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Like all autobiographies, artist memoirs require two ingredients: a compelling life story and the ability to put it to paper. For lots of people, though, it seems counterintuitive that a visual artist would pick up a pen. This is nonsense, of course. Many artists can write, even if people are surprised when they do. As proof that artists are often accomplished at it, we present our choices for the best artists’ memoirs, ranging from scandalous to epic. (Price and availability current at time of publication.)
1. David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration
The life of David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) would make a fascinating subject for any book. Born in suburban New Jersey and physically abused as a child by his alcoholic father, Wojnarowicz wound up in New York turning tricks as a homeless teenage hustler. In a remarkable transformation, he emerged in the late 1970s as one of the key figures of the bubbling East Village art scene. He quickly gained recognition as a firebrand activist who, in both his writing and his art, ferociously inveighed against homophobia and the resulting blind eye turned toward the AIDS epidemic, which would eventually claim his life. The disease lies at the heart of this memoir, which includes Wojnarowicz’s unflinching description of the final agonizing moments of his lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, as he succumbs to AIDS. Ultimately, Wojnarowicz’s book is a searing indictment of “this killing machine called America” that remains relevant today.
Purchase: Close to the Knives $13.39 (new) on Amazon
2. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
Like the spectacular golden salt cellar he created for King Francis I of France, Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) was a piece of work, though not in a good way. An inveterate brawler, he routinely ran into trouble for offenses ranging from embezzlement to committing sodomy with numerous partners, male and female. And, oh yes, murder: Cellini reputedly offed his brother’s killer and dispatched a rival goldsmith. As a result, he was obliged to skip town frequently, hightailing it from Florence to Sienna to Bologna to Pisa and back again to Florence before moving to Rome (which was followed by other flights to Naples and to France). In a word, Cellini was pazzo, as Italians put it. He proudly recalled these exploits and more (escaping prison, surviving an attempted poisoning by diamond dust) in the autobiography that became his principal legacy—not only for the stories it tells (often dismissed as exaggerated), but also because it offers a firsthand account of the Mannerist period in Italy.
Purchase: Autobiography $17.00 (new) on Amazon
3. Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives
In 1930, 20-year-old Dorothea Tanning left her hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, to pursue a painting career in Chicago. Five years later she arrived in New York, where a visit to MoMA’s landmark 1936 exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism,” completely changed her work. An introduction in 1941 to legendary dealer Julien Levy led to shows at Levy’s gallery and entrée into New York’s circle of émigré Surrealists—among them Max Ernst, who became smitten with the young artist. They married, and among the details found in Tanning’s memoir is her lament that she allowed her artistic career to take a back seat to his. As she admits, she was more an observer of her milieu than a star within it, but then, there was much to observe as she hobnobbed with giants of 20th-century culture such as Virgil Thompson, George Balanchine, and Dylan Thomas. In recent decades her work has been added to the art-historical cannon, but it was her autobiography that first cemented her reputation as the First Lady of Surrealism.
Purchase: Between Lives $23.90 (new) on Amazon
4. Peter McGough, I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going: The Art Scene and Downtown New York in the 1980s
Peter McGough’s wry memoir of the 1980s art world focuses on his romantic and artistic partnership with David McDermott. Together, as the art duo McDermott & McGough, the pair filtered queer aesthetics through an Edwardian sensibility, one that found its fullest realization in a “time experiment” in which they dressed like Wildean dandies while eliding modern conveniences from their lives—earning them as much renown for their performative commitment as for their paintings, drawings, photographs, and installations. McGough devotes a good part of the book to McDermott, who turns out to have been the instigator behind their collaboration. At his direction, they ripped out the fixtures from the apartments they rented, replacing light bulbs with candles or gaslight and refrigerators with old-fashioned iceboxes. When they traveled, they took trains or ships (one passage here covers an Atlantic crossing on the QE2). They raked in the cash as art stars but eventually faded from view. More than just a joke, however, McDermott & McGough’s work comes off in the book as a radical satire holding up a warped mirror to the reactionary Reagan era.
Purchase: I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going $21.49 (new) on Amazon
5. Mary Woronov, Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory
This tell-all autobiography by artist and actress Mary Woronov focuses on her time at Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory, and while the picture she paints of it is always engrossing, it isn’t always pretty. Woronov, who starred in Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls, portrays the Factory as a den of sex and drugs, filled with misfits clamoring for Warhol’s attention. Andy serenely floats above it all as a sort of pope of downtown New York, issuing gnomic pronouncements while excommunicating those who fall out of his favor. Though the Factory is Andy’s studio, it’s also an outré simulacrum of Hollywood in which its marginalized habitués are encouraged to indulge illusions of superstardom. Much of this was tongue-in-cheek, but Woronov relates how many around Warhol considered the stakes to be very high indeed. Woronov doesn’t spare herself as she recounts her struggles as a meth head trying to navigate the chasm between her family and the Factory’s demimonde of desperation.
Purchase: Swimming Underground from $60.32 (new) on Amazon
6. Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A.
Not exactly an artist’s memoir—or even entirely nonfiction—Babitz’s book recalls her life as muse, groupie, and all-around party girl within the art, Hollywood, and rock orbits of 1960s and ’70s Los Angeles. Taking poetic license with the truth, Babitz’s narrative is situated in the L.A. of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which, in her telling, becomes a paradise of sunshine, Quaaludes, tequila, and sexual conquests. Babitz was legendary for her romantic partners, among them Jim Morrison of The Doors. But her other claim to fame—which made her a Modern art icon—was a photograph of her playing chess in the nude with a clothed Marcel Duchamp. Staged as part of Duchamp’s retrospective at the former Pasadena (now Norton Simon) Museum, and considered to be among Duchamp’s works, the image is undoubtedly sexist, but also of a piece with a period when many ambitious women relied on their good looks as well as their talent to get ahead. Babitz had more than enough of both to make for a riveting story.
Purchase: Slow Days, Fast Company $15.91 (new) on Amazon
7. Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
Some 30 years ago, photographer Sally Mann gained recognition and notoriety with her photo collection “Immediate Family,” which, among other images, captured her children in the nude as they roamed Mann’s Virginia farm. The book triggered a tsunami of moral panic, ironically making Mann one of America’s best-known and most respected photographers. The controversy continued to color her career, which is perhaps why her autobiography hardly mentions her children at all. Still, this deep dive into her family’s history reveals Mann as a talented writer, and it is richly illustrated, though not with her original photos. Instead she uses old snapshots and other ephemera related not only to her own upbringing but also to her family’s connection to the South over the generations. Mann relays stories about her adolescence as a wild child and also explores the larger issue of race and her own white privilege. In the end, Hold Still confirms Faulkner’s adage that southerners have “no time for reading because they’re all too busy writing.”
Purchase: Hold Still $14.69 (new) on Amazon
8. Patti Smith, Just Kids
Anyone buying Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses, back in 1975 wouldn’t have known or cared that the alluring cover photo of Smith as a proto-punk androgyne was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe. Nor would they have been aware that Mapplethorpe was Smith’s boyfriend at the time, though this would wind up surprising people who came to know him as a gay artist famous for his homoerotic photographs. Smith’s memoir puts their relationship front and center, focusing on their early years together, before their respective ascents to stardom. Smith portrays the boho paradise among the ruins that were 1970s New York—living at the Chelsea Hotel (where Smith had an encounter with Salvador Dalí), hanging out at the back room of Max’s Kansas City, day-tripping to Coney Island—all recounted in vivid prose. Although Smith mentions some of her other paramours (Sam Sheppard among them), she keeps coming back to Mapplethorpe as the touchstone of her book.
Purchase: Just Kids $13.19 (new) on Amazon
9. Gordon Parks, Voices in the Mirror
A photographer, musician, writer, and director, Gordon Parks (1912–2006) won wide acclaim for his work in film, fashion, and photojournalism; he was one of the few African-Americans in those fields during the postwar era. He became the first Black photographer to work at Vogue and Life magazines and pioneered the blaxploitation movie genre with his feature film Shaft. His photos covered the wide sweep of the African American experience, documenting Harlem, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the segregated South, as well as influential figures such as Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, and Duke Ellington. Parks recounts the rough start of his storied career when he was cut loose by his family at age 15 and left to fend for himself. He was inspired to pick up his first camera after encountering photos done for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration by Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange. He called his trusty Nikon a “weapon against poverty and racism,” and you might say that his memoir, which details his many encounters with both, serves the same purpose.
Purchase: Voices in the Mirror from $168.83 (new) on Amazon
10. Hannah Höch, Life Portrait: A Collaged Autobiography
One of the leading avant-garde figures during interwar Germany’s all too brief experiment with democracy, Hannah Höch (1889–1978) was a member of the Berlin Dada movement and was best known for dynamic collages that often dealt with Weimar-era women as they navigated an equally short period of female empowerment. It’s no surprise that she turned to her preferred medium to create Life Portrait, which is less of a book than it is an iteration of what turned out to be her last artwork. The 1973 original was a photo-collage measuring four by five feet, portraying the artist at different ages along with imagery culled from fashion, media, and African art. Also included were depictions of plants and animals, which had become a motif for Höch after the war. The book divides the collage into 38 annotated sections, with commentary on the political, social, and artistic events of five decades. A summation of Höch’s artistic concerns over the years, Life Portrait is the capstone on an extraordinary oeuvre.
Purchase: Life Portrait $38.45 (new) on Amazon
11. Sophie Calle, True Stories
Part photo-narrative, part performance art, the work of French Conceptualist Sophie Calle has always been highly self-referential, publicly exposing aspects of her private life while highlighting the banalities of everyday existence. Works such as her series “Sleepers,” in which she documents the various people who shared her bed, eventually won her selection as France’s representative at the 2007 Venice Biennale. While you could argue that Calle’s output makes the idea of a memoir redundant, True Stories pulls the various strands of her efforts into an autobiographical whole that combines photography and writing, fiction and nonfiction. Published on the occasion of Calle’s winning the prestigious Hasselblad Award in photography, the book pairs words with images across facing pages, posing the chicken-and-egg conundrum of which came first. Still, however embellished her account, Calle presents it with her signature blend of irony and confession.
Purchase: True Stories from $174.99 (new) on Amazon
12. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
In this memoir-cum-graphic novel by Alison Bechdel the artist describes growing up in a Victorian house restored to immaculate, museumlike perfection thanks to her father, Bruce, an undertaker who was also a repressed gay man (or as Bechdel describes him, “a manic-depressive, closeted fag”). Bechdel’s dad could be distant, even tyrannical, and her reckoning with him is shaped by her own gay identity, a connection that serves as the crux of her book. Poignantly, Bruce was hit by a truck one week after Bechdel wrote her parents to inform them that she was a lesbian—an accident that Bechdel’s believes was actually a suicide in response to her coming out. Bechdel, who is also the author of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and the coiner of the Bechdel Test (a measure of the representation of women in fiction), leavens her book with moments of warmth and sardonic humor. But what makes it ultimately relatable is that like Bechdel, we all have to deal with family fallout in one fashion or another.
Purchase: Fun Home $11.24 (new) on Amazon