Perfecting a coffee-table-book collection is much like curating anything else — the more personal and intentional, the better. We asked people with enviable taste about the Black coffee-table books that decorate their homes. Our list includes Kimberly Drew’s recently released Black Futures that uses a range of mediums, like memes, Instagram posts, images, and recipes to showcase what it means to be Black right now and monographs from some of the most impactful painters and photographers of our time.
Carrie Mae Weems’s iconic Kitchen Table Series, which depicts Weems and loved ones in various scenes — smoking, reading, looking, loving — was rereleased in November 2022 after a sold-out printing in 2016. For years, used books of this title sold for hundreds of dollars, so I immediately leapt at the opportunity to own the book for a more reasonable price. It tells the story of a woman’s life through moments at her kitchen table, capturing the intimacy of home along with the range of emotions and occurrences of daily life. The book is a prized gem in my collection and a wonderful introduction to one of today’s most influential photographers.
With the resurgence of preppy Americana by way of streetwear, now’s a good a time to add Black Ivy to your collection. The book chronicles the adoption of Ivy League style by Black musicians, artists, and philosophers, transforming key pieces (like a simple Oxford button-down) into something unpredictable, cool, and so impactful that echoes of the aesthetic still show up in menswear today.
It has been 35 years since the first Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, a pillar of Black cowboy culture. Described as “part family reunion, part traveling museum, and quite literally a wild ride,” the event attracts cowboys and rodeo fans from all over the country. The New Black West chronicles the event via photographer Gabriela Hasbun, who has been taking pictures of the event for more than a decade. Inside, you’ll find stories from the cowboys themselves alongside stunning images of riders and their horses.
Arts educator and founder of Black Art Library Asmaa Walton says this book, a companion to the art exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” is a must-have, particularly for anyone who loves visual art and history. The book features writings by and about Black artists and features icons like Gwendolyn Brooks, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, and Lorraine O’Grady.
To round out your collection, Walton also recommends purchasing the OG Soul of a Nation book, which chronicles work created by Black artists from 1963–1983. The time period, which is often defined by civil-rights leaders like Malcolm X and groups like the Black Panthers, focuses on the art of the time, much of which wrestled with questions about racial identity and politics and what it means to be Black in America. In addition to works by artists like Sam Gilliam, Betye Saar, Howardina Pindell, and Noah Purifoy, it contains essays by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, and gives context to a unique moment in history.
“Mario Moore is an artist that has all eyes on him right now with his figurative work depicting Black people,” says Walton of the Detroit-born painter. The Work of Several Lifetimes is a collection of Moore’s sketches, drawings, etchings, and paintings, which focus on Black blue-collar workers, interrogating who is allowed to be the subject of portraiture. The book is currently available for preorder and starts shipping June 8.
Walton is most excited to add this book to her coffee-table book collection. The Ultimate Art Museum, which debuts later this year, imagines what it might be like to have all the world’s greatest art in one place, jamming 40,000 works into one brightly colored book. While the book isn’t exclusively about Black subjects (or specifically for adults), it’s curated by a Black author — Ferren Gipson, an art historian, researcher, and host of visual-arts podcast Art Matters, who lives and works in London.
Artist and writer Lorraine O’Grady’s retrospective exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum covers four decades of her work along with a new performance piece, Announcement. Both/And is the accompanying catalogue, which Walton calls “super important to have.” In addition to a survey of her work, the book also includes letters, journal entries, and interviews, which offer insight into her process and art.
When we asked curator Larry Ossei-Mensah about the ten things he can’t live without, he mentioned this book, which accompanies Yiadom-Boakye’s show at the Tate Britain. She draws inspiration from historic European portraiture techniques with a focus on Black subjects. Ossei-Mensah has been following the artist for a decade: “I study her paintings because I mentor a lot of young emerging artists and want to give them advice, and she’s one of the best,” he says.
Two people we spoke to mentioned this coffee-table book about Noah Davis, a contemporary, Los Angeles–based artist who died in 2015 from a rare cancer at 32. In addition to making indelible artwork, he also co-founded the Underground Museum, an institution that centers work by artists of color. “Learning more about Noah Davis as I read his self-titled book — and the community of artists for whom he has posthumously provided a platform — reminds me to relish the group of young Black creatives I see creating impactful work today, in real time,” says Utibe Mbagwu, a social-media manager and content strategist at Glossier and Into the Gloss.
Mbagwu also recommended this book about Kerry James Marshall, another great American painter. “Kerry James Marshall’s works have a visual attitude that is immediately jarring, then majestic,” she says. “His subjects’ skin tones are not only Black, but the color black, a boldness that delves the viewer into a Black American world in an unapologetic way.” The book accompanies the exhibition of the same name and offers a retrospective of the artist’s 35-year-long career. The book, which includes commentary by well-known curators, also delves into his career trajectory, inspirations, and the way his work has been received by his peers and, more widely, the world.
“Black Is Beautiful is a beautiful time capsule of fashion photography in the 1960s in New York from photographer Kwame Brathwaite,” says Mecca James-Williams, a New York–based stylist. “It’s one of my favorites.” The book covers the work of Brathwaite, a key figure in the second Harlem Renaissance who founded the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios, a collective of artists, playwrights, designers, and dancers. He also founded Grandassa Models, a modeling agency for Black women. “His pictures are sweet with hope, and pure with love. The depth of the culture is on every page through every picture — one of my favorites.”
Tyler Mitchell might be best known for being the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover, but his body of work is expansive and culture-shifting. I Can Make You Feel Good is his first monograph and imagines what a Black utopia might look like through full-bleed images of Black people in motion and at rest. It’s a favorite of writer Shelton Griffith, who calls it an aesthetic from cover to cover. “Tyler’s photographic aesthetic, to me, allows Black people to just simply exist,” he says. “I have the book open, sitting on an acrylic book-display stand, and I turn the pages every few days for inspiration.”
Curator and writer Kimberly Drew name-checked this book about the Joyner Giuffrida family. It offers an insight into their collection, which is widely regarded as one of the most significant collections of modern and contemporary work by African and African diaspora artists. “This book is a welcome reminder that being a collector and curator is an act of diligence and love,” says Drew. “Pairing scholarly essays and full-color images of works, we’re invited into their collection and, more than that, invited to think about how we might regard our own collections.”
Drew is also the author of Black Futures, which tells the story of contemporary Black life through images, photos, recipes, tweets, memes, and poetry to create a collection that captures what it means to be Black and alive right now.
A look at another expansive collection: Young, Gifted and Black: A New Generation of Artists, edited by Antwaun Sargent explores the Lumpkin-Boccuzzi family collection, which contains the work of influential contemporary artists. “His first book, The New Black Vanguard, introduced me to a new crop of Black photographers and served as a catalyst for my exploration into acquiring Black art books,” says Griffith. “I think what also makes this book so meta to me is the sheer existence of it. Not only is the book title an homage to Miss Nina Simone’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black,’ it’s written and edited by a Black man, with the focus being the private collection of a Black queer man and his husband.”
Sargent’s first book, The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion, also made the list, recommended by James-Williams and writer and co-founder of the Josie Club Jet Toomer. “It feels like one day it’ll become a time capsule for this special moment of Black identities as portrayed through the Black lens,” says Toomer. The book features the work of talents like Qui Lemons, Tyler Mitchell, Dana Scruggs, and Adrienne Raquel — showcasing the work of some of the most exciting talents working and creating today.
“Unlike other Insta-famous plant gurus, [Hilton] Carter focuses on building an environment for plants to thrive rather than collecting plants to create a scene,” says Drew of Wild Interiors, which chronicles Carter’s own plant journey and the benefits of adding plants to your home. The book also shows off a few stunning, plant-filled interiors, which can serve as inspiration for your abode.
While coffee-table books conjure images of heavy fashion and art tomes with stunning, full-bleed photography, books (whether they’re vintage or contemporary) can serve as décor, too. Writer and self-described “book lady” Ymani Wince likes If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, which she says is one of the best books she’s ever read. “The way Baldwin wrote about racism in America, coupled with a story about Black love, really touched me,” she says. “It’s the type of book where you could open it to any page and be gripped by the story, regardless of where the plot is.”
Another “unconventional” coffee-table book, Walton recommends Glitch Feminism, which was named the Best Art Book of 2020 by the New York Times. The book is a blend of memoir, art, and critical theory, and posits that the “glitch” or “error” in a system, whether it be gender or technology, can actually be the beginnings of a revolution.
Kiyanna Stewart, curator and co-founder of Blk Mkt Vintage, recommends The Black Book, which is basically an encyclopedia of the Black experience from 1619 through the 1940s. With a team of collectors led by Toni Morrison and Middleton A. Harris, the duo was able to compile images into a narrative of Black life in America. The book was rereleased in 2019 with a foreword and preface from Toni Morrison. “This is such a staple text and a rich collage-style offering of representations, cultural practices, ephemera, and more,” says Stewart. “I love how this text lacks a narrative imposition, but presents us with imagery from which we can draw our own layered conclusions about Black life.”
“Dandy Lion is a beautiful exploration of the roots of Black dandyism, across the Black diaspora,” says Stewart of this book, which chronicles the style of Black men with a penchant for bright colors and dizzying patterns. The book is a comprehensive look at the aesthetic and movement, which has its roots in the culture of Enlightenment-era English enslaved people and has made its way into hip-hop in modern day. “We’re fly as hell, and her book is the proof in the pudding.”
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