The best books on genre-bending artists: inside and out

Phoebe Hoban Author Of Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty
By Phoebe Hoban

Who am I?

I grew up in a creative family. My father was an illustrator before becoming a children’s book author and novelist. My mother, a trained dancer, became my father’s collaborator, illustrating their internationally-known Frances books. They inspired me and encouraged me to develop my own talent. I started writing at nine, and have never stopped since. I became a journalist, writing about culture and art for The New York times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Vogue, among others. I am also the author of three well-received artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art; Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open; and Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty.


I wrote...

Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty

By Phoebe Hoban, Alice Neel,

Book cover of Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty

What is my book about?

The definitive biography of Alice Neel tells the riveting story of an artist whose dramatic life spanned the 20th century. In both her life and work, Neel constantly challenged convention. Neel died 38 years ago, but her scathingly honest (and frequently naked) portraits couldn’t be more of the moment. Long before the Black Lives Matter and LBGTQ movements, not to mention #Metoo, Neel incisively documented America’s remarkable and resilient diversity, from her Black and brown Spanish Harlem neighbors to Civil Rights and Feminist leaders, from the children of immigrants to transgender members of Andy Warhol’s coterie. As she herself put it, “I have painted life itself right off the vine—not a copy of an old master with new figures inserted—because now is now.”

The books I picked & why

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Diane Arbus: A Biography

By Patricia Bosworth,

Book cover of Diane Arbus: A Biography

Why this book?

When I set out to write my first biography I was terrified, with the writers’ equivalent of stage fright. I needed something to jump start me, and the late Patricia Bosworth’s wonderful biography of Diane Arbus did the trick. It steadied my nerves and gave me a practical place to start. I forced myself to write the first paragraph of the book after reading the first few pages of Bosworth’s classic biography of the photographer, who was as original as she was tragic. 

Diane Arbus: A Biography

By Patricia Bosworth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Diane Arbus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Diane Arbus's unsettling photographs of dwarves and twins, transvestites and giants, both polarized and inspired, and her work had already become legendary when she committed suicide in 1971. This groundbreaking biography examines the private life behind Arbus's controversial art. The book deals with Arbus's pampered Manhattan childhood, her passionate marriage to Allan Arbus, their work together as fashion photographers, the emotional upheaval surrounding the end of their marriage, and the radical, liberating, and ultimately tragic turn Arbus's art took during the 1960s when she was so richly productive. This edition includes a new afterword by Patricia Bosworth that covers the…


Edie: American Girl

By Jean Stein,

Book cover of Edie: American Girl

Why this book?

The quintessential book for anyone writing a modern biography, as well as a page-turning read. Jean Stein and George Plimpton brilliantly create a moving portrait of an Andy Warhol acolyte who became a Warhol Superstar and then an enduring icon of the 1960s, before dying of a drug overdose at age 28. A fascinating oral history that simultaneously depicts a beautiful, glamourous, and troubled young woman and a nation undergoing a paradigm shift.

Edie: American Girl

By Jean Stein,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Edie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brilliant and unique biography of Andy Warhol's tragic muse, the 60s icon Edie Sedgwick

'Exceptionally seductive... You can't put it down' LA Times

Outrageous, vulnerable and strikingly beautiful - in the 1960s Edie Sedgwick became both an emblem of, and a memorial to, the doomed world spawned by Andy Warhol.

Born into a wealthy New England Edie's childhood was dominated by a brutal but glamourous father. Fleeing to New York, she became an instant celebrity, known to everyone in the literary, artistic and fashionable worlds. She was Warhol's twin soul, his creature, the superstar of his films and, finally,…


The Blazing World

By Siri Hustvedt,

Book cover of The Blazing World

Why this book?

Hustvedt creates a very compelling picture of the inner and outer life of a female artist in the contemporary art world, notorious for both its sexism and ageism. The protagonist comes up with a clever ploy for achieving the same success as a male artist: she takes on a male artist’s persona and name, and hires a male artist to impersonate her in public, a convoluted ploy with great potential to ultimately backfire. Don’t want to provide any plot spoilers!

The Blazing World

By Siri Hustvedt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Blazing World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of the Year ** Publishers Weekly’s Best Fiction Books of 2014 ** NPR Best Books of 2014 ** Kirkus Reviews Best Literary Fiction Books of 2014 ** Washington Post Top 50 Fiction Books of 2014 ** Boston Globe’s Best Fiction of 2014 ** The Telegraph’s Best Fiction to Read 2014 ** St. Louis Post Dispatch’s Best Books of 2014 ** The Independent Fiction Books of the Year 2014 ** One of Buzzfeed’s Best Books Written by Women in 2014 ** San Francisco Chronicle’s Best of 2014 ** A…


Theft

By Peter Carey,

Book cover of Theft

Why this book?

Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story is a funny, fast-moving, and satirical send-up of the contemporary art world of the 1980s, featuring a swashbuckling, over-the-hill Australian former art star, “Butcher,” just released from prison (jailed for stealing his own work from his former wife), his clearly on-the-spectrum and severely overweight brother, and a mysterious, beautiful femme fatale, who just happens to be the daughter-in-law of a famous dead artist. She arrives on the scene to authenticate a painting by her late father-in-law, which Butcher owns, but is soon stolen. Meanwhile, she becomes interested in rekindling Butcher’s dwindling career and her questionable machinations quickly plunge them all into a twisted, and possibly fatal, plot. 

Theft

By Peter Carey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Theft as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Michael "Butcher" Boone is an ex-“really famous" painter, now reduced to living in a remote country house and acting as caretaker for his younger brother, Hugh. Alone together they've forged a delicate equilibrium, a balance instantly destroyed when a mysterious young woman named Marlene walks out of a rainstorm and into their lives. Beautiful, smart, and ambitious, she's also the daughter-in-law of the late great painter Jacques Liebovitz. Soon Marlene sets in motion a chain of events that could be the making--or the ruin--of them all.


Self-Portrait with Boy

By Rachel Lyon,

Book cover of Self-Portrait with Boy

Why this book?

Lyon’s protagonist, Lu Rile, is a struggling, ambitious young photographer, living in a derelict Brooklyn warehouse that might soon be destroyed by real-estate developers. In order to somehow pay the rent while at the same time take care of her ill and aging father, she desperately juggles three jobs. When not at work, Lu is in the midst of creating a series of self-portraits of herself in the window of her loft, when she accidentally captures the image of a young boy, the son of her upstairs neighbors, falling to his death. (Shades of Antonioni’s famous film, Blow Up, which also features a key but inadvertent photograph.)

She recognizes at once that it is the best picture she has ever taken, but instantly understands that it poses a major moral dilemma. Should she pull every string she can to get it shown, in an effort to initiate and stamp her career, or should she respect the personal privacy of the boy’s family, who are not only neighbors, but with whom she has become friends, getting especially close to the boy’s grieving mother. The book vividly captures bohemian life in 1990s pre-gentrified Brooklyn, Lu’s difficult daily life, and her looming moral puzzle. 

Self-Portrait with Boy

By Rachel Lyon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Self-Portrait with Boy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

“Fabulously written, this spellbinding debut novel is a real page-turner. A powerful, brilliantly imagined story” (Library Journal, starred review) about an ambitious young artist whose accidental photograph of a boy falling to his death could jumpstart her career, but devastate her most intimate friendship.

Lu Rile is a relentlessly focused young photographer struggling to make ends meet. Working three jobs, responsible for her aging father, and worrying that her crumbling loft apartment is being sold to developers, she is at a point of desperation. One day, in the background of a…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in movie stars, women photographers, and femme fatale?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about movie stars, women photographers, and femme fatale.

Movie Stars Explore 27 books about movie stars
Women Photographers Explore 11 books about women photographers
Femme Fatale Explore 11 books about femme fatale

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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