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Best in Show

written and illustrated by Leanne Shapton
NYRoB Art Newsletter no. 20

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

This is our twentieth art newsletter, which is coming to you from my living room, where I’m watching the 148th annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show on my computer. I have a cat, Biscuit, who last appeared in our third art newsletter, but I also love and grew up with dogs. One of my favorite assignments was illustrating Review contributor Cathleen Schine’s 2007 novel The New Yorkers, for which I made hundreds of drawings of dogs. I dream of one day having a lurcher, my favorite breed.

This newsletter covers the art and illustrations commissioned for our annual Art Issue and our May 23 issue. The cover for the Art Issue was a no-brainer. When I read Jarrett Earnest’s essay about Tom of Finland, there was no question that I would try to get one of his drawings on our cover. I’d first seen his work when I was in my early twenties: one of my Toronto roommates was the artist and writer Bruce LaBruce. Through him and his VHS collection I got an education in queercore, independent film, homoerotic art, and the Toronto gay scene. After looking at a number of Tom of Finland pieces we landed on a tender charcoal portrait of a young man, untitled. When I asked Earnest if it was possible to learn the identity of the cover model, he wondered if it might have been one of the many AIDS victims who Tom of Finland drew in the Eighties.

Inside, for Anahid Nersessian’s review of Constance Debré’s fiction, I asked the Los Angeles–based artist Zack Rosebrugh, whose colored-pencil likeness felt in line with Debré’s energetic minimalism. James McMullan, who is always great with subjects on stage, painted Martha Graham and her lover and fellow dancer Erick Hawkins for Marina Harss’s review of a new biography of Graham by Deborah Jowitt. A sizing issue at the last minute required Jim to add an arm and leg to Hawkins’s figure, which he did seamlessly.

When I wrote Rachel Levit Ruiz to ask if we might use one her paintings to accompany Ariel Dorfman’s review of Gabriel García Márquez’s final novel, she wrote back to say that, by coincidence, she was in the middle of reading the book. I asked her which of her paintings felt most like Ana Magdalena, García Márquez’s protagonist, and she offered Cara Azul, a pastel she had made in 2022.

For John Washington’s review of two books on climate change and firestorms, I immediately thought of the Canadian artist Kim Dorland, whose gorgeous canvases of trees, landscapes, and figures often feature flames. Nancy Friedland, whose rainy painting graced our October 5, 2023, cover, put me in touch with Dorland.

Sergio Ruzzier, an Italian illustrator, recently visited New York City from Bologna, and I asked him to contribute some series art. His Minor Melancholies are scattered throughout the issue.

For the May 23 issue, I was looking for a cover that might obliquely refer to Mike Jay’s story about MDMA and Martin Filler’s piece on supertall skyscrapers. I’d earlier bookmarked Dan Perkins’s juicy, graphic paintings for possible use in the future, and when I showed the editors his work, they loved it. Perkins gave us a piece called Slider, from 2017.

For Christopher Byrd’s review of Divine Days by Leon Forrest, I asked Johnalynn Holland for a portrait. She gave us a thoughtful Forrest, neatly dressed in a brown suit. Andrea Ventura seemed the right choice for an illustration of Madonna, for Joanna Biggs’s review of a new biography of the pop legend. There was a bit of back and forth over which era we should depict—we landed on Blonde Ambition Madonna—and then more back and forth over whether to include torpedo bustier or not, and finally much discussion on the right shade of blonde. In the end Ventura sent two versions to choose from. For space issues we went with Madonna’s head and shoulders.

I tried a new illustrator, who wrote to me out of the blue, for Ange Mlinko’s review of two recent poetry collections. Georgie McAusland is based in Barcelona and Essex, England. Her double portrait of Denise Levertov, an Englishwoman who lived in the United States, and Anne Stevenson, an American who moved to Britain, in front of the landscapes of their chosen homes went perfectly with Mlinko’s emphasis on the transatlantic qualities of their work.

Vivienne Flesher and her always surprising palette—salmon, poppy, and purple in this case—was an easy choice for Pamela Druckerman’s review of two books about Jill Biden. For Catherine Lacey on Alba de Céspedes, I wrote to Romy Blümel in Berlin, in the hopes that she could take on a portrait assignment. She sent a blue-haired de Céspedes in a high-collar jacket. 

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I’ve been familiar with the writer Gaby Wood’s linocuts, woodcuts, and etchings for years, and have long wanted to ask her for a portrait. When I read Clair Wills’s review of a recent collection of Hilary Mantel’s essays and criticism, I thought of Wood. She is the literary director for the Booker Prize, and I figured that Wood must have met Mantel at some point, since she twice won the Booker. Wood agreed to take the assignment and texted me the stages of the etching—from pencil sketch to charcoal and plate—as she went. She wrote after sending the final print: “That line of Mantel’s that Clair quotes in the piece—‘if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art’—uncanny, as you’re trying to conjure its author in an etching!” Wood also told me that she’d recently found the program from Mantel’s memorial service, upon which she’d made notes and had written that Mantel was fond of the perfume Je Reviens.

After seeing an Instagram post by the jeweler, artist, and illustrator Kaye Blegvad in which she referenced ketamine, I was inspired to ask her to interpret Jay’s essay on two books about ecstasy. She gave us several sketches, including one that illustrated a line from the piece: “united crowds…in communal trance.” She described her sketch as “a network of neurons in joyful color palette, each neuron one color that bleeds into the next in the branches. With smiling little faces.”

I asked Oliver Munday to take on Stephen Breyer’s essay about originalism, adapted from the Robert B. Silvers Lecture that he delivered at the New York Public Library earlier this year. Munday made a bright, scrambled, and abstracted image of the Constitution.

The series art in the issue, titled Spring Inchworms, is by Alli Arnold, who had sent me recent examples of her work for Bergdorf Goodman.

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