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, January 16, 2016

January 11, 2016 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Ben Lerner’s exceptionally beautiful, cerebral "The Custodians." It’s about the Whitney Museum of American Art’s replication committee and its determination of “when a work of art, or a part of a work of art, cannot be fixed or restored in the traditional ways—when and how it must, instead, be replicated.” What makes the piece so beautiful is that it’s sort of a verbal equivalent of the sculptural assemblage it describes. Just look at some of the myriad elements it comprehends: the High Line (“Grass grows over the rails, trees among the trestles; it’s almost as if nature had reclaimed the infrastructure of a civilization wiped out by an unspecified disaster”), the Whitney’s mirror-paneled elevator (“half of the occupants are filming their reflections as we ascend”), Josh Kline’s Cost of Living (Aleyda) (“a janitor’s cart, to which L.E.D. lights have been taped, and on which are several objects, printed in plaster and cyanoacrylate: brushes, sponges, a bottle of cleaning … two 3-D prints of the digitally imaged head of ‘Aleyda,’ a housekeeper at the Hotel on Rivington, along with a print of her hand, enclosed in a plastic glove, and of her foot, in a sock and shoe”), the Whitney’s conservation department (“The space is open and airy, despite giant fume extractors that snake down from the ceiling”), Barkley Hendricks’s Steve (“a full-length portrait of a man wearing a white suit and mirrored sunglasses, in which the windows of Hendricks’s studio—and, if you look closely, part of Hendricks’s head—are reflected”), John Ruskin’s The Lamp of Memory (“In The Lamp of Memory, written in 1848, John Ruskin … argued that buildings and objects must be left to decline, even die—that the ‘greatest glory of a building . . . is in its Age’ ”), two Mark Rothko triptychs (“black rectangles on a plum-colored ground”), Rothko’s Harvard murals (“five large mural paintings … ranging from light pink to deep purple”), the Frances Mulhall Achilles Library (“has a huge bank of sloped windows facing the Hudson River”), Claes Oldenburg’s Ice Bag Scale C (“a combination of custom-made and commercially available materials, including three motors and six fans designed to make the bag move more or less at random—to make it seem alive”), Nina Simone’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes (“The recording sounds particularly beautiful, because my headphones are staticky, a false patina that interacts well with the lyrics and the grain of Simone’s voice”), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“I walk among the ancient sculptures that we leave fragmented and paintless even though we could try to restore the vivid polychromy they originally possessed”).

What holds all this wild variegated material together, what makes it cohere, is Lerner’s marvelously perceptive “I” (“I walk south on Manhattan’s High Line …”; “I feel as if I were wandering through a composite …”; “I can’t help thinking of it as the Noah’s Ark of American Art”; “I enter through the museum’s glass façade …”; “As I leave the building, I find myself thinking of the ship of Theseus …”; “I asked Mancusi-Ungaro about Petryn …”; “Talking about Rothko with Mancusi-Ungaro, I was struck, not for the first time, by how the work of a conservator can re-sacralize the original art object”; “But when I arrived at the library I was put in mind of more recent mythology …”; “I was struck by how contact between the museum and the artist inevitably changes the art it would conserve”; “I felt that I was watching conservation shade into collaboration”). Lerner is subjective to the bone.

“The Custodians” reads more like a personal essay than it does reportage. That’s what draws me to it. What makes the piece cerebral is Lerner’s examination of the idea of art conservation from every conceivable angle – restoration, “reversibility,” tratteggio, replication, collaboration. “The Custodians” ’s formal integration of so many ideas and elements into such a shapely, absorbing composition smacks of genius.   

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