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.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

October 20, 2014 Issue


If you admire Peter Schjeldahl’s style, as I do, you’ll relish his “Shapes of Things” in this week’s issue. It’s his fourth essay on Matisse since he joined The New Yorker. The others are “Twin Peaks” (March 3, 2003), “Art as Life” (August 29, 2005), and “The Road to Nice” (July 26, 2010). Matisse is one of Schjeldahl’s touchstones. In “The Road to Nice,” he calls Matisse’s The Piano Lesson “my favorite work of twentieth-century art.” It’s fun to read Schjeldahl’s Matisse quartet and cherry-pick the best lines. In “Twin Peaks,” he says Matisse’s contours “are like the borders of wetness left by waves on the beach.” In “Art as Life,” he defines Fauvism as “a way less of seeing the world than of feeling it with one’s eyes.” In “The Road to Nice,” he notes “the black-contoured, zero-gravity, incredibly sumptuous ciphers of fruit” in Bowl of Apples on a Table and says, “Even close to a century after the fact, an ancestral voice in my head shrills, ‘You can’t do that in a painting!’ (But, guess what?).” That parenthesis is pure Schjeldahl. And in this week’s “Shapes of Things,” he says, “When Matisse is at his best, the exquisite friction of his color, his line, and his pictorial invention – licks of a cat’s tongue – overwhelm perception, at which point enjoyment sputters into awe.” Licks of a cats tongue – you can’t say that in criticism. (But, guess what?) Of the four pieces, my favorite is “The Road to Nice,” in which Schjeldahl audaciously compares Matisse’s The Piano Lesson to Hitchcock’s Psycho: “Like Psycho, The Piano Lesson unfolds the secret of its coherence by seemingly precipitous but precisely calibrated jumps and starts.” And the final paragraph, in which Schjeldahl says, “I’m just in a mood – enhanced, now, by the thought of the inexplicable, inchoately thrilling arc of black paint that slashes Matisse’s Portrait of Olga Merson (1911) from chin to left thigh – to insist on a hierarchy of sensations that favor the experience of being tripped cleanly out of ourselves and into wondering glee,” is elating. That “inexplicable, inchoately thrilling arc of black paint” is inspired. The whole sensuous, eloquent piece is inspired! It’s Matissean.

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