The announcement that Tina Brown was replacing Robert Gottlieb as editor of THE NEW YORKER prompted a spate of articles focusing on the recent history of the magazine. What was most striking about these copycat pieces, apart from their predictability, was their lack of specificity. Most of the articles revealed at best a passing acquaintance with the magazine. From these cliched accounts one would never guess at the variety of excellent nonfiction that appears regularly in THE NEW YORKER—much of it by younger writers who aren’t as yet household names.
Case in point is Dan Hofstadter, whose pieces about artists—all first published in THE NEW YORKER—are collected in this volume. Hofstadter’s subjects include Jean Helion, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Avigdor Arikha, and Richard Diebenkorn; a chapter on “the School of London” discusses David Bomberg, R. B. Kitaj, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossuth, among others.
Several qualities distinguish Hofstadter’s work from much contemporary writing about art. With the exception of his pages on Bomberg, who died in poverty in 1957, Hofstadter is writing on the basis of firsthand acquaintance; most of his subjects could also be called his friends. This gives him an authority which many writers lack, yet at the same time there’s no sense that he’s addressing a self-satisfied coterie. His prose is at once exceptionally knowledgeable and jargon-free.
As Hofstadter himself notes in the preface, TEMPERAMENTS isn’t a collection of art criticism. He writes about art a great deal, and with contagious enthusiasm, but finally he’s practicing a kind of biography. Hofstadter is gifted with curiosity, inexhaustible interest in the trivial yet luminous details that make his subjects vividly present to the reader. He’s a storyteller, too; each chapter is a self-contained narrative, replete with strange twists of fate and hidden harmonies.
Ignore the pundits who generalize shamelessly about “NEW YORKER writers.” Chances are that when you’ve finished this book, you’ll want to hunt down Hofstadter’s recent two-parter in the magazine (July 13 and July 20, 1992), “The Kanakaria Mosaics Case.”