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In 2021, the best art books for creative holiday gifts

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This is part of the L.A. Times 2021 gift guide. See the full guide here. If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.

Books to read, books for looking at the pictures, books to read while looking at the pictures. Here are a variety of recent options for the art-interested:

‘Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful’

Seth Feman and Jonathan Frederick Walz; Yale University Press; 336 pages

A colorful book cover of "Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful," by Seth Feman and Jonathan Frederick Walz

Alma W. Thomas was 80 in the spring of 1972, when she now-famously became the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum, then the flagship institution supporting American art. Her late abstractions, composed from dazzling acrylic color marks, are her best-known paintings. This catalog to a large traveling survey co-organized by the Chrysler Museum in Virginia and the Columbus Museum in Georgia, which houses the artist’s personal ephemera and a trove of her earlier drawings, pulls back to consider Thomas’ entire output across her long life.

$65 | 👉 Purchase here

‘A Superb Baroque: Art in Genoa, 1600–1750′

Jonathan Bober et al.; Princeton University Press; 384 pages

A Baroque painting of angels on a book cover

(Princeton University Press)

One of the most heart-wrenching exhibition losses forced by the COVID-19 pandemic was the cancellation of the first museum show of distinctive Baroque art from Genoa, the former Italian maritime power turned 17th century banking boomtown. The show was set to open at the National Gallery of Art last year, rescheduled for this fall and finally dropped altogether in August given logistical loan and shipping complexities. Lush illustrations and readable text unfurl a surprising artistic pluralism during this catholic period — in that term’s secular as well as religious meaning.

$65 | 👉 Purchase here

‘R. Buckminster Fuller: Pattern Thinking’

Daniel López-Pérez; Lars Muller Publishers; 368 pages

A book cover with a black-and-white pattern

Packed with illuminating archival illustrations, this deep dive into one of the 20th century’s greatest design-thinkers covers everything from his analysis of the cornea of the human eyeball to international economic structures. The geodesic dome is only the most famous work the polymath came up with. Daniel López-Pérez, an architecture professor at the University of San Diego, explores Fuller’s search for nonlinear ways of understanding to harness the power of design.

$40 | 👉 Purchase here

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‘The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together’

Heather McGhee; One World/Random House; 396 pages

An illustration of a boy jumping off a diving board

(One World/Penguin Random House)

No, it’s not an art book. But “The Sum of Us” is one of a handful of the most important books published this year, and it lays out in powerful terms the larger cultural landscape in which art is being made, seen and reconsidered now. Heather McGhee is a clear and generous thinker and writer about the false idea that progress for some must come at the expense of others — what she calls “the zero-sum paradigm” long operational in American life — and her book is essential reading.

$28 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands’

Dorothy Moss; Yale University Press; 218 pages

A book cover of a painting of sad women

Hung Liu’s sudden death at 73 from pancreatic cancer just days before her retrospective exhibition opened at the National Portrait Gallery in late August lends an elegiac note to the fine catalogue produced for the show. During China’s torturous Cultural Revolution, Liu was forced to burn scores of family photographs — their embedded memories going up in smoke — for fear of unacceptable social imagery. Photographs are ubiquitous today, but her poignant paintings, executed in a fluid, gossamer style she called “weeping realism,” derive from those and other fragments that remain.

$50 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Emerson’s “Nature” and the Artists: Idea as Landscape, Landscape as Idea’

Tyler Green; Prestel; 144 pages

A book cover of a man sitting on a cliff

Writing and painting intersected and informed each other in 19th century America’s developing sense of a national identity — not least in its racial conception of a space for establishing the authority of whiteness. Green, following his 2018 book on California’s first great artist, landscape photographer Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), looks at the complex relationship between Ralph Waldo Emerson’s widely read 1836 essay, “Nature,” and such landscape painters as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, George Inness and John Frederick Kensett, along with Watkins, sculptor Horatio Greenough and other influential artists.

$25 | 👉 Purchase here

‘African Artists: From 1882 to Now’

Chika Okeke-Agulu, Joseph L. Underwood and Phaidon eds.; 352 pages

A green and blue book cover

The small number of widely known modern and contemporary artists from (or working in) Africa gets a big, much-needed expansion in this broad survey, which includes more than 300 painters, sculptors, photographers and other artists from the past 140 years, a selection advised by an international panel of 30 experts. Among its other benefits, Princeton professor Chika Okeke-Agulu notes in his introduction that the vastness of Africa’s geography and its demographic and cultural diversity “push against any notion of Africa as an entity.” An array of Indigenous, Arab/Islamic and European/Christian artistic legacies emerge — some familiar, many enticing to new Western eyes.

$69.95 | 👉 Purchase here

Arnold Lehman; Merrell; 248 pages

A yellow book cover with a photo of a newspaper on it

If you discovered just last year that Rudy Giuliani was a dangerous clown when he was waving his arms at a Big Lie press event held outside a porn distributor and a lawn care company to fantasize about a supposedly stolen presidential election, you probably missed his scandalous 1999 attempt to shut down a museum over an art exhibition. The show shouldn’t have taken place — it merely fluffed a private collection (and was partly underwritten by the collector) — but Giuliani had culture-war promotion of racism and religious bigotry in mind. Former Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman, whose museum it was, unfurls from the inside the ridiculous — but serious and widely reported — censorship tale.

$35 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Leaked Recipes: The Cookbook’

Demetria Glace (editor); JBE Books; 280 pages

A green book cover with a photo of an iPhone on it

Photographer Emilie Baltz takes food styling to an unexpected level in this quirky idea for a cookbook. Recipes for black bean dip, Southern fried venison and oatmeal raisin cookies that were gleaned from notorious digital hacks, leaks and data breaches — Hillary Clinton’s emails, a Google drive of French President Emmanuel Macron — get appropriately odd illustration. The cover‘s still life, laid out on a white satin background, is emblematic: It shows mushrooms bound to a cellphone with a rubber band, a witty cobbling together of a “digital fungus” that looks like an outtake from Ed Ruscha’s eccentric 1975 “Tropical Fish Series.”

$49.95 | 👉 Purchase here

Roger Diederen and Anja Huber (editors); Hatje Cantz; 240 pages

The back of a man with a white cone on his head

Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf brings a commercial photographer’s clean, burnished sensibility to richly produced pictures with narrative implications that are never clear-cut. The result: Imagination is unleashed as a viewer is seduced into wanting to know something that’s unlikely ever to be fully revealed. Included in the 40-year survey of his work are Olaf’s pictorial essays on life in three disparate international cities: Berlin, Shanghai and Palm Springs.

$50 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest’

Laura Raicovich; Verso; 224 pages

A yellow book cover with a tear down the middle

Former Queens Museum Director Laura Raicovich is righteously angry about art museums behaving badly, often pretending to be distant from the ills of American society with which they are instead inevitably intertwined. If the book’s focus is a bit too limited to cultural institutions in the Northeast, only because that’s where the author has the most direct experience, it nonetheless maps out thoughtful considerations of pressing subjects that apply everywhere. Among them are the private power of philanthropy, the practical and spiritual benefits of staff diversity, unionizing cultural institutions and the contours of museums’ social responsibility.

$26.95 | 👉 Purchase here

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