Roof Life

Roof Life

by Svetlana Alpers
     
 

This is not a memoir. It does not take the form of a story. It is instead a kind of self-portrait, or perhaps several self-portraits.
 
Svetlana Alpers had been keeping files: records of what she saw out the windows of her loft in New York; records of art sold, bought, or seen on her walls; records of foods found in markets and prepared in places

Overview

This is not a memoir. It does not take the form of a story. It is instead a kind of self-portrait, or perhaps several self-portraits.
 
Svetlana Alpers had been keeping files: records of what she saw out the windows of her loft in New York; records of art sold, bought, or seen on her walls; records of foods found in markets and prepared in places where she lived; and records of herself seen in photographs, drawings, and paintings made by others. In solving the question of her father’s place and date of birth, she reconstructs the life of her Russian grandfather in a distant and tumultuous Europe of a century ago.
 

It was Roof Life that made it all come together. The title refers to what one discovers looking out from high windows with distant and distinctive views. In addition, it refers to the way one's attention is heightened and sharpened by confronting things that are unfamiliar, or that are made to appear unfamiliar by circumstances. It describes the immediacy of distance.
 

Renowned art historian Svetlana Alpers assembles in these pages descriptions of things that mattered in a life that began in Cambridge, Massachusetts, continued in Berkeley, California, and is now lived in New York City. The experience of Europe informs it all.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Known for her provocative study, The Art of Describing, art historian Alpers’s latest book of essays is a series of discrete, eloquent meditations on the undervalued act of looking (“That sense of life seen at a distance, and my pleasure in it”) that don’t fall easily into the categories of art history, criticism, or memoir. What connects her stirring personal narratives is this elastic theme of distance: distance as a state of mind (one that is “sharpened by confronting things that are unfamiliar”) and distance as a condition of life—“the finding of and separating into one’s self.” Citing documents, letters, notes, and personal records, she puzzles out the life of her Russian-American father, the noted economist Wassily M. Leontief. From the windows of her New York flat, she studies the act of looking, which she says is under threat from “the visual age itself.” Through vivid vignettes, she explains how the act of distancing creates art. For example, confronting the unsavory art market in her effort to sell a small Rothko painting, she discovers that “the sense of letting go was when it struck me as a work of art.” This resonant, highly original writing is informed by the author’s background as an art historian, as well as shadowed by a sense of tremendous loss. “But to look is not to possess,” she writes. “An experience of loss is built-in.” (Aug.)
Psychology Today

“Resonant, elusive, and enlightening . . . With photographs, [Alpers] reminds us, in a passage that gets at the heart of her strange and stimulating book (and her work as an art historian), place matters most: “not I was there, but there was where I was.” It’s a principle worth including in the psychology—and philosophy—of participants and observers.”—Psychology Today

New Statesman

“Alpers writes against the memoir form, creating a meditative self-portrait that pulls in family, literature, geograohy and a lifetime of looking at art. She aims for a kind of omniscience – to fix our attention and focus our responses, as we do when taking in landscapes from a great height. ‘The immediacy of distance’ is her goal.”—New Statesman

RA Magazine - Edmund Fawcett

“In a world ‘awash in imagery’, Roof Life celebrates the joys and responsibilities of careful looking. . .Alpers has the best of critical gifts. She makes you feel you are standing by her in that West Village loft seeing what she sees, whether the city out of her windows or the art on her walls.”—Edmund Fawcett, The Royal Academy Magazine

Bookforum

“Alpers’s latest and most unusual book . . . turns the condition and circumstances of her view into a philosophy of seeing and being in the world . . . Much of the material here is deeply personal. We read harrowing letters of Alpers’s forebears as the 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.”—Bookforum

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780300182750
Publisher:
Yale University Press
Publication date:
08/31/2013
Pages:
264
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Svetlana Alpers is Professor Emerita, History of Art, at the University of California, Berkeley, and visiting scholar at the Department of Fine Arts, New York University. She divides her time between New York City and France.

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