Commentary Magazine


Topic: Painter

Al-Qaeda Lawyer to Fill Top Justice Department Post

The Senate blocked the nomination of Dawn Johnsen, who holds extreme views on everything from abortion to detainee policy, to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. OLC is a key office that renders opinions on key constitutional issues for Justice and the entire government. Now word comes that an attorney who formerly represented al-Qaeda terrorists will fill the spot. The New York Times reports:

David J. Barron, the acting head of the Justice Department’s powerful Office of Legal Counsel, will step down next month and be replaced by one of his current deputies, Jonathan G. Cedarbaum, the department said Thursday. …

Much of the work of the Office of Legal Counsel is confidential, but over the past 18 months Mr. Barron has handled a variety of issues including wartime questions like how much involvement with Al Qaeda is necessary to make a terrorism suspect subject to detention without trial and domestic matters like whether stalking and domestic violence laws apply to same-sex couples. . .Mr. Barron’s replacement, Mr. Cedarbaum, came to public attention earlier this year after Fox News named him as one of several Justice Department lawyers who had previously advocated for detainees.

As I’ve previously reported, there are serious concerns regarding conflicts of interest for those who previously represented detainees when they “switch sides”:

The limited information the Justice Department has so far released raises real concerns as to whether former advocates for detainees were properly recused from matters involving Guantánamo detainees and policy decisions that would inevitably involve their former clients. Did they violate obligations to former clients by construing their recusal obligations too narrowly? Did they damage their current client, the United States, by shading their advice for the sake of consistency with their prior representation?

Professor Richard Painter, an ethics expert from the University of Minnesota, wrote to Holder in April raising such issues. He noted, “There are legitimate concerns about client conflicts for lawyers who previously represented detainees and now work for the Department.” The “simplest” approach he advised would be to have them recused from all detainee matters. … Painter explained that there are multiple risks for these attorneys. “One danger is that you give an issue to the detainee who is convicted. Another is that you actually disclose information [you obtained] from a former client. A third is that the lawyer in an effort to avoid one and two bends over backwards by underrepresenting” the United States. Clients (even the government) have a right to be fully represented.

If he is appointed to fill the spot on a permanent basis, the Senate should not confirm Cedarbaum until he reveals which cases he has and will recuse himself from. That he would even be nominated for this position tells us volumes about the Obama-Holder mindset. Their preference for appointing to sensitive positions those attorneys whose sympathies and efforts were devoted to terrorists should concern us all.

The Senate blocked the nomination of Dawn Johnsen, who holds extreme views on everything from abortion to detainee policy, to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. OLC is a key office that renders opinions on key constitutional issues for Justice and the entire government. Now word comes that an attorney who formerly represented al-Qaeda terrorists will fill the spot. The New York Times reports:

David J. Barron, the acting head of the Justice Department’s powerful Office of Legal Counsel, will step down next month and be replaced by one of his current deputies, Jonathan G. Cedarbaum, the department said Thursday. …

Much of the work of the Office of Legal Counsel is confidential, but over the past 18 months Mr. Barron has handled a variety of issues including wartime questions like how much involvement with Al Qaeda is necessary to make a terrorism suspect subject to detention without trial and domestic matters like whether stalking and domestic violence laws apply to same-sex couples. . .Mr. Barron’s replacement, Mr. Cedarbaum, came to public attention earlier this year after Fox News named him as one of several Justice Department lawyers who had previously advocated for detainees.

As I’ve previously reported, there are serious concerns regarding conflicts of interest for those who previously represented detainees when they “switch sides”:

The limited information the Justice Department has so far released raises real concerns as to whether former advocates for detainees were properly recused from matters involving Guantánamo detainees and policy decisions that would inevitably involve their former clients. Did they violate obligations to former clients by construing their recusal obligations too narrowly? Did they damage their current client, the United States, by shading their advice for the sake of consistency with their prior representation?

Professor Richard Painter, an ethics expert from the University of Minnesota, wrote to Holder in April raising such issues. He noted, “There are legitimate concerns about client conflicts for lawyers who previously represented detainees and now work for the Department.” The “simplest” approach he advised would be to have them recused from all detainee matters. … Painter explained that there are multiple risks for these attorneys. “One danger is that you give an issue to the detainee who is convicted. Another is that you actually disclose information [you obtained] from a former client. A third is that the lawyer in an effort to avoid one and two bends over backwards by underrepresenting” the United States. Clients (even the government) have a right to be fully represented.

If he is appointed to fill the spot on a permanent basis, the Senate should not confirm Cedarbaum until he reveals which cases he has and will recuse himself from. That he would even be nominated for this position tells us volumes about the Obama-Holder mindset. Their preference for appointing to sensitive positions those attorneys whose sympathies and efforts were devoted to terrorists should concern us all.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• I can’t think of an art critic whom I admire more, or read more attentively, than Karen Wilkin. Not only does she write about modern art with stylish, jargon-free clarity, but she is immune to the trendiness that is the driving force behind the “thinking” of so many American critics. Her essays and reviews invariably help me to see the painters about whom she writes with an enhanced clarity that owes nothing to the factitious charms of fashion. Her name figures prominently on the very short list of critics whose books I will buy and read regardless of their subject.

As it happens, Wilkin has just published two new books, though one of them is not “new” in the usual sense of the word. Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews (Ediciones Polígrafa, 160 pp., $45) is an exceedingly well-made folio based in substantial part on a Morandi monograph published by Wilkin nine years ago in Rizzoli’s Twentieth-Century Masters series. Not only has the text of the earlier volume been reprinted here without change, but so have most of the illustrations (I assume that the same plates were used). The main difference is that the new book also includes a selection of the Italian painter’s writings, including four letters, two interviews and a 1928 autobiographical statement, all of which shed much light on his artistic thinking:

I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.

I’m sorry that Wilkin was (apparently) not given the opportunity to update what she wrote about Morandi in light of the important revelations about his life in wartime Italy included in Janet Abramowicz’s Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, which was published virtually without notice three years ago. Nevertheless, her 1998 essay remains the most perceptive criticism of Morandi to have appeared in English, and those who don’t already own the Rizzoli volume in which it was originally published will want to acquire it in this format in order to have access to Morandi’s own writings. Though his work is comparatively little known in the United States, he is an artist of near-inscrutable power whose still lifes have the power to silence the grinding racket of everyday urban life and spirit the harried viewer away to a place of intense stillness. Wilkin has done more than any other American critic to spread the word about Morandi in this country, and I hope that Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews will do still more to advance his cause.

Another of Wilkin’s critical causes is the “color-field” abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and their contemporaries and followers, which was widely admired in the days of Clement Greenberg’s ascendancy but has long since come to be regarded as passé. Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 (Yale, 128 pp., $45) is the catalogue of a retrospective curated by Wilkin that just opened at the Denver Art Museum (it closes on Feb. 3) and will travel from there to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Feb. 29-May 26) and Nashville’s Frist Center for Visual Arts (June 20-Sept. 21). Rarely has a catalogue made a more powerful case for the revaluation of a now-disdained style, not least because of Wilkin’s pithy, characteristically straight-talking introductory essay:

Modish critics and art historians, reared on a diet of art that insists on elaborate verbal explication, and deeply mistrustful of anything that doesn’t come fully bolstered with words, have decried Color Field painting as merely decorative . . . Unfortunately, the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art, as well as art historians, critics, and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary that they seem to have forgotten that the visual is as much a cerebral function as the verbal.

I can’t wait to see the show.

• I can’t think of an art critic whom I admire more, or read more attentively, than Karen Wilkin. Not only does she write about modern art with stylish, jargon-free clarity, but she is immune to the trendiness that is the driving force behind the “thinking” of so many American critics. Her essays and reviews invariably help me to see the painters about whom she writes with an enhanced clarity that owes nothing to the factitious charms of fashion. Her name figures prominently on the very short list of critics whose books I will buy and read regardless of their subject.

As it happens, Wilkin has just published two new books, though one of them is not “new” in the usual sense of the word. Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews (Ediciones Polígrafa, 160 pp., $45) is an exceedingly well-made folio based in substantial part on a Morandi monograph published by Wilkin nine years ago in Rizzoli’s Twentieth-Century Masters series. Not only has the text of the earlier volume been reprinted here without change, but so have most of the illustrations (I assume that the same plates were used). The main difference is that the new book also includes a selection of the Italian painter’s writings, including four letters, two interviews and a 1928 autobiographical statement, all of which shed much light on his artistic thinking:

I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.

I’m sorry that Wilkin was (apparently) not given the opportunity to update what she wrote about Morandi in light of the important revelations about his life in wartime Italy included in Janet Abramowicz’s Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, which was published virtually without notice three years ago. Nevertheless, her 1998 essay remains the most perceptive criticism of Morandi to have appeared in English, and those who don’t already own the Rizzoli volume in which it was originally published will want to acquire it in this format in order to have access to Morandi’s own writings. Though his work is comparatively little known in the United States, he is an artist of near-inscrutable power whose still lifes have the power to silence the grinding racket of everyday urban life and spirit the harried viewer away to a place of intense stillness. Wilkin has done more than any other American critic to spread the word about Morandi in this country, and I hope that Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews will do still more to advance his cause.

Another of Wilkin’s critical causes is the “color-field” abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and their contemporaries and followers, which was widely admired in the days of Clement Greenberg’s ascendancy but has long since come to be regarded as passé. Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 (Yale, 128 pp., $45) is the catalogue of a retrospective curated by Wilkin that just opened at the Denver Art Museum (it closes on Feb. 3) and will travel from there to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Feb. 29-May 26) and Nashville’s Frist Center for Visual Arts (June 20-Sept. 21). Rarely has a catalogue made a more powerful case for the revaluation of a now-disdained style, not least because of Wilkin’s pithy, characteristically straight-talking introductory essay:

Modish critics and art historians, reared on a diet of art that insists on elaborate verbal explication, and deeply mistrustful of anything that doesn’t come fully bolstered with words, have decried Color Field painting as merely decorative . . . Unfortunately, the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art, as well as art historians, critics, and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary that they seem to have forgotten that the visual is as much a cerebral function as the verbal.

I can’t wait to see the show.

Read Less

American Yiddish Poetry

Readers who think that Yiddish literature in America began and ended with Nobel-prizewinner Isaac Bashevis Singer will find a new book from Stanford University Press to be a revelation. American Yiddish Poetry: a Bilingual Anthology by Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav is a virtuoso production, 813 pages of essays, original texts, and deft translations of seven worthy, yet often overlooked, early 20th century poets like A. Leyeles and Jacob Glatshteyn.

Benjamin Harshav, a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Yale, has published prolifically on the painter Marc Chagall. This vast new tome, in collaboration with his wife Barbara Harshav, who teaches translation at Yale, underlines the influence of many writers on these erudite poets.

A. Leyeles (born Aaron Glantz, 1889-1966), a poet and journalist, was a multilingual master of prosody who translated Whitman, Verlaine, Goethe, Keats, and Pushkin into Yiddish. In a Whitman-like way, Leyeles buttonholes readers, addressing us in poems of formal beauty. An example is Leyeles’s Villanelle of the Mystical Cycle:

Mystical cycle of seven times five,
Five times seven, a ring in a ring.
Shell swept away, the core will survive.

Ground by the years, and in years revived.
Young when a man, and gray in young spring.
Mystical cycle of seven times five . . .

Read More

Readers who think that Yiddish literature in America began and ended with Nobel-prizewinner Isaac Bashevis Singer will find a new book from Stanford University Press to be a revelation. American Yiddish Poetry: a Bilingual Anthology by Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav is a virtuoso production, 813 pages of essays, original texts, and deft translations of seven worthy, yet often overlooked, early 20th century poets like A. Leyeles and Jacob Glatshteyn.

Benjamin Harshav, a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Yale, has published prolifically on the painter Marc Chagall. This vast new tome, in collaboration with his wife Barbara Harshav, who teaches translation at Yale, underlines the influence of many writers on these erudite poets.

A. Leyeles (born Aaron Glantz, 1889-1966), a poet and journalist, was a multilingual master of prosody who translated Whitman, Verlaine, Goethe, Keats, and Pushkin into Yiddish. In a Whitman-like way, Leyeles buttonholes readers, addressing us in poems of formal beauty. An example is Leyeles’s Villanelle of the Mystical Cycle:

Mystical cycle of seven times five,
Five times seven, a ring in a ring.
Shell swept away, the core will survive.

Ground by the years, and in years revived.
Young when a man, and gray in young spring.
Mystical cycle of seven times five . . .

In Night, Leyeles offers a hypnotic cityscape of 1920’s Manhattan:

Now all is calm. The window-lights spent.
Lanterns slip silently into the pavement.
Towers stand watching like monsters of stone.

Massive Flatiron: imposing, gray, cold.
Then Metropolitan: heavier, grayer.
Others hang gloomily, crowd like a forest. . .

In Storms and Towers, inspired by New York architecture, Leyeles invokes admired poets like the medieval Frenchman François Villon:

Villon my brother, Maître Villon,
You did not see
The Tower of Woolworth
In a storm of snow . . .

Leyeles’s friend and colleague Moyshe-Leyb Halpern (1886–1932) was more concerned with self-exploration and self-definition, as in his ardently questing My Restlessness is of a Wolf (which prefigures later introspective Jewish poets like Delmore Schwartz):

My restlessness is of a wolf, and of a bear my rest,
Riot shouts in me, and boredom listens.
I am not what I want, I am not what I think,
I am the magician and I’m the magic-trick.
I am an ancient riddle that ponders on its own,
Swifter than the wind, bound tightly to a stone . . .

Somewhere between these extremes of landscape and introspection are the poems of Jacob Glatshteyn (1896-1971), an avant-gardist who speaks of personal relationships, sometimes with violence, as in A Song:

In summer I shall slice little tomatoes and think of your lips,
And you will stroll over the roads and sing to every passer-by.
And I shall regret that I didn’t mark your face with a scar,
Or that I didn’t burden your walk with a child . . .

In 1978, when Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel, he declared, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word.” He was right, as the remarkable labors of the Harshavs demonstrate.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• I like short, opinionated books—when they’re smart. John Silber’s Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art is all these things, and it’s also stimulatingly grumpy. The subtitle gives the game away, for Architecture of the Absurd is a slashing attack on those “starchitects” whom Silber believes to be indifferent to the needs of their clients, preferring instead to build interesting-looking structures that are impossible to live or work in: “Architects are now to consider themselves descendants of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ‘geniuses’ who by right break all laws and conventions . . . . they behave as if they owe nothing to their clients or the public beyond the gift of their genius.”

Before reading Silber’s book, I wondered whether his dislike of the buildings of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind would slop over into a broad-gauge attack on all modern art. The answer is that it does—and it doesn’t. On the one hand, Silber is identically dismissive of John Cage’s 4’33” and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, writing off both works as nonsensical exercises in aesthetic absurdity. (He’s half right.) Yet he is highly responsive to a fair amount of modern architecture, praising Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building as “stunning masterpieces.” It is postmodernism, not modernism, that draws most of his fire:

The basic problem is that Libeskind asserted the fallacy of the “iconic architects:” that a building is fundamentally like a book or sculpture or piece of music. By means of this conflation the architect is permitted to create like an author, painter, or sculptor without regard for the fact that, unlike books, sculpture, and music, which may be ignored or visited at one’s pleasure, a building is lived and worked in and must meet the needs of its users.

What gives Architecture of the Absurd its sharp edge is that Silber, who worked in his father’s architectural practice as a young man, later spent much of his adult life supervising the building program at Boston University, of which he was president from 1971 to 1996 and chancellor from 1996 to 2003. Thus he knows more than most laymen about the practical consequences of theory-driven architecture, and his indictment of its practitioners’ failings is both specific and damning. Even those who disagree with his jaundiced view of modern art will find it hard to ignore passages such as these:

Most absurdist architecture . . . has been built at the bidding of 501(c)3 corporations. CEOs and trustees of museums, symphony orchestras, and especially universities yearn to house their institutions in iconic buildings that Genius has wrought. In such institutions, decisions are made by persons who are not spending their own money, who take no personal financial risk, and who often lack the knowledge and experience in building necessary to ensure that the needs of the institution are met. They are thus often intimidated by smooth-talking, imperious architects and vulnerable to the pretentious jargon that is now the vernacular among both architects and critics.

Amen, brother.

• I like short, opinionated books—when they’re smart. John Silber’s Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art is all these things, and it’s also stimulatingly grumpy. The subtitle gives the game away, for Architecture of the Absurd is a slashing attack on those “starchitects” whom Silber believes to be indifferent to the needs of their clients, preferring instead to build interesting-looking structures that are impossible to live or work in: “Architects are now to consider themselves descendants of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ‘geniuses’ who by right break all laws and conventions . . . . they behave as if they owe nothing to their clients or the public beyond the gift of their genius.”

Before reading Silber’s book, I wondered whether his dislike of the buildings of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind would slop over into a broad-gauge attack on all modern art. The answer is that it does—and it doesn’t. On the one hand, Silber is identically dismissive of John Cage’s 4’33” and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, writing off both works as nonsensical exercises in aesthetic absurdity. (He’s half right.) Yet he is highly responsive to a fair amount of modern architecture, praising Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building as “stunning masterpieces.” It is postmodernism, not modernism, that draws most of his fire:

The basic problem is that Libeskind asserted the fallacy of the “iconic architects:” that a building is fundamentally like a book or sculpture or piece of music. By means of this conflation the architect is permitted to create like an author, painter, or sculptor without regard for the fact that, unlike books, sculpture, and music, which may be ignored or visited at one’s pleasure, a building is lived and worked in and must meet the needs of its users.

What gives Architecture of the Absurd its sharp edge is that Silber, who worked in his father’s architectural practice as a young man, later spent much of his adult life supervising the building program at Boston University, of which he was president from 1971 to 1996 and chancellor from 1996 to 2003. Thus he knows more than most laymen about the practical consequences of theory-driven architecture, and his indictment of its practitioners’ failings is both specific and damning. Even those who disagree with his jaundiced view of modern art will find it hard to ignore passages such as these:

Most absurdist architecture . . . has been built at the bidding of 501(c)3 corporations. CEOs and trustees of museums, symphony orchestras, and especially universities yearn to house their institutions in iconic buildings that Genius has wrought. In such institutions, decisions are made by persons who are not spending their own money, who take no personal financial risk, and who often lack the knowledge and experience in building necessary to ensure that the needs of the institution are met. They are thus often intimidated by smooth-talking, imperious architects and vulnerable to the pretentious jargon that is now the vernacular among both architects and critics.

Amen, brother.

Read Less

Remembering Kitaj

The Cleveland-born artist Ronald Brooks (R.B.) Kitaj (1932-2007), who died on October 21, has a new book out from Yale University Press, The Second Diasporist Manifesto. Kitaj’s 1989 First Diasporist Manifesto preceded it as a collection of scattered fragmentary musings about being a Jewish man and artist. Both books declare the author’s principles, as any manifesto should, but neither is a poem, as Kitaj alleges.

The Second Diasporist Manifesto contains 615 numbered observations, which Yale University Press describes as “deliberately echo[ing] the Commandments of Jewish Law.” Of course, 613 and not 615 is the traditional number of commandments in the Torah. Like the Torah’s commandments, Kitaj’s book may be divided into “positive commandments,” about reading authors like Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Benjamin Fondane, and Lev Shestov, and “negative commandments” about those he loathes, like the anti-Semitic T. S. Eliot. There is also the occasional unexpected juxtaposition, such as when it is pointed out that the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (who founded the Hasidic movement), was a contemporary of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the fashionable British portrait painter.

Read More

The Cleveland-born artist Ronald Brooks (R.B.) Kitaj (1932-2007), who died on October 21, has a new book out from Yale University Press, The Second Diasporist Manifesto. Kitaj’s 1989 First Diasporist Manifesto preceded it as a collection of scattered fragmentary musings about being a Jewish man and artist. Both books declare the author’s principles, as any manifesto should, but neither is a poem, as Kitaj alleges.

The Second Diasporist Manifesto contains 615 numbered observations, which Yale University Press describes as “deliberately echo[ing] the Commandments of Jewish Law.” Of course, 613 and not 615 is the traditional number of commandments in the Torah. Like the Torah’s commandments, Kitaj’s book may be divided into “positive commandments,” about reading authors like Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Benjamin Fondane, and Lev Shestov, and “negative commandments” about those he loathes, like the anti-Semitic T. S. Eliot. There is also the occasional unexpected juxtaposition, such as when it is pointed out that the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (who founded the Hasidic movement), was a contemporary of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the fashionable British portrait painter.

Kitaj himself, as a figurative artist whose images are chock-full of historical and literary content, depicting celebrities from Einstein to Philip Roth, was defiantly unfashionable. Although he was honored with major retrospectives in London and New York, these sparked controversy when critics reacted vituperatively. A 1994 Tate Gallery show enraged the London press, which the artist himself attributed to English “low-octane anti-Semitism.”

Yet Kitaj could appreciate some art critics, like Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro. When the show traveled to the Metropolitan Museum a year later, the New York Times was equally condescending, calling Kitaj a “painter whose ambitions outstrip his art . . . his paintings can sometimes be abstruse and pretentious, and there are too many weak recent pictures on view to come out of the Metropolitan with more than mixed feelings.” As recently as 2005, the Times arts section was still scolding Kitaj, telling him to “calm down and do nothing but paint still-lifes for a while.”

In Kitaj’s art and manifestos, content is hugely important, especially when compared to the work of his friend and colleague David Hockney. Kitaj admired still lifes by his idol Cézanne or the modern Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, but his mission was to express Jewish culture and history in images. As he told one interviewer, “I’d like to do for Jews what Morandi did for jars.” Critics who bash Kitaj because of his content are forgetting E. H. Gombrich’s dictum, “There is no wrong reason for liking a work of art, only for disliking it.” The death of Kitaj’s wife Sandra Fisher (1947-1994), whom he had married at London’s venerable Bevis Marks Synagogue, a Sephardic landmark, was a permanent loss. Also a gifted painter, Fisher was honored last year with an exhibition at the New York Studio School. Whatever critical bile has flowed in the past, the art of Kitaj and Fisher surely will be admired by posterity.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• The similarities of the biographer’s craft and the novelist’s art have often been remarked upon, and several writers of fiction, Henry James foremost among them, have succeeded in making hay out of the activities of the “publishing scoundrels” so vividly sketched in The Aspern Papers. Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday, 305 pp., $23.95), is not primarily about the pair of dueling biographers who set its plot in motion, but speaking as one who has written two biographies and is athwart a third, I can tell you that its author knows far more than she should about the psychology of people like me.

The title character of The Great Man, a much-admired but not quite great painter named Oscar Feldman, is dead when Christensen’s book gets under way. Instead of meeting Feldman, we see him through the eyes of two very different men who, initially unaware of one another, are in the process of interviewing the women in his life. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Feldman’s women—his wife, his mistress, his sister, his twin daughters—are Christensen’s real subjects. All, it seems, continue to be held in thrall by his larger-than-life personality, and The Great Man is at bottom the story of how each one manages to break free of Feldman and start living her own life.

Read More

• The similarities of the biographer’s craft and the novelist’s art have often been remarked upon, and several writers of fiction, Henry James foremost among them, have succeeded in making hay out of the activities of the “publishing scoundrels” so vividly sketched in The Aspern Papers. Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday, 305 pp., $23.95), is not primarily about the pair of dueling biographers who set its plot in motion, but speaking as one who has written two biographies and is athwart a third, I can tell you that its author knows far more than she should about the psychology of people like me.

The title character of The Great Man, a much-admired but not quite great painter named Oscar Feldman, is dead when Christensen’s book gets under way. Instead of meeting Feldman, we see him through the eyes of two very different men who, initially unaware of one another, are in the process of interviewing the women in his life. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Feldman’s women—his wife, his mistress, his sister, his twin daughters—are Christensen’s real subjects. All, it seems, continue to be held in thrall by his larger-than-life personality, and The Great Man is at bottom the story of how each one manages to break free of Feldman and start living her own life.

Summed up so baldly, The Great Man sounds like a feminist tract, but in fact it is a well-managed piece of plot-juggling in which Christensen detonates genuinely unexpected surprises at satisfyingly regular intervals, in between writing with impressive intelligence about the art world and its inhabitants (“Maxine’s paintings were intended to punish the viewer for failing to see what they were about”). She is, like Angus Wilson, the sort of novelist who is at pains to let you know that she has everybody’s number, but such knowingness is a venial sin in so smart a writer, especially when it is mixed, as it is here, with real sympathy.

Christensen has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the author of sharp-witted novels in which she frequently tries her hand at literary impersonation. In Jeremy Thrane (2001), for instance, she pulls off the tricky feat of writing in the voice of a gay man. In The Great Man, by contrast, most of the principal characters are women in their seventies and eighties, a difficult age for a youngish author to comprehend, and one that Christensen portrays with what looks to a middle-aged reader like complete understanding:

“Listen, Henry,” she said. “Oscar was my beloved mate. I never had any other or wanted one. But after forty-odd years, the word beloved takes on some fairly perverse complexities. You’re probably too young still to know. To be truly loved is to be . . . known, of course, which also implies despised and even hated.”

Less successful are the bookends of pastiche that frame The Great Man, a New York Times obituary of Oscar Feldman and a Times review of the two biographies of Feldman, whose writing sets the novel in motion. Christensen has no gift for parody, and neither piece sounds remotely believable. (Among other implausible things, the real-life Hilton Kramer would never have described any painter as “ballsy almost to the point of testicular obnoxiousness.”) A good editor would have encouraged Christensen to lop off these superfluous excrescences, and might also have nudged her to pare away some of the excesses in her rich prose style. Still, these are surface flaws in a novel good enough that I was forced by dint of sheer excitement to read it from cover to cover in two lengthy sittings. I don’t follow the work of very many younger novelists, but from now on I plan to keep up with Kate Christensen.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• A large-scale retrospective of the paintings and works on paper of Edward Hopper is currently making the rounds of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (where it is up through August 19), Washington’s National Gallery of Art (Sept. 16-Jan. 21, 2008), and the Art Institute of Chicago (Feb. 16-May 11, 2008). Like all Hopper shows, it will be very, very popular. Hopper has long been one of America’s best-loved artists, a painter whose appeal is so broad-based that PBS is actually airing a documentary about his life and work narrated by the comedian-filmmaker Steve Martin—who is, sure enough, a Hopper collector. This popularity has always fascinated me, since Hopper is “accessible” only in the sense that his paintings are unambiguously representational. They are also bleak, private, and unsettling, all to a degree one would scarcely expect in so well-liked an artist.

Walter Wells’s Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper (Phaidon, 264 pp., $69.95) is a coffee-table monograph that has been published just in time to coincide with the new Hopper show. Lavishly illustrated and handsomely printed, it would be pleasing to behold even if Wells had nothing of interest to say about his subject. In fact, he writes observantly and well, which makes Silent Theater a useful pendant to Gail Levin’s detailed but hectoring 1995 biography of Hopper and his long-suffering wife-model. Among other things, Wells goes out of his way to point out that Hopper’s paintings aren’t always quite so grim as advertised: “While it is hard to miss the persistent silence, or the tensions, or the lonely melancholy in Hopper’s pictures, what remains underappreciated, it seems to me, is their occasional drollness.”

Read More

• A large-scale retrospective of the paintings and works on paper of Edward Hopper is currently making the rounds of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (where it is up through August 19), Washington’s National Gallery of Art (Sept. 16-Jan. 21, 2008), and the Art Institute of Chicago (Feb. 16-May 11, 2008). Like all Hopper shows, it will be very, very popular. Hopper has long been one of America’s best-loved artists, a painter whose appeal is so broad-based that PBS is actually airing a documentary about his life and work narrated by the comedian-filmmaker Steve Martin—who is, sure enough, a Hopper collector. This popularity has always fascinated me, since Hopper is “accessible” only in the sense that his paintings are unambiguously representational. They are also bleak, private, and unsettling, all to a degree one would scarcely expect in so well-liked an artist.

Walter Wells’s Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper (Phaidon, 264 pp., $69.95) is a coffee-table monograph that has been published just in time to coincide with the new Hopper show. Lavishly illustrated and handsomely printed, it would be pleasing to behold even if Wells had nothing of interest to say about his subject. In fact, he writes observantly and well, which makes Silent Theater a useful pendant to Gail Levin’s detailed but hectoring 1995 biography of Hopper and his long-suffering wife-model. Among other things, Wells goes out of his way to point out that Hopper’s paintings aren’t always quite so grim as advertised: “While it is hard to miss the persistent silence, or the tensions, or the lonely melancholy in Hopper’s pictures, what remains underappreciated, it seems to me, is their occasional drollness.”

No less convincing is his final verdict on Hopper’s place in the history of American art:

His universals have outlasted his perceived provincialism. Surrealism, abstraction, pop, op—each ism that once seemed to displace “realistic” painting, and hence his own, can, the more closely we look at his images, be found in them as well.

Nicely said.

• Daniel Tammet, the author of Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir (Free Press, 226 pp., $24), suffers—if that is the right word—from savant syndrome, the mental condition that was the subject of the 1988 movie Rain Man. Unlike Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tammet has a “high-functioning” form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, meaning that he is capable of living on his own, functioning more or less normally, and writing introspectively about his life. Hence this book, one of the most readable first-hand accounts of mental illness to have come my way.

So far as I know, this is the first time that anyone suffering from autism has taken the layman inside the heretofore unimaginably strange world of the autistic savant:

I was born on January 31, 1979—a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing. I like my birth date, because of the way I’m able to visualize most of the numbers in it as smooth and round shapes, similar to pebbles on a beach.

This synesthetic perception of numbers allows Tammet to “handle and calculate huge numbers in [his] head without any conscious effort.” It also places a barrier between him and his fellow men, for his computational gifts go hand-in-hand with a severe impairment of his capacity to experience ordinary emotions:

Numbers are my first language, one I often think and feel in. Emotions can be hard for me to understand or know how to react to, so I often use numbers to help me. If a friend says they feel sad or depressed, I picture myself sitting in the dark hollowness of number 6 to help me experience the same sort of feeling and understand it.

It is fascinating to read of how Tammet converted to Christianity after reading the essays of G.K. Chesterton. Tammet recounts his religious awakening in the same flat, childlike tone with which he describes his virtuosic mathematical skills:

I do not often attend church, because I can become uncomfortable with having lots of people sitting and standing around me. However, on the few occasions when I have been inside a church I have found the experience very interesting and affecting.

Far more vivid, not to mention affecting, is the chapter in which Tammet tells how he memorized and recited the first 22,514 digits of pi (the irrational number that expresses the relationship between the circumference and diameter of a circle) without making a single mistake:

Why learn a number like pi to so many decimal places? The answer I gave then as I do now is that pi is for me an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing. Like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it.

That last sentence made me catch my breath. Like most aesthetes, I’m largely innocent of the niceties of higher mathematics, but Daniel Tammet has given me a fleeting glimpse of what I think Edna St. Vincent Millay must have meant when she claimed that “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.”

Read Less

Is Abstract Back?

Is abstraction in the midst of a revival? In a lengthy essay in ARTnews, deputy editor Barbara A. MacAdam makes the case that it is:

Just as the figure—once disparaged as academic, facile, or simply frumpy—experienced a renascence, showing up in numerous guises to suit the social, political, and artistic moment, abstract art has been flaunting its brilliant past and reconfiguring itself for the present and future.

As evidence she cites the flurry of recent exhibitions highlighting both contemporary abstract painters and those of the 1960’s. Moreover, England’s Turner Prize, that bellwether of academic trendiness, recently went to Tomma Abts, a German-born painter known for her cool geometric abstraction. Just a year earlier the prize was awarded to Simon Starling, whose project involved converting a vacant wooden shack into a boat, sailing it to Basel, and reassembling it into a shack. The Turner has been taken home often in recent years by conceptual tricksters such as Gilbert and George (1986) and Damien Hirst (1995). That it has now gone to a lyrical painter is indeed a sign that things have changed.

Read More

Is abstraction in the midst of a revival? In a lengthy essay in ARTnews, deputy editor Barbara A. MacAdam makes the case that it is:

Just as the figure—once disparaged as academic, facile, or simply frumpy—experienced a renascence, showing up in numerous guises to suit the social, political, and artistic moment, abstract art has been flaunting its brilliant past and reconfiguring itself for the present and future.

As evidence she cites the flurry of recent exhibitions highlighting both contemporary abstract painters and those of the 1960’s. Moreover, England’s Turner Prize, that bellwether of academic trendiness, recently went to Tomma Abts, a German-born painter known for her cool geometric abstraction. Just a year earlier the prize was awarded to Simon Starling, whose project involved converting a vacant wooden shack into a boat, sailing it to Basel, and reassembling it into a shack. The Turner has been taken home often in recent years by conceptual tricksters such as Gilbert and George (1986) and Damien Hirst (1995). That it has now gone to a lyrical painter is indeed a sign that things have changed.

Such is the influence of ARTnews, of course, that for it to pose the question of abstraction’s return is probably enough to make that return happen. But is this a genuine revival, in the sense of a living renewal? Or is it merely a return to proven material during a time of creative doldrums, as with Hollywood’s endless recycling of plots, themes, and brands?

What MacAdam does not acknowledge is the extent to which America’s postwar abstraction was the product of a peculiar cultural moment. The forces that gave it its deeper resonance—the social pressures released by the end of a world war, the rise of psychology and psychiatry, the unleashing of atomic power—cannot be repeated. One might revive its techniques and mannerisms, one might mimic its swagger, but one cannot summon back its euphoric urgency. And without those underlying tensions, abstraction is less of a spiritual language, proclaiming the collective passions and anxieties of the age, than a decorative vernacular.

It is striking that the abstract artists now being revived are those of the 1960’s—those whose work had already absorbed the deadpan austerity of Minimalism—and not the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950’s. Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem DeKooning are not mentioned in MacAdam’s piece. The trend that she has identified is fascinating. But it is not so much an “abstract revival” as a kind of neo-minimalism—gratefully embraced by artists and public alike in a state of collective fatigue over the stridently politicized art of the past generation.

Read Less

Mr. Wynn’s Elbow

The strangest art story of the year grows stranger yet. Last October, Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas developer and art collector, accidentally shoved his elbow through Picasso’s Le Rêve (The Dream), the single most valuable work in his collection. Among the eyewitnesses were Barbara Walters and Nora Ephron, who amusingly detailed the mishap on her blog. In a bizarre coincidence, Wynn had agreed only the day before to sell Le Rêve to Steven Cohen, a hedge-fund tycoon, for $139 million. Now that deal is off and Wynn is suing Lloyd’s of London, the painting’s insurers, for its drop in value, which he puts at $58 million dollars. (He has blamed the accident on a medical condition that deprived him of his peripheral vision.)

In most accounts, the story has been played for laughs—the casino billionaire who is all elbows. The painting’s erotic subject matter has also drawn comment: it shows Marie-Thérèse Walther, the artist’s young mistress. It was painted in 1932, long after Picasso’s Cubist heyday, but some of its value can be ascribed to the light it casts on his personal life. Less has been said, however, about the peculiar sequence of events: one day the purchase agreement for the painting is signed, establishing its market value, and the next day the painting is mutilated before a large gathering of witnesses, instantly reducing its value and—in Wynn’s view—earning him a check for the difference.

Equally strange are the mechanics of the damage to the painting. An elbow thrust, however fierce or well-aimed, is not likely to puncture a linen canvas. Paintings are not stretched tight as a drum and have a certain degree of give, and the tendency of the fabric when struck by a blunt instrument is to dent or else to give way where it is nailed to the stretcher. In order to confirm this, I asked a painter friend to take a taut canvas and see if he could pierce it with his elbow. Working with heavy cotton duck canvas (a weaker fabric than the Belgian linen that Picasso likely used), he was only able to put a bowl-shaped depression into the canvas, despite repeated attempts.

The insurers will be investigating this case carefully. Perhaps they’ll ask to take a cast of Mr. Wynn’s elbow.

The strangest art story of the year grows stranger yet. Last October, Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas developer and art collector, accidentally shoved his elbow through Picasso’s Le Rêve (The Dream), the single most valuable work in his collection. Among the eyewitnesses were Barbara Walters and Nora Ephron, who amusingly detailed the mishap on her blog. In a bizarre coincidence, Wynn had agreed only the day before to sell Le Rêve to Steven Cohen, a hedge-fund tycoon, for $139 million. Now that deal is off and Wynn is suing Lloyd’s of London, the painting’s insurers, for its drop in value, which he puts at $58 million dollars. (He has blamed the accident on a medical condition that deprived him of his peripheral vision.)

In most accounts, the story has been played for laughs—the casino billionaire who is all elbows. The painting’s erotic subject matter has also drawn comment: it shows Marie-Thérèse Walther, the artist’s young mistress. It was painted in 1932, long after Picasso’s Cubist heyday, but some of its value can be ascribed to the light it casts on his personal life. Less has been said, however, about the peculiar sequence of events: one day the purchase agreement for the painting is signed, establishing its market value, and the next day the painting is mutilated before a large gathering of witnesses, instantly reducing its value and—in Wynn’s view—earning him a check for the difference.

Equally strange are the mechanics of the damage to the painting. An elbow thrust, however fierce or well-aimed, is not likely to puncture a linen canvas. Paintings are not stretched tight as a drum and have a certain degree of give, and the tendency of the fabric when struck by a blunt instrument is to dent or else to give way where it is nailed to the stretcher. In order to confirm this, I asked a painter friend to take a taut canvas and see if he could pierce it with his elbow. Working with heavy cotton duck canvas (a weaker fabric than the Belgian linen that Picasso likely used), he was only able to put a bowl-shaped depression into the canvas, despite repeated attempts.

The insurers will be investigating this case carefully. Perhaps they’ll ask to take a cast of Mr. Wynn’s elbow.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.