, directors, Lyons Wier Gallery

“When I was a kid, about 7 years old, my dad, who was in the printing industry, gave me his loop and his used Pantone book. I loved, obsessed over, and treated it as a sacred object. I continue to love the Pantone books and they’re an essential tool in my studio. This five-book set looks great, highly pleasurable to peruse along with a bowl of ‘edibles’ on the coffee table. Alternatively, I do also like the Taschen-published book of menus.” — Rob Pruitt, artist

“Witty, opinionated, and beautifully written, Robert Hughes’s volume — now a classic — was a breath of fresh air when it was first published in 1980 (in tandem with the BBC series of the same name). It remains one to this day. The Shock of the New succeeds in breaking down the various artistic movements from early modernism to the postmodern era in a way that is both accessible and riveting. In the process, the renowned critic makes the larger case for art’s crucial role in society. Hughes’s unique critical lens and lucid prose offer an enjoyable, substantive read and an essential primer for anyone wanting to understand all that stuff inside of MoMA.” — Mary Rozell, Global Head, UBS Art Collection

“I gave myself a three-book max at the New York Art Book Fair, but I left with just one, what I felt was the prize at the heart of that many-boothed maze: Grace Rosario Perkins’s book Five Fingered Being. It is a slim but loud volume, published this year by Wolfman Press, based in Oakland, where Perkins splits her time between New Mexico. On the back cover of my copy, a little number “84” has been handwritten, 84 out of 100 copies, so it is a treasure indeed, and anyone who receives one should feel such. Moving through these pages is like an emergence. I appreciate Perkins’s work for being grounded in Gallup and Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the most exciting art, music, and poetic political action is being made in this cursed country, most of it by indigenous creators. To hearken to the words found in the centerfold piece of the book, Perkins’s work transfers new feelings, new energies that may indeed not be so new, just lost and now found again by those with vision.” — Lou Cornum, writer 

“The ultimate addition to the queer canon, Brodell’s Butch Heroes marries comprehensive annotations of queer lives forgotten by history with exquisite depictions of their most heroic and intimate moments, as imagined by the artist. Fashioned as an album of Catholic holy cards, justice is made to our queer fore-parents by making their struggles visible and elevating their accomplishments to heroic status.” — Gonzalo Casals, Executive Director and Chief Curator, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

“Having experienced the exhibition “Keith Sonnier: Until Today” (currently on view at the Parrish Art Museum), I’ve seen how influential Sonnier’s art continues to be. He was one of the first artists in the 1960s to use neon light as sculpture, and now, 50 years later, [he is still] at the forefront of radical experimentation with materials and techniques in the arts. This book beautifully captures the mind and work of this artist through essays and photographs of his sculptures, drawings, film stills, and the artist at work.” — Corinne Erni, Senior Curator of ArtsReach and Special Projects, Parrish Art Museum

“We showcase the works of contemporary conceptual artists whose primary medium is light and technology — mediums that were pioneered by James Turrell. His use of non-traditional materials and his work have proven that art can be an experience, as opposed to a thing. And his latest book, Extraordinary Ideas — Realized, is a beautiful compilation of key works from Turrell’s various phases. Throughout his career he [has] consistently used the latest available computer and light-based technology to intensify and control the optical effects, and his work with light and perception is a total immersion.” – Sandro Kereselidze and Tati Pastukhova, founders, ARTECHOUSE

“It’s so hard to choose just one book, but at the top of my list is Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, edited by Mark Godfrey and Zoé Whitley. Soul of a Nation is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of American art and the importance of black artists in that history. The book is both a record and a revelation, making the presence of African-American artists acutely visible in tandem with the radical changes that occurred in art and politics from the 1960s to the 1980s. In it, essays grapple with questions of abstraction and figuration from the perspective of black artists. Likewise, various entries on specific movements, artists, and moments in time revise the canonical history of American art with the experience of black artists. Besides the documentation of murals, graphic arts, and performances, the gems in the book are in the recollections of [the] African-American curators, scholars, and artists who played critical roles in creating this history and making it visible.” — Andria Hickey, Senior Director and Curator, Pace Gallery

“What better ‘book as object’ to display than a book entitled Object and Display? Steinbach has had a prolific career of dealing precisely with these two motifs and they’re catalogued beautifully here. From salt and pepper shakers to cookie jars to Freudian mise-en-scènes, Steinbach’s work pulls from so much that’s recognizable, but [it’s] always shifted or shuffled a bit. To me, his work feels like a gentle mix of suspicion and care for all the objects around us. In a sense, that seems like the right thing to have on a coffee table — it’ll keep the other objects in the house on their toes.” — Ajay Kurian, artist


“I was stunned by On Abortion by Laia Abril. Frankly, I didn’t know that an art book could behave this way: equal parts visual research and historical account, it weaves together text and images authored by Abril to conceptualize the dangers caused by a lack of free and safe access to legal abortion. The book is the first chapter of Abril’s long-term History of Misogyny series (the second, forthcoming chapter is titled On Rape Culture). In it, you will discover that African clawed frogs were used to detect pregnancies, about abortion drones — which drop abortion pills in places where there is otherwise no access — and the staggering number of women that unnecessarily die in illegal, botched abortions every year: 47,000. The book, which just won the esteemed Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook of the Year Award, has never been more trenchant, nor more devastating.” — Carmen Winant, writer and artist

“It might not be the coffee-table tome normally given as a gift, but the narrative that Weschler weaves from pioneering artist Robert Irwin’s own words will captivate anyone with even a passing interest in art. A pivotal figure of California Light and Space art, Irwin is best known for proposing that art not be limited to objects, but rather be [conceived of as] a way of seeing. Built on decades of conversation between Weschler and Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing Ones Sees provides an insightful, engaging view to the arc of Irwin’s artistic practice and his inimitable way of making artworks that encourage us to become aware of how we see.” — Evelyn Hankins, Senior Curator, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

“Finally, a contemporary art lens on what is happening in the field of clay/ceramics. This book presents the reader with a global survey of 100 of today’s most important clay and ceramic artists, chosen by leading art professionals. The selected art critics have finally made ceramics/ceramic artists come out of the minor-art stratosphere and into the conversation of art history. The illustrations and photography are well done and the written descriptions, while short, are packed full of pertinent information.” — Elysia Borowy-Reeder, executive director, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

“I would like to suggest to everyone the book literally show me a healthy person, by Darcie Wilder, but more specifically, the audiobook. I know that I’m supposed to recommend an art book and even though this is a novel, I would argue that it is also an art book. As an artist who uses Twitter, loves pop culture, and seeks out work that is very much of the now, without trying to be timeless (even if it still becomes timeless), for me, this book was perfect. Not only do I think that it is a great work of contemporary art, it’s also a deeply profound look at the inner workings of a self-aware girl, which I think we all strive to be. If I was a mom and I had a daughter who was being normal but annoying, a defiant miscreant, to me, I would make her read (or listen) to this book. Also if I was a new media professor, I would make my students read this book. Also, all girls should read this book.” — Jeanette Hayes, artist

“Many of my favorite art critics have also been poets. ‘They see without the jargon of art,’ Philip Guston said in 1980, after he had painted dozens of canvases inspired by poets like D.H Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale, and T.S. Eliot. These works were shown in a mesmerizing exhibition at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and there’s something especially enticing about bringing them home to ‘read’ again in book form.” — Rachel Corbett, deputy editor, artnet News

“Robyn O’Neil: 20 Years of Drawing is an in-depth look at the artist’s prolific career. O’Neil is known for her epic drawings that depict apocalyptic scenes. They are simple yet painstakingly created with a 0.5-mm. mechanical pencil and a blending stump her mom gave her in seventh grade. Included in the book are writings by curator Alison de Lima Greene: here she reveals the layers of what makes O’Neil’s work so potent in the context of the contemporary art world today. What keeps me coming back for more? The masterful balance of how O’Neil takes the banal and minimal and transforms it into the extraordinary and ominous.” — Kelly O’Connor, Head of Collections & Communications for Ruby City, a new contemporary art center in San Antonio, TX

“We can’t hope to understand today’s changing tablescape without unpacking it’s recent history. Designing for the Table is not a coffee-table book about coffee tables, but it is a really fabulous reference book of post-modern flatware, stemware, and ’80s avant-garde platters and pottingers.” — Travis Boyer, artist

“A new, in-depth look at the High Line gardens, with insights from Piet Oudolf, the talented Dutch horticulturalist who designed the High Line plantings, and new stunning photographs by Rick Darke. Fresh off the press!” — Cecilia Alemani, Director and Chief Curator, High Line Art

“Big Camera, Little Camera accompanies a retrospective exhibition of the work of the artist Laurie Simmons that is now on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and will travel next year to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. It is both a glittery gift-worthy object (with a gorgeous silver binding) and a serious reminder about the importance of Simmons’s career. While the Pictures Generation artist might have been known mainly to art world insiders back in the late ’70s and ’80s, the advent of #MeToo and the rise of image culture have made her photographs and films more fresh and urgent than ever before.” — Susan Chun, Chief Content Officer, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

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The 20 Best Coffee-Table Books, According to Art People