Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

by Janet Malcolm, Granta, £20/ $27 (hardcover)

By Mark Rappolt

About two-thirds of the way through her profile of the painter David Salle, Janet Malcolm confesses that she hasn’t found anything he had to say about his work interesting. And she’s been interviewing him for two years. So why does she waste so much of her time talking to him? The answer comes immediately. When Salle talked about his life, she confesses, ‘his words took on the specificity, vividness, and force that had drained out of them when he talked about art’. Malcolm talks to artists to have the ‘truth’ of their art proved via the information she gleans about the ‘reality’ of their lives, which is then compared to the kind of life their art suggests they lead.

When Salle talked about his life, she confesses, ‘his words took on the specificity, vividness, and force that had drained out of them when he talked about art’

Enter photographer Thomas Struth (in a separate essay), giving Malcolm an example of why Bernd and Hilla Becher, his much-hyped tutors at the Düsseldorf Academy, were so great by explaining how Bernd used to insist that his students needed to understand the photographs of Eugene Atget ‘as a visualization of Marcel Proust’. Has Struth read Proust? Malcolm interjects. No. Embarrassment follows. The question of whether or not this makes Struth a better or worse artist is one the author leaves open, while both subject and profiler concede that this will become the crux of the matter. ‘His art has made him rich,’ Malcolm casually notes later in the article. And perhaps that’s all she needs to say. The birth of the culture industry (as evidenced by everything from trends towards gigantism in photography catalogues to the management of the estates and reputations of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group) is another key theme. And perhaps this (and the fact that a number of these essays were originally book reviews) explains the amount of attention Malcolm devotes to analysing media or mediated coverage of her subjects.

It’s hard not to find Malcolm’s schoolmarmish insistence that her tests are passed somewhat annoying: for her, there’s a correct way to produce a photography catalogue and there’s a correct way to be a bohemian. It can seem as if she’s on an arduous quest to trip her subject up. And perhaps it’s in an episode in which she analyses why she chose to show Salle some of her own collages that this side of her is unmasked: ‘every amateur harbours the fantasy that their work is only waiting to be discovered; an established fantasy – that the established contemporary artists must (also) be frauds – is a necessary corollary’. You can’t help but admire a journalist who’s prepared to forensically investigate not just her subjects, but also herself. 

This review originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.