A large room, with good light. Walls: primer white, pocked with holes and scraps of masking tape. Floor: level, probably concrete, maybe plywood, either way, scuffed and stained with ink, paint, grease, dead gobs of plaster, resin, hot glue. Of the furniture, there are probably shelves, a large table, a stool with a back, maybe a flat file, all most likely born from McMaster-Carr, the deliriously proportioned supply company that God used to build the world.
Beyond that, so much more is possible. Imagine a room where 20 angled drafting tables were set in a double-sided 50-yard line like a wooden rooftop, their joints pinned every few feet by cans of brushes and pens, each precisely different. Picture slabs of marble piled to the ceiling, styrofoam beads floating past my feet in a ghostly breeze, house paint cracked next to jars of expensive imported pigment, oil slopping down a wall, photographic negatives pinned up like a murder wall. Four-foot propane torches firing stone crucibles filled with liquid aluminum; paper cutters like guillotines; four-foot squeegees and light-box tables topped with rubber capes.
These are artists’ studios, the place where the work happens, and the reason I think, that so many writers are drawn to the art world. No room combines a fetish for process with the gut-instinct potential like a studio, and nobody commands one like an artist. Yet as we cannot all of us become flies on studio walls, we can turn to the world of books about artists and their sacred spaces: to learn how and when they worked, who was there, how much it cost. The following books all give us some sense, not only of the studio and the artist, but what came from it, and they are essential reading for those interested in the world of contemporary art.
1. Art Talk: Conversations with 15 Women Artists by Cindy Nemser
This updated edition (from 12 to 15), a must-read for any woman who creates for a living, has extraordinary interviews with Barbara Hepworth, Sonia Delaunay, Louise Nevelson, Lee Krasner, Alice Neel, Grace Hartigan, Marisol, Eva Hesse, Lila Katzen, Eleanor Antin, Audrey Flack, Nancy Grossman, Isabel Bishop, Betye Saar, and Janet Fish. These women speak seriously about their own processes and materials in a way that feels like being in the studio with them; we learn the little stuff, that Krasner always squeezes her paint into a can and cuts it with turpentine, holding it as she works; Hartigan uses, at one point, a mitt made of lamb’s wool to apply paint; Hesse’s rubber and cheesecloth works often contain fine layers of plastic and mesh to give them a hidden structure. Along the way, they discuss their failures, ego, and intentions with complete openness, thanks to Nemser’s thoughtful, probing, “say both” approach. Krasner tells Nemser, for example, when asked how much her support of Jackson Pollock took out of her, she says “I wouldn’t know. And while you ask ‘How much did it take out of me as a creative artist?’ I ask simultaneously, ‘What did it give?’ It is a two-way affair at all times. I would have given anything to have someone giving me what I was able to give Pollock.”
2. Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton
In Seven Days in the Art World, an investigation-slash-ethnography of art world spaces—an auction house, a studio, an art fair, the Turner Prize, an art-school critique, and the Venice Biennale—Thorton thoughtfully transcribes what she first sees in the (highly elite) spaces of a world that, as she writes, is “so diverse, opaque, and downright secretive, it is impossible to be truly comprehensive.”
3. 33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton
Though it is an impossible task after all, thankfully, Thorton did not stop here; she kept on and produced a followup, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, which divides interviews and commentary on 33 artists thematically into Politics, Kinship, and Craft. Photographer Cindy Sherman, sculptor Yayoi Kusama, performance artist Andrea Frasier, and interdisciplinary artist Francis Alÿs are just a few of the people she spends time with, observing them as thoughtfully and transcriptively as she did the surrounding market in Seven Days.
4. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art by Phoebe Hoban
This exceptionally moving biography of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat is exquisite, haunting, and beautifully written. Hoban’s exhaustive research culminates in a full portrait not only of Basquiat himself and all of his works, but those around him who enabled him—in every sense—to rise to the top of the contemporary art scene before overdosing at the age of twenty-seven. Basquiat left behind thousands of artworks, some of which now sell on the secondary market for tens of millions apiece, along with estate-branded sweatshirts and iPhone cases—but this portrait of his self, described as a onetime girlfriend as “a brilliant painter, a horrible egotist, he was a total selfish brat, he was a kind, gentle, pained spirit, he was a hurt little boy, an arrogant old man, and everything in between… [he] was just a rare person,” will stay with you for a long, long time.
5. Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel
I’ll admit I am still—still!—working my way through this extraordinary book, academic in its rigor and fully human in its empathy. This multi-person biography of the lives and careers of Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchell is a healing balm to all the reporting that has come before about these artists. Instead of describing the size of the shadows they lived behind (men like Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning etc), Gabriel brings them into the light all on their own.
6. Before Pictures by Douglas Crimp
This memoir by Crimp, the influential scholar and critic, brings us through his life as a young gay man from Idaho who finds a new life in the New York art world of the ’60s and ’70s, and his critical work to canonize the queer artists of his time. It is highly personal, written almost conversationally, and studded with sharp observations about his own writing and extraordinary encounters with artists like Agnes Martin.
7. Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up by Bob Colacello
Warhol’s Factory might be the most famous studio in contemporary art, and Colacello’s 1990 biography is still the most complete picture of Warhol’s life and work. This revised edition delivers an update on the market forces that have continued to raise his value, too. Warhol’s early journey, from a shy boy in Pittsburgh to a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is nicely illustrated, as is, of course, his later life as the most well-known artist in the world.
8. Just Kids by Patti Smith
As someone who has never once connected with the music of Patti Smith (I’ve even seen her perform in small rooms and felt… nothing), I didn’t expect to love this memoir about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe as much as I did, but it is a beautiful story of what it means to be friends with someone who is truly talented, and it will leave an ache in your stomach, a bittersweet nostalgia for those early friendships with magic wizards, the kind of people who can put a feather on top of a rock and pronounce it profound without being wrong.
9. Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings edited by Jack Flam
In Dia:Beacon, there lies installed a large pile of broken glass which upon seeing, you—and every viewer—hovers, fearful and and desirous, wanting to lie down, to touch it, to be near it. That’s Atlantis by Robert Smithson, the sculptor most famous for Spiral Jetty, the swirl of rocks in Utah set atop the Great Salt Lake. In this volume, he writes lucidly about everything: other artists, his own process, the cost of train tickets, cigarettes and paint, highways, architecture, public problems, ideas, solutions. The perfect book for someone who is interested in space, time, systems, engineering, and the nitty-gritty of life as an artist in the 20th century.
10. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Second Edition edited by Kristine Stiles
This enormous book of primary sources contains it all: poems, manifestos, plans, statements, critiques, and of course, interviews, with over a hundred new artists over the first edition, including David Wojnarowicz, Julie Mehretu, Carrie Mae Weems, Feliz Gonzales-Torres, Shirin Neshat, Catherine Opie, and Maurizio Cattelan, to name only a few. If you buy a single book on this list, this should be it, and keep it on your coffee table (not the formal one, but the one you actually drink your coffee at) for the next decade as you parse through whenever you need to be reminded that though the creative life might be lonely, you are not alone.
Image credit: Unsplash/Taelynn Christopher.
I’m a painfully slow reader, and as such, my end of year reading lists are never impressively long. Still, I keep them. They do photos one better, capturing more than a moment, but a series of moments during which some small part of who I was shifted. Here are a few books from this year’s list, along with some of the small shifts they incurred.
1. The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane
This was the first book I finished in 2018, and one of my favorites of the year. I picked it up while in Marfa, Texas, after browsing the table displays in the small, excellent book shop out there. If I’m being totally honest, it was the cover design that drew me to it initially. I’d listened to Gucci Mane, heard and read some of the stories about him, but there was something about the beautiful austerity of the cover that made me excited to see all those things converge in a new context. What I learned is, Gucci Mane is an honest and entertaining storyteller. The book is fun, but it’s also emotional and raw. He talks about his childhood, his ambition, his success, his pain, his shortcomings, mental health issues, and the ups and downs of his career in a clear-eyed and actively engaged way. He talks about the dissonance of the way he sees himself and the different ways he’s been seen throughout his career, without the point being who was right. Again and again, it felt like he was sharing bits of something he’s still going through, rather than telling a story from the perspective of someone who’s conquered all their demons. You can tell he loves himself and loves challenging himself, even when that means changing things he might have seen as strengths at one point in his life. I read the whole book in the few days I was in Marfa, and I spent that time thinking about what it means to make art that’s designed to be experienced by other people, designed to share parts of who you are by forging a tangible connection with others. Moving them. One small thing I learned from the book was just how important it is for a song’s popularity, and an artist’s popularity, in Atlanta, to get consistent play in strip clubs. A place where I’d always thought of music as purely background to a whole other, pretty distracting experience. I’m not sure this is how he’d think of it, but being able to make something that’s personal, but designed to be experienced in that way—as an enhancement of a whole night, of many nights, meant to be integrated into all those lives, in a way that makes each person feel good and alive—that seems like an admirable goal for a work of art to me.
2. Tell Them I Said No by Martin Herbert
I picked up this collection of essays on artists who left the establishment after achieving some success while I was in Marfa, as well. It was the essay on Agnes Martin that I was primarily interested in, but throughout the book Herbert explores the ways which leaving the establishment, vanishing into seclusion, or refusing to show or even make new works, was in the case of each different artist an extension of that artist’s overall project, intentionally or not. It wasn’t just about the benefits of cultivating a persona, or mystery, but how absence or refusal reinforced the ideas or contexts being explored in each artist’s body of work, or allowed them to evolve in ways they likely never would have if they stayed on the scene. It was no coincidence that I read this book while in the middle of a several months long tour, (which I love doing but also spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning or usefulness of). The book is also full of all kinds of wonderfully difficult mindsets and examples of persnickety excellence, such as in one of my favorite quotes from the book, “In a silence-breaking conversation with the writer Sarah Thornton for her 2014 book 33 Artists in 3 Acts–[artist Cady] Noland apparently accepts interlocution once every twelve or thirteen years–[Noland] said that tracking and reacting to situations in which her work is misrepresented now takes up all of her time, such that, to her regret, she can no longer create art anymore.”
3. Chemistry by Weike Wang
What struck me most about this book was how simple it seemed at first, but how simple it is not. Reading it felt like eating yogurt, each line was so smooth and refreshing. But at the end I was suddenly overwhelmed, tearing up at the impossible complexity of life and love. Even reading the final paragraph again now, tears. Finishing it the first time, I realized just how much I’d been feeling while I was reading, and how the author kept moving me past it, sliding into new metaphors and new moments, using these perfect, self-contained sentences, until the moment I was struck with just how much I’d managed to avoid and evade, and how much easier it was before, when I was looking the other way.
4. The Poet at the Piano by Michiko Kakutani
I read a lot of books by and about artists this year. Even though I published a novel in January, by now, by November, I realize I’ve been thinking of this year as a writing year. An evolution year. I’ve been thinking a lot about how artists approach their work and their life, which artists are planning every move and which of them are just kind of fumbling along, trying things out and seeing what happens. Kakutani’s collection of articles on artists of all stripes is a great read, if tough to read too much of at once. I found myself putting it down for at least a day between many of the articles, trying to enter each as if I were reading it on its own. They were better that way, although I’m glad they’ve all been collected. Kakutani is a great writer, and celebrated as such, but what stood out to me was the effort she made, with each of these articles, to discover something unique about her subject and to carefully reveal it to us. These articles felt like the product of intimate exchanges, or careful observations, even if they ultimately wound up reading as one-sided conversations. I read each of these articles feeling like I was brought somehow so much closer to its subject—even those who seemed to be keeping Kakutani at arm’s length—but no closer to Kakutani. This is not a criticism. It’s a quality. I rarely felt her presence, outside of the careful attention and thoughtful presentation she brought to each finished piece. I thought it was remarkable, because of course she’s present in every detail she chooses to include and in how she chooses to include it. But these things are done with an intelligence and a subtlety that makes every observation feel nothing short of true, rather than personal. I read plays, novels, watched movies, and attended showings as a result of reading this book.
5. Norwood by Charles Portis
I read this book twice this year, and neither was my first time. It might be one of my absolute favorite books, and Portis one of my favorite American writers. If there’s anyone I have to consciously try not to steal from when I’m writing, it’s Portis. Like Weike Wang, his are books you slide through, loading up all the while with feelings and thoughts you don’t recognize until after days of unpacking and trying to figure out why you feel so strange and sad. He’s like Pynchon without being ponderous, loading every moment with beats and details that resonate throughout history, throughout the dark, painful, and totally absurd life of this country. He manages all this while being hilarious, and spinning a great yarn. Heavy as they are, each of his books has the feel of something shared over beers, told proudly to you by a man full of holes. The thing I remembered, reading this book again, is that there’s something to be said for only writing those things that keep you excited, make you feel alive. If all I’m doing is trying hard, then that’s all I’ll end up with. But if I’m having fun with it, I typically wind up trying hard in a whole different way. It gave me a kick in the pants, is what I’m saying, and steered the project I was working on back in an enjoyable direction.
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