High Lines

Roof Life BY Svetlana Alpers. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 264 pages. $28.

The cover of Roof Life

Late in the fall of 1999, the renowned art historian Svetlana Alpers retired from teaching, packed up her house in California, and moved into a loft near Union Square in New York City. High above a neighborhood that had once been home to printers and lithographers, Alpers had stunning views, with six windows facing west, two windows facing east, and an eyeful of sky in either direction. Each morning, she watched a play of shadows dance along the walls of adjacent buildings as day broke and sunlight slipped across nearby roofs, water towers, and eclectic architectural details, including a decorative Roman aqueduct lining the top of a luxury co-op, which struck Alpers as useless and wonderful all at once. That sight—intimate, ordinary, dynamic, and everyday—set in motion a project that quietly, gingerly rolled through the next decade and a half to become Roof Life, Alpers’s latest and most unusual book, which turns the condition and circumstance of her view into a philosophy of seeing and being in the world.

Ostensibly a collection of essays reflecting on what it means to spend a lifetime looking at art, thinking in museums, and writing through solitude, doubt, and disquiet, Roof Life has little to say about the main areas of Alpers’s expertise, namely seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting. It is not a book about art history. It is not criticism. It is not even really a book about art—except in the sense that, chapter by chapter, Alpers explores the various and unexpected ways in which art functions as a social bond and the substance of intense friendship. She applies the tools of an art historian to elements in a landscape (such as the New York City skyline), to the documents tracing the outlines of a life (that of her Russian grandfather), and to an inventory of possessions (her own) to compose a kind of self-portrait.

When she stared out her windows, the world appeared strange and distant, and from that sense of disorientation, Alpers developed a method. Here, Roof Life shares something with her previous work—five influential books including The Art of Describing and The Vexations of Art—in that she is primarily concerned with questions about how to look, what to look for, and why. As a scholar investigating Dutch paintings and Tiepolo’s late-Renaissance frescoes, her objective was to look closely and to balance the seriousness of academia with a sense of adventure and pleasure. In Roof Life, Alpers proposes taking “distant and therefore distinctive views” of a place, a year in history, a relationship, a mode of exchange. She works through ways of sharpening one’s attention by confronting the unfamiliar (or the familiar made less so by circumstance), learning to see through the act of “making strange,” and coming to understand a lifetime of experiences (from wars and exiles to buying and selling a heritage house in California) through “the immediacy of distance.”

And so, in five fragmented sections, Alpers takes a distant view of family history; the world around her; owning, selling, and living with art; shopping for food; and sitting for amateur and professional artists as they compose her portrait, which means seeing herself through their eyes and their work. She clusters like things together, marshals evidence, gathers great documentation, stacks up a library of sources, and hooks her references into fine chains of association, moving from Rachel Whiteread to Bernd and Hilla Becher in one passage (on the subject of water towers), from Hitchcock to Poe and Baudelaire in another (on voyeurism, solitude, and the city).

Much of the material here is deeply personal. We read the harrowing letters of Alpers’s forebears as they recall their flight from the 1905 pogroms in Odessa. We follow her as she inherits, appraises, and sells a small Rothko, only regarding it as a remarkable work of art when it is housed in storage. We accompany her to seasonal farmers’ markets and back to her kitchen and then into her hallway, late at night, where she catches sight of a shadow cast by her naked body on the door. Yet Roof Life is relentlessly anti-memoir, and formidable in its refusal of the confessional mode. “Confession is not to my taste,” she writes, and then banishes narrative altogether. “I don’t think that lives need be constructed in the form of a story.” She reiterates: “I am not really writing about my grandfather. It is not his life that is extraordinary, but rather the world in which he spent it. The interest is in the events and the people in the glare of which he lived, the extraordinary public and private dramas that he came through and of which he never spoke a word.”

Alpers’s disavowals almost disguise the fact that Roof Life is a book shouldering a tremendous amount of sorrow. It is a work of mourning, an art historian’s book of the dead that operates in several different registers of sadness, from deeply personal to broadly political, including Alpers’s wholly unexpected response to the Twin Towers falling. Only at the very end, in a section titled “After Words,” does she explain that much of her text grew out of a lifelong friendship with the late poet Adrienne Rich. “I continued to e-mail but there was no reply,” Alpers writes of their correspondence. “Adrienne died that month. What she had described as ‘our long conversation in work + life’ stopped there.”

And then there is M, shorthand for Michael Baxandall, coauthor of the Tiepolo book and Alpers’s partner for twenty-five years. Otherwise matchless, he was Alpers’s equal and intellectual peer. They were both married. She divorced. He didn’t. After his death, in 2008, The Telegraph concluded his obituary by noting that Baxandall honored “early commitments” until the end. He appears in Roof Life as a ghost, in glimpses, in a thinly veiled dedication (“S > M”), and, more substantially, as a man defining love in proximity to death. In a late passage, he bares his fragile body to his lover, indexing the damage done by Parkinson’s, and also, one imagines, creating a lasting image of intimacy and estrangement, nearness and distance, bracing honesty and an unbending trust in what an image (without words) will convey.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer and critic based in Beirut.