11 Artists Memoirs To Get Inspired By In Quarantine

November 9, 2020

Among the most eccentric, perplexing and anarchic literary genres in existence, artist memoirs are as fascinating as their authors. These revealing personal histories are filled with tales of overcoming life’s hardships, fights for recognition in and outside of the art world, the quest to build a legacy through art, and, more often intriguing details from one's life that have shaped their unique visions and points of view.

As the world moves into yet another lockdown, we bring you 11 must read artist memoirs to draw inspiration from, ranging from personal diaries to interviews and autobiographies.

Featured image: Keith Haring Journals.

The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí

One of the most famous, colorful, eccentric and talked-about personalities in art history, Salvador Dalí combined avant-garde subject matter with academic style, paving the way for generations of artists to come. Among the most versatile and prolific artists of the 20th century and the most famous Surrealist, he worked in painting, sculpture, printmaking, fashion, advertising, writing, and, even filmmaking.

This must read early autobiography published in 1942 covers Dalí's family history, his early life, and his early work up through the 1930s, concluding just after Dalí's return to Catholicism and just before the global outbreak of the Second World War. The artist paints a flamboyant self-portrait, writing with a highly detailed, methodical style that layered words the same way as paint.

The book The Secret Life of Salvador Dali is divided into tantalizing chapters, such as "Intra-Uterine Memories," "Apprenticeship to Glory," "Permanent Expulsion from the School of Fine Arts," "Dandyism and Prison," "I am Disowned by my Family," "My Participation and my Position in the Surrealist Revolution," and "Discovery of the Apparatus for Photographing Thought", and illustrated with over 80 photographs of himself and his works, and scores of his drawings and sketches.

Featured image: The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.

David Sylvester - Interviews with Francis Bacon

One of the most successful British painters of the 20th century, Francis Bacon rejected the preferred artistic style of abstraction of the era, in favor of a distinctive and disturbing realism. Drawing inspiration from inspiration from Surrealism, film, photography, and the Old Masters, he produced some of the most iconic images of wounded and traumatized humanity in post-war art.

The book Interviews with Francis Bacon is comprised of nine interviews conducted with the artist by David Sylvester, spanning over twenty years from 1962 to 1986. A classic of it kind, it is the most revealing portrait that exists, providing invaluable insight into the creative mind of one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists.

In the book, Bacon talks about his aims as a painter and the ways in which he works - his obsessive effort to record and re-create the human form, his practice of making variations on old masters’ paintings and on photographs, his dependence upon chance, and his views about the way in which his work has been interpreted - responding always with vivacity and candor. A genre-defining book, it offers unparalleled access to the thought, work and life of one of the creative geniuses of the twentieth century.

Featured image: David Sylvester - Interviews with Francis Bacon.

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait

An amazing illustrated journal, the book The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait documents the last ten years of the artist's turbulent life. In this passionate, often surprising and intimate record, Frida Kahlo provides insight into her thoughts, poems, and dreams, many reflecting her stormy relationship with her husband, artist Diego Rivera.

The book reveals Kahlo's political sensibilities, recollections of her childhood, and her enormous struggle and courage in the face of more than thirty-five operations she had during her life. The text entries, written in Frida's round, full script in brightly colored inks, are accompanied by 70 mesmerizing watercolor illustrations. In the introduction to the book, Carlo Fuentes wrote:

Despoiled of her clothes, showered by a broken packet of powdered gold carried by an artisan: will there ever be a more terrible and beautiful portrait of Frida than this one? Would she ever paint herself—or could she paint herself other than—as this “terrible beauty, changed utterly”? 

Featured image: The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait.

Hannah Höch: Life Portrait: A Collaged Autobiography

Best known for her association with the Berlin Dadaists, Hannah Höch had a prolific career that spanned two world wars and most of the 20th century. Inspired by Pablo Picasso and Kurt Schwitters, she developed a dynamic and layered style of appropriating and rearranging images and text gathered from the mass media.

At the age of 83, the artist created her last artwork - a self-portrait in form of a collage. Made between July 1972 and March 1973, it is her largest photocollage and the final point in her full and active life.

Defining 38 sections of the image, the artist gave detailed explanations on them, accompanied by the recounts of her personal experience. These 38 parts and the overview of the entire collage are pictured in the book Hannah Höch: Life Portrait: A Collaged Autobiography, accompanied by text and original quotes.

Featured image: Hannah Höch: Life Portrait: A Collaged Autobiography.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)

No artist has contributed to the collapse of boundaries between high and low culture as much as Andy Warhol did. Understanding America’s contradictory impulses and the growing power of images in contemporary life, he embraced avant-garde logic, the mass media and consumerism to create original art that profoundly influenced how we see and think about the world now.

A loosely formed autobiography, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) is a collection of riffs and reflections where the artist talks about love, sex, food, beauty, fame, work, money, and success; about New York, America, and his childhood in McKeesport, Pennsylvania; about his good times and bad in New York, the explosion of his career in the sixties, and his life among celebrities. A must-read, the book is written with his trademark blend of irony and detachment.

Featured image: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again).

David Wojnarowicz - Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

An extraordinary memoir, David Wojnarowicz - Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration is a scathing, sexy, sublimely humorous and honest personal testimony. In this powerful document, David Wojnarowicz reflects on everything from his violent childhood in suburbia to eventual homelessness on the streets and piers of New York City, to recognition as one of the most provocative artists of his generation.

A memoir of disintegration, as he called it, it is a story of street life, drugs, art and nature, family, AIDS, politics, friendship and acceptance, mapping a place of loss and danger, of transient beauty and dogged resistance. Published in 1991, a year before he died of AIDS, it is written with an apocalyptic urgency.

Featured image: David Wojnarowicz - Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

We Flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold

Over the past five decades, the American artist Faith Ringgold has been challenging perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. Through politically charged quilts and paintings, the artist has been telling stories of her life and those of others in the black community.

In the autobiography We Flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, the artist tells the fascinating story of her life - her struggles, growth, and triumphs. While she is now recognized as one of the most prominent contemporary artists, her path has not been easy. Ringgold recounts all the prejudices she had to work against to refine her artistic vision. She also provides insight into warm family memories and sustaining friendships, community involvement, and her hopes for the future.

Featured image: We Flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold.

Keith Haring Journals

After arriving in New York in 1978, Keith Haring immersed himself in its downtown culture and quickly became a fixture on the artistic scenes. During his tragically short but prolific artistic career, he left a deep mark on the world of contemporary art, inspiring generations of future artists.

The book Keith Haring Journals is a fascinating glimpse into a man who, in his quest to become an artist, instead became an icon. These illuminating journals reveal Haring's conscious, committed drive to extend the boundaries of art, accompanied by ninety black-and-white images of classic artwork and never-before-published Polaroid images.

Featured image: Keith Haring Journals.

Sally Mann - Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

During her rich and varied career, Sally Mann has been taking hauntingly beautiful experimental photographs that explore the essential themes of existence: memory, desire, mortality, family and the storied landscape of the American South.

In her book Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, the artist tackles similar themes. Through a unique interplay of lyrical narrative and image, Mann tells a story of a family history, illustrating it with family snapshots, her own and other people’s photos, documents and letters.

This revealing book provides insight into “deceit and scandal, alcohol, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land… racial complications, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of the prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder.”

Featured image: Sally Mann - Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs.

Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama

One of today’s most recognized and celebrated Japanese artists, Yayoi Kusama has indelibly shaped some of the most important art movements of the twentieth century.

Painting a multilayered portrait of this fascinating artist, the book Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama takes us from her oppressive childhood in postwar Japan to her present life in the psychiatric hospital where she voluntarily stays.

The book tells a story of the persona of mental illness that has informed her work as well as the struggles to make her artistic voice heard, while providing a dazzling snapshot of 1960s and 1970s New York City and her encounters with its artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and the reclusive Joseph Cornell.

Featured image: Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama.

Marina Abramović - Walk Through Walls: A Memoir

An artist who practically redefined the notion of (body) performance, Marina Abramović has been focusing on the exploration of endurance, pain, and the thin line between the physical and spiritual transcendence.

In a vivid and powerful writing on her life and art Walk Through Walls: A Memoir, the artist tells a story her life, starting from her childhood in postwar Yugoslavia over to her relationship with fellow artist Ulay, and an incomparable artistic career that involves pushing her body past the limits of fear, pain, exhaustion, and danger in an uncompromising quest for emotional and spiritual transformation.

Spanning five decades of her artistic career, this must read book is almost as exhilarating and extraordinary as her groundbreaking performance art.

Featured image: Marina Abramović - Walk Through Walls: A Memoir.

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