Review: Forty-One False Stars, By Janet Malcolm

Open your eyes, before you get going

The opening essay of this book is about David Salle, a New York Postmodernist artist whose fame had peaked in the 1980s. Malcolm visits and revisits him for this essay, both in person at his studio and in writing. Salle works slowly and deliberately on his paintings, every stroke, as Malcolm says, is "irrevocable: nothing can be changed or retracted". Her own approach to him is the opposite. It has 41 false starts, some just a paragraph, some a short essay in themselves, as she stalks up to try to capture him. This is the territory where many a writer, smelling failure, would hit the delete button repeatedly. But Malcolm makes it a virtue, turning him over from every angle to try to find a truth. She is warm, a little indulgent but not always kind. "I did not find what he said about his work interesting (I have never found anything any artist has said about his work interesting)," she notes, one of several brutal throwaway lines that punctuate this volume of essays on artists and writers.

At points it seems that Malcom can discard nothing, that each surface of Salle merits being written down, but then they are discarded as failures. "Her own or his?" is the question that hangs over this.

The second essay, from 2011, is on the photographer Thomas Struth, who was commissioned to do a portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for the National Portrait Gallery, to mark her Diamond Jubilee. The title is "Depth of Field", and Malcolm sucks in much of his background, imitating Struth's own photographic style in her writing. To give the illusion of a casual atmosphere, every cushion and sofa in the background of Struth's royal portrait must be considered, plumped, and angled. Counterbalancing the outward insouciance, the stage managed chaos, is an obsessive attention to detail, there to project naturalness. You can see it again in her artistic judgements. Deeper into the volume is a piece contrasting two other photographers, Edward Weston and Irving Penn. Weston's nudes are raw, unpolished, whereas Penn's go through a form of torture, "an extraordinary darkroom ordeal", overexposing and bleaching until the nude's humanness is burnt away into just an idea. She finds it easier to admire Weston's completeness, easier to question what Penn actually achieves.

This is not slapdash journalism, with glazed-eyed prose. You cannot glance across any page without being drawn in by a personal detail, or the flickering-to-life of a new argument. Nor, with Malcolm's shifting standpoints from which to interrogate, can you fall into lazy judgements. Indeed when you believe Malcolm has taken you to a point of certainty, she changes course again. This is a well-laid challenge to readers to open their eyes to how they read, and how to judge.

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