“Painting Like a Man,” and Other News


On the Shelf

Grace Hartigan, The Massacre, 1952, oil on canvas. © Estate of Grace Hartigan; collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Image via The Atlantic.

  • I always like to talk about The Paris Review’s shadowy CIA past. True, it all happened well before I was born, let alone before I was employed here, but I feel it lends my personal story an air of roguish midcentury intrigue. But I should knock it off, because the fact is this: the CIA’s alliance with belles lettres was quietly despicable, a mark on the magazine’s history. Rob Spillman spoke to Joel Whitney, the author of the new book Finks, about the broader, soft-power implications of the CIA in the early Review’s aesthetics: “[Review editors] interviewed Europeans and Americans who they put in a belles lettrist context. They basically were politicizing the apoliticization of art. They made it seem apolitical, and did so very effectively … There’s a de-emphasis on historical truth. You see that across all the CIA aesthetics that they championed. Abstract expressionism was depoliticized against the backdrop of social realism. You have new criticism, which was almost rabidly not interested in historical or the post-colonial context. The Paris Review pretended they didn’t do politics … If it looks apolitical, that doesn’t necessarily make it so.”
  • Looking to the same period, Sarah Boxer renews a sixties-era argument about women and art: “Women artists have been put down in many ways over the years, but the basic technique boils down to this: A critic, a curator, a dealer, or an art historian describes how women paint differently from men, then declares this quality inferior. Women are pegged as controlled, tentative, personal … Greatness is a moving target designed to make women miss. It is no accident that ‘painting like a man’ used to be dished out as a supremely delicious compliment. Irving Sandler once asked Grace Hartigan ‘if a male artist ever told her she painted as well as a man.’ She replied tartly, ‘Not twice.’ ” 

  • It turns out that Walden is actually full of great goofs and gags—they’ve just aged so poorly that the book now appears to us as a bastion of sober humorlessness. M. Allen Cunningham writes, “Had you taken the pains to point out to me, at fourteen, the extent of the levity that permeates Walden and much of Thoreau’s writing, I might have punched you in the nose … He larded his lines with puns and submerged secondary meanings that frequently aimed for laughs. Depicting himself ironically well-employed as nature’s surveyor and inspector in Walden’s first chapter, he boasts: ‘I have watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the nettle tree, the red pine and the black ash, the white grape and the yellow violet, which might have withered else in dry seasons.’ Like much of Walden’s wit, the Falstaffian irreverence here, wherein Thoreau confesses to being a serial outdoor pisser, went—to deploy a pun of my own—whizzing right over the teenage reader’s head.”
  • Alex Abramovich picks up a new collection of Donald Judd’s writing: “ ‘I wrote criticism as a mercenary and would never have written it otherwise,’ Donald Judd wrote in 1974. ‘Since there were no set hours and since I could work at home it was a good part-time job’ … [His writing is] matter of fact, utilitarian—plain in ways that conceal the effort that might have gone into the actual work. Judd, who studied philosophy before turning towards art, was as precise on the page as he was in his sculpture. Take that syllogistic word ‘since’, which appears again and again in his essays, sometimes several times in the same sentence.”
  • It’s Friday: time to study some loud noises. If your weekend plans include annoying people as frequently and intensely as possible, you should ask an alarm designer—this is their lifeblood. “What makes an ‘awooga’ sound more or less urgent than a ‘ding’? And how do you create an alarm noise that’s annoying enough to get someone’s attention, but not so annoying that said person disables the alarm? … To be perceived as urgent, an alarm needs to have two or more notes rather than being a pure tone, ‘otherwise it can sound almost angelic and soothing,’ says [designer Carryl] Baldwin. ‘It needs to be more complex and kind of harsh.’ ”