Introduction

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 Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Interesting Emendations: Lawrence Weschler's "Taking Art To Point Zero - II"


Robert Irwin, Scrim veil-Black rectangle-Natural light, 1977 (Photograph by Warren Silverman)

















I see that the Whitney has re-installed Robert Irwin’s brilliant light installation, Scrim veil–Black rectangle–Natural light, on its fourth floor for the first time since he conceived it for the site, in 1977. This show was the subject of one of The New Yorker’s most inspired art descriptions – Lawrence Weschler’s account of his experience of the exhibit in his great “Taking Art To Point Zero – II” (The New Yorker, March 15, 1982):

As the elevator doors eased open onto the vast, empty room on the fourth floor of the Whitney, you were immediately in the thick of it, the thin of it. For a fragile moment, all your expectations were suspended and the world itself seeped in. Already, as you walked out of the elevator, you were triangulating, calibrating, trying to take a fix, to mend the tear in the fabric of your mundane anticipations. But even as you were doing so you were newly aware of the way in which that’s something you do all the time. Nor was the room all that easy to put back together again: the optics were slightly skewed, such that just as you began to figure out how the effect had been achieved your calculations were melting in the uncanny undertow of immediate perceptions. The only light was the natural light of day streaming in from a large, peculiar window over to the side and unfurling the length of a hauntingly sheer scrim piece that bisected the room longitudinally, suspended from the ceiling down to eye level. Also at eye level, a thin black line skirted the walls of the room, describing a huge rectangle and then flashing out along the base of the bisecting scrim. The pearlescent scrim was by turns utterly transparent and pristinely opaque both, and then neither. As you walked around the space, under the scrim, into the corners, along the walls, the room itself seemed to hum. Things that had always been there – the even, modular hive of the ceiling, the dark rectangular grid of the floor – you noticed as if for the first time. There was a sense of great excitement in all of this, but at the same time an evenness, a lightness, almost a serenity. (Emphasis added)

Weschler’s wonderful account doesn’t just describe Irwin’s exhibit, it delivers us directly into the rub of it, puts us squarely there. Interestingly, Weschler changed it when he included it in his Seeing Is Forgetting The Name of the Thing One Sees (1982). Here’s the revised passage:

As the elevator doors eased open onto the vast, empty room on the fourth floor of the Whitney, you were immediately in the thick of it, the thin of it. For a fragile moment, all your expectations were suspended, and the world itself seeped in. Already, as you walked out of the elevator, you were triangulating, calibrating, trying to get a fix, to mend the tear in the fabric of your mundane anticipations. But even as you were doing so, you were newly aware of the way in which that is something you do all the time. Nor was the room all that easy to put back together again: the optics were slightly skewed, such that just as you began to figure out how the effect had been achieved, your calculations were melting in the uncanny undertow of immediate perceptions. The only light was the natural light of day streaming in from that large, peculiar window over to the side and spreading the length of the hauntingly sheer scrim that, suspended from the ceiling down to eye level, bisected the room longitudinally. Also at eye level, a thin black line skirted the walls of the room, describing a huge rectangle and then flashing out along the base of the bisecting scrim. The pristine scrim was by turns utterly transparent and then utterly opaque, both at the same time, but then neither at once. As you walked around the space, under the scrim, into the corners, along the walls, the room itself seemed to stand up and hum. Things that had always been there – the even, modular hive of the ceiling; the dark, rectangular grid of the floor – you noticed as if for the first time. There was a sense of great excitement in all of this, but at the same time, an evenness, a lightness, almost a serenity. (Emphasis added)

I count seventeen changes - some minor (e.g., the placement of the comma after “achieved” and the semi-colon after “ceiling”), some more significant (e.g., the substitution of “spreading” for “unfurling” and “pristine” for “pearlescent”). I’m slightly more partial to the New Yorker version; “unfurling” and “pearlescent” strike me as more evocative. Both versions are beautiful; both capture Scrim veil–Black rectangle–Natural light’s essential subject – the art of perception. 

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