At this magazine, we like to think we know a thing or two about interviewing. But to read Interviews with Francis Bacon, the art critic David Sylvester’s book-length dialogue with the painter, is to find a proudly messy rejoinder to our own tidy conversations. Sylvester chronologically presents nine sessions with Bacon over two decades, condensed for length but never edited for clarity or precision. Over the years, in a kind of psychological time-lapse video, the two return to the same topics again and again, and Bacon’s philosophies mutate and crystallize. His interest in the narrative quality of triptych painting evolves to include plans to construct sculptures that can be adjusted and moved. His hedonistic lifestyle becomes a way of thinking about his all-consuming attitude about his work. His desire for realism gives way to a resignation to the artifice of creation. The result is a portrait in dialogue, as warped and fascinating as Bacon’s own depictions of twisted faces and writhing bodies. —Lauren Kane Read More
For the avant-garde playwright, puppeteer, critic, novelist, artist, and cyclist Alfred Jarry, life was a series of artful acts. Perhaps best known in his day for the controversial play Ubu Roi, Jarry is often credited with helping spark the fires of surrealism, Dada, and futurism. “Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being” (on view at the Morgan Library and Museum through May 10) is the first major U.S. museum exhibition of his work; it demonstrates the breadth of his artistic practice. A selection of images from the show—including photographs of Jarry’s experiments with typography and woodblocks—appears below.
Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces the moments before her daughter leaves for college. It ran every Friday in November and returns this winter month, then will return again in the spring and summer.
I grew up inside the smoke of my grandmother’s Pall Malls. The air between her and my mother was dangerous. On our visits to east Texas, the two women would sit in stiff silence for what seemed like hours to my six-year-old sense of time. My mother sat on the brocade couch, my grandmother in her gold velour chair. In every room, there was at least one painting of flowers—roses or daises—all of them done by my grandmother. I’d sit on the floor, counting the chimes from the grandfather clocks in the hallway, not one of which kept the same time as any other. After my grandmother had wandered off to the back room to clink the crystal decanter against her highball glass too many times, we’d go. My mother never left without leaning over that gold chair to kiss her mother goodbye. She never left without saying, “I love you,” like a sigh you let out when the night’s too long. Then that high-chinned stride for the screen door. Every time, just before my mother pushed it open, my grandmother would surrender: “Love you, Martha Jo.”
The day I found out I was having a girl, I sat in my car in the parking lot of the doctor’s office and sobbed. Deep, ragged sobs.
In his monthly column, Conspiracy, Rich Cohen gets to the bottom of it all.
When I was eleven, we lived in an English Tudor on Bluff Road in Glencoe, Illinois. One day, three strange men (two young, one old) knocked on the door. Their last name was Frank. They said they’d lived in this house before us, not for weeks but decades. For twenty years, this had been their house. They’d grown up here. Though I knew the house was old, it never occurred to me until then that someone else had lived in these rooms, that even my own room was not entirely my own. The youngest of the men, whose room would become mine, showed me the place on a brick wall hidden by ivy where he’d carved his name. “Bobby Frank, 1972.” It had been there all along. And I never even knew it.
That is the condition of the human race: we have woken to life with no idea how we got here, where that is or what happened before. Nor do we think much about it. Not because we are incurious, but because we do not know how much we don’t know.
What is a conspiracy?
It’s a truth that’s been kept from us. It can be a secret but it can also be the answer to a question we’ve not yet asked.
Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, but life has existed on this planet for 3.5 billion. That leaves 3,495,888,000 pre-human years unaccounted for—more than enough time for the rise and fall of not one but several pre-human industrial civilizations. Same screen, different show. Same field, different team. An alien race with alien technology, alien vehicles, alien folklore, and alien fears, beneath the familiar sky. There’d be no evidence of such bygone civilizations, built objects and industry lasting no more than a few hundred thousand years. After a few million, with plate tectonics at work, what is on the surface, including the earth itself, will be at the bottom of the sea and the bottom will have become the mountain peaks. The oldest place on the earth’s surface—a stretch of Israel’s Negev Desert—is just over a million years old, nothing on a geological clock.
The result of this is one of my favorite conspiracy theories, though it’s not a conspiracy in the conventional sense, a conspiracy usually being a secret kept by a nefarious elite. In this case, the secret, which belongs to the earth itself, has been kept from all of humanity, which believes it has done the only real thinking and the only real building on this planet, as it once believed the earth was at the center of the universe.
Called the Silurian Hypothesis, the theory was written in 2018 by Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute, and Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester. Schmidt had been studying distant planets for hints of climate change, “hyperthermals,” the sort of quick temperature rises that might indicate the moment a civilization industrialized. It would suggest the presence of a species advanced enough to turn on the lights. Such a jump, perhaps resulting from a release of carbon, might be the only evidence that any race, including our own, will leave behind. Not the pyramids, not the skyscrapers, not Styrofoam, not Shakespeare—in the end, we will be known only by a change in the rock that marked the start of the Anthropocene.
Writing a book about minimalism opens you up to a lot of easy jokes. There’s the simplest, the mismatch of form and content: You wrote a whole book on minimalism? That’s not very minimalist! Then there’s the added wrinkle of the book’s size: How could minimalism fill such a long book? (In my defense, the book I wrote is only a bit over two hundred pages.) People ask if they should actually buy the book, since it’s not minimalist to own extraneous objects. (Please do—buy the e-book if you must.) Someone suggested that instead of text I should have just published a volume of empty pages: the only form of writing that could be properly minimalist is no writing at all.
In fact, many minimalist books have already been written. In the context of literature, the word is associated with a hard-boiled quality, like Raymond Carver or Bret Easton Ellis: terse sentences, tight plots, literalism. Or it can be in reference to scale, like flash fiction, in which a large effect is created within a small space. Diane Williams is a minimalist, as are haiku and Zen koans, fragments of language. I have begun to think that autofiction is our dominant form of minimalist writing today because it dispenses with some of the usual qualities of fictional literature, like dramatic plot, character arcs, and the boundary with nonfiction, in the same way that an artist like Donald Judd left out human figures, varied colors, and aggressive brushstrokes from his works. Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy is minimalist because it leaves the narrator blank, a protagonist who listens instead of acts.
But my book, The Longing for Less, is mostly about the visual associations of minimalism, in art, design, and architecture. Those forms have an antipathy of language and resist subtle description. There aren’t enough words to capture the various shades of visual emptiness—I’ve used blank, austere, and spare too many times to tally without hating myself. Labeling something indescribable is an excuse for lazy writing, yet it seems to apply here. Writing that one of Judd’s works is a box made of unpolished aluminum about a meter square, with its longer sides empty so that you can see through it, is both literally correct and missing the point entirely, like describing a Picasso only as oil and pigment caked on stretched cloth.
At one point I went maximalist in frustration, spending many ekphrastic paragraphs on the epiphany of seeing a Judd box from multiple angles, the shallow pool of empty space in its top, the psychedelic effects of the SoHo sunlight glinting off its powder-coated angles in the upper floors of the artist’s loft home. My editor wisely cut it down to a few sentences.
Minimalist art is meant to exist for and as itself. There is no interpretation or explanation needed—it’s all evanescent effect. By contrast, all language seems like explanation, particularly in nonfiction. As soon as you point to something in writing, it’s there, even if what you point to is the empty floor. Words break the delicate emptiness of a room or the thoughtlessness of pure observation without judgment, which is what I came to think minimalist art is actually about.
My father graduated from Yale in 1913.
At the time, getting into Yale must have been a bit like making a reservation at 21. If you were one of the fortunate few, the only real question was did you want a table at seven thirty or eight thirty.
He played football (“badly, very badly”), was a member of the mandolin club, and was fired early on as drama critic at the Yale Courant for asking Sarah Bernhardt rude questions about her love life.
In later years, he found that boys from his dorms, ones with names like Pinky, Weasel, and Lefty, were now ambassadors to Sweden, vice presidents of General Electric, or on the board of the Federal Reserve. And he came to remember that one of the boys down the hall, someone he barely knew back then, was Cole Porter. Read More