Friday, September 13, 2013

False Starts

Janet Malcolm has picked up pace in the past decade, or maybe the truth is more that I now follow her work more fanatically than before so am immediately aware when something new appears. Her 2011 book Iphigenia in Forest Hills could hardly have looked like less promising material  a bungled murder-for-hire motivated by a child-custody dispute. Yet somehow it became the necessary pretext for serious writing. Malcolm's defining manner seems to consist of making shapes for apparently shapeless, self-contradictory subjects.

Forty-One False Starts, the new collection of "essays on artists and writers" just came out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Janet Malcolm wrote the title essay for the New Yorker in 1994. It consisted of 41 numbered sections, each a different attempt to begin her assignment and compose a profile for the magazine about contemporary painter David Salle. In the early 80s Salle had arrived in New York straight from art school to begin life as an artist. Indeed, almost immediately he gained widespread recognition and much wealth. Janet Malcolm began interviewing David Salle in the early 90s, a time for him when middle age seemed to be looming and his career seemed to be stalled, a time when Salle talked mainly about feeling misunderstood and devalued by the Manhattan insiders who had created his reputation in the first place.

Tiny in the Air, 1989

On an afternoon in April 1992, the painter David Salle and I sat on a pristine yellow 1950s corporate-style sofa in his loft, on White Street, looking at a large horizontal painting that was hanging there, a work he had kept from a group of what he calls "the tapestry paintings," done between 1988 and 1991. The painting made me smile. It showed a group of figures from old art – the men in doublets and the women in gowns and wearing feathers in their hair – arranged around a gaming table, the scene obviously derived from one of de La Tour's tense dramas of dupery: and yet not de La Tour exactly, but a sardonic pastiche of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch and Italian genre styles. In the gesture for which Salle is known, he had superimposed on the scene incongruous-seeming fragments: two dark monochrome images of bare-breasted women holding wooden anatomy dolls, a sketchily rendered drawing of a Giacometti sculpture, a drawing of a grimacing face, and a sort of abstract expressionist rectangle of gray paint with drips and splatters obliterating a man's leg. As if participating in the joke of their transplantation from baroque to postmodernist art, the costumed men and women had set their faces in comically rigid, exaggerated expressions. When I asked Salle what paintings he had in mind when he made his pastiche, he gave me an answer that surprised me – and then didn't surprise me. One of the conditions of Salle's art is that nothing in it be original; everything must come from previously made work, so even a pastiche would have to be a pastiche done by someone else. In this case, it was an anonymous Russian tapestry maker whose work Salle had found reproduced in a magazine and had copied onto canvas. The tapestry paintings, perhaps more richly and vividly than any of Salle's other groups of work, illustrate the paradox on which his art is poised – that an appearance of originality may be achieved through dumb copying of the work of others. Salle has been accused of all kinds of bad things by his detractors (Hilton Kramer, Robert Hughes, and Arthur Danto, the most prominent of the critics who hate his work, have all said that he can't draw), but no one has ever accused him – no one can accuse him – of being derivative. His work has always looked like new art and, as time goes on and his technique and certain of his recurrent images have grown familiar, like art by David Salle. The tapestry paintings – there are more than ten of them – were a culmination. They have an energy, an invention, a kind of gorgeousness, and an atmosphere of success, of having pulled something off against heavy odds, that set them apart from Salle's other works. It is no wonder that he wanted to keep a memento of his achievement. 

But now the achievement only seemed to fuel Salle's bitterness, his sense of himself as "someone who is no longer current," who is "irrelevant after having been relevant."  He looked away from the painting and said, "The younger artists want to kill you off. They want to get rid of you. You're in their way. I haven't been the artist who is on young artists' minds for a long time. It has been six or seven years since I was the artist who was on young artist's minds. That's how fast it moves. The artists young artists have on their minds are people I've barely heard of. I'm sure there are young artists who think I'm dead."  I laughed, and he joined me. Then, his bitterness returning, Salle said, "I feel like I've just gotten started, marshaled my forces, done the research, and learned enough about painting to do something interesting. What I do used to matter to others – for reasons that may not have had anything to do with its merit. But now, when I feel I have something to say, no one wants to hear it. There has always been antagonism to my work, but the sense of irritation and annoyance has stepped up. 'What, you're still around?' "