What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, August 8, 2011

"Richard Serra Drawing"

If I lived in New York City, I’d definitely check out the Met’s “Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective.” Back in May, Peter Schjeldahl wrote a “Critic’s Notebook” piece about it (“Drawing Room,” The New Yorker, May 16, 2011), in which he says, “By brutal means – mainly, heavily layered oil stick on paper, canvas, or linen – the works deliver physical sensations that engage thought and stir feelings.” But Schjeldahl’s best line is this one: “The light-killing blackness makes for delicate balances of impenetrable guck and infinite depth.” Another excellent review of Serra’s show is David Hansen’s “At the Met” (London Review of Books, June 30, 2011). It abounds with sensual, tactile description:

The first of these heavily worked, concrete abstracts is a startling untitled work, a vertiginous trapezium of greasy shadow, edged with a pitted, pebbly strand where masking tape has been pulled off the paper.

After this the drawings soon settle into a more rectilinear and symmetrical, more nine-to-five pattern, some on paper, many on canvas, all covered with – or rather consisting in – a rich, fat, deep, serious, oily, coaly, steely black.

The surfaces are quite extraordinary. In some, the paintstick has an organic smoothness, like that of a combed animal pelt, or a hairy tweed, or like the squeegee drag and blur found in Gerhard Richter’s abstract canvases. Others are thickly granulated, pitted and bubbled like roughly screeded concrete or rust-encrusted steel. In a few, the artist has heated the paintstick until it becomes almost viscous, and has really loaded up the paper, enlivening the resulting sugary black morass with faint traces of bootprints, or teasing it up into relief maps, reptile skin, leaves.

Who would not want such delicious writing to continue forever? “At the Met” is the first piece by Hansen that I’ve read. It’s definitely whetted my appetite for more.

Credit: The above artwork is Richard Serra’s “Untitled” (1973); it appears in the May 16, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, as an illustration for Peter Schjeldahl’s “Critic’s Notebook: Drawing Room.”

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