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, December 27, 2014

December 22 & 29, 2014 Issue


If you’re a fan of Peter Schjeldahl’s writing, as I am, you’ll relish his "The Shape We're In," in this week’s issue. It’s a feature-length profile of the sculptor Rachel Harrison. Its approach is more journalistic than Schjeldahl’s art show reviews are. He visits Harrison in her Brooklyn apartment (“On display are many paint-it-yourself, plaster-cast hobby busts of Abraham Lincoln, who interests Harrison as someone whom everybody likes”) and her studio (“From her studio, she can see a lot, which is partly divided into parking spaces. On one of my visits, we noted the comings and goings of an old Mercedes, colored an arrestingly ugly tan”). Together, they tour the Metropolitan, the Frick, and MOMA. Of their visit to the Frick, he says, “I failed to sell her on my enthusiasm for Fragonard’s delirious suite of murals, “The Progress of Love.” She said it made her sick, but wouldn’t say why.” My favorite part of “The Shape We’re In” is when Schjeldahl and Harrison meet “at Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded equestrian statue of General Sherman with an Angel of Victory, across from the Plaza Hotel, on Fifty-ninth Street.” Schjeldahl writes, “I had promised to alert the skeptical Harrison to the work’s virtues, but we found that it is now hidden in a huge beige box, for a restoration of the site. She was thrilled. The box and the picturesquely jumbled rubble and machinery around it looked like an outsized version of one of her own works-in-progress.” Harrison’s “junk” aesthetic – her eye for the overlooked, disregarded, and unwanted – resonates with me. It connects with some of the observations I made a while back in a piece titled “The Humble Actual” (posted here). Schjeldahl’s comment, “As for ‘junk,’ Harrison exposes the arbitrariness of the word, which, like the use of ‘weeds’ to describe ungoverned plants, insults things that are no less particular for being unwanted,” expresses my own view perfectly.

In the Introduction to his great Let’s See (2008), in answer to the question, “So what are your vices as a critic and a writer?,” Schjeldahl answers, “short-windedness.” He says, “My muse won’t play except at standard column lengths. I can manage a bit more with the right subject and a tailwind, but north of two thousand words I start to lose all sense of structure and seize up.” Well, these days, Schjeldahl must be working out. Either that or he’s on steroids. Because his wonderful “The Shape We’re In” is over forty-five hundred words long. The short-winded sprinter has become a zestful long-distance runner.

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