In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I hold forth on the subject of books about art that are both thorough and opinionated. Here’s an excerpt.
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Some books take a lifetime to write—and repay a lifetime’s reading. I’ve recently spent many happy hours with just such a book, William C. Agee’s newly published “Modern Art in America 1908-68.” It is that rarity of rarities, an opinionated but not eccentric scholarly history by a veteran museum curator whose every page crackles with original thinking and bears the stamp of a preternaturally sharp eye. It’s also impressively thorough: Even if you were to read nothing else about 20th-century American art, you’d still come away knowing most of what you needed to know about it.
I have a special liking for books on the arts that are, like “Modern Art in America 1908-68,” at once thorough and strongly personal. Not surprisingly, a fair number of biographies fill that bill. If you were going to read only one book about Beethoven, for instance, you couldn’t possibly do better than Lewis H. Lockwood’s “Beethoven: The Music and the Life,” just as W. Jackson Bate’s “Samuel Johnson,” published in 1977, remains to this day the best modern biography of the Great Panjandrum of English letters. But there are also plenty of other books which, like “Modern Art in America,” come close to telling you everything you want to know about a larger subject, and do it with flair.
Here are five of my favorites….
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Read the whole thing here.