Best art books of 2020

Kathryn Hughes
·4-min read

The most evil of years got off to an innocent start with the February publication of Blake Gopnik’s fabulously joyful Andy Warhol (Allen Lane). Working in Warhol’s huge Pittsburgh archive, Gopnik seemingly had access to every doodle, soup tin and erotic snap, not to mention bus ticket and tax return, that the artist ever produced. The result might have been as exhausting as it is exhaustive, but Gopnik has such a strong sense of the design and patterns of his subject’s life that the 976 pages seem if anything too few. For Gopnik, Warhol is the significant figure of the 20th century, surpassing even Picasso. It’s a big claim, but the veteran critic makes a compelling case, arguing that Warhol collapsed and cleared the binaries – representation/abstraction, high/low and even art/not art – that every previous artist had been obliged to wrangle with.

During peak lockdown one of the few available pleasures was to wander around London with David Gentleman’s My Town (Particular) in hand. Gentleman’s gentle, attentive watercolours have done so much over the past 70 years to light up not only the odd corners, but also the swagger sights of the capital city. There’s nothing coy or twee about his clear-eyed view of how the urban landscape is always changing: early pictures included here reveal postwar bomb sites and brooding cranes, more recent ones show diggers ploughing up the ancient green spaces around Camden for HS2. There is pure beauty and much fun to be discovered in Gentleman’s world too – a red double-decker careening over a humpty bridge and a wonderfully green and rustling view from Primrose Hill. Readers who prefer to hunker down indoors will enjoy the chance to become reacquainted with the cover designs that Gentleman created in the 1970s for the classic Penguin Shakespeare books, the ones that shaped a whole generation’s introduction to the plays.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s savage way with chiaroscuro, not to mention blades and blood-spatter, marks her out as a follower of Caravaggio while still showcasing much that is entirely her own. In her Judith Beheading Holofernes there is no doubting the feminist rage as Judith and her maid murder the drunken, lascivious Holofernes with all the quiet authority of country women wringing a rooster’s neck. Jonathan Jones’s neat little Artemisia Gentileschi (Laurence King) gives us everything we need to know about the life of an extraordinary woman from a rough bit of Rome who survived multiple misogynies to become one of the most sought-after artists of the 17th century. “I’ll show your most illustrious Lordship what a woman can do!” Gentileschi once wrote to her patron Don Antonio Ruffo, who was always trying to underpay her. Jones’s book is a perfect companion to the exhibition of Gentileschi’s work at the National Gallery, due to reopen on 3 December.

Kara Walker’s A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be (JRP) is not for the faint-hearted. The artist is known for work that incorporates highly racialised and sexualised imagery as a way of exploring her own African American identity, and the integrity of a liberal-left art establishment that has long been fascinated, perhaps titillated, by her refusal to tone things down. These pages comprise a comprehensive archive of Walker’s works on paper – not just finished drawings, but preliminary sketches for the monumental works and sculptures that have made her one of the US’s most lauded yet contentious artists. Walker never pulls her punches, so be prepared to see Barack Obama dressed as an African chieftain sitting on a fat pig, and antebellum vignettes complete with lynchings. The sentiment might be scrappy, but the works themselves are often beautiful, incorporating a range of high art references from Goya to Hogarth.

Part two of William Feaver’s monumental The Lives of Lucian Freud (Bloomsbury), picks up just as the artist is hitting 50. This might sound like thin pickings, but remember that Freud still had 40 studio years and some of his best work ahead of him. Feaver claims to have spoken to his subject on the phone several times a week and typed up his notes immediately, like a latter-day Boswell. As a result, Freud’s voice rings out on every page, offering opinions on everything from the poutiness of some of his less-acknowledged children – “If they want to feel overlooked they will” – to the sublimity of Titian’s Diana and Callisto. There’s plenty of celebrity juice here too. Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Kate Moss and the Queen all have walk-on parts, although it is Jerry Hall who gets the greatest brush-off. When the Texan beauty consistently misses her appointments to sit for a large nude of her breast-feeding her son, an exasperated Freud paints out her head and replaces it with one of his male assistants.

Browse the best books of 2020 at the Guardian Bookshop.