This review of Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers appeared recently in Modern Painters magazine.
In 1986 Janet Malcolm wrote a New Yorker profile of Ingrid Sischy, then editor of Artforum. Though its antique and patronizing title, ‘A Girl of the Zeitgeist’, was surely embarrassing even at the time, the piece remains a perfect exemplar of its journalistic type and an elegant primer in the author’s cruelly attentive methods. Having interviewed several art-world mavens of the day and sketched for readers the controversy attending a young editor’s energetic rise, Malcolm turns to Sischy herself and discovers her chopping tomatoes at some unnamed soirée. ‘She took a small paring knife and, in the most inefficient manner imaginable, with agonizing slowness, proceeded to fill a bowl, tiny piece by tiny piece, with chopped tomatoes.’ The passage is classically Malcolmian because apart from dicing Sischy’s personality – naive, tenacious, ardent as the heroine of a Victorian novel – it reveals something of the writer’s own art. She arranges her profiles out of raw portions excised from her subjects and the people around them.
Malcolm is best known for her gossipy, acute, self-conscious books about such topics as Gertrude Stein’s murky wartime affiliations, the well-aired marital laundry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and internecine battles among psychoanalysts and their schools. In his introduction to this collection of her occasional essays on art and literature, Ian Frazier approves Malcolm’s aptitude for enduring intense boredom while researching a piece. But dogged fact-mongering and months of interviews are only part of her modus; she’s also, says Frazier, ‘a wild writer’. She has famously written: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he is doing is morally indefensible.’ Sitting for a Malcolm character study means risking some lacerating sentences. And though Forty-One False Starts ends – in brief obits of William Shawn and Joseph Mitchell – with a couple of almost serene appreciations of the New Yorker style in which she was trained, it also doesn’t stint on these trademark moments of gracefully callous revelation.
In fact the title essay, from 1994, is made of nothing but. Malcolm spent a year or so talking with the painter David Salle, whose celebrity and artistic stock were beginning to curdle. She writes of his eager, evasive, egotistical presence: ‘I feel that I only almost know him, and that what I write about him will have the vague, vaporous quality that our most indelible dreams take on when we put them into words.’ The result is an essay parceled out into forty-one sallies at a portrait of Salle, a series of ostensibly abandoned fragments in which the artist is allowed to string himself up with his own self-regard. Malcolm has some fun with scene-setting at the start of each numbered section: ‘David Salle is a slight, handsome man of forty-one … The artist David Salle and I are sitting at a round table in my apartment….’ And she is suggestively laconic about his art: ‘here everything was condensed, impacted, mired. The paintings were like an ugly mood.’ The effect is impressive, but after forty-one of these things it is hard to be sure Malcolm has said much of substance about David Salle, painter.
This is the main disappointment of Forty-One False Starts. Here is a writer of considerable fluency, precision and impertinence, time and again shirking the task of saying anything very accurate or daring – sometimes anything at all – about the work at hand. Take her several essays on photographers and photography. In 2011 Malcolm wrote a profile of Thomas Struth entitled ‘Depth of Field’; as usual, she spent a lot of time with her subject, and the piece is full of nice details about Struth’s domestic and working arrangements, his obliviousness to her presence while he is setting up a shot, the dinners with the artist that seem always to feature in a Malcolm story. But what has she got to say about the photographs? Frankly very little, and much of that slightly flummoxed. She simply doesn’t get Struth’s images of gallery-goers in front of famous paintings, and considers them ‘trite’. Instead she commends his recent studies of pristine industrial interiors writhing with digital infrastructure, and tells us they look ‘like nothing one has seen before’. Maybe she has really not seen their like, but they recall photographs by many artists from Taryn Simon to Jane and Louise Wilson and are something of a decline from Struth’s earlier work.
The problem, it seems, is that Malcolm is suspicious of the notion that a photograph might actually have some content; she lets slip at times an almost camera-club idea of what constitutes a ‘good’ image. (This is not true of all her writing on the subject: there are more substantial and considered pieces on photography in her 1980 book Diana and Nikon.) So Julia Margaret Cameron’s foggy portraits are properly artistic but Oscar Rejlander’s 1857 composite The Two Ways of Life is mere pseudo-academic kitsch: an opinion that made sense fifty years ago and now seems a bit of blind Modernist arrogance. Malcolm disparages Irving Penn’s studies of a muscular nude female dancer as botched experiments, but exempts a few Cameron-ish long exposures that have she says a ‘mysterious blurred painterliness’ – when in fact those really are kitsch: examples of Penn retreating from the awkward intensity of his model.
Given that artists share double billing with writers in the book’s subtitle, there’s something oddly reined-in, but also needlessly snide, about the essays on art and the art world here. One has the suspicion – let’s adopt her haughty ‘one’ for a while – that Malcolm nurses the literary journalist’s common assumption that artists are simply stupider than writers. She doesn’t quite say it, but she sure comes close: ‘I have not found anything any artist has said about his work interesting.’ At their best, she allows, they’re self-conscious rather than smart: a couple of times she claims ‘an air of quotation marks’ hovers about her interviewees. In the Struth piece, there’s a glaring moment when the photographer recalls his teacher Bernd Becher making links between Eugène Atget and Marcel Proust; Malcolm asks if Struth read Proust as a student, or has done since – he admits he didn’t and hasn’t. Instead of letting this detail tell its own story, Malcolm labours the point, relishing Struth’s embarrassment. The passage feels like reflex Janet Malcolm-ism: the slick profiler’s lancing style doing the job that real criticism might have done.
Perhaps that’s unfair – you don’t go to Malcolm expecting to read Susan Sontag or Elizabeth Hardwick. She’s essentially not a critic at all: the literary pieces here, on Bloomsbury and Salinger and Edith Wharton, are more precise than the artistic, but not a lot more. Her skill lies rather in exposing the urges and embarrassments behind the work in question; she does it beautifully, and complexly, but hers is in the end a limited art.