Henry Moore. Girl Reading. 1947. Watercolor, ink, crayon, and pencil on paper, 11 1/2 × 9 1/2" (29.2 × 24.1 cm). The Joan and Lester Avnet Collection. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

The Fastest Woman in the World: Novels That Explore Art

From The Flamethrowers to Memoirs of Hadrian, members of MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture recommend favorite books.
May 27, 2020

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980)

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow places Alberto Giacometti’s hauntingly fragile wood, glass, wire, and string sculpture The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932), at the novel’s heart, and uses it—literally and metaphorically—as the scaffolding for a story of friendships built and broken, and lives loved and lost. I can’t think of another book that so poignantly weaves the memory and structure of an art object into a literary narrative’s shape and form. Although its appeal is timeless, it feels particularly suited to our historical moment, as the virus forces each of us to grapple with our own inherent fragility.
Anne Umland, The Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Senior Curator

Alberto Giacometti. The Palace at 4 a.m. 1932

Alberto Giacometti. The Palace at 4 a.m. 1932

Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty (2010)

The New York art world of the 1990s and 2000s is the setting of comedian (and art collector) Steve Martin’s 2010 novel An Object of Beauty. Martin traces the meteoric rise of the alluring and ambitious Lacey Yeager from the “bins” of Sotheby’s auction house to the competitive gallery scene, describing the revelatory artworks that alter her perception of the art market and art history along the way. His moving depiction of the devastating impact of both 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis on New York City, and particularly the art world, echoes the current turmoil caused by Covid-19.
Charlotte Healy, Research Assistant

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013)

The Flamethrowers follows Reno, a recent art school graduate from Nevada, who moves to New York in 1975 because of the firmly held but somewhat ironic belief that “a person had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West.” She falls in with the downtown art scene and encounters its many characters. During a trip back west to photograph her motorcycle tracks in the Utah Salt Flats in the name of Land Art, she unexpectedly sets the record for being the fastest woman in the world, a title that leads her to Italy where she falls in with a group of political radicals. Kushner’s novel spans multiple histories and geographies, but it is Reno’s early descriptions of New York that reverberate the most in the current moment: “The trucks rumbling down Kenmare, the honking, an occasional breaking of glass, made me feel that I was not separate and alone in my solitude, because the city was flowing through my apartment and its sounds were a kind of companionship.”
Lily Goldberg, Collection Specialist

Gordon Parks’s The Learning Tree (1963)

Gordon Parks wrote The Learning Tree during his long tenure as a staff photographer for Life magazine. In his coming-of-age novel, he follows the intellectual and social development of Newt, a young African American adolescent given many of the author’s own biographical details, as he navigates life in rural Kansas during the Great Depression. Newt observes vast racial inequities, and bears witness, in the legal sense, to a crime. The charged narrative describes a set of circumstances that shaped the artist and author himself into a keen witness and documentarian of American life.
Lee Colón, Curatorial Assistant

Ling Ma’s Severance (2018)

Candace Chen is a millennial devoted to routine. When Shen Fever, a (fictional) respiratory illness spreads from China to become a global pandemic, she barely notices, continuing to work, even moving into her office. She roams the empty streets of New York, photographing all that she sees, passing by an empty MoMA and saying hi to the guards through the glass. It is suspected that nostalgia is a trigger for the disease. People fall ill when they return to their childhood homes, becoming zombies repeating old patterns until they die. Candace’s own conflicted relationship with her distant family in China keeps her healthy. Severance explores how capitalism shapes and is shaped by disaster, but also how its affective ties span work, family, and belonging.
Simon Wu, Administrative Assistant

Anne and Claire Berest's Gabriële (2017)

This semi-fictionalized biography provides a fascinating window into the life of the under-recognized critic and writer, Gabriële Buffet-Picabia. The novel traces her adventures as an independent, strong-willed music student in Paris and Berlin. When she meets the young painter Francis Picabia in 1908, she abandons her career as a composer and dedicates herself to an intensely intellectual relationship; it encourages Picabia to rethink his work in musical terms and accelerates his shift toward radically abstract art. Buffet-Picabia never ceases to inspire, stimulate, and challenge ideas, influencing the young Marcel Duchamp and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The authors, Buffet-Picabia’s great-granddaughters, rely on documentary evidence but also share personal thoughts as they seek to fill in the gaps in their family’s past.
Laura Braverman, Curatorial Assistant

Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016)

Written in the months following the United Kingdom’s EU referendum, Autumn is a meditation on simultaneity and division. The first iteration of Smith’s Seasonal Quartet series, the novel centers on the intergenerational friendship between Elisabeth Demand, an art history lecturer, and Daniel Gluck, an elderly man who first met an eight-year-old Elisabeth as her neighbor. Smith traces their relationship through decades; time skips and jumps, and Smith ricochets between existential dreamscapes and a post-Brexit UK, a country at once in joy and mourning. It is the duo’s faith in language and in art (notably, they share an affinity for British pop artist Pauline Boty) that ties them together, making the reader hope that it may do the same for their country.
Quinn Schoen, Assistant to the Chief Curator

Camilo Sánchez’s La viuda de los Van Gogh (The Widow of the Van Goghs) (2014)

The first novel by Argentinian Camilo Sánchez, La viuda de los Van Gogh tells the little-known but fascinating story of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the woman who, after Vincent van Gogh’s death, sought to make the artist’s oeuvre known to the world. The book takes place during the three years that followed the painter’s death, beginning with Johanna’s helplessness as she watches her husband Theo (Vincent’s brother) sink into agony. After Theo’s death, the young widow opens a guesthouse near Amsterdam to support herself and her young child, repatriating hundreds of paintings from Paris and installing them in her new home. At night, she avidly reads Vincent’s poetic letters to Theo, and becomes resolved to provide her brother-in-law with the recognition that he deserves. Sánchez’s short novel skillfully weaves historical facts with excerpts from van Gogh-Bonger’s diary and fictionalized narrative, paying homage to an inspiring heroine who, “like Van Gogh, was working for infinity.”
Charlotte Barat, Curatorial Assistant

Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc (2014)

Okey Ndibe’s riveting story collides cosmopolitan New York with rural southeastern Nigeria. The protagonist Ike is an American-educated New York cab driver; after several misfortunes, he hatches a scheme to steal a statue of an ancient deity from his Nigerian village to sell to a New York gallerist. Ndibe brilliantly weaves together these two worlds. The story is especially pertinent in light of the French government’s recent report on the restitution of African cultural heritage, and the complex nature of the current market for non-Western objects.
Smooth Nzewi, Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator

E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967)

This story about a brother and sister who run away to The Metropolitan Museum of Art is as much an art-historical mystery (while there they uncover that an Italian Renaissance-era sculpture purchased by the museum for $225 is worth millions) as it is a fantasy entertained by children and adults the world over. What would it be like to sneak past guards, sleep in sumptuous period rooms, and gather wishing coins from the museum’s bubbling fountains? While the New York City of the book differs markedly from today’s version—after the siblings realize it costs too much to eat in the museum, they find an automat close by and a place to wash their clothes for only ten cents a load—their adventure feels as fresh now as it did when the book was first published in 1967.
Romy Silver-Kohn, Research Assistant

Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours (Against Nature) (1884)

This is modern art’s best-kept secret: a paean to artifice that foreshadowed, and indeed shaped, the culture of modernism to come. Written shortly before the turn of the twentieth century, the novel follows the hallucinatory adventures of its protagonist, Des Esseintes, a recluse who is capable of extraordinary sensory experiences—hearing colors, tasting sounds. He conjures an entire aesthetic universe into which he hermetically seals himself, in part by building a collection of reproductions of artworks by Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, and others. These Symbolist paintings and drawings become characters in themselves; their defiantly unnatural hues and dreamlike scenes lead Des Esseintes to increasingly heightened reveries and, eventually, collapse. Anticipating the spectacle and simulation of our own time, this “poisonous little book,” as Oscar Wilde deemed it, points to a world in which the fake subsumes the real, and fiction is synonymous with truth.
Michelle Kuo, The Marlene Hess Curator

Annette Weisser’s Mycelium (2019)

In the novel’s prologue, three friends drive home to Berlin from a music festival that had taken place on the site of an old cooperative farm abandoned after German reunification, when they hit a sheep. Noora, the protagonist, sits patiently with the animal’s head on her lap; next, she is diagnosed with breast cancer; next, she reminisces about her family’s yearly mushroom hunting trips, and about the summer of 1986, when the forests were too saturated with the nuclear fallout of Chernobyl. The story of a young artist and of a culture still grappling with its past, Mycelium, by Annette Weisser—who is a conceptual artist—weaves together the transformation of Berlin with that of Noora’s own body as she faces her illness and, with it, the fracturing of her society.
Lydia Mullin, Curatorial Assistant

Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951)

During these months in which we are experiencing new thoughts about the nature of time, why not transport yourself back nearly two millennia? Yourcenar’s novel takes the form of a letter from a gravely ill emperor to his successor, Marcus Aurelius—“My dear Mark,” it begins—and immerses the reader in the interior and exterior worlds of a profoundly complex statesman. Art and architecture were a constant preoccupation during Hadrian’s twenty-one year reign, and he articulated his concept of good government in artistic terms: “My ideal was contained within the word beauty, so difficult to define despite all the evidence of our senses. I felt responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of our world.” Yourcenar’s remarkable afterword, “Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian,” recounts her decades-long project and invites readers into the process of art-making. “Do the best one can," she writes. "Do it over again. Then still improve, even if ever so slightly, those retouches.”
Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator