Saturday, November 1st, 2003

Janet Malcolm

Lori Bookstein Fine Art
50 East 78th Street
New York NY 10021
Tel. 212.439.9605

October 9 to November 8, 2003

Janet Malcolm Untitled 2001 paper collage, 9-1/2 x 7-1/4 inches. Courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Arts
Janet Malcolm, Untitled 2001 paper collage, 9-1/2 x 7-1/4 inches. Courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Arts

As a challenge to traditional painting, collage is one of Modernism’s lasting gifts. Argus-eyed, it endows its audience with a kaleidoscope of viewpoints along a scale from the personal and recondite to the purely formal. It is an art of association and surmise, its graphic symbols hinged to a range of experience that is as varied as the audience that looks at them.

Janet Malcolm handles the medium with the same attention to nuance, the same passion for exactitude that informs her writing. What becomes apparent in this exhibition is that a writer’s eye for telling details is quickened by the same nerve that excites pictorial intelligence. The aim of both is to get it right. Malcolm’s journalism career began with articles on interior decoration, design and photography. The visual preceded–and, throughout her working life, informed–everything.

This is beautiful and serious work, poised in a solitude all its own. It comes after twenty years of engaging papier collé‚ for her own pleasure. On view are thirty-three collages. Some originate in the rigor and self-effacement of Russian avant garde sensibility. Others, more fluid in form, depend on the graphic power of objets trouvés, a quarry of fragments mined for visual and associative effect. There is a Surrealist edge to certain ones that is carried off with great aplomb. The ensemble orbits around Malcolm’s long-held attachments to literature, psychology and art.

Her reservoir of objets trouv‚s leans toward the familial: the paper trail of a family history and its intellectual life. But biography is not the subject of this exhibition. Every artist reaches, psychologically or in fact, for those things closest at hand. In the end, what matters is not the artist’s experiences but her capacity to transmute private responses into forms that speak to strangers. Malcolm’s work speaks eloquently of the life of the mind and its capacity to civilize, order and interpret the confusion of the lived life.

Vladimir Tatlin, heady with art’s appointed mission in 1920, declared his distrust of the eye. But Malcolm, an attentive student of Kurt Schwitter’s genius, is careful to give the eye its due. Her attraction to hallmark Constructivist designs seems true to her own temper which, on the evidence here, is both reserved and austere. There is a structural composure-a calm-to these compositions that calls to mind that other acolyte of Kurt Schwitters, the lovely Anne Ryan.

Malcolm, like Ryan, chooses her floating fragments with a keen eye for texture and color. The works of each woman are on an intimate scale and convey an illusion of confidentiality. They suggest something sequestered, revealed behind closed doors to just the two of us. This is particularly true of Malcolm’s inclusion of old handwritten items. We respond to these stimuli in quite personal ways. They are catalysts of memory, her remembrances triggering our own. Acknowledgements of a human presence, they have the impact of letters from the dead.

Typography, where it appears, is chosen as much for its architecture–the weight , balance and magic of alphabets–as for signal value. Ryan jumped the boundaries of language, thoroughly subordinating the connotative aspect of printed stuffs to her palette. Malcolm, by contrast, has spent a life time using language as an instrument. She naturally retains and exploits verbal associations. Her selections mean what they say. An entry ticket to Cezanne’s atelier is intended to a be recognized for what it is. A scrap of a letter typed on an old manual typewriter serves its design purposes while it remains a sly but deliberate reference to Schwitters.

Son 2003 paper collage, 11-1/2 x 10-1/2 inches
Son 2003 paper collage, 11-1/2 x 10-1/2 inches

The floated faceting of these collages is subtle, elegant, many of them witty. But one particular image, titled Son, chilled me. A photo of an old crib hovers, weightless and off-axis, over a splayed black ground. The metal crib, on casters, is institutional, shorn of bedding or any suggestion of nurture and comfort. It stands empty in a space barren as any barracks. Here is an image of cold containment, pragmatic, unyielding, more suited to prison than the nursery. A cage. Given the time frame suggested by the age of the crib and the black and red Constructivist surround, it is impossible not to see it as an icon of detention and deprivation. The image is freighted with a weight that has not lifted since the 1930’s.

Malcolm’s artistry is consistent with the restraint, discipline and regard for object, rather than process, which characterized early Constructivist work. Her temperament respects control. And control slips only once.

The oversized America 1950 is predictable feminist kitsch. A catalogue of male portraits smile at us from annual reports circa late 40’s. The single female face is shrouded, as if in purdah, by a piece of vellum. The whine is almost audible: women are exiles in a man’s world. Coming from Janet Malcolm–no outsider, she–it seems disingenuous. The piece indulges in the reflexive, approved disdain of a politicized present. Besides, Malcolm’s Dadaist models took aim at their contemporaries. Anybody can kick a decade long finished.

But false notes have their uses, if only as reminders that art is measured by what it rejects as much as by what it embraces. There is an elegiac quality to this work that extends beyond the personal. Without necessarily intending to, it bears witness to the illusional character of its antecedents. Art’s contra mundum stance in the opening decade of the twentieth century has not brought down the house. In art, radical breaks heal over and yesterday’s daring become today’s decor.

There is a lesson in Malcolm’s gravitation toward Constructivist design principles that extends beyond their approriateness to family history. The formal achievements of a previous age remain alive and enlivening to those who respond to them. It is the dead hand of the present that has to be feared.