This year we have a rash of suggestions for books, from artists and from browngrotta. It’s such a bumper crop that this post will be the first of two. In no particular order here are reviews and recommendations:

Gyöngy Laky(US) recommends a tiny book about a big idea: Poetry as Insurgent Art (New Directions, 2007) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the early 2000s, Laky joined the Board of the non-profit, North Beach Citizens (NBC) in her neighborhood in San Francisco, addressing the needs of our homeless and low-income citizens.  “Founded by Francis Ford Coppola,” she writes, “he invited his friend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to join him – both having been longtime residents and businessmen in North Beach.  The 4” x 6.3” book I am writing about is by Ferlinghetti, poet, painter, art critic, activist, and co-founder of the famed City Lights Book Sellers and Publishers.  I got to know him a little in the years I was on the Board.  He was a lively participant in NBC’s spring Galas sometimes contributing a stirring and inspiring poem.

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, San Francisco, Photographed by user Coolcaesar on August 6, 2023

“I began to read his modest, little book and heard his, now-silent, voice echoing in my head.  I found every line as if written directly to me, entreating me to greater boldness in my art even though his words were meant for poets.  I am not a poet though I often have said that I want my artwork to create a conversation with the viewer.  My sculptures, more and more over the years, led me to express my responses to the issues I find in the world around me. I sometimes refer to myself as an artist participant, an artist activist, a feminist, an environmentalist and, lately, even, an anti-militarist.  The translation for me as I read, became ‘Art as Insurgent Art’ urging and inspiring me to greater activism through the artworks I create. I found 15 examples in just the first 13 pages particularly and personally poignant!” Here are a few of them:

Be subversive, constantly questioning reality, and the status quo.

If you would be a poet [artist], discover a new way for mortals to inhabit the Earth.

Through art, create order out of the chaos of living.

Reinvent, America and the world.

Climb the Statue of Liberty.*

“Thank you, Ferlinghetti,” Laky writes, “for persuading me to never flinch, shrink or wince when an idea appears unexpectedly in my studio.”

* As a 5-year-old refugee arriving in New York Harbor I did dream of climbing the Statue of Liberty!

Patchwork: A Life Amongst Clothes by Claire Wilcox

Jo Barker( UK) recommends “a beautiful, sensitive, thought-provoking book,” Patch Work: A life amongst clothes by Claire Wilcox. Wilcox is the senior curator of fashion at the V&A Museum in London. Her book won the 2021 Pen Ackerley Prize. In Patch Work,” the publisher writes, “Wilcox deftly stitches together her dedicated study of fashion with the story of her own life lived in and through clothes. From her mother’s black wedding suit to the swirling patterns of her own silk kimono, her memoir unfolds in luminous prose the spellbinding power of the things we wear: their stories, their secrets, their power to transform and disguise and acts as portals to our pasts; the ways in which they measure out our lives, our gains and losses, and the ways we use them to write our stories.” Author Laura Cumming wrote that she was overwhelmed by this book: “It is an absolute masterpiece. A book of such beauty and profundity, of such poetry in its emotion and observation … I found my sense of life transformed by her writing as I often find it transformed after the exhibition of a great artist.”

The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa contours in the air

Like Laky, another Californian, who is always a thoughtful contributor to our annual book review post, is Nancy Moore Bess (US). She recommends The Sculptures of Ruth Asawa – contours in the air (Daniel Cornell, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and University of California Press,

2007; the University of California has released an expanded edition, The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa, Second Edition: Contours in the Air, Paperback, 2020 by Timothy Anglin Burgard (Editor), Daniel Cornell (Editor)). “I’ve recently begun rereading this (I reread a lot, including favorite mysteries),” says Bess, “using Asawa’s New York Times obituary notice as a bookmark. Yesterday, I finished the third Zoom presentation from the Whitney Museum, inspired by its current exhibition devoted to her works on paper. (I hope one of your artists adds that catalogue to your list.) In rereading this book, I no longer focused entirely on her amazing wire work but moved more widely into all of her art. It’s a big book. I’ll be busy for awhile, but I’m in no hurry.”

Bess writes that “When we lived in San Francisco, not so long ago, it was clear how beloved Asana is – present tense! She continues to be an integral, enriching part of the city. Her continued presence reminded me of how people in Honolulu respected/revered/honored Toshiko Takaezu when we lived there a long time ago. These creative women continue to have impact on us. And I am immensely grateful. Ruth cooked, carved, gardened, bent wire, designed installations, molded masks from friends, mothered, loved and drew, drew, drew. 

See if you can find a copy of this amazing book,” Bess says. “It will so much be worth the effort.” 

From Germany, Heidrun Schimmel (DE) also recommends an exhibition catalog

Inside other spaces. Environments by Women Artists 1956-1976 (the exhibition is at Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany through March 10, 2024). Many of the pioneers in environmental art were women, but their works were often ephemeral, destroyed once a show was over. The exhibition highlights women’s fundamental contributions to the history of environments and presents the work of 11 women artists across three generations from Asia, Europe as well as North and South America: Judy Chicago, Lygia Clark, Laura Grisi, Alexsanda Kasuba, Lea Lublin, Marta Minujin, Tania Mouraud, Martia Nordman, Nanda Vogo, Faith Wilding, Tsuruko Yamazaki. The curators have painstakingly recreated some of these artists’ works that were destroyed after being exhibited, bringing these artists back into the spotlight.

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

Polly Sutton (US) shared a favorite book of hers with us, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor Garćia and Francesc Miralles (Penguin, 2017).  

Caste The Origins of our Discontents

We have an update on a previous recommendation from Gyöngy Laky and Jim Bassler, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontentby Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2020): Caste has been made into a film by noted director Ava DuVernay. In the film, titled Origin, writer Isabel Wilkerson, grappling with tremendous personal tragedy, sets herself on a path of global investigation and discovery as she writes the book, Caste. Caste is also serving as inspiration for Jim Bassler’s work. “For months,” he writes, “I have been working out ideas mentioned in the book.  I am finally getting around to putting it together. It includes another flag hanging on a very dark brown background with suggestions of African mud cloth.”

More book notes to come in Part 2!