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 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.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

December 21 & 28, 2015 Issue


The year began with Peter Schjeldahl (see his wonderful "Take Your Time," The New Yorker, January 5, 2015); it’s only fitting that it should end with him. He’s enjoyed a prolific 2015 – eighteen “Art World” pieces, all of them dandy, plus contributions to “Goings On About Town” and newyorker.com. I devour all his work. In a magazine loaded with stylish writers, his style is the most distinctive. This week, he has two pieces in the magazine – "The Dripping Point" and "Shades of White." Both are excellent, but in different ways.

 “The Dripping Point,” a “Goings On About Town” note on MoMA’s Jackson Pollock: A Collective Survey, 1934-1954, shows Schjeldahl celebrating one of his favorite artists. He says, “Pollock’s lifelong intensity and, at his peak, sublimity do not pale.” I agree. Whatever turns Schjeldahl on, turns me on, especially when it engenders delectable descriptions like this: “interwoven high-speed skeins in black, white, dove-gray, teal, and fawn-brown oil and enamel bang on the surface while hinting at cosmic distances.” That’s Pollock’s great One: Number 31, 1950, as rendered in Schjeldahl’s inimitable word paint. Reading “The Dripping Point,” I experience double bliss: the subject is unimpeachably interesting; the writing is intensely pleasurable.

The other Schjeldahl piece in this week’s issue – “Shades of White” – is cooler. It’s a review of the Robert Ryman retrospective at Dia Art Foundation. Schjeldahl uses words like “phlegmatic,” “philosophical,” “monkish,” and “mute” to describe Ryman’s all-white abstracts. He says, “At times, the main—or, really, only—event is an emphasis on the way a work is attached to a wall: by bolts, staples, brackets, or flanges.” But Schjeldahl isn’t dismissive. At one point, he says,

If I could have one work from the show, to satisfy my somewhat equivocal appetite for Rymanism, it would be the delicately befuddling “Arista” (1968), a six-foot-square painting on unstretched linen, which is stapled to the wall and abutted, on the wall, by ruled lines in blue chalk. The lines suggest a guide to placement, but there they are in place, themselves, as the most interesting feature of the work. The particular meaning, if any, of a Ryman commonly tiptoes just out of mental reach.

Schjeldahl’s willingness to explore his “equivocal appetite” is one of the qualities that set him apart from other critics. Even though his passion is for Pollock, he’s happy to give Ryman’s austere works their due.

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