Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

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9780374534585: Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

A National Book Critics Circle Finalist for Criticism

A deeply Malcolmian volume on painters, photographers, writers, and critics.

Janet Malcolm's In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, as well as her books about Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein, are canonical in the realm of nonfiction―as is the title essay of this collection, with its forty-one "false starts," or serial attempts to capture the essence of the painter David Salle, which becomes a dazzling portrait of an artist. Malcolm is "among the most intellectually provocative of authors," writes David Lehman in The Boston Globe, "able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight."

Here, in Forty-one False Starts, Malcolm brings together essays published over the course of several decades (largely in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books) that reflect her preoccupation with artists and their work. Her subjects are painters, photographers, writers, and critics. She explores Bloomsbury's obsessive desire to create things visual and literary; the "passionate collaborations" behind Edward Weston's nudes; and the character of the German art photographer Thomas Struth, who is "haunted by the Nazi past," yet whose photographs have "a lightness of spirit." In "The Woman Who Hated Women," Malcolm delves beneath the "onyx surface" of Edith Wharton's fiction, while in "Advanced Placement" she relishes the black comedy of the Gossip Girl novels of Cecily von Zeigesar. In "Salinger's Cigarettes," Malcolm writes that "the pettiness, vulgarity, banality, and vanity that few of us are free of, and thus can tolerate in others, are like ragweed for Salinger's helplessly uncontaminated heroes and heroines." "Over and over," as Ian Frazier writes in his introduction, "she has demonstrated that nonfiction―a book of reporting, an article in a magazine, something we see every day―can rise to the highest level of literature."

One of Publishers Weekly's Best Nonfiction Books of 2013

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Janet Malcolm is the acclaimed author of many books, including In the Freud Archives; The Journalist and the Murderer; Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial; Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (for which she received the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography); and Burdock, a volume of her photographs of a "rank weed." Malcolm writes frequently for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

FORTY-ONE FALSE STARTS
1994

 
1
There are places in New York where the city’s anarchic, unaccommodating spirit, its fundamental, irrepressible aimlessness and heedlessness have found especially firm footholds. Certain transfers between subway lines, passageways of almost transcendent sordidness; certain sites of torn-down buildings where parking lots have silently sprung up like fungi; certain intersections created by illogical confluences of streets—these express with particular force the city’s penchant for the provisional and its resistance to permanence, order, closure. To get to the painter David Salle’s studio, walking west on White Street, you have to traverse one of these disquieting intersections—that of White and Church Streets and an interloping Sixth Avenue—which has created an unpleasantly wide expanse of street to cross, interrupted by a wedge-shaped island on which a commercial plant nursery has taken up forlorn and edgy residence, surrounding itself with a high wire fence and keeping truculently irregular hours. Other businesses that have arisen around the intersection—the seamy Baby Doll Lounge, with its sign offering GO-GO GIRLS; the elegant Ristorante Arquà; the nameless grocery and Lotto center; the dour Kinney parking lot—have a similar atmosphere of insularity and transience. Nothing connects with anything else, and everything looks as if it might disappear overnight. The corner feels like a no man’s land and—if one happens to be thinking about David Salle—looks like one of his paintings.
Salle’s studio, on the second floor of a five-story loft building, is a long room lit with bright, cold overhead light. It is not a beautiful studio. Like the streets outside, it gives no quarter to the visitor in search of the picturesque. It doesn’t even have a chair for the visitor to sit in, unless you count a backless, half-broken metal swivel chair Salle will offer with a murmur of inattentive apology. Upstairs, in his living quarters, it is another story. But down here everything has to do with work and with being alone.
A disorderly profusion of printed pictorial matter covers the surfaces of tables in the middle of the room: art books, art journals, catalogs, brochures mingle with loose illustrations, photographs, odd pictures ripped from magazines. Scanning these complicated surfaces, the visitor feels something of the sense of rebuff he feels when looking at Salle’s paintings, a sense that this is all somehow none of one’s business. Here lie the sources of Salle’s postmodern art of “borrowed” or “quoted” images—the reproductions of famous old and modern paintings, the advertisements, the comics, the photographs of nude or half-undressed women, the fabric and furniture designs that he copies and puts into his paintings—but one’s impulse, as when coming into a room of Salle’s paintings, is to politely look away. Salle’s hermeticism, the private, almost secretive nature of his interests and tastes and intentions, is a signature of his work. Glancing at the papers he has made no effort to conceal gives one the odd feeling of having broken into a locked desk drawer.
On the walls of the studio are five or six canvases, on which Salle works simultaneously. In the winter of 1992, when I began visiting him in his studio, he was completing a group of paintings for a show in Paris in April. The paintings had a dense, turgid character. Silk-screen excerpts from Indian architectural ornaments, chair designs, and photographic images of a woman wrapped in cloth were overlaid with drawings of some of the forms in Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, rendered in slashing, ungainly brushstrokes, together with images of coils of rope, pieces of fruit, and eyes. Salle’s earlier work had been marked by a kind of spaciousness, sometimes an emptiness, such as surrealist works are prone to. But here everything was condensed, impacted, mired. The paintings were like an ugly mood. Salle himself, a slight, handsome man with shoulder-length hair, which he wears tied back, like a matador, was feeling bloody-minded. He was going to be forty the following September. He had broken up with his girlfriend, the choreographer and dancer Karole Armitage. His moment was passing. Younger painters were receiving attention. He was being passed over. But he was also being attacked. He was not looking forward to the Paris show. He hated Paris, with its “heavily subsidized aestheticism.” He disliked his French dealer …
2
In a 1991 interview with the screenwriter Becky Johnston, during a discussion of what Johnston impatiently called “this whole Neo-Expressionist Zeitgeist Postmodernist What-ever-you-want-to-call-it Movement” and its habit of “constantly looking backward and reworking or recontextualizing art history,” the painter David Salle said, with disarming frankness, “You mustn’t underestimate the extent to which all this was a process of educating ourselves. Our generation was pathetically educated, just pathetic beyond imagination. I was better educated than many. Julian”—the painter Julian Schnabel—“was totally uneducated. But I wasn’t much better, frankly. We had to educate ourselves in a hundred different ways. Because if you had been hanging around the Conceptual artists, all you learned was the Frankfurt School. It was as if nothing existed before or after. So part of it was the pledge of self-education—you know, going to Venice, looking at great paintings, looking at great architecture, looking at great furniture—and having very early the opportunity to kind of buy stuff. That’s a form of self-education. It’s not just about acquisition. It was a tremendous explosion of information and knowledge.”
To kind of buy stuff. What is the difference between buying stuff and kind of buying it? Is “kind of buying” buying with a bad conscience, buying with the ghost of the Frankfurt School grimly looking over your shoulder and smiting its forehead as it sees the money actually leave your hand? This ghost, or some relative of it, has hung over all the artists who, like Salle, made an enormous amount of money in the eighties, when they were still in their twenties or barely in their thirties. In the common perception, there is something unseemly about young people getting rich. Getting rich is supposed to be the reward for hard work, preferably arriving when you are too old to enjoy it. And the spectacle of young millionaires who made their bundle not from business or crime but from avant-garde art is particularly offensive. The avant-garde is supposed to be the conscience of the culture, not its id.
3
All during my encounter with the artist David Salle—he and I met for interviews in his studio, on White Street, over a period of two years—I was acutely conscious of his money. Even when I got to know him and like him, I couldn’t dispel the disapproving, lefty, puritanical feeling that would somehow be triggered each time we met, whether it was by the sight of the assistant at a sort of hair-salon receptionist’s station outside the studio door; or by the expensive furniture of a fifties corporate style in the upstairs loft where he lives; or by the mineral water he would bring out during our talks and pour into white paper cups, which promptly lost their take-out-counter humbleness and assumed the hauteur of the objects in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Salle was one of the fortunate art stars of the eighties—young men and women plucked from semi-poverty and transformed into millionaires by genies disguised as art dealers. The idea of a rich avant-garde has never sat well with members of my generation. Serious artists, as we know them or like to think of them, are people who get by but do not have a lot of money. They live with second or third wives or husbands and with children from the various marriages, and they go to Cape Cod in the summer. Their apartments are filled with faded Persian carpets and cat-clawed sofas and beautiful and odd objects bought before anyone else saw their beauty. Salle’s loft was designed by an architect. Everything in it is sleek, cold, expensive, unused. A slight sense of quotation marks hovers in the air, but it is very slight—it may not even be there—and it doesn’t dispel the atmosphere of dead-serious connoisseurship by which the room is dominated.
4
During one of my visits to the studio of the artist David Salle, he told me that he never revises. Every brushstroke is irrevocable. He doesn’t correct or repaint, ever. He works under the dire conditions of performance. Everything counts, nothing may be taken back, everything must always go relentlessly forward, and a mistake may be fatal. One day, he showed me a sort of murdered painting. He had worked on it a little too long, taken a misstep, killed it.
5
The artist David Salle and I are sitting at a round table in my apartment. He is a slight, handsome man of thirty-nine, with dark shoulder-length hair worn tightly sleeked back and bound with a rubber band, accentuating his appearance of quickness and lightness, of being sort of streamlined. He wears elegant, beautifully polished shoes and speaks in a low, cultivated voice. His accent has no trace of the Midwest, where he grew up, the son of second-generation Russian Jewish parents. It has no affectation, either. He is agreeable, ironic, a little detached. “I can’t remember what we talked about last time,” he says. “I have no memory. I remember making the usual artist’s complaints about critics, and then saying, ‘Well, that’s terribly boring, we don’t want to be stuck talking about that’—and then talking about that. I had a kind of bad feeling afterward. I felt inadequate.”
6
The artist David Salle and I met for the first time in the fall of 1991. A few months earlier, we had spoken on the telephone about a mystifying proposal of his: that I write the text for a book of reproductions of his paintings, to be published by Rizzoli. When I told him there must be some mistake, that I was not an art historian or an art critic and had but the smallest acquaintance with his work, he said no, there wasn’t a mistake. He was deliberately looking for someone outside the art world, for an “interesting writer” who would write an unconventional text. As he talked, I found myself reluctant to say no to him then and there, even though I knew I would eventually have to refuse. Something about the man made me say I would think about it. He then said that to acquaint me with his work and with himself, he would send some relevant writings. A few days later, a stylish package arrived, preceded by a telephone call from an assistant at Salle’s studio to arrange the details of the delivery. It contained three or four exhibition catalogs, several critical articles, and various published interviews, together with a long interview that was still in typescript but was bound in a hard black cover. It was by the screenwriter Becky Johnston, who, I later learned, was an “interesting writer” Salle had previously approached to do the Rizzoli book. She had done the interview in preparation for the text but had never written it.
7
David Salle’s art has an appearance of mysterious, almost preternatural originality, and yet nothing in it is new; everything has had a previous life elsewhere—in master paintings, advertising art, comics, photographs. Other artists have played the game of appropriation or quotation that Salle plays—Duchamp, Schwitters, Ernst, Picabia, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Johns—but none with such reckless inventiveness. Salle’s canvases are like bad parodies of the Freudian unconscious. They are full of images that don’t belong together: a woman taking off her clothes, the Spanish Armada, a kitschy fabric design, an eye.
8
David Salle is recognized as the leading American postmodernist painter. He is the most authoritative exemplar of the movement, which has made a kind of mockery of art history, treating the canon of world art as if it were a gigantic dog-eared catalog crammed with tempting buys and equipped with a helpful twenty-four-hour-a-day 800 number. Salle’s selections from the catalog have a brilliant perversity. Nothing has an obvious connection to anything else, and everything glints with irony and a sort of icy melancholy. His jarring juxtapositions of incongruous images and styles point up with special sharpness the paradox on which their art of appropriated matter is poised: its mysterious, almost preternatural appearance of originality. After one looks at a painting by Salle, works of normal signature-style art—paintings done in a single style with an intelligible thematic—begin to seem pale and meager, kind of played out. Paintings like Salle’s—the unabashed products of, if not vandalism, a sort of cold-eyed consumerism—are entirely free of any “anxiety of influence.” For all their borrowings, they seem unprecedented, like a new drug or a new crime. They are rootless, fatherless and motherless.
9
The artist David Salle has given so many interviews, has been the subject of so many articles, has become so widely inscribed as an emblematic figure of the eighties art world that it is no longer possible to do a portrait of him simply from life. The heavy shadow of prior encounters with journalists and critics falls over each fresh encounter. Every writer has come too late; no writer escapes the sense of Bloomian belatedness that the figure of Salle evokes. One cannot behave as if one had just met him, and Salle himself behaves like the curator of a sort of museum of himself, helpfully guiding visitors through the exhibition rooms and steering them toward the relevant literature. At the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, where he exhibits, there is a two-and-a-half-foot-long file drawer devoted exclusively to published writings about Salle’s art and person.
My own encounter with Salle was most heavily shadowed by the interviews he had given two writers, Peter Schjeldahl and Becky Johnston. Reading their dialogues with him was like listening to conversations between brilliant characters in a hastily written but inspired play of advanced ideas and intense, slightly mysterious relationships.
10
The specter of wrongdoing hovers more luridly over visual art than over literature or music. The forger, the pornographer, and the fraud are stock figures in the allegory that constitutes the popular conception of the art world as a place of exciting evil and cunning. The artist David Salle has the distinction of being associated with all three crimes. His paintings are filled with “borrowed” images (twice he has settled out of court with irked owners); often contain drawings of naked or half-undressed women standing or lying in indecent, if not especially arousing, positions; and have an appearance of messy disjunction that could be dismissed (and has been dismissed by Hilton Kramer, Robert Hughes, and Arthur Danto) as ineptitude palming itself off as advanced art. Most critics, however, have without hesitation accepted Salle’s work as advanced art, and some of them—Peter Schjeldahl, Sanford Schwartz, Michael Brenson, Robert Rosenblum, Lisa Liebmann, for example—have celebrated its transgressive quality and placed his paintings among the works that most authoritatively express our time and are apt to become its permanent monuments.
11
Unlike David Salle’s enigmatic, difficult art, his life is the banal story of a boy who grew up in Wichita, Kansas, in a poorish Jewish family, took art lessons throughout his childhood, went to art school in California, came to New York, and became rich and famous overnight.
12
During an interview with the artist David Salle, published in 1987, the critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl said to him: <...

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