Want to Understand What Makes a Great Artist Tick? Check Out 9 of Our Favorite Artist Biographies
From 'Foursome' to 'Frida,' a survey of intriguing tomes.
Whether you want to crack open a new book in the newly sun-warmed park or tuck in at home, these nine reads offer comprehensive, entertaining, and thought-provoking portraits of beloved artists. From a new look at the fraught relationship between Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe to a window into the weird world of beloved illustrator Edward Gorey, these are the artist biographies that have caught our team’s fancy in the recent past.
Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul, Strand, Rebecca Salsbury by Carolyn Burke (2019)
Who doesn’t love a good love triangle (or quadrant, in this case)? Carolyn Burke is a veteran biographer who has profiled other cultural figures including Édith Piaf and Lee Miller. Here, she manages to illuminate four distinct personalities in a group portrait that reads like a who’s who of 20th century modernism. The two couples were each jealous of one another: Stieglitz resented the young virile photographer Paul Strand, who caught the fancy of his partner O’Keeffe, while Strand was jealous of Stieglitz’s ability to capture his wife Rebecca Salsbury in stirring photos with which he couldn’t compete. Salsbury, meanwhile, wanted to be just like Georgia, but didn’t have the natural talent. Drama, unsurprisingly, ensues.
Magritte: This Is Not a Biography by Vincent Zabus (2017)
Told in graphic novel form, the whimsical conceit of Magritte: This Is Not a Biography has a character named “Thomas Singular” discover a magical bowler hat that sends him down a rabbit hole and into Magritte’s world, unlocking the mysteries of his life and work. If the art doesn’t quite live up to the lucid dream quality of Magritte himself—who could?—it is nevertheless an admirably surreal experiment in artist biography.
Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery (2018)
Fans of the long-running PBS series Mystery! will be familiar with the beloved title sequences that open each episode: grayscale illustrations of moonlit cemeteries, gravestones adorned with skeletons, skulking men in raincoats, and other ominous occasions, all drawn by Edward Gorey, the “master of the macabre.” Widely known as an eccentric recluse, this biography—published to coincide with the 2018 exhibition of his work at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut—offers a much more nuanced view of the artist.
Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr (2012)
Now is as good a time as ever to brush up on the story of David Wojnarowicz, the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum last year whose work will be back in the spotlight to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots this spring. As a person living with AIDS, Wojnarowicz was a tireless agitator who helped call attention to the disease. Carr’s 600-plus-page biography traces the parallel rise of his influence as a contemporary artist and a vocal activist.
Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel (2018)
Recently, there has been a fresh wave of interest in the women of Abstract Expressionism that extends from museum shows to the auction room floor to standalone biographies of Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. But for a sense of the overall dynamics that shaped the careers of the “core five” women of the AbEx scene, Mary Gabriel—who previously wrote Love and Capital, an account of the relationship of Karl Marx to his firebrand daughter, Jenny, that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—offers an excellent survey, at once dishy and intellectually serious.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (2017)
Walter Isaacson is one of the more celebrated of all contemporary biographers, and his 2017 Leonardo biography was something of an event. It’s mildly conventional in its reading of his art and in the end tries to make Leonardo into a kind of source of self-help wisdom for creatives. Nevertheless, the book excels in giving a human picture of an artist who has become a bit lost in the myth of the “Renaissance Man”—someone who was always missing deadlines and often carried away by his own curiosity.
Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years 1898–1940 by Jed Perl (2017)
Four decades after his death, fans of primary colors and spinning mobiles are able to take a deep dive into the full life of sculptor Alexander Calder. Highly regarded art critic Jed Perl (previously the author of New Art City) managed to get his hands on a veritable treasure trove of letters, papers, and interviews to fill out the arc of a life that was as varied and dynamic as the art.
Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera (2002)
We’ve tried to keep our picks to books of the 2010s—but “Frida Fever” is very contemporary indeed, with the Brooklyn Museum’s Frida exhibition “Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” which runs through May 12, currently drawing crowds. Kahlo’s story is of course famous, and Herrera gives a portrait of admirable detail, cutting against some of the romanticization while doing justice to what has made her such a legend.
Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art by Phoebe Hoban (2016)
Seasoned biographer of the likes of Lucian Freud and Alice Neel, Phoebe Hoban first turned her attention to Jean-Michel Basquiat way back in 1998. With interest in the artist only intensifying, the book has been reissued with a new forward and is full of lively detail about his vibrant life. For those who were introduced to the artist through Julian Schnabel’s 1996 movie, it provides a direct corrective.
Nota bene: All our recommendations are independently chosen by members of the artnet News team. If you make a purchase through links in this article, artnet News will earn an affiliate commission that helps fund the art-world journalism you rely on.
Follow artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.