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


The Long-Distance Reader

Lauren Bacall and Robert Gottlieb celebrating the publication of Bacall’s memoir, By Myself, which Gottlieb edited, New York City, January 1979

Avid Reader

by Robert Gottlieb
There is a special allure in learning the secrets of people who work behind the scenes, especially when their success—as diplomats, psychoanalysts, or spies—depends in large part on the invisibility of what they do. This is certainly true of book editors. The illusion they seek to promote is that the …

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 Magician of Manga

The heavenly musician kalavinka; drawing by Katsushika Hokusai, 1823-1833

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had long possessed—in its fabulous collection of Japanese art unparalleled anywhere outside Japan—an anonymous album of drawings long assumed to be by Hokusai. That album has now been persuasively linked to the artist.

The Ghosts Are Laughing

The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel, 1493

Has the convergence of Halloween and a Presidential Election ever seemed so apt? Is there anything more frightening than seeing Trump’s orange mop tousled by Jimmy Fallon? Has the ridiculous ever been so closely aligned with the horrific? Under such shaky circumstances, we are likely to feel, more than ever, Coleridge’s unsettling “perception of something out of the common nature of things, something out of place.”

Fear of Rattlesnake Island

William Bartram: The Rattle Snake, late eighteenth century

The state of Massachusetts has proposed to introduce a small colony of Timber Rattlesnakes to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir, to the vehement outrage of many local residents. “If we only conserve the cute and the cuddly,” said Lou Perrotti, who is supervising the breeding of Timber Rattlesnakes, “we’re going to have forests full of butterflies and bunny rabbits, and they’re going to be very nonfunctioning ecosystems that would eventually collapse.”

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.