on Roof Life by Svetlana Alpers (Yale University Press)

Svetlana Alpers retired from teaching at Berkeley in 1999 as one of the most influential art historians of the previous three decades. A sentence in her new book, Roof Life, sums up a lifetime of viewing and writing about art: “The problem is not matching words to pictures, but rather how to keep the interest of looking alive and well.” Nevertheless, she is known for doing both. AlpersView.jpegPerhaps that sentence was written where she has lived for the past 14 years, a top-floor loft in a nineteenth century industrial building in Manhattan. From this aerie, looking across the city’s roof life “instead of street life,” she continues to instruct on how to look at things.

In The Vexations of Art (2005), Alpers studied the rise of studio art from Velázquez to Manet. The studio, she said, both compelled and limited a certain “restlessness in the artist’s relationship to the world,” setting conditions for focusing “on the constraints under which knowledge is achieved.” Roof Life comprises a studio of her own, not for painting but for recording a way of seeing. Her roof life entails a certain distancing essential to vision. The “immediacy of distance” is also the telling element of art: “What does it take for something to strike one as a work of art? … In my experience, it is not a matter of familiarity, but rather of distance, an appearance of being strange.”

AlpersCover.jpegFor artist and viewer (and reader), detachment is tantamount to engagement. There is an apposite tang of removal in her posture and tone. Roof Life records many personal and family situations, and Alpers frequently quotes from her notebooks and correspondence. But she recoils from memoir (“I don’t think that lives need to be constructed in the form of a story”) while drawn to the episodic for paradigms. She says, “Confession is not to my taste” yet her candor is precise in its assessments. She will recall a hurt as if it were a tableau. The habit of persistence obviates the need for self-validation on the page. She is a model to be studied and copied, an observer who should be observed.

Roof Life begins with “The Year 1905,” an essay about her paternal family’s experiences in Russia, Weimar and Nazi Germany, and ultimately, America. Alpers’ father was Wassily Leontief, a Nobel laureate in economics; her mother was the poet Estelle Marks. Digging into archives, the daughter now discovers certain facts about her family’s diasporic lives in Europe. She also writes about other exiled notables – Conrad, Nabokov, Serge. But her project isn’t biography. From the distance of the present, she peers at the removals in the past. Below, she speaks of her grandparents:

“It was a year of pain and terrible upheaval not only for the two of them but also for Russia. The evidence is, however, that people, or at least people like these two, can go on with their lives through and despite and apparently untouched by tumultuous times. It was simply a coincidence, then, that reveals little about the relationship between public events and private lives. So it also can be with the making of art. How astonishing to read, as I did only recently, that the fabled production of Parade on 18 May 1917 – Cocteau, Massine, Satie, Apollinaire, Picasso all working together to make a new art – took place while some of the bloodiest battles of World War I were in progress nearby to the north and east of Paris. What is to be made of it?”

AlpersPortrait.jpegGenerally, Alpers successfully manages her book’s subtle resonances – such that when in “Roof Life” she describes the sight of the Twin Towers falling (from her perch, a here-and-gone soundless flicker seen between buildings), the reader feels the chilled presence of the past century’s catastrophes casting a shadow across the page. There are many fine observations and anecdotes. But there are segments of flat narrative as well where that mysterious whiff of strange distancing dissipates.

Looking out her window, she evokes Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the Hollywood set of which was based on an apartment courtyard nearby. In the third essay, “Sightings,” she describes the selling of a Rothko that had been cherished by her family, as well as the selling of her house in Berkeley. In both cases, her aim is to get at the painful sense of distancing from loved and valued objects. The effect is both moving and surgical.

In “Stalking Food,” she writes about shopping and cooking, mainly during her long stays in France. It is all about noticing. And then, the clincher: “What I called aesthetic is, at least in part, what offers you a way to control your passions, to channel them so that they do not overwhelm. I do not find real life (whatever that may be) through cooking, but instead a settling or ordering of it.” In the remarkable final essay, she narrates two instances of posing for different artists. She writes, “Being seen helps one to accept oneself,” though she has no interest in telling us what, if anything, she has found unacceptable in herself, and we (if attention has been paid) may now appreciate standing at a distance from her. When the first painter abruptly ends their session, frustrated with the results, “that rejection as such mattered less to me than the curious feeling of being seen.”

Roof Life stimulates the eyes while appealing to the intelligence. “Much of one’s attention to the world these days,” she says, “goes into blocking things out.” This teacher of looking gives us profound counsel – and in the process, she has been seen.

[Published August 20, 2013. 254 pages, $28.00 hardcover]

On The Roof Life

There's life in the studio, the room and over the roof-tops. A paradox alright, this distance which brings us closer to our object. Perhaps it's just bread and butter for us, though not immediately understood on the street level. The perspective had to be adjusted exactly, otherwise left with the blind spots, and snookered. Of art, particularly paintings, it takes a brave woman to suggest the strangeness of distance shall augment the experience. Meanwhile, when I see people on the street stalled with their phones to the fore, the distance between their feet and the open hole ignored, I'll wonder whether the critical vocabulary is dying.