[caption id="attachment_63964" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Lisa Anne Auerbach, "Let the Dream Write Itself," 2014. Wool, 63 x 80 in. (160 x 203.2 cm)Collection of the artist and Gavlak Gallery, Palm Beach. Copyright Lisa Anne Auerbach. Photograph by Lisa Anne Auerbach.[/caption] Paper is a star of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, as one critic put it. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. A star of this show -- the star, in my opinion -- is what's on the paper. And what's on the paper is something that has been on a lot of museum and gallery walls lately, as we noted here early this year. That something is the thing we tend to think of as the domain of writers, not artists. That something is words. The current Whitney Biennial, like its precursors since 1932, tries to answer an impossible question: What is contemporary art in the United States today? Here's one answer: "Shape-shifting." That's the title of the catalog essay by one of this Biennial's three outside curators, Stuart Comer of the Museum of Modern Art. Comer writes that in making his selections for the show he was "compelled by artists whose work is as hybrid as the significant global, environmental, and technological shifts reshaping the United States." Nowhere is this crossbreeding more vividly expressed than in one of this Biennial's staples -- what Comer calls "the complex relationship between linguistic and visual forms." [caption id="attachment_63968" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Etel Adnan, "Five Senses for One Death," 1969. Ink and watercolor on paper. 11 x 255 in. (27.9 x 647.7 cm)Collection of the artist; courtesy Callicoon Fine Arts, New YorkPhotograph by Chris Austen[/caption] Consider his choice of Etel Adnan, an 89-year-old, Beirut-born, Lebanese-American artist who wrote a highly regarded novel, Sitt Marie-Rose, set during her homeland's brutal civil war. (She has also written poetry and essays.) A room at the Whitney has several of Adnan's bright paintings on the walls, looking down on a large vitrine that contains Adnan's accordion books made of long sheets of folded paper, known as leporellos. One is titled "Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut." Through a series of watercolor images and blocks of writing, it tells the story of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space. But Adnan's lovely book is less a celebration of technological achievement than a reflection on creativity and loss. "In the beginning was the white page," it opens, a chilling fact known to every writer. It goes on to describe Gagarin's achievement as "a requiem for the sound barrier." Another leporello, "Five Senses for One Death," conjures a whimsical world where "every Chevy calls me by my name." I want to go there. In his catalog essay, Comer calls the unfolding pages of the leporellos "a proto-screen, a kind of precursor to the laptops, smartphones, and tablets that increasingly dominate our lives, where the distinction between language and image continues to collapse and multiple surfaces and screens abut and fold into one another." He notes that Adnan's life and career are, like this Biennial, about breaking through boundaries. "I find myself gravitating toward artists like Adnan who are working with culture in a freer and more open-minded way -- not fighting so much against traditionally established boundaries as ignoring them, unwilling to define themselves as image-makers or writers, painters or sculptors or filmmakers, but working in the interstices of categorical distinctions." Many of the 103 participants in the show have chosen to ignore the traditional boundaries between linguistic and visual forms. (Happily, there is also a lot of straight-up painting here, along with sculpture, videos, and performances.) Artists whose works prominently feature written, drawn, painted, printed, or photographed words include David Diao, Carol Jackson, Philip Hanson, Steve Reinke, Karl Haendel, Martin Wong, James Benning, and Allan Sekula. There's an archive from the works of the boundary-shredding artist/writer/critic Gregory Battcock. Susan Howe has done something William S. Burroughs would have appreciated: She has taken fragments of poems, folklore, criticism, and art history, then cut and rearranged them, printed them on a letterpress, and laid the fragments on facing pages. "The bibliography is the medium," Howe says on a note card beside the paired pages. "(They) occupy a space between writing and seeing, reading and looking." Lisa Anne Auerbach, a Los Angeles-based artist, has stitched together a large woolen assemblage, an ebullient bath of thought bubbles that simply will not shut up. Like some yammering New Age shaman, it peppers the viewer with witticisms and dubious wisdom, such as "You're All About Going Deep," "The Sooner You Get To the Second Chakra, the Better," "Write It All Down," and "Let the Dream Write Itself." Auerbach has also produced sweaters that bear messages ("Touch Me" and "Everything I touch turns to sold/Steal this sweater off my back"), as well as a giant zine she calls "American Megazine." Move over, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Of course these artists' bewitching use of words is nothing new. Artists have been using words as images for at least the past century (along with single letters, even entire alphabets), an appropriation of the writerly strategy of arriving at meaning through narrative. This Biennial adds to the body of evidence that the practice is accelerating and expanding. I have a theory why this is so. As the practice of writing on paper (everything from telegrams to letters to books to Post-It notes) is increasingly devoured by technology, words on paper are evolving from widespread tools of communication into the rarefied stuff of art. As things recede, they also expand. As a result, words are becoming as legitimate as the more traditional subject matter of painting, drawing, video and sculpture. Running parallel to this trend is a more capacious notion of what constitutes art. Or, as the great critic Holland Cotter put it, this Biennial demonstrates that "not-art" and "maybe-art" deserve a place at the table with "Art." Consider the room at the Biennial devoted to the independent publisher Semiotext(e), known for introducing French theory to the U.S. in the 1970s through the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and others. Now based in Los Angeles, it continues to publish works of "theory, fiction, madness, economics, satire, sexuality, science fiction, activism and confession." On one wall at the Whitney there is a selection of pamphlets produced especially for the Biennial, works by Simone Weil, Gary Indiana, and Chris Kraus, among others. Another wall is plastered with pages of Semitoext(e) books, flyers, and posters of events, including the Schizo-Culture conference at Columbia University in 1975. There's also a poster for a performance by Semiotext(e) author/performance artist Penny Arcade that presents her succinct CV: "Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!" For four decades Semiotext(e) has been as much a sensibility as a publishing enterprise, championing the mash-up of high and low that's now part of the culture's bedrock. But is all this verbiage "Art"? Absolutely. [caption id="attachment_63970" align="aligncenter" width="570"] David Foster Wallace, Page from The Pale King materials, “Midwesternism” notebook, undated. Manuscript notebook, 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (26.7 x 21.0 cm)Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Image used with permission from the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.[/caption] The highlight of this Biennial, for me, is a smallish installation on the top floor, where a sheet of glass serves as a literal window into the mind of David Foster Wallace. After Wallace's suicide in 2008, Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little Brown, went to Wallace's studio in California to retrieve a trove of manuscript pages, hard drives, file folders, spiral notebooks, and floppy disks -- enough to fill a duffel bag and two Trader Joe's bags. Pietsch then spent two years stitching the material into the novel we now know as The Pale King. On display behind glass at the Whitney is a small but revealing fraction of that mass of material. There's a spiral notebook with kittens and the words "Cuddly Cuties" on the cover, along with a scrap of paper that contains the word SCENES. Another spiral notebook contains lists of characters' names, written in Wallace's spidery script. Another contains references that seem to refer to the novel's setting, an IRS office in the Midwest: "Bad Organization -- many different departments all organized around a central command." Here's another way of looking at the IRS: "A 'bad wheel' -- comprises hubs and spokes but no rim." Another notebook page contains a group of pencil scrubbings, reminiscent of a Cy Twombly scribble. Or maybe they were an attempt by Wallace to burn off excess energy. Or maybe just sharpen a pencil. Finally, on the wall above the window, there are two pages from a yellow legal pad that contain handwritten questions for the tennis star Roger Federer, the subject of a long article Wallace wrote for The New York Times in 2006. It became a classic of sports journalism and was included in his posthumous 2012 book of essays, Both Flesh and Not. As it happened, Wallace spent just 20 minutes talking directly with Federer for the article. But the questions reveal how hard Wallace prepared, how hard worked at everything he did, how much he cared. The questions also reveal a disarming directness, a necessary tool for any writer hungry to get all the way under his subject's skin: "Is your English good because it was spoken in your home?" "Does it make you uncomfortable when commentators talk on and on about how good you are?" "I've spent the last couple of days listening to the press and experts talk about you. When you hear people saying that your game is not merely powerful or dominant but beautiful, do you understand this?" There is also a bit of sly humor here. Wallace, like every writer, sometimes bridled against editorial control. He gives one list of questions a disparaging title: "Non-Journalist Questions: (Q's the Editors want me to ask)." Even a few years ago, it would have been unlikely for these marked pieces of paper to make their way onto the walls of a major American museum. Thankfully, things are changing. These pieces of paper are beautiful to look at and beautiful to ponder. They provide nothing less than a glimpse into a brilliant writer's mind at work. It's so intimate it almost feels like a trespass. Even so, I recommend it to anyone who's interested in how ideas become words, how words become literature, and how literature becomes art.
Donald Antrim is perhaps the master of the novel in which men are crammed into confined spaces -- a group of psychotherapists in a pancake joint (The Verificationist) or 100 brothers in a library (The Hundred Brothers). Chris Bachelder contributes a gem to the genre with The Throwback Special, in which a football team's worth of men descend upon a hotel to conduct an annual ritual based on a football game that occurred 30 years ago. The men loiter in “concentric arcs” around the hotel’s lobby fountain as they wait to check in, “not unlike the standard model of the atom;” they gather to eat pizza in a cramped room smelling of “sweet tomato sauce and warm meat;” and when they find another group of hotel guests descending on the continental breakfast station, they “[lurk] at the boundaries of the dining area, anxious about resources.” All this clustering is a prelude to the formation of a football huddle, “a perfect and intimate order, elemental and domestic, like a log cabin in the wilderness...they could perhaps sense in the huddle the origins of civilization.” (Zog, you go deep while Durc and Plarf sneak up on the mammoth from the blind side.) Bachelder’s portrait of middle-class, middle-aged males revolves around football, in which we find a unique combination of brute force, obsessive strategic organization, and improvisation. Full disclosure: In my version of hell, scowling football coaches pace up and down the River Styx, their steady barking of martial commands only interrupted to consult their laminated sheets on which every possible variation on the off-tackle running play is written. My distaste for the sport’s phony militarism notwithstanding, Bachelder’s “football” novel is an eerie, witty work dissecting a modern-day sacrificial (sack-rificial?) ritual. Though the curious rite described herein takes place in a “two-and-a-half-star chain” hotel off of I-95, it taps into our ancestral roots; the novel’s epigraph is taken from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, a treatise on the “primacy” and “sacred earnestness” of play across cultures. The group of men meet to recreate a famously disastrous, and violent, football play. (Bachelder’s first novel, Bear v. Shark, was structured around a more absurdist agon.) During a 1985 game against the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins attempted a flea flicker -- quarterback hands ball to running back, running back tosses ball back to quarterback, who looks to pass the ball downfield. The trick was clumsily executed, the defense wasn’t fooled, and quarterback Joe Theismann was carted off with a career-ending compound fracture courtesy of the Giants' Lawrence Taylor, the fearsome outside linebacker who seemed shaken by the bone-crushing damage he has inflicted. The TV commentator Frank Gifford warns his audience before cutting to the replay: “And I’ll suggest if your stomach is weak, just don’t watch.” These men did watch as boys, and something about the play’s cataclysmic failure, the collapse of the best-laid plans of mice and offensive coordinators, lodged in their adolescent psyches. The novel opens on the 16th year of the men reenacting the snap. We don’t find out how these performers, who lead relatively humdrum lives devoid spectacular drama, established the group or found each other; illuminating the society’s origins, it seems, would dampen its mystery. The men are not really friends; socialization is confined to the reenactment weekend. Some of their familial or professional troubles are recounted, and Bachelder does flit in and out of their psyches, but in general the men, partly because there are so many of them, remain purposefully flat. It is the ritual that matters -- the men’s role in it and their behavior leading up to it. The description of one man breaking in his new mouthguard tells you everything you need to know about him. At times, The Throwback Special has the feel of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which itself explores the transporting thrill of re-creation. This pleasure lies in the chance to asymptotically “approach perfection” by getting closer and closer to the historical model; or in submitting to the play’s “choreography of chaos and ruin;” or in the suspense that all great drama, even when we know the outcome, generates: “He had liked the sense that anything at all might happen, even though only one thing could happen.” A blend of comfort and tension lies at the heart of this ritual, faith in its power and anxiety about its stability. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga mentions the fragility of play, the ease with which its sustaining illusion can be shattered or its cordoned-off space violated. Though the men have at it for nearly two decades, one worrywart has the “anxious sensation that the ritual, seemingly so entrenched, was in fact precarious.” The conference room in which they usually conduct the lottery has been usurped by a vaguely-named company, Prestige Vista Solutions. (“They just despoil the environment and establish tax havens and seize conference rooms,” gripes one of the deposed reenactors.) The hotel fountain is initially dry. A jersey, and a player, is missing. There are murmurs that this will be the last year, which opens up the “ancient wound of seclusion” in some of the more insecure men. Each wrinkle contributes to a disturbing sense of impermanence, the fear that the mythic ceremony they have devised is not eternal. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how the ritual at once reveals and promises to assuage male neuroses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lottery scene, in which the men draw lottery numbers from a giant drum to determine the order in which they will select their roles. Bachelder shrewdly anatomizes the various psychological types: those who find “nobility in ruinous failure” tend to choose a Washington player who is “essential to the calamity,” a member of the crumbling offensive line for example; others are drawn to the Washington offense “out of a keen, if unrecognized, identification with disappointment and culpability and bumbling malfunction;” the “aesthetes” opt for players based on some aspect of some sartorial accessory or distinctive posture; men who “craved the familiar comfort of anonymity and insignificance” yearn to play an insignificant role in the recreation -- a retreating Giants cornerback for instance -- but “overcompensate for their shameful desire by choosing the most significant player available.” Regardless of one’s temperament or build, it would be almost sacrilegious not to pick Lawrence Taylor first. Derek, the one black man in the group, simultaneously yearns for and dreads the prospect of winning this first selection, which would force him to “[wade] into the psycho-racial thicket” of picking the star linebacker. In past reenactments, men have played him as a “with a kind of wild-eyed, watch-your-daughters primitivism,” profiting from the reenactment to indulge in a “transgressive racial thrill ride.” Derek wonders how his pick will be interpreted by the other men, and whether or not he could change things by adding some depth to the character: Selecting Taylor -- it was so clear -- would not be an opportunity for racial healing and gentle instruction, but an outright act of hostility and aggression. He, Derek, would not control the meaning and significance of Lawrence Taylor’s sack. Centuries of American history would control the meaning and significance of Taylor’s sack. (That one of the teams still clings to its offensive name adds another element to the “charged racial allegory.”) Derek's ethical dilemma vanishes when another man wins the first pick and selects L.T., “beating his chest with his fists” and thereby signaling the kind of nuanced portrayal he is likely to produce. Taylor’s partner and antagonist in the consummating sack is Joe Theismann: “By tradition the man playing Theismann and the man playing Taylor stayed away from each other, like a bride and groom before a wedding.” While failing to pick Taylor would signal weakness, no player is allowed to pick Theismann; the honor falls to the man with the lowest number. The quarterback is a kind of pharmakos, a sacrificial victim at once polluted and holy. While the other men share beds, “it was customary for the man playing Theismann to sleep alone...[a] mildly punitive...form of exile or symbolic estrangement.” Theismann himself, we are told, described his injury in Christ-like terms, his shattered leg bearing the sins of his bumbling linemen; the men who have played him all testify to the intensity of voluntarily offering up themselves to the rushing horde. Theismann submits to the group’s channeled violence, which is a concentrated form of the scattershot, hostile humor that defines certain kind of male relationship and the “typical masculine joke, a crude homemade weapon that indiscriminately sprayed hostility and insecurity in a 360-degree radius, targeting everyone within hearing range, including the speaker.” One man arrives to the hotel and circles the parking lot in his car, “blasting his horn and shouting community-sustaining threats and maledictions.” This aggressive bantering masks an underlying sincerity: to insult is to love. As Bachelder writes, ...each man...was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary. That this passage happens to refer to the men’s feelings for an inanimate object -- the much-maligned lottery drum -- makes the men at once more ridiculous and more poignant. If describing the admittedly silly ritual in such elevated ways seems bombastic, that is partly the point. Serious play depends on a complete adherence to the arbitrary nature of its established rules. Therefore, the reenactment seems puerile to anyone looking in from the outside, including the several Prestige Vista Solutions employees who witness it. These outsiders adopt an ironic stance, but their irony, along with the reader’s, fades when we finally witness the men’s solemn play.
I thoroughly enjoyed the second installment of Emdashes' Ask the New Yorker Librarians series.Michiko Kakutani hates Jonathan Franzen's new memoir, The Discomfort Zone. Kakutani's wrath filled pen aside, Ed explains why she's right, and I have to agree. I looked back through the archives here and realized I hadn't elaborated on it much beyond writing back in 2003 that "Franzen's non-fiction bugs the heck out of me," but it put me off enough that I avoided reading The Corrections for a long time because of it.Speaking of reviews, it's a good thing Bob Dylan didn't get the Franzen treatment. He tells contactmusic.com that while he doesn't care about music reviews, the reviews for Chronicles Vol. 1 meant a lot to him: "Most people who write about music, they have no idea what if feels like to play it, but, with the book I wrote, I thought, 'The people who are writing reviews of this book, man, they know what the hell they're talking about. They know how to write a book, they know more about it than me.' The reviews of this book, some of 'em almost made me cry - in a good way. I'd never felt that from a music critic, ever."Even though it seems like there's another "book banning" story in the news every week, the AP reports that the 405 challenges reported to the American Library Association last year is the smallest number since they started keeping track in the early 1980s. The challenges have dropped by more than half since the ALA started Banned Books Week to promote free expression. Kudos to the librarians.The second most brilliant magazine in the world (refer to the top item in this list for the first), The Economist has a characteristically well-considered a piece on the newspaper industry's timid efforts to embrace the Internet. Thanks to Millions contributor Andrew for sending this along.
Our own Emily St. John Mandel won one of the inaugural Indie Booksellers' Choice Awards yesterday for her novel The Singer’s Gun. The other honorees for this award, which was voted on by indie booksellers around the country, were Paolo Bacigalupi for The Windup Girl, Adam Levin for The Instructions, Karl Marlantes for Matterhorn, and Nina Revoyr for Wingshooters.
New this week: The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon; A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson; The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato; The Love Object by Edna O’Brien; The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz; Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes; Paris, He Said by Christine Sneed; Hugo & Rose by Bridget Foley; and Scavenger Loop by David Baker. For more on these and other new titles, check out our Great 2015 Book Preview.