Just a Pastime: Don DeLillo-as-Art Critic, in Four Chapters


From early on in his work, Mr. DeLillo’s narration, at times overtly theoretical, has also served as linguistic critique, a kind of lesson in the poststructuralist principle of arbitrary signifiers. Arbitrariness—that there is no real connection between the word (the signifier) and the concept behind that word (the referent)—is the root of paranoia in Mr. DeLillo. Flip to any page in one of his books and you are likely to find the seeds of doubt about the act of writing: “An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture,” he writes in Point Omega; “plots reduce the world,” he writes in “In the Ruins of the Future,” the essay he wrote for Harper’s magazine in the aftermath of September 11; “all plots tend to move deathward,” he writes most ominously in White Noise—“this is the nature of plots.” Arbitrariness is at the heart of one of Mr. DeLillo’s most famous—and funniest—images, the Most Photographed Barn in America from White Noise—a sign so meaningless that signifier and referent are deliberately interchangeable. Why do so many people photograph this barn? Because this barn is the most photographed barn in America. And so forth, forever. For Mr. DeLillo, language is so inseparable from the world it describes that even he cannot help but critique his writing, even as he is writing.

When he writes about art, the paranoia is there, as is that feeling that the author is behind the words asking, What’s the point of all this? But if Mr. DeLillo’s critique of language results only in dread and suspicion, his reading of art leads, at least momentarily, to reverence. It is not the usual cyclical hunt for meaning that leads to fear and obsession, but rather meaning’s overwhelming presence that causes characters to revert to thoughtlessness.

The man watching 24-Hour Psycho in Point Omega considers each movement of a character’s face to be “a revelation.” In Running Dog, Lightborne spends a bulk of the novel hunting down a pornographic film created in Berlin in 1945 and rumored to star Hitler. Underworld’s Nick Shay impulsively takes a car to the desert to see an art installation by his old lover Klara Sax, whom he hasn’t seen in 40 years. Art in Mr. DeLillo’s writing is so significant that it becomes, despite the viewer’s knowledge of the separation between real and representation (recall the collector’s words in Running Dog that art is, in the end, simply a diversion), too real for his characters to even exist with; it is unrepresentable. They revert to primal, often pathological behavior in their useless pursuit of an understanding they never attain.


This is partly why we can tell that things won’t end well for anyone in “Baader-Meinhof,” which opens with another terror-filled description of a gallery: “She knew there was someone else in the room.” In its starkness, Point Omega carried the temperament of the funereal, but Mr. DeLillo states such morbidity outright and immediately in this story.

She’d been alone for a time, seated on a bench in the middle of the gallery with the paintings set around her, a cycle of fifteen canvases, and this is how it felt to her, that she was sitting as a person does in a mortuary chapel, keeping watch over the body of a relative or a friend.

Mr. DeLillo then reminds us that the word “viewing” is used for both paintings and corpses.

What he doesn’t say explicitly is that the woman is looking at Gerhard Richter’s “Baader-Meinhof” cycle of 15 paintings in the permanent collection at MoMA. They are based on photographs of the four founders of the Red Army Faction, the violent German terrorist cell active predominantly in the 1970s. Mr. Richter has said that, when he made them, he thought of the paintings as documentary, an attempt at seeing the present “as it is.” Nothing, however, in Mr. DeLillo is ever simply “as it is” (from Underworld: “how human it is to see a thing as something else”). No work of art is just the thing itself; it is the semiotics of that thing, looking to be reinforced. Again, regarding the Most Photographed Barn in America, he writes, “We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one … they’re taking pictures of taking pictures.” The notion brings to mind the performance artist from the eponymous 2007 novel Falling Man. He wears a suit and tie and dangles by a bungee cord from buildings in tribute to the famous AP photograph of a man falling from the World Trade Center on September 11. Falling Man exists completely for his viewers, particularly those who are unaware of his safety harness. He is “known to appear among crowds or at sites where crowds might quickly form.” With Mr. DeLillo, we are not reading about a work of art itself, but instead about how people are looking at it, and why. He privileges spectatorship.

So, when he discusses Richter’s painting of the corpse of Ulrike Marie Meinhof, who died in her prison cell in 1977, he is merely descriptive:
“She got up and went to stand before the picture of Ulrike, one of three related images, Ulrike dead in each, lying on the floor of her cell, her head in profile. The canvases varied in size.”

Interpretation comes once he moves his gaze away from the canvases and over to the viewers. The story’s protagonist is a woman who is spending her third straight day at MoMA looking at the paintings. A man approaches her and tries talking. We learn little about their lives, but in the ways they look differently at the Richter cycle, we seem to learn everything about them:

“I realize now that the first day I was only barely looking. I thought I was looking but I was only getting a bare inkling of what’s in these paintings. I’m only just starting to look.”
“And what do you feel when you look?” he said.
“I don’t know. It’s complicated.”
“Because I don’t feel anything.”
“I think I feel helpless. These paintings make me feel how helpless a person can be.”

From there, the actions feel fated (remember, all plots move deathward). As in Falling Man, the pair seem to simply play their respective parts—the indignant pushy man and the submissive young woman—as if their reactions to the paintings predict everything that comes after. The two go to a snack bar and the man says of the paintings, “No color. No meaning.” They have an unpleasant conversation. The man talks of his unemployment, of his interview in a few hours. The woman is mostly quiet and thinks of the paintings. As they talk—and this is typical of dialogue in Mr. DeLillo—the man increasingly focuses on their talking itself: “You’re supposed to say ‘Who are you? That’s your line. ‘Who are you?’ I set you up beautifully and you totally miss your cue.”

They end up at the woman’s apartment. She asks him to leave and he refuses. He forces himself on her and she locks herself in her bathroom. She hears him on her bed, unbuckling his belt and pulling down his zipper, breathing heavily. Or “this is what she thought she heard.” The next day, however, the two are back at the museum, staring at the paintings as if it were the day before. The encounter is ultimately meaningless.


Just a Pastime: Don DeLillo-as-Art Critic, in Four Chapters