Here’s what I have to say about Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Read it. Or listen to it. The audio is 11 hours long, read by Farrow himself, and I binge listened. Couldn’t stop.
Catch and Kill is Farrow’s account of how he broke the Harvey Weinstein story. But it is so much more than that. It reads like a thriller and it is utterly jaw-dropping. I think I made my husband a bit nuts with how frequently I shouted OMG! This is ASTONISHING! Listen to this! And THIS!
After reading it, I will never look at Weinstein, his company, the biases and barriers endemic to Hollywood, NBC, Matt Lauer, the now-defunct National Enquirer, the Trump-world sewer of defenders and enablers, the blue-chip attorneys who defend the powerful, or the murky world of private-sector espionage in the same way. And, as long as David Remnick is in charge, I will never ever let my subscription to The New Yorker lapse. Remnick and his staff, with a special shout-out to The New Yorker‘s lawyer, are among the supporting cast of heroes here.
Farrow is also among the heroes, although I’ve listened to enough interviews with him to suspect he would reject that label. Rarely, though, does an individual emerge whose personal history, personal qualities, and raw talent combine to produce someone who is the right person in the right place at the right time to accomplish reporting as meaningful as this—not just on Weinstein, but on the power structure that produced and protected him. Farrow’s insane capacity for hard work, his unbelievable persistence, and his fearlessness in pursuing the people and the documents required to get things right, to make his reporting as bullet-proof as reporting can be, are enough to make him an outstanding journalist. Add to that his skills as a writer and storyteller, his considerable thoughtfulness about ethics and honesty, his empathy and respect for the women involved (who are first and foremost on the list of heroes), and his passion around the issue of sexual abuse and manipulation (which he addresses frankly as something he was too late in developing), and his reporting becomes quite extraordinary.
What a quirky and engaging novel. It’s about figuring out who you are, says one reviewer. It’s about indecision, says another. It’s about how gender and ambition combine to shape marriages, says a third. Or, says I, perhaps it’s about how tough it is when everyone around you have decided who you are, but they’re wrong.
The narrator of the novel, whose name we never learn, is a graduate student at Harvard, working on a PhD in chemistry, living with a fellow-student who has just asked her to marry him. She can’t say yes, she can’t say no. The boyfriend, Eric, has finished his PhD and has a job offer at Oberlin. Meanwhile, the narrator (I think I’ll call her “the PhD dropout”) is in the midst of failing. This is catastrophic. Her parents will never accept that. And she cannot accept a life with husband who is more successful than she is. But her best friend is warning her not to let Eric go to Ohio without her, and when her lab mate tells her to make a list of pros and cons, her list is comprised entirely of pros. So what’s an angst-ridden, over-achieving, paralyzed 20-something to do?
There is much more to the story than that, of course. For one thing, the PhD dropout’s parents are Chinese immigrants. Her father is from the provinces, getting himself to America to study advanced mathematics and become an engineer through persistence, immense hard work, and self-discipline. Her mother is from Shanghai and carries enormous anger at leaving both her status and her pharmacy career behind in China. Their marriage is tempestuous; their expectations of their daughter are firm and specific; their daughter’s childhood was filled with hurt. And piano lessons. And math. And excellent grades.
Two things lift Chemistry out of the pack of coming-of-age tales that crowd book catalogues. First, Wang’s writing. It is a first-person narrative, written entirely in the present tense, despite flashing back and forward in time. It pinballs between present-day action and memories of the past, echoing how the mind skitters, with one thought leading to another. It also has something of a fable feel: Only one of the characters has a name. The boyfriend. Eric. The other characters are “the lab mate.” “The best friend.” “The shrink.” And so on.
The narrative is also punctuated by wide-ranging scientific facts, which at first seem like non sequiturs, but are in fact how the PhD dropout makes sense of the world. They reflect how she thinks; what she loves; who she is. Which, it turns out, is someone who doesn’t have much in common with Eric. Throughout the book, the PhD dropout tells us all sorts of ways that she and Eric are different. Mostly surface things. Different tastes. Different hobbies. Different habits. But what gradually dawns on the reader are more important disconnects, and one of them is this: The PhD dropout loves science, truly loves it. What she doesn’t love is being a scientist. Eric, however, loves being a scientist. What’s not so clear is whether he loves science.
Chemistry is also funny. One reviewer thought it has the feel of a stand-up comedy routine. It does. Deadpan comedy. Comedy that’s funny simply by stating the brutal ridiculous truth, whether it’s the truth about the cruel things the PhD dropout’s parents have said to her, or the truth about how much wagging joy her golden-doodle takes in peeing on snowmen.
The second thing that lifts Chemistry out of the pack is that everything in the story occupies a gray area. There is no obvious answer to anything. No obvious right or wrong. The PhD dropout has been scarred by her parents, but also loves her parents, and the first does not invalidate the second. Her best friend has a marriage that at first seems perfect, and then is anything but perfect, but neither state has much to do with whether the marriage will, in the end, survive. In the end, Wang firmly resists the urge to tie everything up with a bow, leaving the PhD dropout’s future, including her future with Eric, up to the reader’s own intuition.
My one regret is that I listened to the audio version of the book rather than reading it. To my mind, the audio reader was completely miscast. She read in a soft and slow cadence that was less deadpan than it was Eeyore. Half-way through, I started to imagine how the book would feel if read with a bit more energy, a bit more sharply. So I borrowed the e-book from the library and In started reading instead of listening. Good call. In print, Chemistry came to life as a funny and touching and interesting novel that, two weeks later, is still in my head.
It took Lisa Brennan-Jobs, now in her 40s, almost ten years to write her memoir of growing up as the daughter of Steve Jobs.
It took her that long, first of all, to remember enough of her childhood to fill a book. This answers a question that nags at me when I read memoirs: Who the heck can remember things that happened at the age of five? ten? or even twenty for god’s sake? Certainly not me. How nice to discover that Brennan-Jobs had the same panicked reaction when she decided to embark on this project. But, in interviews, she describes her surprise at how many memories surfaced once she started to write. She would write a “scene” of one small episode she remembered, and the process of putting that memory on paper, of trying to pin down its hazy details, would trigger memories of other episodes. When she placed those scenes into a detailed timeline, double-checking the facts of what-happened-when with others, the memories further expanded and deepened. Ultimately, she had enough material not for one book, but for two or three.
This makes sense to me. I think about the scattered pictures in my head from my own childhood, many of which are mere scraps of visual and emotional memories, and I suddenly understand how memoir writing might be possible even for memory-impaired mortals.
It also took Brennan-Jobs a long-time to gain sufficient perspective on her own life to write something interesting, something that had a ring of truth, that wasn’t overly macerated in self-pity. Brennan-Jobs’ childhood was not emotionally easy. Steve Jobs denied he was her father until she was five or six, notwithstanding paternity tests; meanwhile, her life with her mother was just shy of impoverished. Even after Jobs began recognizing her and spending time with her, ultimately taking her into his home when she was clashing with her mother as a teenager, he often kept her coldly and hurtfully at arm’s length. Later, he abruptly and without warning stopped paying her Harvard tuition. He stopped speaking to her. His company biography described him as father of three children, the three children he had with Laurene Powell Jobs, not four.
The challenge for Brennan-Jobs was creating a narrative in which the reader can feel her confusion and pain without making that pain the entirety of her life. Because it wasn’t. And without turning her father into a caricature. Because he was complicated. And without producing a book that was the equivalent of bad teenage poetry, all drama and moans and exaggerated self-indulgence.
That took time, she says. Consideration. Questioning. Trying to see through the miasma of teenage emotion to how those years may have looked to others. In interviews, Brennan-Jobs describes her shift from inside-out childhood perspective to outside-in adult perspective as slow, painful, and transformative. In a metaphor I quite like, she describes it as time travel. To write her memoir, she had to transport her adult self back in time to observe her young self from the outside. And just like time travel in science fiction, where time travelers risk changing the future by changing the past, her mental time travel has changed her future. She came out of the memoir-writing process with a different view of her own past, and thus as a somewhat different person than she was when she started.
A third reason it took Brennan-Jobs so long to write her memoir was her determination to get it right. She hoped to write a literary memoir, not a celebrity memoir. A memoir that would primarily tell a coming-of-age story, not the story of her father. A memoir that would further establish her chosen identity as a writer, rather than reinforce her involuntary identity as the daughter of Steve Jobs. She toiled hard to achieve this. Not only did she rewrite episodes again and again, she then had to pare them down into a cohesive narrative arc. She had to overcome her own resistance to cutting sections that meant something to her but that were unimportant to the narrative; she had to overcome her own resistance to including episodes that she considered embarrassing, but that strengthened the book.
Did she succeed?
Yes. Brennan-Jobs’ memoir is a beautifully-written book that would be almost as compelling if no one had ever heard of her father. And while she says she has no interest in writing fiction, that she prefers writing from a scaffolding of facts, I have no doubt that she could write fiction if she chose. Her prose is precise, vivid, and emotional. She balances all that was unhappy with humor and lightness of tone. She writes her characters—meaning, the people in her life, including her father—with complexity, depth, and humanity. This is the stuff of good writing, fiction or non.
There is one way, however, in which Brennan-Jobs failed. She hoped to paint a balanced picture of her father. While her relationship with her father was rocky (to say the least), she also loved him, she admired him, and many of her happiest memories were created by him. And while he often behaved in ways that seemed cruel to her younger self, her older self has deep empathy for what may have driven those behaviors. Fear, perhaps. Or awkward discomfort. Or rigidity around certain beliefs—beliefs she admired, even if she could have done without the rigidity.
I see all this in the book. There are touching scenes, scenes that convey Steve Jobs’ quirky brilliance and infectious enthusiasm, scenes that remind me of magical moments with my own father. But wow. Steve Jobs could be a mean, mean, mean man. Jaw-droppingly cruel to people who loved him or depended upon him. Casually cruel to people he barely knew, including children. And, for me, the scenes showing the nastier side of Steve Jobs overwhelm the nicer scenes—not in frequency, perhaps, but certainly in emotional impact. It is very hard to come away from the book sharing Brennan-Jobs’ affection for her father. Rather, what has clawed into my memory is just how badly he treated people. This is not new news, of course, but Brennan-Jobs presents it with such painful intimacy that it’s difficult to see anything else.
Is this a book worth reading? Yes, for several reasons, beyond the good writing. It illuminates as well as any psychology book what can make a smart, talented, likable kid behave badly and feel profoundly unworthy, well into adulthood, of anyone’s love or attention. It offers a complicated, endearing, and sometimes sad picture of Brennan-Jobs’ mother. It is a peephole into the Silicon Valley of the 1980s.
In addition, of course, while secondary to Brennan-Jobs’ intent, it provides a voyeuristic glimpse into the home and habits of a famous father who made a fortune by transforming our technological world.
If you’d asked me a week ago where I’d linger longer—at the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam—I’d have said, “Why MoMA, of course.”
Hah. No. Last Wednesday, I visited MoMA for the first time in many years. I spent two hours there. On Friday, a couple thousand miles later, I visited the Stedelijk. I was there for more than three hours.
Don’t get me wrong: MoMA is a land of astonishments. Room after room of breathtaking and iconic works, rehung with fresh juxtapositions. Two hours wasn’t enough. I can’t wait to go back. But the Stedelijk, a fraction of MoMA’s size, with relatively few works likely to show up in art history textbooks, is exceptionally curated and organized, presenting its collection in ways that explain, contextualize, and reveal thought-provoking connections. While I don’t have a yen to return again and again, it more than kept my attention.
Here is a tour of some highlights:
First stop, what they call BASE 1: A lower floor, designed by Rem Koolhaas, displaying art created between 1880 and 1970. It is largely a single enormous rectangular gallery, its space carved up by thin walls, shorter than the ceilings, set at angles, leaving a wide aisle around the periphery. Around that periphery, paintings are hung in chronological order. Inland, in the angular spaces created by the thin walls, art is organized by movement—Bauhaus, de Stijl, Expressionism, action paintings, etc.—mostly paintings, but with sculpture, photography, and design (there is a tiny Bauhaus apartment in a cube at one end) interspersed.
Particularly interesting to me was art by artists I did not know. Else Berg, for example, who painted this tender portrait of a young man in 1923:
Who was Berg? She was born in Germany in 1877, studied art in Antwerp and Berlin, and moved to Amsterdam in her mid-30s. She married another artist, “Mommie” Schwartz, and they traveled widely through Europe. Her paintings, some quite luminous in their colors, others nearly monochromatic, referenced both post-Impressionism and cubism. It’s lovely work.
Berg had her first significant solo exhibition in 1930. She was 53. Twelve years later, she and her husband were deported to Auschwitz, where they were killed, possibly on the day they arrived.
Berg, of course, was not the only reminder that the Jews of Amsterdam did not survive WWII. Around the corner, for example, was this 1909 Kandinsky:
Here, the wall text tells us the painting was purchased in 1923 by one Emanuel Albert Lewenstein, then inherited by his wife, Hedwig, in 1930. Sometime that decade, the painting passed to Hedwig’s son Robert and his wife Irma. In 1940, the museum purchased the painting at auction.
Fast forward to 2013, and “the municipality of Amsterdam, the Stedelijk Museum, and the heirs” asked the Dutch Restitutions Committee to investigate whether this was an “involuntary” sale. In 2018, the Committee determined that “while the sale of this work cannot be viewed separately from the Nazi regime, it was also a consequence of other factors”—meaning, Robert and Irma needed money. In addition, the Committee found that “there are no indications that the museum did not purchase the work in good faith in 1940.” In the final paragraph of the text, the Museum notes how important it is that their ownership of the painting was decided with “binding advice.” Case closed.
Wow. It could not be more obvious that beneath that careful language is another story screaming to escape. A story it took only two clicks to discover in a Guardian article titled “Dutch art panel’s ruling against Jewish family criticised as ‘step back,’” which described an “international outcry” against the decision. Not surprising, many do not consider selling a painting for reasons of financial duress “voluntary” when the Nazis were a reason for that duress.
What a shame (but how interesting) that the Stedelijk feels the need to paper over how controversial the decision was.
Moving on! Two more intriguing paintings by Dutch women who were entirely new to me. First, the beautifully composed “On the Terrace,” painted in 1930 by Nola Hatterman:
Hatterman was an actress as well as an artist. The man in the painting is Jimmy van der Lak, aka Jimmy Lucky, a boxer (note the fist) and a cabaret performer (note the advertisements in the newspaper) and one of the Netherlands’ first Surinamese immigrants. Apparently, the painting was commissioned by Amstel (note the beer) for use in its advertising, but they rescinded when they saw that Hatterman’s subject was a black man.
Next, “Working Class Woman,” showing a weary but erect woman in front of the ruins of Rotterdam after it was bombed in 1940, by an artist named Charley Toorop, who has been described as a “confrontational realist,” and is noted for her stark portrayals of women, including herself.
Also arresting my attention, works by Jo Baer, Agnes Martin, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Yayoi Kusama.
Are women really so prominent in the Stedelijk’s collection as my highlights suggest? No. The full collection is as male-dominated as most art museums. As just as a hint of what I’ve skipped over, here are terrific pieces by Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg:
But the Stedelijk has designed their galleries to show only a fraction of their collection at a time, regularly moving pieces in and out. That not only keeps visitors returning (there is always something different to see), it also helps them keep underrepresented artists on the wall. So instead of having women represented by only 5 or 10 percent of the works on view, if that, I’d guess they’re closer to 30 percent, and in some galleries, maybe higher.
Onwards. Through a handful of galleries of protest art and posters, including some strong graphic art protesting the Vietnam War. Then, from the lower level, escalators levitate you to BASE 2, art after 1970:
At the top, bam! You are in the middle of a site specific installation by Barbara Kruger:
And then on to extensive galleries of contemporary works organized not by artistic movements, as downstairs, but by more subject-driven themes: post-modernism, the body, globalization, depictions of violence, waste, AIDS, the impact of new technology.
One painting upstairs that I was particularly glad to meet: A large and powerful piece by Anselm Kiefer called “Interior,” painted in 1981. It depicts the Mosaic Hall in the Albert Speer-designed New Reich Chancellery, which was destroyed in 1945. Kiefer has resurrected the Hall as a decaying space, using thick impasto and layers of scraped and torn paper. The scale and perspective envelops, as the skylight ceiling draws you in.
After meandering my way through the 20th and into the 21st century, I made my way to a special exhibition called Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and Others: Immigrants in Paris. This fairly large exhibit was comprised entirely of pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, and was a fresh way to juxtapose these pieces and these artists.
The Chagall component was especially strong, with several significant and beautiful paintings. Most were archetypal Chagall, dreamlike reminiscences of life in the shtetl (although, actually, Chagall never lived in a shtetl), such as this fiddler on a roof from 1912:
Also included was something I’d never seen: A straight-up portrait by Chagall. This is his portrait of his wife Bella, painted in 1935:
From Paris to Japan. Apparently, the Stedelijk has the largest collection in Europe of Japanese poster art. Currently the museum’s great hall is filled floor to ceiling with these posters, and they’re marvelous. Here is a small taste:
Phew. Time for a coffee, because there was more to see.
After a break, it was on to a series of main floor galleries with an exhibition of sculpture (also from the collection) intended to illustrate “how radically sculpture has changed since the 1990s.” Much of this work was in the form of large assemblages (sort of 3D collages constructed with unexpected objects).
Then, finally, over to a solo exhibition of the Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, who spent several years studying and working in Amsterdam. Amorales’ work is not to my taste, but his black cloud installation of paper moths must be an Instagram favorite:
There was more on view, with three other smaller exhibitions I skipped, but that was more enough for one morning. But what a nice morning it was. On the whole, the Stedelijk uses its collection and its space to create many different through-lines one can follow—with attention to chronology, artistic styles and intents, artist biographies, subject matter, political contexts and political responses. This is what I mean when I praise the curation. You can wander through with any focus you want and find something to enjoy. You can learn a lot (the wall text is generally quite good), or you can just absorb a very wide range of visual experiences.
It’s not MoMA. Nothing is. But even MoMA might learn something here.
The setting: Topeka in the late 1990s. The main characters: Adam Gordon, a master of high school debate and aspirational poet, using his verbal skills as a weapon and a display of coolness, but never quite displacing the instinct to use his fists. Jonathan Gordon, his father, a psychologist who rescues boys from themselves, but never quite rescues himself from his own impulses. Jane Gordon, Adam’s mother, also a psychologist, famous for her feminist advocacy of women, but never quite reckoning with her own past or fame.
The Topeka School has been lauded in the reviews, with the New York Times and the Washington Post both naming it one of the ten best books of 2019. In The New York Times Magazine, Giles Harvey said The Topeka School is “the best book yet by the most talented writer of his generation.”
Is it? Is he? Here are five things to know about The Topeka School:
First, it is autofiction. Adam Gordon, also the protagonist of Lerner’s first novel (Leaving the Atocha Station), is Lerner. Like fictional Adam, real-life Lerner grew up in Topeka as the child of two psychologists, becoming a poet who lives in New York with his (Latina) wife and two daughters. Many (most?) of the characters and events in The Topeka School are thinly veiled versions of characters and events in his own life. Lerner’s second novel (10:04) is also autofiction, a novel in which his central character even keeps the name Ben.
Thus, Lerner might fairly be described as somewhat self-obsessed. It should be no surprise, then, that the characters in The Topeka School are also self-obsessed. And this is the second thing to know about The Topeka School. The characters think, they overthink, they examine, they overexamine, and they put all this thinking and examining into words, often with the vocabulary of clinical psychology. Rarely have fictional characters been so determined to be self-aware.
Third, The Topeka School has a great deal to say. Among other things, it is a comment on white male rage and its connection to being ignored, it is a comment on how language can be weaponized, and it is a comment on how these two phenomena have led us to our current political moment. In the Atlantic, a writer named Jordan Kisner wrote a particularly astute review that disentangles these ideas, explaining more clearly than I can what Lerner’s project in this novel is all about (click here).
Fourth, there’s the rub. The Topeka School is, indeed, a project. It has intent. It has design. It means to capture something about the personal and social psychology that defines American political culture. This means that everything in the book feels intended illustrate something. The characters’ struggles and preoccupations and behaviors frequently feel like metaphors, designed to symbolize something. I contrast them to Elizabeth Strout’s characters, who just are, who have the unpredictability and complexities and bafflement of real humans. In interviews, Strout describes her writing process as one of waiting for characters to appear to her, then living with them and being routinely surprised by them during the writing process, rarely knowing in advance how the plot will shift and turn. Lerner’s characters seem more actively designed, less spontaneous. I am guessing that Lerner’s writing process is the obverse of Strout’s. By the time he sets pen to paper, he has already decided quite a lot of what he wants to say with his characters. One approach is not “better” than the other, but they are quite different.
Fifth, the writing. It is, often, virtuosic. Reviewers use words like “bravura.” Lerner is a poet, and his prose style is improvisatory and energetic, flinging and stringing together ideas, images, and words in unexpected ways, sometime echoing the rapid-fire signaling of one’s brain in the moments before sleep, blurring conscious thought with memories. The writing is also intentionally cerebral, intentionally interior, with long interior monologues. This is not, therefore, a book that can be read quickly. It takes time to process the ideas, process the words.
To sum all of this up, The Topeka School is not seeking universal popularity. Auto-fiction, self-obsessed characters, political intent, symbolic and metaphorical layers, and complex prose will never be to every reader’s taste.
Was it to this reader’s taste? Not entirely. Parts of the book I loved, mainly for Lerner’s saber-sharp observations and astute psychology. Parts I found a bit of a slog. Some of the connections he makes between culture and politics seemed spot-on and eye-opening, some seemed like overreach. And in the end, to me, The Topeka School was less a book to feel and experience and more a book to discuss and disentangle. So to put it in pop-psych terms, the left half of my brain loved it, the right half did not.
So back to my question: Is The Topeka School really “the best book yet by the most talented writer of his generation”? The claim irritates me, particularly the second half. Here are just a few writers born in the 1970s: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lauren Groff, Marlon James, Gary Shteyngart, Zadie Smith, Jesmyn Ward. Not exactly second-string. So I object to characterizing Lerner or anyone else in this pantheon as “the most talented writer” of that generation. And even though I haven’t read Lerner’s first two novels, given what I have learned about them through reviews, I am unconvinced that The Topeka School is his “best.” It depends entirely on one’s personal measure of “best.” Yours will not be mine.
In fact, given the extraordinarily diverse landscape of contemporary English-language fiction, populated by extraordinary diverse writers who rarely do the same thing twice, I hereby excise the words “better” or “best” from my evaluative vocabulary.
The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art
Thirty years ago, soon after I moved to Washington, I spent time as a volunteer at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This was not entirely without ambivalence. On one hand, art created by women was (and is) vastly underrepresented in major art museums. The NMWA was (and is) a place to see amazing work that is too often sidelined. On the other hand, I worried that the existence of the NMWA might somehow imply that the art housed there was somehow second-rate, not “good enough” (whatever “good enough” means) to be in a mainstream museum.
But here’s the thing. Thirty years later, I’ve lost that ambivalence. When it comes to disrupting entrenched cultures of exclusion, I have little patience for incrementalism or subtlety. And I am not alone. In 2018, for example, the Baltimore Museum of Art, led by director Christopher Bedford, created apoplectic sputtering in the art world when he de-accessioned works by people like Warhol and Rauschenberg (white men) and used the funds to purchase art by people like Faith Ringgold and Charles Gaines (not white men). This year, he announced that in 2020 the BMA will only be acquiring work by women. Said Bedford, “You don’t just purchase one painting by a female artist of color and hang it on the wall next to a painting by Mark Rothko. To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical.” Yup.
This is the context in which I visited the BMA’s fabulous current exhibit of abstract art by black artists, made possible by a single collector who set out about 25 years ago to rectify the imbalance for African American artists. While the nature of the barriers facing black artists have not been identical to the barriers facing women, much is similar: exclusion from the canon and the devaluing of both the art and the artist. And the results are also similar: underrepresentation in gallery representation and museum collections, lower prices for their work, and invisibility in art history textbooks. A bit more than two decades ago, Pamela Joyner set out to change this, leaving the world of finance to be a full-time art collector and promoter of abstract art by African Americans and others of African descent. Her goal, she said in a New York Times profile, “is no less ambitious than an effort to reframe art history.”
(Footnote: Joyner’s conception of “African descent” is inclusive. She has also acquired the work of William Kentridge, the extraordinary South African artist who I described in a previous post.)
Abstract art is a particularly interesting niche. For one thing, the barriers-to-entry for anyone other than white men have been particularly strong in this genre. The exhibit brochure explains it this way: Post-War, American abstract art captured and expressed a certain view of America—powerful, energetic, innovative. That image of power transferred to the makers of that art, the most famous of whom were celebrated as almost heroic figures. Think Jackson Pollack. Willem De Kooning. But, says art historian Ann Gibson, “in a society in which African Americans were discounted socially and intellectually, individual black artists were by definition precluded from being celebrated, let alone regarded as ‘heroic.’”
Black artists were excluded from abstract art for other reasons as well. “For a long time, the art world wanted black artists to do black subject matter,” Joyner said in the NYT profile. “Art was a political tool. People were viewed as not part of the struggle if they were doing abstraction.” Of course, often, abstract art is “black subject matter.” Indeed, political ideas can be expressed powerfully in non-representational ways—sometimes more powerfully. And contrary to the tired trope, abstract art is not something any six-year-old with a paintbrush can do; rather, it is a combination of shape and line and color and artistic process that has deep intentionality, often with profound emotional and symbolic meaning. More succinctly, abstract art sometimes has a lot to say. And that is certainly true of the abstract art collected by Joyner. Many of the artists in this exhibition are quite explicit in how they use their art to express ideas about identity, collective experience, politics, and culture.
Which is not to say that all of the art included in GENERATIONS is political. Or, that amongst those pieces that do carry political meaning, that the meaning has to do with race. The artists represented in this exhibit are vastly different from one another—in intent as well as materials and style. Some just want to capture the light in a garden, or create an emotional experience with color, or deconstruct what they see. But whether political or not, I am profoundly happy to make the acquaintance of these artists, because far too many of them were unfamiliar to me. And, given how many museums I’ve visited and how many art books I have, that is a problem.
Hooray for people like Joyner. Hooray for the Baltimore Museum of Art. And hooray for the many other museums and collectors who are expanding definitions of the canon, frame by frame.
Below, some images from the exhibit, from Alma Thomas (born in 1891) through Kevin Beasley (born in 1985).
Apparently, Carlo Rovelli owes his career to LSD. It was LSD that clicked on the lightbulb: If drugs can change my brain in a way that gives me an entirely different experience of reality, he thought, how do I know that my non-drugged brain is experiencing the real reality? What if the world is very different than the way we human beings experience it? Rovelli had this epiphany in college, after he had started learning about quantum gravity but before he had even committed to be a physics major. But that was it. He was going to have a career in quantum gravity. First, though, he took seven years to finish college, digressing along the way into political protest, travelling the world, and having love affairs. While in graduate school, he didn’t publish much, but instead spent his time learning every possible thing he could about the problem he wanted to study. And between reading philosophy. And traveling. And sleeping in his car when he ran out of money.
Rovelli was 30 when he finished his PhD, and he gave himself five years to achieve something interesting enough in physics to satisfy himself. If he failed, he planned to walk away. Clearly there was little chance of that happening. According to his university CV, he published ten papers in those first five years. Ultimately, Rovelli became one of the founders of a major school of thought in physics (“loop quantum gravity theory”), published multiple books and scads of papers (there are 242 papers helpfully numbered on his CV), scooped up all sorts of awards and honors, and then, in 2014, wrote Seven Brief Lessons on Physics: a slender volume of just 81 luminous pages that has sold over a million copies and, as of this year, has been translated into more than 50 languages. Two years ago, he followed Seven Brief Lessons with The Order of Time, also a best seller.
If you watch or listen to Rovelli being interviewed, as I have, he appears in person as he appears in print. Like someone who would be tremendous fun at a dinner party. Excitable. Enthusiastic. Wide-eyed and wondrous at the miracle that is the universe, from the atom to our brain cells to the clouds in the sky to the cosmos. A philosopher who speaks clearly about science. A scientist who cannot resist wrestling with the most basic human questions: Who are we? How do we fit? Where is happiness? Someone whose Desert Island Discs playlist included Jerry Garcia, the Doors, and Janis Joplin, as well as Arvo Pärt and Bach.
Now, what about the books? I read them in reverse order, which was a mistake. Seven Brief Lessons explains basic concepts in physics in extraordinarily simple, intuitive terms—in particular, Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the basic ideas of quantum and particle physics required to grasp a little bit about what “loop quantum gravity theory” actually means. The Order of Time picks up from there, focusing solely on the puzzle of time. While I found it impossible to fully understand everything in The Order of Time, the gist is very clear: Rovelli’s LSD-inspired insight turns out to be true. Time as experienced by human beings, in our world, bears little resemblance to how time functions in the vast cosmos that surrounds us. Our reality is just that: our reality. It is not the reality.
This is mind-bending stuff. And if some of The Order of Time’s 212 pages felt frustratingly difficult to understand, Rovelli provides oases for the more poetically-inclined reader. His metaphors are lovely and illuminating (“we inhabit time as fish live in water”); he has much to say about science itself (“the ability to understand something before it’s observed is at the heart of scientific thinking”); and he concludes the book with a meditation on time as an emotional phenomenon, as source of both hope and fear, as the reason we fear death, but also the reason that fear of death is entirely misplaced.
One final comment: I tried listening to The Order of Time first, hopeful that Benedict Cumberbatch would be an excellent reader. This was also a mistake. The audio cannot convey the illustrations and diagrams that Rovelli uses to help explain; it makes it difficult to distinguish the navigational guides of section titles, chapter titles, and subtitles; and Cumberbatch has a slow-and-low affect that mutes the sparkle in Rovelli’s writing and that was more effective than a sleeping pill.