Weekend

Required Reading

This week, why we love writers’ homes, reviewing Jerry Saltz’s new book, why are there no photos of people dying of COVID-19, a missing piece of the Venus de Milo, and more.

French artist Guillaume Legros’s site-specific work in Switzerland was created across a 3,000-square meters space (32,291 sq. ft.) and is titled “Beyond Crisis.” It depicts a little girl with a hand-drawn farandole looking out at the mountains. More images and info on Colossal (via Colossal)

Of course I have an idea. Some people are so naive. This was not the first time I have been upbraided about my work in what another critic called recently my “silly articles”. Once, a respected gallerist took me for a corned beef and tomato sandwich in the pub next door to his gallery and explained, as though to a child, how important it is for everyone in the art world to stick together, contemporary art being assailed on all sides, misunderstood and derided, when in fact it is a balm to the soul and a bulwark against man’s inhumanity to man; almost, in fact, a religion. Or something of the sort. Whose side, he asked, was I on? Taken in by his almost fatherly exasperation, for a moment I felt close to tears, the sandwich an unswallowable wad in my mouth. Reader, I gagged.

This trend of visiting writers’ homes became especially popular, in Britain at least, in the late 1800s (it should be mentioned that Lives of Houses is very British, and male, in its subject matter—the idea for the book emerged from a conference at Oxford). Victorian journalists visited the homes of living writers with the hope of gaining intimate access to the creative life and process, and, according to contributor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, the poet Lord Tennyson was a particularly hot subject. One newspaper article from 1884 describes the “antique chairs” and “large globes (terrestrial and celestial)” of Tennyson’s study and is accompanied by an illustration of the poet sitting at his desk, gazing impenetrably into the distance, as if to suggest he has a deeper, inner-world that’s inaccessible to us. Douglas-Fairhurst asks, “When someone is writing, where do they live: in the real world or in a self-created elsewhere?”

  • I think Gerhard Richter is a mostly boring artist (like many people I prefer the early work, and think the later work is mediocre at best), but Susan Tallman finds much to say about the retrospective that is currently closed at the Met Breuer (though it’s open until January 18, 2021, so I assume it will reopen again) and an exhibition of his work at Marian Goodman Gallery. Just ignore the ridiculous phrases like “Richter is contemporary art’s great poet of uncertainty” and who uses “mandarin” anymore, specially now? (cue eye roll):

Academic writers often view Richter as a master strategist plotting from on high, but his own statements suggest something less mandarin: “It is my wish,” he told Storr, “to create a well-built, beautiful, constructive painting. And there are many moments when I plan to do just that, and then I realize that it looks terrible. Then I start to destroy it, piece by piece, and I arrive at something that I didn’t want but that looks pretty good.” In 1980 he began using squeegees to drag paint in broad, uneven swaths that partly obscure whatever lies below—photographs, printed matter, prior paintings. It’s the look of mechanical failure—machine parts wearing badly, jammed printers, skid marks, abraded film. When repeated over and over, it generates complex color fields full of fissures and pockets exposing older strata. Geological metaphors feel apt—the surfaces resemble landscapes shaped by the scouring and dumping of glaciers. Richter has limited control over what happens in any one layer, so composition becomes the joint product of accumulation and knowing when to stop.

The book is better as a guide to looking at and cultivating your own taste in art than actually making it. There are helpful musings on form versus content—“Style is the unstable essence an artist brings to a genre”—and the challenge of engaging with contemporary art without dismissing it out of hand: “Don’t think good or bad. Think useful, pleasurable, strange, lucky.” There are flashes of Saltz the breezy critic, drawing on lifelong knowledge to sketch an artist’s work in a few evocative words: “Matisse’s idea of composition and space is like a wildflower garden, a long gaze at the night sky, a changing cloud.” The best parts of this book could have appeared under the title How to Be an Art Critic, but that lifestyle is much less aspirational.

Images that emerge as an emblem of sacrifice or consequence have often moved masses to act. Yet without these pictures, the virus is harder to combat.

What was I imagining 20 years ago when I was working all day, every day at a catering job while staying up all night every night, writing menus and sketching the plating of dishes, scrubbing the walls and painting the butter-yellow trim inside what would become Prune? I’d seen the padlocked space, formerly a failed French bistro, when it was decrepit: cockroaches crawling over the sticky Pernod bottles behind the bar and rat droppings carpeting the floors. But even in that moment, gasping for air through the T-shirt I had pulled up over my mouth, I could see vividly what it could become, the intimate dinner party I would throw every night in this charming, quirky space. I was already lighting the candles and filling the jelly jars with wine. I would cook there much the way I cooked at home: whole roasted veal breast and torn lettuces in a well-oiled wooden bowl, a ripe cheese after dinner, none of the aggressively “conceptual” or architectural food then trendy among aspirational chefs but also none of the roulades and miniaturized bites I’d been cranking out as a freelancer in catering kitchens.

At that point New York didn’t have an ambitious and exciting restaurant on every block, in every unlikely neighborhood, operating out of impossibly narrow spaces. There was no Eater, no Instagram, no hipster Brooklyn food scene. If you wanted something expert to eat, you dined in Manhattan. For fine dining, with plush armchairs and a captain who ran your table wearing an Armani suit, you went uptown; for the buzzy American brasserie with bentwood cane-backed chairs and waiters in long white aprons, you stayed downtown. There was no serious restaurant that would allow a waiter to wear a flannel shirt or hire a sommelier with face piercings and neck tattoos. The East Village had Polish and Ukrainian diners, falafel stands, pizza parlors, dive bars and vegetarian cafes. There was only one notable noodle spot. Momofuku opened five years after Prune.

Thiel is in one sense a caricature of outsized villainy: he was the only major Silicon Valley figure to put his weight behind the Trump presidential campaign; he vengefully bankrupted a website because he didn’t like how they wrote about him; he is known for his public musings about the incompatibility of freedom and democracy, and for expressing interest — as though enthusiastically pursuing the clunkiest possible metaphor for capitalism at its most vampiric — in a therapy involving transfusions of blood from young people as a potential means of reversing the ageing process. But in another, deeper sense, he is pure symbol: less a person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future, a human emblem of the moral vortex at the centre of the market.

It was in 2011 that Thiel declared he’d found “no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand”. The claim was made as part of an application for citizenship; the application was swiftly granted, though it remained a secret for a further six years. In 2016, Sam Altman, one of Silicon Valley’s most influential entrepreneurs, revealed to the New Yorker that he had an arrangement with Thiel whereby in the eventuality of some kind of systemic collapse scenario — synthetic virus breakout, rampaging AI, resource war between nuclear-armed states, so forth — they both get on a private jet and fly to a property Thiel owns in New Zealand. (The plan from this point, you’d have to assume, was to sit out the collapse of civilisation before re-emerging to provide seed-funding for, say, the insect-based protein sludge market.)

For years, the “why I left New York” essay has been a honeytrap for writers, an opportunity to muse with unearned solemnity about the most predictable traits of the city they chose to leave: It’s expensive, it’s exhausting, it’s dense, it’s hard to find nature or a dishwasher or a parking space.

In the face of an acute coronavirus outbreak, one more obvious motivation to flee for wide-open spaces has joined this list: “I didn’t want to be here, with all the sick people and crowded hospitals, sheltering in place in a smaller-than-ideal apartment.”

  • A good spoof of our celebrity culture that complains about being holed up in their mansions and going through the same stuff the rest of us are (Ellen DeGeneres tactlessly called her mansion a “prison”):

The style choice will now be marked as an error in Microsoft Word — and users who press the space bar twice after a period will be met with those dreaded blue squiggly lines.
The habit of using two spaces is a relic from the era of typewriters, when typists spaced twice to more clearly define the end of a sentence. Characters were “monospaced” back then, which means they took up the same amount of space on the page — today, most fonts adjust the width of characters so sentences are easier to read.

Required Reading is published every Saturday, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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