Margaret Randall, Artists in My Life (New Village Press, 2022) Cover image is a portrait of the author by Elaine de Kooning.

“What do we expect or want from books about ancient archaeological sites?” asks Margaret Randall in chapter six of Artists in My Life (New Village Press, 2022). She goes on to muse about publications that are variously “of an elegance that far outweighs content” and others that are “superficial tourist propaganda,” or else “something so complex that I would have to be a specialist to crack the code.” Randall frames these shortcomings as a way of introducing The Lines (Yale University Art Gallery, 2014) by Edward Ranney and Lucy Lippard, which reflects upon the Nazca Lines, famous and mysterious “geoglyphs” of unknown origin that appeared in Southern Peru and Chile some 2000 years ago — an archeological text that she holds in high esteem, and one of 12 signposts in her lifelong journey through the arts.

In the spirit of Randall’s inquiry, I might ask: What do we expect or want from a book of art writing? Certainly, there are publications dedicated to high-quality image replication, others devoted to rehashing of an already venerated canon, and many that remain hopelessly mired in academic conventions that obscure rather than clarify the reader’s relationship with art. But Randall’s approach is different. She uses the truest compass possible when wayfinding in art: her own lived experience.

Barbara Byers, from Petroglyph Series (2004), acrylic on paper, 12 by 18 inches (courtesy Barbara Byers)

As an arts writer, I am always envious when I find that someone has articulated not only art theory itself, but the way it is a natural part of life for someone who takes joy in the consideration of art. Chris Kraus did this brilliantly in I Love Dick (Semiotext(e), 1997); Morgan Meis does this with equal (and completely different) brilliance in The Drunken Silenus (Slant Books, 2020). Randall manages this feat, as the title suggests, by contemplating 12 female artists who are important to her life.

Some of these are artists she knew personally, like her friend and mentor Elaine de Kooning, or her wife, Barbara Byers. Others are unsung visionaries, such as sculptor Ferdi Tajiri-Jansen or Southwestern architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. And some are both. Randall also looks to the pantheon of famous female artists, including Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe — but even as she navigates these well-worn legacies, the author treads her own path, rooting her discussions in the connection she and the artists share with the culture of Mexico or landscapes of New Mexico, both integral to their respective bodies of work.

Overview of 200-foot-long panel Barrier Canyon stayle pictographs, The Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon, The Maze, Utah (courtesy Margaret Randall)

The chapter on Kahlo, for example, focuses on the bathroom of La Casa Azul in Coyoacán, Kahlo’s former residence and living monument to her memory. Though the house has been open to visitors since its inauguration as a museum in 1958, the bathroom remained closed, housing a number of personal objects, including the artist’s back braces and prosthetic legs — objects directly related to the physical and emotional anguish that was a signature of her visceral self-portraits. Randall is not simply attentive to Kahlo’s imagery; she is interested in her pain. Her writing reflects an artist’s sensitivity to process and inspiration, and the understanding that art comes from somewhere, and communicates experience.

With analysis that is either deeply intuitive or directly informed by personal experience or encounters, Randall presents the life of an artist as both subject and narrator. Artists in My Life dissolves the fourth wall between artist, art object, and viewer, offering a welcome approach to arts writing as an extension of how artists live.

Sabra Moore, “H/EAR/HER/E” (2014), mixed media, 47 by 85 inches (photo by Sharon Stewart, courtesy Sabra Moore)
Frida’s Bed, Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City (photo courtesy Margaret Randall)
Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter, the Watchtower, Grand Canyon, detail view looking up at the Watchtower ceiling (photo by Margaret Randall)

Artists in My Life by Margaret Randall (2022) is published by New Village Press and is available online and in bookstores.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...