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Art history actually began as biography when Giorgio Vasari published his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550. Eventually, however, the two genres parted ways, with the former evolving into an academic discipline and the latter becoming the more popular avenue for learning about art. Most artist biographies tend to focus on famous names, for a reason as simple as it is self-perpetuating: Even if you don’t know much about Picasso’s work, for example, you’ve probably heard of him, which makes it more likely that you’d pick up a book about him. Still, writers often find lesser-known artists to be just as fascinating as their more canonical cohort—and ultimately, that matters just as much as, if not more than, name recognition. Whatever the case, a good artist biography makes for compelling reading, as you’ll see in our list of recommended titles. (Price and availability current at time of publication.)
1. Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci
Any biographer bent on writing about Leonardo da Vinci faces an immediate obstacle: the lack of documents related to his life. True, there are his ineffable works of art (of which there are far too few) and, more important, his notebooks—more than 7,000 pages in all—recording his polymathic forays into naturalism, anatomy, physics, engineering, and futurology (his flying machine being the prime example). But there seems to be little in the way of a paper trail leading to da Vinci himself. Walter Isaacson, a writer with an appetite for visionary geniuses, does his best to take the measure of Leonardo through his work, teasing out clues about the artist’s perfectionism, procrastination, homosexuality, modesty, and good nature from the paintings, sculptures, and mountains of sketches and projects he left behind. Bolstered by lavish reproductions, Isaacson’s book is an unabashed celebration of the original Renaissance Man.
Purchase: Leonardo da Vinci $16.50 (new) on Amazon
2. Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography
In Calvin Tomkins’s bio of Marcel Duchamp, the veteran New Yorker scribe reveals a Duchamp very much like his art: cerebral, elegant, and enigmatic. Tomkins explores Duchamp’s oeuvre, interweaving it with the contours of his life: his birth into an artistic family; his scandalous 1913 Armory Show breakout with Nude Descending a Staircase; his subsequent renunciation of painting; his game-changing Readymades; his magnum opus, The Large Glass; and finally, his supposed retirement from art to pursue chess, instead spent surreptitiously working on his last masterpiece, Étant donnés. In Tomkins’s eloquently written treatment, Duchamp emerges as an apostate of art who challenged its profoundest meanings.
Purchase: Duchamp $21.23 (new) on Amazon
3. Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston
Musa Mayer’s book about her father, Philip Guston, is less an account of his life than an exposé of his parental shortcomings. Guston wasn’t abusive, just preoccupied with his own artistic struggles. While he loved his wife and daughter, he saw them primarily as helpmates serving his career. This was hardly unusual for mid-century men, but even Pollock and De Kooning entertained the artistic ambitions of their spouses; Guston, on the other hand, trammeled his wife’s and daughter’s aspirations for the same. Ultimately, Night Studio is a cautionary tale: Treat your children well, in case it turns out they can write.
Purchase: Night Studio $35.00 (new) on Amazon
4. David Leeming, Amazing Grace: Beauford Delaney
As a gay, black artist working in mid-century America, Beauford Delaney confronted pervasive racism and homophobia; other obstacles to his success included chronic poverty, alcoholism, and later in life, mental illness. As David Leeming writes in his account of Delaney, these pressures were exacerbated by the artist’s highly compartmentalized personal life. Yet his paintings, singing with color and bouncing between abstraction and figuration, provide scant evidence of his troubles. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Delaney came to New York in 1929 as the Harlem Renaissance waned. He gravitated downtown, where he met James Baldwin. He became Baldwin’s mentor and the lifelong friend, both in New York and later in Paris where the two men joined the 1950s expat scene. As Leeming recounts, Delaney called Paris his true home and eschewed the label of “Negro artist.” Yet he was proud to be black—a contradiction of a piece with the larger one between his buoyant work and his difficult life.
Purchase: Amazing Grace from $271.86 (used) on Amazon
5. Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo
Tragedy, obsession, betrayal: These are the spicy ingredients that make a biographer’s job easier, and art historian Hayden Herrera avails herself of them in her life of Mexican Surrealist Frida Kahlo. An artist whose celebrity has come to outshine her work (one edition of Herrera’s book features cover art with actress Salma Hayek as Kahlo from a 2002 biopic), Kahlo had already been crippled by polio as a child when her spine was crushed in a streetcar accident at age 18. Just as damaging was her union with fellow Mexican artist, Diego Rivera. The couple married, divorced, and remarried; Rivera indulged in serial philandering, and Kahlo too had affairs, with both men and women. Herrera keeps her focus on the juicy details, never letting discussions of Kahlo’s art get in the way. Still, it’s riveting stuff, and Kahlo, no slouch at self-mythologizing, would have likely approved.
Purchase: Frida $24.03 (new) on Amazon
6. Gail Levin, Lee Krasner: A Biography
Fueled by alcohol and testosterone, the Abstract Expressionists were the art world’s ultimate boys’ club, yet several female artists dotted their ranks. Once overshadowed by their male peers, their works now hang alongside theirs on museum walls, matching them for scale and swagger—and none more so than Lee Krasner’s. Still, as Gail Levin lays out in her book, Krasner willingly stood in the shadow of her much more famous husband, Jackson Pollock. This choice was guided mainly by pragmatism: Marriage to Pollock offered access to artistic circles that Krasner would not at that time have achieved on her own. Pollock also influenced Krasner, though as the years passed her work would increasingly stand apart from his. After Pollock’s death, in 1954, Krasner added artist’s widowhood to career liabilities that included being a woman and a Jew; nonetheless, as seen in Levin’s portrait of her, she persisted, making art history the richer for it.
Purchase: Lee Krasner $17.99 (new) on Amazon
7. Marilyn Chase, Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa
One of a wave of female artists recently rediscovered posthumously or late in life, Ruth Asawa, a West Coast artist who died in 2013 at age 87, was confined as a teenager to a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. As chronicled by Marilyn Chase, Asawa learned perspective drawing from fellow detainees who had worked as Disney animators, then matriculated to the legendary Black Mountain College after the war. During the 1960s she lived and exhibited in New York. Her biomorphic wire sculptures were well received, but since their creator was an Asian-American woman, they were condescendingly tagged with labels like “oriental.” Asawa spent the rest of her life in San Francisco, where she received public art commissions while championing the cause of art education. Chase follows Asawa’s remarkable journey from an artist barely known outside of the Bay Area to an internationally acclaimed figure.
Purchase: Everything She Touched $25.51 (new) on Amazon