Janet Malcolm understands that artists make things. This may seem a more than obvious truth, but it’s startling how often it is sidelined. A fair amount of writing about artists is premised on the idea that they are better or worse or more generous or brutish or attuned to the subtle vibrations of the universe than the rest of us. Malcolm doesn’t seem to think so, and it’s very refreshing. The profiles in her new collection Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers focus primarily on thing-making – the ideas behind it, the process of it, and the way those things are received by the public – as opposed to personality. Not that personality is missing from her essays; the reader gets a very strong sense of various artistic characters and their mannerisms. But there is little here of sleazy affairs, bad behavior toward family and colleagues, or other familiar fodder of artistic biography. (Often such biography suggests that the artist’s main career is being an asshole, while the paintings or photographs or books happen somehow in his free time.)
Malcolm’s excellent title piece is a good choice to open this collection. Forty-one numbered sections give forty-one different beginnings to a profile of the painter David Salle, written in 1994. It’s amusing to wonder if Malcolm initially meant to write a more traditional profile, and fell into this arrangement through difficulties, or if she always planned this format, for it nicely mimics Salle’s collage approach. Just as Salle’s canvases in which he allows nothing to be original – he works only with previously produced images from magazines, photo files, and art history – transform their individual elements into a new whole, a complex and many-faceted portrait emerges from Malcolm’s fragments. It’s a portrait not only of Salle himself, his aims and his methods, but of a particular generation of artists who came of age in the 1980s and generated tremendous hostility with their jettisoning of high-modernist pieties.
This last theme is revisited in the collection’s other standout essay, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” which uses former Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy as a focal point for a sprawling multi-actor depiction of the 1980s art world. I was initially disappointed when I saw “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” included in this volume, because it has already appeared in Malcolm’s earlier collection The Purloined Clinic. It seemed a bit of a cheat to bring it out again. But rereading it after more than twenty years, I changed my mind. It holds up in every way, treating enduring themes of generational conflict among artists, “high” versus “low” art, arcane versus plainspoken artistic criticism, and the artist as garret-dweller versus the artist as successful brand. I am only sorry that Malcolm did not include some sort of postscript twenty-seven years on. I would very much have liked to hear how the passage of time has altered her impressions of this period in American art, and what she might have to say about the contemporary artists that have in turn been influenced by the figures featured in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist.”
But perhaps Malcolm isn’t interested in addenda. The introduction to Forty-One False Starts has been written not by her but by New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, which is too bad. Frazier has little to offer except outlandish praise, which Malcolm may deserve but which is less illuminating than comments from the author herself would have been. Malcolm may feel she’s paradoxically fulfilled the task of an introduction with the last piece in the collection, the intriguingly brief essay “Thoughts on Autobiography From an Abandoned Autobiography.” Malcolm can’t write her planned autobiography, she tells us. It brings on “a feeling of boredom.” Her attempts strike her as “pitiful.” Decades of journalism have destroyed her imagination and her ability to climb out of “the pose of objectivity.” The objective “I,” claims Malcolm, “is unsuited to autobiography.”
This is a beguiling argument, expressed as vividly as Malcolm expresses anything, but I don’t buy it. The objective “I” (or eye) is a boon and not a drawback for the autobiographer. Without it we get solipsism. In one essay here, Malcolm is quite critical of a memoir by Angela Garnett, the daughter of Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell. Garnett grew up amid the various eccentricities and bohemianisms of Bloomsbury, and did not learn until she was eighteen that Bell’s husband was not in fact her father. While Malcolm sees Garnett’s sour view of her mother and the Bloomsbury circle as something that “cannot be pushed aside,” she also finds Garnett’s memoir “unpleasant” and narrow-minded. She suggests strongly that Garnett lacks the ability to get outside of her own skin, to see the world of her youth with sufficient detachment.
In Malcolm’s case, imperfect objectivity is a selling point — one of her most appealing qualities as a journalist is that she is always present, both explicitly and implicitly, on the page. Her judgements are evident, and so is her process of thought. “What are the properties and qualities of authentic art, as opposed to ersatz art?” she asks herself, and us, in “Forty-One False Starts.” David Salle is “an acutely intelligent, reserved, and depressed man,” she tells us in the same essay. In an essay on Edith Wharton: “There are no bad men in Wharton’s fiction.” Malcolm suggests that Julia Margaret Cameron’s often scoffed-at 19th-century photos of children and housemaids dressed up to illustrate Biblical tableaux are works of merit, and remarks that someone should have dissuaded Irving Penn from mounting an exhibit of (to her, unsuccessful) photographs at the Whitney in 1999.
It is this gentlewomanly but insistent presence that makes Malcolm both instructive and entertaining to read. One never senses that her judgments are gratuitous or off the cuff: she comes off as the most careful of writers, one who takes her time, who rethinks and revises constantly (in the short eulogy “William Shawn,” she singles out her famous New Yorker editor for teaching her that “the slowing down was the important thing”). She may not always convince – her piece on Edith Wharton’s supposed misogyny struck me as quite off-base – but her opinions are always worth considering. She has a particular style of scene-setting that more than anything marks a work of hers as “a Janet Malcolm piece”; for instance, she likes to take a subject’s living space and make it speak for that subject. So Salle’s loft is “sleek, cold, expensive, unused,” while that of formidable critic Rosalind Krauss has “a dark, forceful, willful character. . . . No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked.” Ingrid Sischy’s method of chopping tomatoes comes to speak for her inefficient but tenacious and ultimately successful captaining of her influential publication.
Besides the Salle and Sischy articles, the strongest pieces in Forty-One False Starts are on photographers: Edward Weston, Diane Arbus, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Thomas Struth, who was recently commissioned to do Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s official portrait. In these diverse essays, a connecting thread is the sense of embattlement and defeat many artists suffer from, their constant struggle to create something that answers to their deepest intuitions of truth or beauty. Malcolm puts it most powerfully in a comment about writers, invoking their endless fight against “the pretentiousness, intellectual shallowness, moral murkiness, and aesthetic limpness that come naturally to the pen.” Then there is the chronic feeling among artists, not paranoid but quite realistic, of being under-appreciated and misunderstood. The confident, ecstatic engagement – or “flow,” to put it in pop-psych terms – that non-artists think of as an everyday part of the artist’s life is very little in evidence here.
Making things is hard work, sometimes exhausting, often leading to failure. Janet Malcolm explores the artist’s temperament as a source that feeds and is adjunct to the making process, rather than as something of separate and greater meaning. Thank goodness. My only significant complaint about Forty-One False Starts is that so few entries in it are recent – meaning that Malcolm, who has produced excellent journalism in other areas in recent years, is not doing enough new writing on art to satisfy her hungry readers.