The Verbal and the Nonverbal

NYRB Newsletter No. 6 from NYC

A dispatch from our Art Editor on the art and illustrations in the Review’s February 23 and March 9 issues.

In late January and early February, New York City temperatures hit strange highs, rain blindsided us, and snow was mostly absent. Over the course of four weeks, three friends visited, and I saw the city through their eyes. One was energized by the crowds, another was exhausted from overscheduling, and the third contemplated moving here. A rapidly rising construction site directly opposite my picture window forced me onto StreetEasy, wearing noise-canceling headphones, to scan listings for somewhere, anywhere, with decent light. New York is shifting, taking on old and new shapes, unreliable and tough and contradictory. Everyone seems to be recovering from a second bout of Covid or fighting off a low-level flu. I met scholars and writers at the Italian Academy at Columbia who filled my head with history and art, and then I immediately contracted a virus for a week and couldn’t even watch TV. (When I finally could, I watched Bob’s Burgers and Atlanta, which restored my enthusiasm for and love of episodic stories, as long as they don’t take place in New York.) 

We put a painting by the British artist Jess Allen on the cover of the February 23 issue of the Review. Her Morandi-like arrangement of empty boxes echoes Timothy Garton Ash’s assessment of the crisis in Ukraine as well as Frances Wilson’s essay about Katherine Mansfield’s multitudes. Inside the magazine, the Berlin-based illustrator Romy Blümel made a wonderful portrait of a glaring Mansfield, her bangs and boa in violets and blues. 

Reading Tim Flannery’s piece about Australian marsupials and monotremes led me to look up platypus imagery, and boy are they weird. I ask the brilliant John Broadley to illustrate the review and he gamely proposes depicting a platypus and an echidna in the style of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century engravings. He patiently redraws a final image in order to reckon with our shifting layout. (The Review has always accommodated pieces of various lengths, which means the dimensions of the art sometimes have to change to fit the text.)

For Larry Rohter’s review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s nineteenth novel, Harsh Times, I cold-called a Louisville-based artist, John Brooks, whose work I came across on Instagram. (Despite an ambivalent relationship with social media, I have to admit it’s good for finding new work.) I looked Brooks up after he left a compliment on an Instagram post of the cover for the November 3, 2022, issue, which featured a painting by Scott Csoke. Brooks’s portraits are Hockneyesque, and to my surprise he was game to draw Llosa. He gave us a choice between depictions of the author at younger and older ages, and we went with the older. 

When I read Matthew Aucoin’s piece about the conductor Carlos Kleiber, whom he describes as a “nonpareil of podium alchemy” whose arms “seemed to emerge from a bottomless well and to extend beyond the viewer’s line of sight,” I immediately thought of James McMullan, both because he loves theatricality and movement and because I’d been flipping through his recent book, Hello World, about drawing the male figure. I was due to have lunch with Jim anyway, so, crossing my fingers, I gave him a draft of Aucoin’s piece in advance of our date. He was in, and over banana bread at his West Side studio he showed me three beautiful sketches. 

Series art for the issue is by Toronto-based artist Joy Walker, who last contributed a piece to illustrate FT’s essay on the nature of nonbeing.

The week before the February 23 issue went to press, the designer Rachel Comey launched her new collection—which included dresses, tops, bags, and more featuring Review covers—with a book drive and reading at her SoHo store. Vivian Gornick read from her book about rereading; Merve Emre expatiated on a shared literary preoccupation of Diane Williams, Roald Dahl, and herself: “the penis”; Kevin Young told stories about Nancy Cunard; Rowan Ricardo Phillips read his and Diane Seuss’s poems; and Anne Diebel read from two pieces by Gore Vidal about Tennessee Williams. Representatives from the organization Books Beyond Bars were on hand to collect books for incarcerated New Yorkers, and I got to see my colleagues in person, sipping cocktails and surrounded, surreally, by luxury goods instead of galleys. It was an interpretation and transmission of the Review and its writing that I would never have imagined when I started here last fall, but the convergence of the verbal and the nonverbal is something I strive for in my own work, so the whole project was a gift.

The March 9 issue, which closed last week, included pieces about memory, photography, crime, and colonization, which made me think of a found photograph from the book Dive Dark Dream Slow, by the artist Melissa Catanese. Her book is an elegiac selection from Peter J. Cohen’s collection of over 20,000 vernacular, found, and anonymous images. We chose a picture from her book for the cover.  


For Michael Dirda’s review of three books about and by Walter de la Mare, our first choice was the Berlin-based Henning Wagenbreth. He’s done wonderful portraits of Baudelaire and Céline in our pages, but instead of a straightforward face portrait, this time he gave us a full-body composition that incorporated elements from de la Mare’s stories and poems. Similarly, after reading Kathryn Hughes’s review of The Child Is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori by Cristina De Stefano, illustrator Fien Jorissen suggested a less traditional portrait and instead gave us a wider view of Montessori with her students.

Another Review favorite, Parisian Yann Kebbi, drew a sharp, cat-like Janet Malcolm for Michael Gorra’s review of her posthumous collection, Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory. We also ran a painting by the Tennesseean Shannon Cartier Lucy to accompany Gavin Francis’s wonderful review of two slightly less literary books about memory and forgetting. Jason Kernevich, from the Philadelphia design firm The Heads of State, contributed two illustrations for Sue Halpern’s review of two books concerning the protection of digital privacy. And for Evan Kindley’s review of John Guillory’s book about the state of academic literary criticism, we chose a painting of a reader by Henni Alftan, the cover artist for our December 8, 2022, issue.

I’d admired the work of Edinburgh-based illustrator Charlotte Trounce on the cover of Vendela Vida’s recent novel, We Run the Tides, so when she wrote to introduce her work, I knew I wanted to find a commission for her. It took a year, but when I read Natasha Wimmer’s review of Yoko Tawada’s newly translated novel, I emailed Trounce to see if she might be available to do a portrait. Her simple likeness of Tawada seemed to match Wimmer’s description of Tawada’s storytelling as “deceptively easy.”

Series art for this issue was done by the Bay area artist Tucker Nichols, our cover artist from the February 24, 2022 issue.

By the time we closed the issue, three stories in the building next door had risen to the bottom of my window, and concrete was being poured for a fourth. The constant change is destabilizing and depressing, reliable, inspiring. It makes me think of Borges’s recipe for artistic creation, which Francis quotes: “You should go in for a blending of the two elements, memory and oblivion,” he wrote, “and we call that imagination.” Harsh times indeed.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in