The Polish Rider, by Anna Ostoya and Ben Lerner

A collaborative experiment between art and fiction writing, brought about by the disappearance of two canvases in the back of a New York taxi...

By Ben Eastham

A story told by a painter to a writer is the starting point for this playful back-and-forth between art and literature. On hearing that his friend Anna Ostoya had left two canvases in the back of a New York taxi on the eve of an opening, the novelist Ben Lerner was inspired to write a short fiction, or so the reader is led to believe. That short story is complemented here by a critical (but not necessarily reliable) essay by Lerner, given the punning title of ‘Late Art’, as well as reproductions of Ostoya’s work. These include a painting made by the artist in response to Lerner’s writing, completing the feedback loop between image and text, real and imagined, idea and expression.

The publication of the fictionalised with the ‘true’ account of the lost paintings offers an instructive record of how the writer adapts found material – works of art – to the demands of a different form. First published in The New Yorker in 2016, ‘The Polish Rider’ imagines a scenario in which the narrator (who closely resembles Lerner) accompanies the artist (recast as ‘Sonia’) in her quest to recuperate the lost artworks. As well as reflections on the sinister bureaucracy of companies like Uber, this picaresque detective story finds room for digressions on the politics of ekphrasis and much postmodern shadow play. In the course of their search, for example, the pair discover a dog-eared anthology of art criticism (also titled Late Art) featuring a text by the narrator, presenting the opportunity to expound on how value attaches to art objects and texts.

The pleasure of disentangling the threads entwining different narratives – the reader’s own detective work – is counterpointed by a suspicion that nothing will be left when they are finally unravelled. The significance of the reference to Rembrandt’s celebrated The Polish Rider (c. 1650) would remain obscure, for instance, were the Internet not on hand to relay that in 1993 The New Yorker reproduced a painting purporting to show the artist in the act of completing it, thus settling a dispute over its attribution. Accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek text by the Dutch artist’s student, that New Yorker piece read unambiguously as a spoof. In its light the weakness of Lerner’s wordplay – a Polish artist’s ‘ride’ in a taxi cab as catalyst for this experiment in writing an artwork into existence – might hint that nothing in this collaboration should be taken as read. Either way, the self-deprecating wit and natural intelligence of Lerner’s prose elevate the project above a mere exercise in the interplay of signs.

It’s nevertheless true that some of the critical insights – that contemporary art is often dependent on language to be legible as art, that art and literature occupy different economies, that the status of a work of art is predicated on the stories told about it – hardly qualify as news. More interesting are the anxieties over whether ekphrastic writing is in all cases an assertion of superiority by the author over the artist (a thought to give the art critic pause) and how it might be possible to establish a more productive relationship between writing and art than that which presumes that the former must respond to, and in doing so authenticate, the latter.

Most compelling is the proposition that fiction might offer the best means of ‘staging encounters’ with other media, and that literary prose is by extension uniquely well suited to describing the new modes of communication – and overlapping systems of power, value and technology – shaping contemporary life. 

The Polish Rider, by Anna Ostoya and Ben Lerner, Mack, €35 / £30 / $40 (hardcover)

From the January & February 2019 issue of ArtReview