18 Artists Share the Books That Inspire Them

Scott Indrisek
Jun 23, 2017 6:38PM

Some artists wear their literary loves on their sleeves. Take Frances Stark, who, for this year’s Whitney Biennial, filled a room with enormous, painterly reproductions of the first chapter of Censorship Now!, an irreverent essay collection by Ian F. Svenonius. Likewise, Icelandic art star Ragnar Kjartansson is such a fan of Halldór Laxness’s World Light that he not only plowed through the multi-part epic, he translated it into an almost 21-hour, four-channel video.  

But more often than not, we have no idea what artists are reading, no idea what books have shaped their life and work. And so, we asked 18 of our favorites to help compile an eclectic, artsy summer reading list, which includes everything from nature guides to Toni Morrison, Playboy, and a history of psychedelics.

Before we begin, I can’t resist interjecting my own beach-ready recommendation: Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love, out in early July, a smart-and-perverted tale of deranged tech geniuses and dolphin romance.


Ivana Bašić

The Eye, by Vladimir Nabokov

“This extraordinary book is based around post-existence and the malleable nature of reality,” says Bašić (whose own reality-bending kinetic sculptures can be found at Marlborough Contemporary in New York through June 24th). “The main character commits suicide at the very beginning, in one of the most profound and visceral scenes I’ve ever read. Yet instead of nothingness, he encounters a world constructed from his own imperfect memories. He is a disembodied gaze: The Eye. The world he creates becomes as convincing as the one he lived in, destabilizing the idea of the origin of reality. The character exists outside of a body in what he describes as a state of ‘absorption.’ A tireless, unblinking eye that observes—watching oneself, and others—is an eerie vision of today’s world…written 87 years ago.”

Ridley Howard

A Field Guide To Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit

“I was always the kid on school trips that got lost, and I took pleasure in it,” says the painter, whose travel-inspired work was recently on view at Marinaro Gallery in New York. “I’ve always been a daydreamer; it seems harder to do those things now. Solnit’s book is really about introspection and loss, but also about wandering, drift, the mythology of place, old country music, and the color blue. I think a lot of artists will relate.”

Betty Tompkins

Lives of the Artists, by Calvin Tomkins

Post-To-Neo: The Art World of the 1980s, by Calvin Tomkins

Seeing Out Loud, by Jerry Saltz

Seeing Out Louder, by Jerry Saltz

The Generosity of Women, by Courtney Eldridge

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson

Tompkins—a fearless painter of all things sex-positive—likes to read about the art world itself. “When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s, I read an article about Robert Rauschenberg by Calvin Tomkins in the New Yorker,” she says. That kicked off a fondness for Tomkins that led her to a series of books that she revisits every summer, beginning with Lives of the Artists and Post-To-Neo: The Art World of the 1980s.

“I was, and still am, impressed by critics—like Jerry Saltz today—who write for mass media,” Tompkins explains. “They talk to an audience who may not be art-wise, and they make art make sense.” Her recommendations include two volumes by Saltz: Seeing Out Loud, and Seeing Out Louder. “Those get tough competition from my two favorite novels about art: Courtney Eldridge’s The Generosity of Women, and Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang.”

Roger White

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, by China Miéville

The writer and painter suggests a searing historical survey he’s currently reading. “It’s billed as a layperson’s introduction to the birth of communism in the epochal year of 1917, but it’s a lot more than that,” he says. “Miéville, known for his extravagantly weird science fiction and fantasy, is a virtuosic storyteller; here he conjures a society convulsing on the verge of total transformation while staying squarely within the lines of the historical record. Reading this blow-by-blow account of revolution now, when political life is stranger than any fiction, is galvanizing.”

Sean Landers

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

The painter was drawn to “the firsthand diary narrative written within the novel by the fictional character Jonathan Harker,” he says. “I liked the idea of a fictional character writing within a larger fictional context. It gave me the idea to write as a fictional character, Chris Hamson, in my early written artwork Art, Life and God (1990).  My character Hamson’s penchant for writing in a flowery, Gothic, 19th-century style of English was me paying homage to Bram Stoker.”

Joel Mesler


The painter and gallerist (who recently set up shop in the Hamptons) has fond memories of his childhood reading material. “When I was around nine, my father kept most current issues of Playboy in a magazine rack by his side of the bed,” he recalls. “When the coast would seem clear I would frantically look through them, knowing my time would always be cut short. Other than the Playboys, the only other ‘reading material’ was a medical journal of some sort called, I think, Blood and Guts. This was my shield, my go-to deflection when either my father would come home or my mother would walk into the room. I would often just lay there on the floor reading Blood and Guts, waiting for my mother to walk into the room, just to drive home the point that this was the book of choice, not the Playboy.

“So by way of lies, this book and all of its detailed illustrations have forever scarred me and created a mountain of medical phobias I still suffer from to this day. I cringe at the sound of my stomach rumbling. I hate hearing people chew their food.  I’ve been known to pass out at the sight of blood. I blame Blood and Guts forever for this, as I am sure that if I had been able to comfortably peruse my father’s Playboys, I would be normal today.”

Shara Hughes

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle

“I wanted to be really cool and say something artsy or more interesting, but I keep coming back to something that was in Oprah’s Book Club,” says Hughes, whose paintings are currently on view at New York’s Rachel Uffner Gallery, as well as in the Whitney Biennial. “I read this book while I was alone for a summer, making work in a tiny Danish town called Vejby Strand. The paintings I was making were based on a tragic event I had been working with for a long time; they were driven by my mind trying to keep this tragedy alive. A New Earth was a huge influence because it taught me to chill out—that nothing in your mind actually exists. It’s a pretty heavy book—with study guides and many, many spin-offs—but the message is always the same, just applied in different ways. It continues to be something I think about often.”

Derek Fordjour

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

“This novel demonstrates the immense power of exceptional prose,” says Fordjour, whose immersive exhibition “Parade” opens at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling in New York this July. “To call this book a page-turner would be a severe understatement. In addition to living with the characters so intimately, I marveled at Morrison’s thinking, her innate ability to transmit culture, to weave supernatural phenomena and the natural world seamlessly, and to captivate with language. I have never read a final page so slowly.  The novel does what only a novel can do: transport, transcend and transform.”

Haroon Mirza

The script for Einstein on the Beach, by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, based on the poems of Christopher Knowles

Einstein on the Beach changed my understanding of art,” says Mirza, whose own work blends sculpture, installation, and sound. “For me it is a true gesamtkunstwerk at a grand scale, and allowed me to see how various forms of production and representation can be synthesised through collaboration. It led me to believe that true creativity can only come from two or more minds. Robert Wilson came across the work of 13-year-old Christopher Knowles. His poems and paintings, sometimes compared to concrete poetry, become the abstract narrative for the epic opera to emerge through the collaboration between Wilson and Philip Glass. I find it encouraging that people with very different situations can coalesce and focus their efforts to realise something that would individually be unimaginable.”  

Mirza’s Aestival Infinato (Solar Symphony 11), on view at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park through July 2nd, represents its own unique form of collaboration: The piece is integrated into an existing James Turrell “Skyspace.”

Sara Cwynar

Mythologies, by Roland Barthes

The conceptual photographer and video artist celebrates this iconic look at “how the most seemingly benign products of our popular culture are actually filled with meaning and power,” a notion that’s perfectly in keeping with her own practice. Barthes’s work, she says, shows “how kitsch has a class-based motivation. He breaks down how the bourgeoisie present their ideologies as ‘natural’ in order to mask hierarchies of power, and this happens through the everyday images and objects of pop culture: travel guides, cooking photography, movie stars.”

Of all the everyday things dissected in Mythologies, Cwynar’s favorite passage concerns plastics: “It is a ‘shaped’ substance: whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature.…Its noise is its undoing, as are its colours, for it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking ones. Of yellow, red and green, it keeps only the aggressive quality, and uses them as mere names, being able to display only concepts of colour.”

Samuel Jablon

A Simple Country Girl, by Taylor Mead

“When I read this book of poems, I thought Mead completely captured New York City with all of its disgustingly glamorous faults,” says Jablon, who is both a poet and a painter who works with words. When Mead died in 2013, Jablon made a painting in his honor, spelling out verses—like “I burned my candle at both ends I shall not last the night but what a fucking life”—using glass, mirror, and gold tiles.

Diana Al-Hadid

Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff

Don’t Think of an Elephant, by George Lakoff

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, by George Saunders

The artist’s work often deals with massive architectural forms or riffs on classical sculpture. She recommends a few books that might help you parse our current reality. “I recently returned to George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant,” she says. “The first book I read of his was in grad school—Metaphors We Live By—and it shook my world. Completely reshaped my little brain. Don’t Think of an Elephant was written during the time of George W. Bush, but Lakoff has also written essays on why Trump was elected.” For a fictional take on politics in America, Al-Hadid also suggests The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, a novella by George Saunders.


Joshua Citarella

Into the Universe of Technical Images, by Vilem Flusser

“This 1985 book has been a huge influence,” says Citarella, whose photography and sculpture often deals with technology, data, and the future. “I think it’s the best introduction for understanding images today. Before Photoshop and the internet, Flusser prophetically described how technology is going to reshape society. It feels like it was written yesterday. The first English translation was only made available in 2011, so it is still relatively under-referenced compared to other voices of the era. Last year I curated a show at Carroll / Fletcher in London—‘Dense Mesh’—based on several passages from the book.”

B. Ingrid Olson

Book of Mutter, by Kate Zambreno

The artist—whose highly personal, mixed-media assemblages are currently on view in “Fond Illusions” at Galerie Perrotin in New York—suggests this “especially raw, multifaceted portrait of loss.”

“Zambreno weaves together fragments of art history and biography (including pieces of Roland Barthes, Louise Bourgeois, Henry Darger) and her own episodic memories of her mother,” Olson says. “The structure of her writing reads at the pace of thinking, of the quick connections between one thought to another: Sometimes the text is full and clear, and other times it is an amalgam of scattered images, or simply a list of words.”

Trudy Benson

True Hallucinations, by Terence McKenna

“It’s a psychedelic adventure set in the Amazon, complete with aliens and miniature people,” explains Benson, whose work can be seen through July 28th at New York’s Lyles & King. “There are botanical and anthropological tangents, where mysticism and science blur together. A magical summer journey!”

Gretchen Scherer

We Have Always Lived In The Castle, by Shirley Jackson

“In the summer of 2015, I received an email from David Armacost asking me to be in a three-person show with himself and Katrina Fimmel,” Scherer says. “The gallery was called Evening Hours, a small artist-run space on the lower level of an East Village apartment building. Elspeth Walker, a writer and curator, also a member of the space, suggested we call the show We Have Always Lived in the Castle, after the novel by Shirley Jackson. I had never read the book, so Elspeth sent a short passage for us to read.

“The passage described a book nailed to a tree, meant to ward off evil spirits. I had a painting in process at the time of an old house, with a big tree in the foreground. Inspired by the passage, I decided to paint a book nailed to the tree. Katrina made a very large, washy and bright painting of figures in a forest. David made a large flower arrangement that was nailed to the wall, sort of the inverse of the book nailed to the tree.

“That summer, I read We Have Always Lived In The Castle in full. It was very different from what I had imagined—like entering a parallel universe. The feeling of the book and the show are forever linked in my mind; from time to time I think of it and can very quickly enter that world we created.”

Marilyn Minter

The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen

“I got a copy of these tales when I was a kid,” says the painter, whose lush subjects have their own larger-than-life, occasionally sinister magic. “I loved the illustrations, and tried to copy them all the time: witches thrown in barrels, covered with nails and rolled down a hill. Not like today’s fairy tales, I suspect.”

TM Davy

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Dionysiaca, by Nonnus

Tree Finder, by May Theilgaard Watts

“I return most summers to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the Kalamos & Karpos myth in Nonnus’s Dionysiaca, and other poetry that will wake me back into the transmutational mysteries of being under our sun,” says the painter, whose recent work has explored natural landscapes (and horses). “But perhaps nothing has been more directly enlivening toward nature’s variations than the ‘dichotomous keys’ of May Theilgaard Watts. Her Tree Finder is an easy path of observational questions toward identifying East Coast trees by the shape and character of their leaves and branches. Small enough to take on hikes, it helped tune my novice naturalist eye to a living play of forms.”

Scott Indrisek