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.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

February 6, 2017, Issue

Peter Schjeldahl says there’s poetry in David Salle’s paintings. He says they’re “a distillation of the poetic powers that are essential to painting” (“Fresh Paint,” in this week’s issue). He’s said this before. In his “David Salle” (The Hydrogen Jukebox, 1991), he wrote, “Salle’s unabashedly literary intelligence and playfulness – his way of pushing around the meanings of images much as poets push around those of words – appeal to me mightily.” Schjeldahl’s poetry analogy suggests an approach to Salle’s enigmatic art. I’m not sure I buy it. The best poetry, for me, springs from more than just “pushing around” words. Clive James, in his Poetry Notebook (2014), writes, “There is a notion of bedrock throughout Shakespeare’s work almost to the end: a notion that the essential meaning, the deeper consideration, has to be protected against all transient distortions, including the poet’s own gift for … words.” It seems to me that Salle’s paintings lack this sense of a “deeper consideration.” They lack bedrock. Take his Sextant in Dogtown (1987), for example, which is used to illustrate Schjeldahl’s piece. Schjeldahl describes it as follows:

Here, three abutted panels present grisaille images, clearly from photographs, of a woman awkwardly posing in a bra, with and without panties. (Offensive? Sure, and plainly on purpose, but smoothly at one with Salle’s attitude toward all his subjects.) A small inset panel pictures a dead bird. Above them, in acrid colors, are images of antique clown dolls and a cartoon of a top-hatted seafarer wielding a sextant.

It’s an intriguing combination of images and colors. Viewed as an abstract, it’s almost ravishing. Perhaps that’s the way it should be considered. Forget meaning. Seek bedrock elsewhere.

Postscript: This week's issue also contains Luke Mogelson's extraordinary "The Avengers of Mosul." I'm still absorbing it. I'll post my comment in the next day or so. 

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