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Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, New York City, 1969
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, New York City, 1969© Norman Seeff, 1969

13 of the greatest artist biographies to live vicariously through

From Tracey Emin to Francis Bacon, Yayoi Kusama, and more, escape into the worlds of 13 artists who pushed life beyond its limit

With a third of the global population currently on coronavirus lockdown, life is likely to have turned a little monotonous.

Many museums, art galleries, and theatres are set to remain closed until further notice, meaning a daily dose of artistic inspiration can be rather challenging – especially if you’re not ready to settle for COVID-19-friendly digital exhibitions.

From performance artists to photographers, sculptors, directors, and more, we tally a list of biographies of some of the most influential artists you can get lost in during quarantine. Through intellectual discussions, entertaining anecdotes, previously unseen artworks, and shocking revelations, these books will help you cope with the lockdown while satisfying your hunger for art. 


Winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Patti Smith’s Just Kids retraces the romance and long-lasting friendship between Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Going back to their first encounter in 1967 New York, the memoir immerses the readers into the passionate lives of the two artists well before they reached international success. Reflecting the culturally and politically engaged nature of the 70s, Just Kids features, among others, Beat Generation artists William S. Burroughs, Harry Smith, and Allen Ginsberg. In 2019, Just Kids was re-published with never-before-seen photographs, such as the one above by Norman Seeff.

Just Kids is published by HarperCollins Publishers


First published in 1966, Choice of Weapons retraces Gordon Parks’ artistic career as he escaped poverty and turned into the first African American to work at Life magazine and write, direct, and score a Hollywood film. Entirely written by the artist himself, the book emphasises the incredible role that Parks’ mother, who died when he was only 16, played in the personal and artistic growth of the photographer, writer, composer, activist, and filmmaker. “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs,” he writes. “I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” Through a profound and honest narration, Choice of Weapons celebrates Parks’ unique artistic contribution by telling his fight for a better, more democratic America.

A Choice of Weapons is published by Minnesota Historical Society Press


In internationally-acclaimed Infinity Rooms creator Yayoi Kusama’s documentary, Kusama: Infinity, the artist invites the audience on a journey into a universe full of repetition, shapes, mirrors, and dots. Presenting the public with Kusama’s revolutionary artistic production, the documentary sheds light on the artist’s mental health and childhood traumas, showing how she managed to turn those into a 50-plus year, unprecedented artistic production.

Watch Kusama: Infinity here


Published in 1942, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí is an autobiographical book by the late Spanish artist Salvador Dalí. Originally written in French, the memoir was translated into English by Haakon Chevalier. The book reveals the artist’s family history, providing the readers with insights into his childhood and the beginning of Dalí’s artistic career. “At the age of six, I wanted to be a cook. At seven, I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily since,” reads the incipit of the autobiography. Thanks to Dalí’s detailed writing and visual descriptions, readers are encouraged to “step” into the artist’s world – full of anecdotes, fantasy, and questionable confessions. Due to its controversial content, the book was criticised by none other than George Orwell in Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí.

The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí is published by Dial Press


Serbian-born artist Marina Abramović retraces her nearly 50-year-long artistic career in an autobiographical book celebrating the evolution of her groundbreaking performance art. Turning the spotlight on the artist’s dramatic childhood in post-war Yugoslavia, Walk Through Walls renders the intense struggle of Abramović in her passionate pursuit of art. Through the narration of the 12-year love story and artistic collaboration with fellow performance artist Ulay, Abramović engages her readers, taking them on a trip that culminates in a moving break-up on the Great Wall of China. A truthful portrait of a revolutionary artist, the book tells how Abramović overcame limits imposed by fear, pain, exhaustion, and danger by using her body as a vehicle of artistic expression. 

Walk Through Walls: A Memoir is published by Penguin Random House


Follow journalist Joanna Moorhead in her journey to reconnect with her long-lost cousin, who was also one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Leonora Carrington. Published in 2017, The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington retraces the life and artistic production of the Lancaster-born artist, as she rejected the norms imposed by her upper-middle-class family to fulfil her artistic genius. In 2006, Moorhead found out that her father’s cousin, who had gone missing many decades earlier, had been a key member of the surrealist movement in Paris before moving to Mexico where she had become a national treasure. Curious to know more about it, the journalist flew to Mexico City where she reunited with Carrington and discovered the behind-the-scenes of her artistic career – from her escape from London, to her romance with the great Max Ernst, and finally her life in the Mexican capital. 

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington is published by Virago


David Wojnarowicz’s Close To The Knives is a collection of essays, sex memories, travel journalism, dream diaries, and manifestos written by the artist himself and published in 1992, the year of his death. A gay man raised on the streets of 1960s New York, Wojnarowicz was an artist, photographer, and writer whose work expressed the turbulent and provocative nature of an “outlawed existence”. Narrating his traumatic childhood and homelessness whilst living on the streets of New York City, the memoir pays tribute to Wojnarowicz’s seductive and rebellious contribution to the art world through his own poignant words.

Close To The Knives is published by Vintage Books


Writer Calvin Tomkins celebrates the extravagant life of last century’s most influential artist by telling readers how Marcel Duchamp revolutionised the future of modern art. Focusing on Duchamp’s art – stemming from the relationship between symbol and object – the biography describes how the painter, sculptor, and writer distanced himself from “retinal art” (that which is pleasing to the eye) to make art that served the mind. Through a glorious prose style, wit, and irony, Duchamp illustrates how the artist took the world by storm and influenced generations of artists, filmmakers, writers, and more.  

Duchamp: a Biography is published by Chatto & Windus


Written by Jennifer Clement, Widow Basquiat narrates the rise to fame of one of the most influential visual artists of all time, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Told through the eyes of his muse and ex-lover  Suzanne Mallouk, the memoir brings the readers to 1970s New York. Guiding them across the transition which plunged Jean-Michel Basquiat into the centre of the city’s artistic scene – as well as the company of Madonna, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and more – Widow Basquiat remembers the intense, incredible life of yet another artist who left us too soon.

Widow Basquiat is published by Canongate Books Ltd


Iconic artist Keith Haring kept a diary from his early teens until the day before his death in 1990. Published under the title Keith Haring Journals, the diary presents the readers with a largely unseen Haring, conscientious and serious, it shares everything from his reading lists to his daily thoughts. Featuring previously unpublished drawings from his notebooks, the book touches on key moments of Haring’s life as he emerged into the artistic scene of New York and became one of its most renowned pop icons. An unfiltered portrait of a brilliant artist, Keith Haring Journals shows the artist’s endless devotion to art, as expressed in his own words, “Work is all I have and art is more important than life.”

Keith Haring Journals is published by Penguin Books


Published in 2006, Tracey Emin’s Strangeland captures the essence of the controversial British artist through a series of intimate memoirs and confessions. Known for her complex and medium-spanning artistic production – including drawing, painting, sculpture, film, photography, neon text, and sewn appliqué – Strangeland reflects on Emin’s past by presenting the readers with her honest and controversial, yet touching view of the world.

Strangeland is published by Hodder & Stoughton


Written by British art critic and curator David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon is a collection of exclusive interviews conducted by Sylvester over a period of 25 years. Throughout the book, Bacon reveals the goal of his artistic production, providing the readers with insights on his vision. Disclosing details of his personal life, the artist reflects upon the problem of realism with an unmistakable and engaging language. Among the others, Sylvester’s questions investigate Bacon’s artistic relation to the human form and its representation, his variations of old masters’ painting, and his dependence on chance. The result is an intriguing book capable of shedding light on the life of one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. 

Interviews with Francis Bacon is published by Thames & Hudson


In this series of interviews conducted by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ai Weiwei talks about the artistic inspirations that have shaped his work and also dives into his multi-dimensional artistic production – ranging from ceramics to blogging, philosophy, and more. The son of a Chinese poet who had been accused of “rightism”, Weiwei and his family were sent to a labour camp in Beidahuang when he was one year old. He then lived in exile in Shihezi, Xinjiang, for 16 years. In the book, the artist reflects upon his past and criticises the Chinese government, providing the audience with an authentic portrait of his personal, political, and artistic identity. 

Ai Weiwei Speaks is published by Penguin Special