Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author, most recently, of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay.(May 2016)


A Wonderfully Ephemeral College

Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, circa 1946

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957

an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, October 10, 2015–January 24, 2016; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, February 21–May 14, 2016; and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, September 17, 2016–January 1, 2017

Intersecting Colors: Josef Albers and His Contemporaries

an exhibition at the Mead Art Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts, August 28, 2015–January 3, 2016
Of the self-styled “progressive” liberal arts colleges founded between the world wars—including Bennington and Sarah Lawrence, Goddard and a reconceived Antioch—Black Mountain College was among the most distinctive, and was also the first to close. A fragile undertaking from the start, rendered more precarious by the Great Depression, the college …

Sex, Money & Collecting

Peggy Guggenheim on the roof of her palazzo in Venice, October 1953

Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern

by Francine Prose
The Guggenheim family name is attached to three major cultural institutions. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, on Upper Fifth Avenue in New York, is best known for the 1959 Frank Lloyd Wright building—its greatest single work of art—that houses the collection of what its founder called “non-objective painting.” The John …

The Wonder-Wounded Harold Bloom

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, 1926

The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime

by Harold Bloom
At eighty-five, Harold Bloom is among the foremost literary critics at work today; he is also, surely, one of the strangest. He has seemed at times an impassioned guardian of the acknowledged masterpieces of The Western Canon (the title of his book of 1994), reaffirming the preeminence of Dante or …


Cosmopolitan Folk

Elie Nadelman: Tango, circa 1920–24

As a striking exhibition at the New York Historical Society makes clear, the sculptor Elie Nadelman and his wife Viola were among the first serious collectors of American folk art and among the first to use the Germanic notion of a national “Volk” to confer prestige on such objects. Unlike their nativist counterparts, who amassed Americana in an effort to bolster nationalist claims to a distinctive artistic tradition, the cosmopolitan Nadelmans acquired both European and American objects to demonstrate the “derivation” of American folk art from European prototypes.

Wittgenstein’s Handles

A door handle in the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed with architect Paul Engelmann, 1972

When Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, the idea that drove him beyond all others was that the nature of language had been misunderstood by philosophers. They were better conceived of as a part of the activity of life. As such, they were more like tools. It is the utility of handles that Wittgenstein insists on here: “The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.” The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles.

A Darker Jungle

Bagheera, voiced by Ben Kingsley, and Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi, in Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book, 2016

For the most part, this new Jungle Book is shockingly dark, replacing the psychological conflict and nuanced family dynamics of Rudyard Kipling’s original stories with sporadic violence and a pervasive air of menace.

Mystery in Miniature

Matthias Buchinger—who was born without hands or feet in Nuremberg in 1674 and never grew beyond the height of twenty-nine inches—was a magician and musician, a writing master and itinerant artist active in Britain and the Continent. His wondrous powers have been a longtime obsession of the magician and writer-savant Ricky Jay, who has collected some fifty examples of Buchinger’s baroque work, from engraved self-portraits framed with Buchinger’s characteristic arabesques and curlicues to spiraling texts that would fit on a thumbnail, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.