Back when Janet Malcolm was just an amateur artist, she decided to bring three of her collages to show to the famous painter David Salle. “Why are your collages art and mine not?” she asked Salle in his Tribeca studio. “There’s nothing that says your collages aren’t art,” Salle replied. “They’re art if you declare them to be so.”'
In the last decade, Malcolm’s collages and photographic prints have appeared in several group and solo shows in Manhattan. Her collages reference the bold geometry of Kazimir Malevich’s suprematism and evoke the dada of Kurt Schwitters, while her photographs of veiny, decaying burdock leaves in all their exaggerated imperfections pay homage to the work of Richard Avedon. “Her compositions exude a rigor and tightness,” said Lori Bookstein, whose Chelsea gallery has represented Malcolm since 2003. “Her uncanny juxtapositions are provocative—spatially, aesthetically, and psychologically.”
Except that you know Malcolm better as a journalist, perhaps the greatest magazine writer of her time, whose calculating, unflattering portraits have earned both awe and rage from her readers and subjects. She is an ambiguity and complexity huntress, one whose skepticism will always beat your skepticism to the punch.
Malcolm’s thoughts on Avedon had already appeared in The New Yorker decades earlier, when she profiled him in 1975. “Avedon does not try to make people look bad,” she wrote. “He simply doesn’t do anything to make them look good.” Malcolm’s description of Avedon is, perhaps, unwittingly self-reflexive. Known for her unforgiving portraits, she brilliantly catches her subjects off guard, teasing out their flaws and contradictions.
Janet Malcolm’s latest essay collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, gathers her portraits of figures from Salle to J.D. Salinger, the Bloomsbury Group, and Diane Arbus. For the first time, her portraits of creative figures appear as a corpus, confirming Malcolm’s abiding fascination with enigmatic artists and writers whose lives are difficult to penetrate.
But the most fascinating and enigmatic artist and writer of Forty-One False Starts may be Malcolm herself.
The cover of Forty-One False Starts features one of Malcolm’s own collages from 2002, Untitled (Black Square). In a way, Malcolm’s written work and artistic compositions exhibit a remarkable consistency, appearing as two parts of the same, indissoluble project. At times, her journalism appears as preparation for something greater, a discreet apprenticeship with some of the most fascinating and complicated figures of the 20th century. It is almost as if by excavating their lives and habits that Malcolm, the seasoned journalist, learned to assert her own work in their ranks.
Janet Malcolm was born in 1934 in Prague, and her family emigrated to the United States when she was 5. It doesn’t seem right to think of Malcolm as a writer’s wife instead of a writer, but long before she was the legendary New Yorker reporter, Janet Malcolm was the wife of another, more prominent Malcolm. Her first husband, Donald Malcolm, had already been a regular staff writer with The New Yorker for six years when Janet, at 29, made her first contribution to the magazine in 1963.
Malcolm’s career at the magazine began quietly. Her first work for The New Yorker was a poem, a meticulous, irony-inflected iambic titled “Thoughts on Living in a Shaker House” (“This Shaker house is neat and low/And everything is made just so/Its lineaments are straight and clean,/The household gods are epicene.”). Her next byline in the magazine was a shopper’s guide to children’s books for the 1966 Christmas season. These and other early articles appeared infrequently, relegated to topics considered appropriate for women.
In 1975, Donald died at 43. Janet Malcolm married Gardner Botsford, one of The New Yorker’s most powerful editors and a member of the magazine’s founding family; his stepfather was yeast scion Raoul Fleischmann, The New Yorker’s first publisher. Botsford, whom the New Yorker writer Roger Angell described as an editor with an “Astaire-like deftness and sense of style,” had edited Malcolm’s writing since the 1960s and would go on to edit nearly all of it, including nine of her books, until his death in 2004.
If Malcolm’s career started in the shadows of her husbands, her writing has all but guaranteed that no one will remember her that way. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Malcolm’s writing in The New Yorker. In the last half century Malcolm has established herself as one of the most formidable, serious, and distinctive journalistic voices in America.
Her body of work includes eight books and three collections of essays, including the controversial and canonical The Journalist and the Murderer as well as her much-praised anatomy of Sylvia Plath biographies, The Silent Woman. At nearly every turn, Malcolm can be found wagging her finger at the idea that the truth is something that can be told, measuring art and writing, especially the kind that calls itself nonfiction, by its conceits and its fictions.
Forty-One False Starts showcases Malcolm’s writing at its most experimental, far from the theoretically uncreative objectivity of journalism. The heart of the collection is the long profile “A Girl in the Zeitgeist,” in which Malcolm examines the magazine Artforum under the reign of Ingrid Sischy, who was editor in chief from 1980 to 1988. Malcolm puts Artforum under a kaleidoscopic magnifying glass and surveys the magazine’s social politics in a range of close-ups, using mundane pettiness to translate the esoteric world of contemporary art criticism. Using physical evidence to uncover what is latent, Malcolm’s vivid and unsparing descriptions of interiors—offices, artist studios, and domestic spaces—are central to her method of portraiture. She describes the Greene Street loft of art historian and frequent Artforum contributor Rosalind Krauss with barbed precision:
Rosalind Krauss’s loft, on Greene Street, is one of the most beautiful living places in New York. Its beauty has a dark, forceful, willful character. Each piece of furniture and every object of use or decoration has evidently had to pass a severe test before being admitted into this disdainfully interesting room ... But perhaps even stronger than the room’s aura of commanding originality is its sense of absences, its evocation of all the things that have been excluded, have been found wanting, have failed to capture the interest of Rosalind Krauss—which are most of the things in the world, the things of “good taste” and fashion and consumerism, the things we see in stores and in one another’s houses. No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked: one’s own house suddenly seems cluttered, inchoate, banal. Similarly, Rosalind Krauss’s personality—she is quick, sharp, cross, tense, bracingly derisive, fearlessly uncharitable—makes one’s own “niceness” seem somehow dreary and anachronistic.
To describe someone’s apartment as “disdainfully interesting,” or to call one’s personality “quick, sharp, cross, tense, bracingly derisive, fearlessly uncharitable” does not invite affection. But nearly 30 years later, Krauss seems more tickled than bothered, almost glowing with respect for Malcolm’s eagle-eyed reporting.
“Janet had really ‘nailed me’: the Duchess with the dirty mouth,” Krauss wrote to me over email. “Janet Malcolm is a brilliant interviewer, prepared and sympathetic. Her ‘Zeitgeist’ essay accurately portrays the editorial board of Artforum as having ‘cashed in’ in real estate, since it describes all their lofts. Janet described mine too, in glorious terms and she went so far as to notice my elegant shoes and teapot.”
In the same essay, Malcolm also described the Sullivan Street loft of another Artforum stalwart, art critic Barbara Rose, “with its mirror-filled walls, soft-gray carpeting, curved black sofa, mirror-topped coffee table, abstract and Oriental art, and fur-covered bed.” Malcolm called Rose’s loft “more like a Park Avenue co-op than like a downtown living space.” Rose told me that Malcolm got the details wrong, but she’s nevertheless a brilliant writer.
"The one thing I remember is that she described my loft as being hung with abstract art when in fact all the art I had on the walls was figurative (either Asian or Jasper Johns, landscape drawings by Hans Hofmann and Ralston Crawford or Avigdor Arikha),” Rose said over email. “I think she had her own ideas about the art world before she interviewed anyone. Personally I felt the interviews were illustrations of a theme she already had in mind. But she is an excellent writer, no doubt about that."
Former Artforum critic Thomas Lawson, also profiled in the essay, felt like he got off the hook. Malcolm was averse to crossing the bridge to Brooklyn, where his studio was located, so he traveled to Malcolm’s apartment in Manhattan instead.
“What I remember of that is an elegant townhouse on the eastside—somewhere uptown to my decidedly downtown view, but probably more in the 50s? We sat in a very well-appointed kitchen that opened out to a quiet garden,” Lawson said. “So in her final piece Janet trained her gimlet eye only on my person, sans context, whereas with others she offered up rather cruelly precise descriptions of abject living conditions.”
The book’s title essay is a 1994 New Yorker profile of the painter David Salle, once an enfant terrible of the ’80s art scene whose work was beginning to get passed over by younger artists. For two years Malcolm visited Salle in his coldly lit, barely furnished studio on White Street in Tribeca. She observed him carefully, out of both fascination and disapproval. While she was intrigued by the mysterious, difficult nature of his postmodernist work, she couldn’t help but be put off by his sudden, conspicuous wealth.
And yet, Malcolm was deeply influenced by Salle and at times even jealous of his prolific and complex output. Her visits to his studio inspired her writing, providing the necessary fuel to forge ahead with a difficult book. In a series of 41 vignettes, Malcolm presents a textual translation of Salle’s “art of fragmentary, incongruous images” and his multifaceted, opaque character. “Nothing is ever resolved by Salle,” Malcolm writes. “Nothing adds up, nothing goes anywhere, everything stops and peters out.”
One could say the same of Malcolm’s portrait, which avoids settling on a fixed opinion of Salle. Malcolm is fluent in the ruses of modernist fiction (consider her profiles of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Two Lives). The essay “Forty-One False Starts” demands that readers connect the dots between dozens of angles on Salle, in a manner that brings to mind Wallace Stevens in his poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
But most importantly, the fragmented montage of “Forty-One False Starts” is a vehicle for Malcolm to be both sympathetic and damningly critical of Salle.
In the last two pages of Forty-One False Starts, Malcolm adds a final false start—notes from her autobiography, abandoned in 2010:
My efforts to make what I write interesting seem pitiful. My hands are tied, I feel. I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist. They have posed for me and I have drawn their portraits. No one is dictating to me or posing for me now.
The vulnerability that Malcolm displays in these final two pages is breathtaking. While Malcolm’s journalistic portraits flaunt her mastery of elegant, airtight sentences that forbid disagreement, her voice falters when she looks in the mirror. Malcolm’s autobiographical “I” is timorous, unable to finish what she started, incapable of picking herself apart in the same way she dissects her subjects.
“I would have loved for that piece to go on and on,” said Ian Frazier, her colleague at The New Yorker for nearly 30 years. “Whether she finishes her autobiography—that’s up to her. But when she puts herself in her writing, it is an ingenious activity to behold. It is a thrill to keep up with how her mind works.”
With a blade as sharp as Malcolm’s, it is understandable why she resists using it on herself. But for Malcolm the poet, journalist, author, and visual artist, an autobiographical portrait could be her most daring endeavor yet.