The Art of Janet Malcolm & Emily Dickinson

Janet Malcolm: The Emily Dickinson Series

an exhibition at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York City, January 9–February 8, 2014

Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches

an exhibition at the Drawing Center, New York City, November 15, 2013–January 12, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Claire Gilman, with an essay by Josiah McElheny
The Drawing Center, 116 pp., $20.00 (paper)
benfey_1-022014.jpg
Janet Malcolm/Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York/Étienne Frossard
Janet Malcolm: Common Sense, a collage from her ‘Emily Dickinson Series,’ 2013

The twenty-six collages that make up Janet Malcolm’s arresting and faintly melancholy “Emily Dickinson Series,” the artist’s fifth solo exhibition at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in Chelsea, look on first view like leaves from some late Victorian archive, though the field of science or art to which they belong remains unclear. Certain motifs recur: vintage photographs of the 1874 transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event when the planet Venus passes directly between the sun and the earth, resembling a beauty spot traversing the face of the sun; a photograph of a bearded astronomer identified as David Todd (“the depressed astronomer,” as Malcolm came to think of him), who photographed the transit of 1882; gnomic passages by Emily Dickinson in typewritten transcriptions; and, finally, sheets of brownish transparent paper, of the kind once used to protect art books, variously folded and draped like veils across portions of the works.

Malcolm’s collages, an art form she adopted when writing a profile of the artist David Salle, are parsimonious with color—an exception is a Dickinson passage superimposed over a red study, cut from an illustration in The New York Times, from Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series. They also eschew the Surrealist temptation—exploited by Max Ernst and Hannah Höch, and later by the West Coast collagist Jess—to elide disparate images in ways that create the illusion that they are linked in dreamlike ways. Again, there are exceptions: a telescope beside a parfait cup exudes a Surrealist frisson, like Lautréamont’s chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.

Malcolm prefers an art of juxtaposition, documents and photographs placed side by side as though for inspection. The collage titled Common Sense (see illustration on this page) combines, from left to right, an image of the 1874 transit, a Dickinson fragment that reads “Common Sense/is almost as om-/niscient as God—,” and an early-twentieth-century photograph of a woman wearing a flamboyant party dress designed for the Wiener Werkstätte. To the left of the dress, like an explanatory caption, is a tagline reading “Alfred Dreyfus” and the name of a photographer. No hint is provided of how we are meant to interpret these disparate materials, which convey, perhaps, a mild fin-de-siècle aura of Venus and Vienna, the planet of love intersecting with the city of Klimt, Freud, and anti-Semitism. (What is psychoanalysis, one might ask, if not a way of monitoring emotional transits of Venus?)

One collage perfectly expresses the aesthetic renunciation (that “piercing Virtue,” as Dickinson called it) on which Malcolm’s austere art is partly based. Entirely covered with a brown veil, it is titled, simply, “No.” It contains a portrait of David Todd, the astronomer whose wife Mabel edited Dickinson’s poems after she died. The portrait is placed over a well-known passage from a letter …

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