R.I.P.: Robert B. Silvers

The New York Review of Books and the Village Voice were the bookends of my literary fantasies about New York and the East Coast in general, back when I had never been out here. Brainy/wild — lively/civilized … they could make you feel less lonely out in the thickets and ranges. One aspect I most admired about NY Review is that it was thorough.

Hey, a Jackson Pollock I Actually Like!

Finished the Sebastian Smee book The Art of Rivalry (highly recommended) and one payoff of reading top-notch art books is that you are almost certain to find a work that you did not know that matters a bunch.

Now, with Francis Bacon (another subject in the book, paired with Lucian Freud) I’ve had an interesting evolution. He was dissed in John Berger’s The Art of Seeing in part because Berger claimed Bacon painted the way he did because his limited drawing skills left him no choice. When I read Berger 40 years ago I thought he maybe had a point — I had seen only reproductions of Bacon’s paintings. But about 20 years later I saw an actual Bacon retrospective and Berger was fried. The Irishman’s[*] paintings are shattering, harrowing, stupefying and intoxicating to look at. I agree with Berger it would be tough to have one in your dining room, but not because they are insincere, grotesque cartoons. It matters not a whit that Bacon “had” to paint the way he did.

It does make a difference that Jackson Pollock, even more technically challenged than Bacon, finally found an outlet all his own despite his limitations. I can’t get past the surface of almost all of his stuff I’ve seen — not because it’s “decorative” or whatever, but because it’s simply a chronicle of skittering mental chaos. This is not as dismissive as it might seem — every painting is a portrait of the artist’s mental state. But there’s no way into Pollock for me. Doesn’t help that Smee confirms how obnoxious, hateful, violent and deranged he was too much of the time. I’ve never bought the argument that you have to be a wild person to make wild art. (I do accept the weird rituals and routines of the ’30s-’50s art world in New York that Smee describes.)

But behold — suddenly in the midst of this, I am directed to a Pollock that is just a flicker before his breakthrough into his fame-gaining style. And I can read it emotionally. This work — not in his most famous action-drip mode — conveys torment and confusion with one’s own mind that moves me. It’s called “Stenographic Figure”:


There’s actually two figures, of course, but their postures, distortions, and above all the racket of forms scattered in front and behind and everywhere on the canvass feels exactly right to me. In this one, Jackson Pollock made you sense what he had to deal with every day, and even merge with it.

  • Reading more about Bacon I smacked my forehead as I reminded myself that, while he was born in Dublin, both his parents were English.

Picking Up Whatever Little (Bittersweet) Sparkles I Can Find …

One of the most annoying and persistent complaints about “critics” that I’ve heard over the decades is that “critics” are arrogant assholes who want to tell everybody else what to think. I concluded long ago that the best explanation for this misreading is that it was self-projection. Always had a caveat: “But there can’t be that many of that kind of jerk in the world, can there?”

Well, I now know there can.

The Concocted Controversy About “La La Land”

This cooked-up conflict was inevitable once attention took off about this modern musical. The dig is that it has an “incorrect,” even hostile, attitude toward jazz. C’mon — the thing is part fairy tale. The jazzman lead is named Sebastian, not Wynton. To present him as the film’s golden standard of integrity and honesty is a severe misreading. He’s a dreamer — and dreams can be absurd and ridiculous as well as ideal. This is a musician who correctly recounts that the essence of jazz is that every performance is streaked with the new — but who insists that the best of the music is the same old, same old. This makes him, you know, self-contradictory and more than a bit ludicrous. In fairy tales, dreamers are allowed to realize even absurd dreams, in part anyway, and we the alert audience are supposed to understand this is a ritual, not a comment on the real world.