I don’t know why they entrusted it to a twenty-one-year-old without an art history background and with a punk-rock haircut—because these were all nice ladies in pearls. But they did, and I had a fantastic two years researching major works of art in the collection for the fiftieth anniversary catalog, but also, with each piece, getting an education in Matisse or Duchamp or the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. And in this wonderfully practical way that also helped me understand what the actual lives of individual works of art are as I traced their exhibition history and ownership history. I think in a lot of ways the museum was as much an influence and an education as school was.
I ended up being an art critic with a review due every other week for a local weekly newspaper. I think the sheer volume of those early years was really great. In the way that musicians have to play a lot of chords, writers have to write a lot. The short review is like a very short essay. You have to set the scene, you have to lay out the facts and somehow negotiate the relationship between them and your opinions and ideas and interpretations, and you have to come up with some kind of conclusion, and a lot of times you have to do that in eight hundred words.
The essays in the new collection frequently draw upon the work of visual artists and photographers. Writing about visual arts was very liberating in a way that trying to be a literary or even maybe a film critic wouldn’t have been. Ann Hamilton, Richard Misrach, Meridel Rubenstein, and artists like that were really important early on. There was a way they would think about something and investigate something—Meridel Rubenstein, for example, picked up the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and approached it from a number of different directions with narrative and images and symbols and analogies that also modeled things for me that I don’t know that I would have gotten from writers. I didn’t know a lot of writers during my formative period, which I would say comes through in Savage Dreams. And Savage Dreams was where I really figured out who I was and where I was and what I wanted to do about it in life and in prose.
That’s the book where you hit upon your distinctive style of writing. I was finding a way to bring together the pieces that you need to describe something as complex as those subjects and to describe the act of discovery so you don’t set it up as “I know and you don’t.” It instead becomes, “This is how I found out about this struggle, about this place, about this crisis, about this bizarre history,” and so you foreground yourself not as particularly important or enlightened, but like Virgil to the reader’s Dante. And maybe this comes out of postmodernism, to establish that you’re not even pretending to be objective, that you have a point of view, and that the most honest thing you can do is make that point of view clear.