“If work comes easily, it is suspect”
On David Salle, Janet Malcolm, and feeling like you’re doing everything wrong
The other week, following the sad news of the writer Janet Malcolm’s passing, I spent an afternoon reading her New Yorker colleagues’ tributes plus several of the Malcolm articles mentioned therein. The most-mentioned piece was “Forty-One False Starts,” Malcolm’s 1994 profile of the American painter David Salle, which Adam Gopnik calls “one of the most influential profiles of the past thirty or forty years.” Somehow I had never read it.
As the title implies, the piece is structured as 41 attempts to write the lede for a profile of Salle. This sounds like a gimmick, but the result does not feel gimmicky at all. Instead, all of Malcolm’s false starts add up to a brilliant portrait of Salle and a vivid illustration of how difficult it is to say anything authoritative about, well, anything—but, in particular, about a living artist and his work.