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2023 Books

2023 was a busy year that saw me lecture across three colleges. As a result, I read more essays and articles than full-length books. I also neglected the Impresario website (in previous years I frequently published one book review or article per month) due to work demands. I hope I will have time in 2024 for more frequent posts. To kick-start this, I have put together my favourite books of 2023.


Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism. Joanna Scutts. Seal Press. 2022.



 

The Heterodoxy club, founded in NYC in 1912 was comprised of women artists, activists, scientists, activists, reformers, socialites and socialists. Across fifteen themed chapters, Joanna Scutt examines the lives of its members vis-à-vis women’s rights and key social and political events including pacifism and WW1, birth control, the right to vote, sexuality and identity, and labour disputes. For me, the latter, something of a through-line in the book, was one of the most revelatory strands, having not read about labour rights previously. Labour activism in the form of stoppages, sit-ins, strikes, marches, protests, arrests etc. recur throughout these pages.


The cost of living in NYC doubled between 1915 and 1920 and while women made up 90% of the 20,000 teachers in NYC in the early 20th Century, a ban was in place preventing married women from continuing the profession (their duties, according to society, were to the private domestic sphere, not the public).

Reading this book, through the events of 2023, shows how much (and sometimes, how little) has changed for women in society. It is a stark reminder of how thousands, if not millions, of women fought hard and sacrificed careers, families and reputations for future generations.



Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. Gabrielle Zevin. Knopf. 2022.



This was my summer read. A story about love. A story about friendship. A story about imagining worlds. As someone who has not played a computer game in over twenty years I enjoyed experiencing the main characters’ passion for the form.


Sam and Sadie, game designers and best friends, use games—their narratives, play, and design—as tools for understanding life and processing trauma and friendship. There is a will-they-won’t-they romance undercurrent to this child-to-adult tale of friendship.

Following a workplace shooting (the Far Right targeting the Leftist creators) one of the most moving chapters is told through the computer-game third-person narrative of Pioneers; an adjunct universe which operates as a reflection on mortality and which lures a grieving Sadie back to the real world.

 

Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict. Peggy Guggenheim. Andre Deutsch. Reprint 2005.



I first read this lively autobiography in 2018 in Venice and turned to it again as part of ongoing research into women art dealers. Guggenheim is known for her support of the Surrealist artists (e.g. Max Ernst) and Abstract Expressionists (in particular Jackson Pollock), and her personality leaps off the page.


Every page has an anecdote on a famous personality from the Twentieth Century art world, whether it is John Cage hunting for a tie in Japan to “no one looked less like an artist than Kandinsky, who resembled a Wall Street broker.” (p. 170).

The scenes of domestic violence between Guggenheim and various of her lovers and/or husbands are shocking to read. By example, her first husband, Laurence Vail, threw dishes at Guggenheim in restaurants, submerged her in bathwater, hit her and rubbed jam into her hair, walked on her stomach, threw her down stairs and set fire to her clothes. Equally shocking is that Guggenheim often blames herself for antagonising or instigating these rows and episodes by belittling her supposed loves. Guggenheim paints herself as a vain, supportive and gladsome heroine, and her life was as colourful and playful as the art she collected.

 

The Kingdom of Sand. Andrew Holleran. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2022.



This is the first time I’ve read a work by Holleran. His prose, particularly his lengthy descriptions of Florida’s nature and suburbs, is hypnotic. At nearly three hundred pages the book glides at an even pace, as the unnamed main narrator, a gay man in his later years, obsesses on the theme of death and near-death, specifically the route to physical demise, forms of medical care, resurgent desire, nursing homes, personal belongings, and being alone. This repeated theme will fatigue some readers, and I confess there were times I found the characters and astute observations too depressing to encounter. The bulk of the book focusses on the narrator’s friend, an elderly gay man named Earl, who functions as a counter-point to a narrator incapable of moving forward with his life following the death of his elderly parents.


I stop at times and wonder: do we need another description of the dried-out lake; of an afternoon with Earl; another reflection on loneliness etc. But the writing is so easy and full of sharp observations, I keep on going.

“All relationships with other human beings are fraught before Christmas”, the narrator observes in the final chapter, “Christmas casts a spell that dissolves whatever carapace one uses to get through the rest of the year—leaving one so vulnerable one feels like a crab between shells.”

 

Women Art Dealers: Creating Markets for Modern Art 1940–1990. Ed. V. Chagnon-Burke and C. Toschi. Bloomsbury. 2024.



This is the first book to examine in detail individual contributions of women art dealers to their time period. Focussed on the US, Europe and South Africa, and chronological in approach, each case-study includes photographs and ephemera on gallery dealings, from portraits and gallery announcements to exhibition photography. Dealers include Mary Boone, Edith Halpert, Agnes Widlund, Linda Givon, Etheline Rosas and Dulce D'Agro.

Any one of these dealers can be the subject of a book, and some including Edith Halpert have been just that as well as the subject of exhibitions.

A few key themes emerge across the individual studies, including curating, patronage, the avant-garde, art historiography, and network-building. I provide a more critical commentary on this title in The Art Newspaper January 2024 edition.

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