Granta £20

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.

 

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'