Dana Bassett (development director): Alex Katz is probably the coolest artist ever. When I had the opportunity to interview him for my podcast, Bad at Sports, in 2018, I was struck by how closely his straightforward demeanor matched the energy of his paintings. Katz said it was all about style—and he and Ada, his wife and longtime muse, truly exude it.
I found out about Katz’s major retrospective at the Guggenheim via Roberta Smith’s (p)review in The New York Times, which I started reading before stopping myself—even though Katz’s work is extremely well known, I wanted to avoid any spoilers so the experience would be a surprise. I couldn’t wait for a chance to visit, which finally came a few weeks ago. The title of the retrospective, Gathering, is taken from his friend James Schuyler’s poem “Salute,” which is printed on a wall inside the exhibition. The name seems like an odd choice, a single common word pulled from a poem, until you read it:
Past is past, and if one
remembers what one meant
to do and never did, is
not to have thought to do
enough? Like that gather-
ing of one of each I
planned, to gather one
of each kind of clover,
daisy, paintbrush that
grew in that field
the cabin stood in and
study them one afternoon
before they wilted. Past
is past. I salute
that various field.
It is precisely this particular kind of gathering—an attempt to capture the material of an ephemeral moment even while knowing that it will pass—that Katz’s work performs.
Poetry is literally and figuratively woven through the entire exhibit, which displays Katz’s large, brightly colored paintings—inspired by the scale and direct visual language of billboards—in chronological order. The experience of walking through was like listening to a gut-wrenching epic poem; sometimes it was so overwhelmingly beautiful that, for the first time, I was thankful for the benches interspersed through each floor of the museum. Katz’s earliest works are largely biographical, and the retrospective features paintings of his mother (a Jewish immigrant from Odessa who became a star of the Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side) and subway scenes from the late 1940s. In 1949 and 1950, Katz was awarded summer residencies in Maine, where he still has a home and studio; it was here that his lifelong obsession with capturing natural light—and what he termed ‘empirical sensations”—began. I was particularly moved by a grouping of small paper cutout compositions from this period that presage Katz’s minimally rendered figurative works. They are darling, but somehow also blunt and deliberate.
After his time in Maine, Katz broke from the dominant abstract mode of the downtown New York painters of the ’50s and committed himself to figurative works. He set about painting his social circle of artists and friends, as well as Ada, who he met at a party in 1957 and married three months later. In the following decades, Katz would paint innumerable portraits of Ada, and though he insists that he thinks of his subjects primarily in terms of compositional utility, it’s impossible not to read into the emotional texture of these paintings, which emerge from one of the most enduring artistic partnerships of the past century. Throughout the winding galleries, you watch Ada and Alex age and have a child, Vincent, whose own growth you can track over the years.
As a whole, the show is at once documentation of a life well lived—full of friends and family, scenes of nature and the city—and a tribute to Katz’s refinement of a visual style that strives to turn broad swaths of color into concise portrayals of light and space. While I’ve spent countless afternoons in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago admiring the painting Vincent and Tony, seeing it in context, in the company of its friends, added a new depth that I find difficult to adequately describe.
I don’t want to give away too much—you should really go see the show!—but I do want to briefly mention the gallery just beyond the top of the Guggenheim spiral. The paintings in this room are all later works, painted in the past decade or so, predominantly in tones of black and gray. There’s a devastating painting of the back of Ada’s head, her hair now completely gray, almost more shape and memory than person. The very last painting against the back wall—Ocean 9, made earlier this year—depicts the swell of water from Coney Island, which Katz remembers from a childhood visit. It’s hard to spoil the effect, how something so static can feel so kinetic and alive. The painting is a sublime triumph, a testament to Katz’s mastery of the enigma of light, still being gathered after all these years.
Josh Lambert (contributor): Though I’ve read Elif Batuman’s novel Either/Or, which recently made The New York Times’ “Notable Books” list for 2022, I can’t tell you whether it’s any good. It’s a novel set at a place and time so drenched in my own memories and regrets—the college I went to, one year before I got there—that I had to give up any hope of evaluating it.
I lapped the novel up, relishing and cringing at references that could compose a clickbait-y “You went to Harvard in the late 1990s if . . . ” list: the prospect of summer travel updating a Let’s Go guide; heady discussions after Jay Harris’s core Moral Reasoning class “If There Is No God, All Is Permitted”; the green-on-black Unix terminals, with Pine email and the creepy “finger” command that allowed you to see where your friends had last logged in. I identified with Batuman’s protagonist, Selin, in more personal ways, too: In her second year of college, she discovers sex like an anthropologist from Mars—or maybe like a person fated to encounter Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” 20 years later—and without getting into the details, that also brings back uncomfortable memories for me.
But if I can’t guess whether or not the novel will resonate the way it did for me with Jewish Currents readers who are younger or older than me and/or haven’t done time in Cambridge, I do feel sure that if you read this magazine, you’ll enjoy one minor aspect of the book that I haven’t seen mentioned in any of its admiring reviews (and this wasn’t there in The Idiot, Batuman’s previous novel, which narrates Selin’s first year of college).
I’m referring to Batuman’s pointed caricature of her childhood friend, the novelist and essayist Dara Horn, in a character here called Leora. Explaining how they know each other, Selin says, “Leora had been my best friend when we were little, and then we went to different middle schools and high schools, but now we were at college together.” This checks out with public knowledge about Batuman and Horn, but even if it didn’t, some of what Selin has to say about Leora is a dead giveaway. One of Selin’s classmates writes a story about a girl whose mother hands her a box filled with “the priceless artifacts of her people,” and tells her that if she “ever forgot those things, then she would have helped to murder her ancestors.” That makes Selin think of her old friend: “I knew that Leora believed something like that, and thought she had to learn her ancestors’ languages, translate their books, and memorialize how they had been murdered.” (Horn famously studied Hebrew and Yiddish in college, and before she began writing novels, she completed a prize-winning undergrad thesis on “the messianic experiment in modern Jewish literature.”) When Selin gives Proust a try, she reflects that “Leora said [Swann’s Way] was so boring that she could hear her own hair grow,” and that sounds to me like Horn, too. The really telling bit, though, in a novel published less than a year after Horn’s success with People Love Dead Jews, is Selin’s understanding that Leora, by the time she arrived at college, “already thought every single person on earth was anti-Semitic.”
Well, yeah. Selin’s charming because, naïve as she often is, she perceives the individuals and groups around her with an unsettling clarity, and she doesn’t spare the ones she loves.
Daniel May (publisher): I’m not a Star Wars Person. When I finally watched Rogue One a few months ago on a friend’s recommendation, I had to review the Wikipedia entry on the first film about a half-hour in, to remind myself how exactly the plans for the Death Star ended up in R2D2. I have a hard time taking seriously an evil emperor named “Darth Sidious” (and I had to look up that name). All to say, I wasn’t awaiting Andor with any kind of great anticipation. But I do think that Tony Gilroy is one of the more underrated writer/directors in Hollywood (Duplicity, in my view, is a stone-cold classic), so when I heard that he was the showrunner, I got curious.
Within the first few minutes of the premier, it was obvious that this was a very different kind of “Star Wars Story.” The central question the show poses to the larger Star Wars universe is: “What would it look like if ‘The Empire’ acted, well, like an empire?” Among the things it might do is subcontract security out to companies that manage profitable projects. And so, in Andor, the plot gets started when our exceedingly reluctant hero-to-be Cassian Andor gets into a brawl with two off-duty corporate security officers that work for a nameless entity that manages the industry and administration on various planets.
Another thing such an empire might do is find planets with valuable resources to plunder, kill as many of the people native to those planets as necessary to establish control, and provide the survivors with narcotics and alcohol, limited space for living, and special dispensation to travel on certain days to certain locations for certain ceremonies. (And so, we discover in the first few episodes that Cassian is the lone survivor from an indigenous community from one such planet, and the climactic moment midway through the first season takes place during one such ceremony on another.) Other things said empire might do include providing limited autonomy to certain communities and then stripping it from them in response to the slightest resistance, torturing those that resist or have information on those who do, arbitrarily arresting huge numbers of people and then again arbitrarily extending their prison terms, and managing a massive system of incarceration and forced labor.
Call it Origins of Space Totalitarianism. Except that put that way it sounds, well, exceedingly silly. And there are enough weird creatures that it does at times feel as silly as any Star Wars installment. But it’s also genuinely unsettling. A colleague summed it up as “Star Wars for Adults,” but another way to put it is that it very much not at all for kids. If I told you the creative torture device employed by the empire it would sound goofy AF, but the scene in which its used messed me up. And the episodes set in the prison complex are so suffocating I felt physically relieved when the credits rolled.
One of the achievements of the show is that it remains so unsettling even as we know where it is going. We know that however reluctant Cassian may be, however sure he is that resistance is pointless, he will eventually join the struggle and help to steal the plans for the Death Star. But the show holds the tension by making it difficult to root for the outcome, as the rebellion that we know that Cassian will eventually join is so thoroughly compromised by the long odds of their struggle. There is no “Force” here to call upon in the face of “the dark side”; all that the rebellion has is its own creative use of violence, betrayal, and the pursuit of weakness. Under total domination, the show suggests, the question is only whether to struggle. The empire determines the how.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I’ve been enjoying the FX series Fleishman Is in Trouble, now streaming on Hulu, far more than I expected—so much so that I was curious about the novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on which it’s based. Turning to books on which TV series are based is not generally a good idea, and I fully expected to put this one aside after ten pages. But I didn’t. In fact, everything about it swept me up, and it totally absorbed several days of my life.
The narrative voice—which belongs to one of the supporting characters, Libby—is a strange one, in that it recounts the inner lives and disintegrating marriage of the two main characters, Toby and Rachel Fleishman, as if she were inside their heads. But Brodesser-Akner pulls this off with aplomb, skillfully pulling the rug out from under our feet whenever we feel we have the characters pegged. We’re also aware that that voice is essentially hers, since Libby’s biography, particularly her life as a writer for a men’s magazine, exactly tracks the author’s own. Fleishman Is in Trouble is thus a remarkable act of self-ventriloquism.
It’s also a moral novel, a depiction of the state of the strictly delimited world of relatively young, wealthy Jews living on the Upper East Side. (Jewish and New York-centric as it is, it is in many ways a throwback to 18th-century French examinations of mores and morals like Les Liaisons dangeureuses. That’s perhaps an exaggeration, but it’s not an enormous one.) While some might find it objectionable that the book and show lack nonwhite characters, this is part of its documentary style: These people would socialize primarily if not exclusively with their own kind. Toby Fleishman is a hepatologist—financially successful by most people’s lights, but not by those of the Upper East Side, making $285,000 a year. His wife Rachel, a fanatically driven talent agent, earns far more, and the distance between their ambitions drives a wedge between them. Tracing their lives, the novel asks: Is it enough to be good and do good, as Dr. Fleishman is and does? Is it bad to want more? And what makes one lean one way or the other?
Sex plays an enormous part in the story, but in a way it’s a red herring. Though the book first seems to be about how sex binds or separates or twists people, it’s ultimately a novel about the unknowability of others, and how little we realize that they have a reality as real to them as ours is to us. Social life, work life, and marital life—all are a collision of these hidden, mysterious realties. (In this it resembles one of the unsung great novels, Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, one of the most profound works on this subject ever written.) But Fleishman Is in Trouble is also, finally, a novel about marriage—as happiness, as hell, and everything in between—and gender. It ends with an angry, heartfelt cri de coeur from the narrator/author about just how little has changed for women, even as it may seem that everything has.
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