The best books about women artists: overviews and individual lives

Who am I?

As a teenager, I found the layered poetry of Sylvia Plath as riveting as an impasto-layered canvas by Vincent Van Gogh. A love for the rhythm of words and paint, as well as the power of art to tell stories and critique history led me to study art history. Influential college professors opened my eyes to the systematic exclusion of women from art and history. Today, I’m a professor at the University of San Francisco, where I specialize in modern, contemporary, and African art, with an emphasis upon issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. I’m particularly interested in women artists and artists who cross cultural boundaries. 


I wrote...

Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist

By Celia Stahr,

Book cover of Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist

What is my book about?

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo adored adventure. In 1930, she was thrilled to realize her dream of traveling to the United States. Only twenty-three and newly married to world-famous muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was at a crossroads in her life. San Francisco, Detroit, and New York with their magnificent beauty, horrific poverty, racial tension, anti-Semitism, and thriving music and dance scenes, pushed Kahlo in unexpected directions. Shifts in her style of painting began to appear, cracks in her marriage widened, and tragedy struck twice, while she was living in Detroit. Frida in America is the first in-depth biography of these formative years spent in what Frida often called “Gringolandia,” a place that both angered and fascinated her. 

The books I picked & why

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Women, Art, and Society

By Whitney Chadwick,

Book cover of Women, Art, and Society

Why this book?

As an undergrad, I was blessed to have two professors who changed the course of my life: Angela Davis and Whitney Chadwick. Both of these professors discussed the intersectionality of gender, race, and class. Women, Art, and Society was published in 1990, and in 2020, the sixth edition was released. Although women artists’ representation in art history pedagogy has improved since 1990, the art world in general still favors men over women, making Chadwick’s book a relevant read. It provides a historical and critical look at women artists from the Middle Ages to the present, covering a range of media and artists from various cultural and geographical backgrounds. It challenges the assumption that great women artists are the exception to the rule and charts the evolution of feminist art history. 


Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists

By Lisa E. Farrington,

Book cover of Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists

Why this book?

If you want to learn about the history of African American women artists from the era of slavery to the 21st century, this is the book to read. Lisa E. Farrington astutely analyzes this fraught history with a style of writing that’s available to both scholars and non-scholars alike. It’s for anyone who has an interest in how images of Black women have evolved over time from racist stereotypes in art and popular culture to empowering images created by Black women artists who “contested society’s insistence on their subservience and vulgarity.” Farrington’s groundbreaking book, which was published in 2005, makes it clear that when Black women artists control their own images, it changes the trajectory of both art history and popular culture. 


Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa

By Marilyn Chase,

Book cover of Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa

Why this book?

Ruth Asawa’s art and life are inspirational and anyone reading this book will discover why. The Japanese American artist’s life was filled with challenges from contracting diphtheria, to being forced to live in a concentration camp, to marrying across racial lines when most states banned it, to contracting lupus in middle age. Yet, her strong work ethic and creative passion prevailed, spawning a new art form of hanging looped-wire sculptures. The last two photos in the book show Asawa inside and surrounded by her organic-looking sculptures, conveying a symbiotic relationship between the artist and her art. There is a meditative mood to these Imogen Cunningham photos that match the experience of seeing Asawa’s pieces in real life. When I finished reading this book, I felt bathed in Asawa’s beautiful spirit.  


Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract

By Philip J. Deloria,

Book cover of Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract

Why this book?

Before reading this book, I had never heard of Mary Sully. I’m thrilled that I now know about her stunning “personality prints,” abstract designs arranged in horizontal triptychs. Sully, who was born on the Standing Rock reservation in 1896, was largely a self-taught artist who never achieved wide recognition. Philip Deloria, a professor of history and a relative of Sully’s, delves into the complexities of what it meant to be a Dakota Sioux woman artist working with an innovative style of abstract art that didn’t fit into neat categories. This mirrors, Deloria says, the “scramble for survival” that an “Indian” woman had to navigate in a “difficult world.” That difficult world is still with us today, making this story a throughline to the present and a must-read.


Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

By Mary Gabriel,

Book cover of Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

Why this book?

Mary Gabriel, an incredible storyteller, does a masterful job uncovering the extraordinary lives and artistic contributions of five very different Abstract Expressionist painters: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. I’ve done a lot of research on this movement with a particular focus on Elaine de Kooning, but I never felt that Gabriel was rehashing the same material. With her engaging style of writing, she brings a fresh perspective to a story that needed to be told. This group of women artists has largely been left out of the canonical versions of Abstract Expressionism. Some have fared better than others, but as a group, their presence is lacking. Through these daring women’s lives, readers learn about the complexities of gender bias in the pre-and-post-WWII years.


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