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PRINT September 2021

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JANET MALCOLM (1934–2021)

Janet Malcolm, New York, 1981. Photo: Nancy Crampton.

ABOUT TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO Janet Malcolm published a profile of me in the New Yorker that became something of a touchstone of art journalism. It served as the title essay of one of her collections, and has been reprinted several times. I’m told it’s often assigned in classes on art writing, on the assumption that it sheds some light on that murky enterprise.

It’s uncommon for the subject of a profile to warmly remember the profiler, and my friendship with Janet struck some people as odd. For some, it would be hard, or so they imagined, to get past the discomforts of so much self-exposure, and to suffer the misalignments that are inherent in the relationship between a journalist and her subject.

I didn’t care about all that. After the piece was published, Janet and I found that we enjoyed each other’s company without the roles. No longer just the observer, Janet could respond as herself, sharing her opinions, gossip, etc. We were simply two people talking. The research and the writing of the profile, which went on for well over two years, was just this experience we shared, a kind of adventure the two of us had gone on that excluded anyone else. At any rate, it was something that happened in the past that didn’t need to be discussed any longer.

I am often asked how I feel about the piece. My reaction has shifted over the years. When it first came out, I thought of the guy in the text, that is, me: At least he’s interesting. The next time I read it, maybe ten years later, I didn’t recognize myself at all. Who is this guy, and what is his problem? He’s a pill—you just want to throw something at him. Oh well, time has a way, and all that. More years pass, another anthology. Read it again. This time, the guy in the profile seems kind of comedic—he says some funny and provocative things. In the background, the world goes by like a merry-go-round, a blur of lights, people, scents. That’s the writing.

One of Janet’s themes as a writer was self-delusion in all its guises.

One of Janet’s themes as a writer was self-delusion in all its guises—the propensity we all share for telling ourselves stories that, at the very least, reconfigure events to cast ourselves in a more favorable light. I was stung by one line in the profile: that (I paraphrase) in all our time together, nothing I said about my work was of the slightest interest to her. Once my vanity recovered from the dismissal of my “thinking,” the veracity of Janet’s verdict was clear. (The passage continued to insist that nothing any artist ever says about their work is of interest.) I eventually came to feel more or less the same way—that nothing anybody says about their intentions or “process” is of any particular relevance unless it’s a one-liner by de Kooning. Who cares? This attitude is at odds with the prevailing reverence for that peculiar literary artifact, the artist’s statement, but such was the incontrovertible nature of Janet’s contrarianism. Like any good analyst, she was only interested in the story behind the story. The fact that a belief is widely held should be enough to raise our suspicions.

Out of Janet’s wholesale dismissal of an artist’s “intentions” as nothing more than intellectual padding—or pleading—there emerged a workable principle of critical thinking that I have adopted as my own. I can’t remember which piece of hers it’s in, but Janet later restated this idea in even more succinct form. Faced with some high-flown claims in regard to an artwork’s meaning, Janet responds with a simple declarative sentence: Of course, it does no such thing. I suppose that’s what people mean by her “coldness.” The journalist and the murderer, indeed. I find it very liberating. In our world, where a high percentage of what gets said about art is unsubstantiated rhetoric or wishful fantasy, Janet’s skepticism was a tonic.

Still, she was no scourge, and felt scorn for those writers who were. She was more than willing to be enchanted. It was one of the things she lived for. She fell hard for Ingrid Sischy, another profile subject, and they also became lifelong friends. A few of the art world’s champion self-mythologizers struck Janet as a little over the top, but she appreciated that the eccentrics are a necessary part of the ecology. She loved wit. Originality of expression counted for a lot, was almost the main thing. She enjoyed a good con—essentially, a well-told story—and she understood that some things, some effects, could not be explained. I think Janet’s reputation for cool detachment was misplaced. You can be empathetic and a realist about human nature at the same time. With her friends, Janet was solicitous, loyal, and warm. I loved her, and I think she loved me. She had a deep reservoir of sympathy for anyone engaged in the struggle to be human—she couldn’t have written those pieces without it.

She was open to life, like a breeze through a summerhouse. In her world, things happened because they were good and because they ought to happen. Sometime in the 1990s, I wanted to make a short film of a J. D. Salinger story. I knew it would be impossible to get his permission and that any film that resulted could never be shown publicly. When I told Janet my problem, she said, “Why don’t you write to Jerry and explain who you are?” She was the only person I knew who spoke of Salinger as “Jerry,” that is, simply as one of the writers hanging around the offices of the New Yorker in the days of William Shawn. She gave me his address.

Janet Malcolm, Untitled (Landscape), ca. 2002, paper collage, 7 × 5".

Janet’s enduring intellectual framework was psychoanalysis; it appears in her writing as subject, metaphor, and method. She is attuned to the narrative that is hiding in plain sight, and her prose is textured in such a way as to give the reveal, or reversal, a satisfying feeling of reality uncovered. Her writing is very great, so artful and refined that you often don’t notice how good it is. Her prose is crystalline—it combines observation, speculation, and an ability to “hold” uncomfortable truths, to not be destroyed by them, to find them human—like a good analyst.

She cared about good writing in whatever form and was open to being surprised by new voices. Her own writer’s compass was oriented toward Chekhov, and you can see in her work some of the same techniques. Janet was an absolute master at structure, at dosing narrative information along a dramatic arc, and a master of the distilled scene, a bit of dialogue or behavior that illuminates a cultural type.

Janet also cared deeply about the magazines she wrote for, and was frustrated that the New York Review of Books, under longtime editor Robert Silvers, hadn’t paid better attention to contemporary art. She was dismayed when the paper published a harsh critique of a Robert Rauschenberg show, pointing out that the work illustrated on the page patently contradicted the author’s argument. Of course, it does no such thing. She was delighted when I started writing for the NYRB, and often emailed after a piece of mine appeared, singling out lines or phrases that pleased or amused her.

Janet also made collages from personal effects—letters and postcards and old photos—and as time went on, she took them more seriously, and wanted to think of them as art. She even used a discussion about them in her profile of me. She had asked for my opinion: Were they art? I advised her to use more black. In the piece, she admits to harboring a fantasy, the same fantasy shared by everyone who has ever tried to make something, that her work be gifted with the transformational magic that art confers. Janet eventually had a show of her collages at a Chelsea gallery and was avid to do more, even as she was sheepish about taking attention away from a “real” artist. I told her not to worry about it.

I introduced Janet to Amy Sillman, whom she adored, and for a while we had a little club—it also included Calvin Tomkins and Dodie Kazanjian—that revolved around telling jokes. We would meet for dinner, and everyone would bring a joke to tell. I can’t remember what Janet chose, but I can still see the strangely girlish determination to overcome her embarrassment at telling a story that, it was understood, would be without any real mirth. To see her awkwardness—out of character, but game—was very poignant.

I can’t believe she’s gone. Who now will tell us: Of course, it does no such thing.

David Salle is an artist and essayist based in New York.