David Salle on George W.S. Trow's Biting Prognostication of American Culture

Before ‘fake news’ and the turn against Facebook, painter David Salle remembers a book that predicted how the media sphere would shatter

It was by chance that I first encountered George W.S. Trow’s writing. Chance, and my long-time habit of reading The New Yorker every week. In the summer of 1984,  I rented a little cottage in Sagaponack, on the eastern edge of Long Island, to recuperate from a busted marriage. It was an especially hot summer. My girlfriend Janet, grave and blonde, came out on weekends. We spent whole days at the beach, taking a cooler of food and drink and plenty of books, magazines, sketchpads and coloured pencils. Settling in for a day on the sand – beach chairs, striped towels, cold beer. The first splash of the day into the icy water.

The New Yorker had just published a piece on a subject I would have thought unlikely to hold my attention: the Black Rock Forest of Harvard University. It was a long essay about the invention of modern forestry and the intertwined fates of an aristocratic line of bankers, philanthropists and scientists. The essay is a case study on the uses of privilege, education and power for the public good. It tells the story of Gifford Pinchot, appointed the US’s first chief forester in 1898. Pinchot persuaded his friend Ernest Stillman to donate to Harvard University a 4,000-acre parcel of land along the Hudson River, its acreage dense with first- and second-growth native trees, which would become the first forestry lab in the US.

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Howard Coale, illustration for George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, Sherwin Beach Press edition, 1992. Courtesy: the artist

The author was someone with the formidable-sounding name George W. S. Trow, and his tone was scathing. It bristled with indignation for the way Harvard had, over the years, mismanaged the resources left in its care. The forest represented the long view. Its neglect was a measure of the Harvard Corporation’s failure to appreciate and act on such a worldview. The writing had a furious, righteous nostalgia for the time when an individual with vision and tenacity could change an entire aspect of the national life. Here was evidence that, sometime in America’s past, before the era in which we now live, the relationship between power and those who wielded it was less pusillanimous.

The essay depicts Pinchot as a public intellectual, a patriot and hero – and fearlessly heaps shame and scorn on several generations of Harvard Corporation technocrats who had attempted to profit from the forest while denying responsibility for its care. From the tone and diction,  I assumed the author to be a contemporary of Philip Johnson: a man already well into his 80s, one of that generation of founding modernist thinkers and doers – Harvard men all – who were determined not to go out gently.

It was a surprise, then, to learn that Trow was barely ten years older than me. (The Harvard patrician part was true enough.) A journalist friend, Gerry Marzorati, filled me in on the Trow phenomenon. An article by Trow had taken up an entire issue of The New Yorker in 1980 – Gerry was incredulous that I didn’t know of it. It was published as a book in 1981, but was no longer in print and too precious to lend. Gerry kindly photocopied the whole book for me. The first time I read Within the Context of No Context, its pages were the bleached-out grey of a copy machine, held together with a staple in the corner. 

I still think it’s the saddest book I’ve ever read, as well as one of the most thrilling. Context is a book about wonder – what it was, how it worked and where it had gone. It’s the story of America’s transition from a culture of doers – a place where character was linked to action and where individuals knew things – to a place where no one knows anything, except for the things that everyone else knows. ‘Wonder was the grace of the country,’ reads the book’s first sentence; it continues through the great levelling, the rise of demographics, the aesthetic of the hit, the illusion of intimacy – the last 50 years of the ‘American con’. Today we call it  social media – the phrase says it all. The book was ostensibly a study of how television had destroyed any meaningful connection between public and private life by intensifying the contradictions in the American psyche, such as solitude versus the group. But it was also, in a way, the story of  Trow’s life. 

His father had been a newspaperman, and Trow was defined by the sensibility of the great age of newspapers in New York, a time before his own, but with which he deeply identified. Working for a paper meant being in the know – understanding authority, who had it and how it worked. Listening to America meant knowing how to read a newspaper, how the headlines were composed, what the ads meant, who the publishers were, even who they married. That was his template: if you learn something deeply enough, you can carry that understanding through to all its subsequent forms. Tweeting would not have surprised Trow in the least. He would have been brilliant at it: a tweet is a headline for people who no longer read newspapers.

Trow had a remarkable ability to talk about ‘America’ convincingly – about what it was, what it had been and the path to its present moral squalor. 

Trow had a remarkable ability to talk about ‘America’ convincingly – about what it was, what it had been and the path to its present moral squalor. He understood the style of the country, its image of itself as reflected in an elite. That was how real power worked in the age of newspapers. He could talk about these things in a way that was natural and real. It was based on lived experience as well as the continuity of certain traditions, the old schools and old families. It was not an empty gesture. When Trow described the great rupture that had taken place in American life in the late 1960s and charted its increasingly bizarre course over the next decades of magazine culture (People Magazine – circulation five million!), he had lived the older forms; he could make the comparison.

The book charts the collapse of the world of adulthood, the world of adult authority, into one of childhood, where no one has any authority at all. America had evolved from a culture of self-reliance into one in which people could barely take care of themselves. Trow gave this a name that is both cause and effect: the ‘collapsing dominant’. It runs through his writing like a motif. His real theme was the waning of any meaningful authority that resided in adulthood. An adult is one who knows what it is necessary to do, and understands that life is measured in terms of acts, in things done. Now, we have only childish agreements and demographics. He writes: ‘The most powerful men were those who most effectively used the power of adult competence to reinforce childish agreements.’ Authority came to exist merely to make those agreements seem normal, and to monetize them.

I became interested in everything Trow had to say. His original and succinct formulations, with their sense of turning reality inside out, and his incantatory tone, made you feel you were being let in on some basic, essential things that you perceived but couldn’t articulate. i was especially interested in what he wrote about loneliness. I had, for some time, felt that the underlying impulse fuelling the rage and aesthetics of punk and new wave was a deep, unappeasable sense of loneliness. And here was Trow, right on page six: ‘it was sometimes lonely in the grid of one, alone. People reached out toward their home, which was in television.’

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David Salle, The Cold Child (For George Trow), 1986, acrylic, oil and fibreglass chair on canvas, 1.9 × 2.7 m. Courtesy: © the artist, VAGA, New York, Skarstedt, New York, and DACS, London

He described ‘the grid of the one’ – an individual, alone – and ‘the grid of 200 million’, Trow’s name for our national life or, as it had become, the audience. In America, only celebrities exist in both grids at once. For everyone else, ‘a product consumed by a man alone in a room exists in the grid of one, alone and in the grid of 200 million. To the man alone, it is  a comfort. But just for a minute.’ This ‘just for a minute’ is everything – the air being let out of the balloon.

Trow had given a name to this loneliness, this vain seeking of comfort in the public sphere and the sphere of television: the Cold Child. The phrase appears many times in the book. A Cold Child is one who comes to understand that the ‘pseudo-cheerfulness’ behind which the adult world hides is essentially cold. Television (or social media or inter-net ‘chat forums’ or, for that matter, art fairs) simulates the warmth of childish enthusiasms, but it is cold. In America, childhood itself is cold. A cold child is also an angry one.

In 1985, I began work on a painting: a diptych with a moulded fibreglass eames chair, minus the legs, attached to the left panel, projecting out from the surface. Its bio-morphic form, vaguely resembling a female torso, had been spray-painted a luminous, fluorescent orange, as if the chair had been so covered in graffiti that it turned a solid colour. it’s a complex work, spatially and imagistically, but its inside energy is one of abject aloneness – a coldness that is also hot. I called the painting The Cold Child, in homage to Trow’s book.

I met Trow for the first time two years later, in spring 1987. I had a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the curator, Lisa Phillips, asked Trow to come to the museum to give a talk in front of my work. The guest list was his, mostly theatre people. I recognized Greta Garbo in the front row, under a big hat and sunglasses.

We later became friends. I had a house near his in upstate New York and some afternoons we would drink martinis on my back porch, with the Hudson River hazy in the distance. He would sometimes send me scenes from plays he was working on. One had aliens with tin-foil heads and fried chicken bodies sitting on a similar Hudson Valley porch.

After reading that first photocopied Context, I loaned the dog-eared and marked-up stack of pages to my friend Joan Juliet Buck, who passed it on, samizdat-like, to several others. We were a little society with a secret – we felt sorry for anyone who hadn’t read it. The photocopy must have fallen apart, finally, because I never got it back. In 1997, the book was brought out again by Morgan Entrekin’s Atlantic Monthly Press. I hosted the book party at my loft on White Street.

Trow arrived in a pinstriped suit and paisley tie, looking pleased and a little abashed. It was absurd that the book had ever needed to be ‘resurrected’ in the first place, though I think he was happy it had been. He inscribed a copy to me with three or four flattering sentences – I can’t remember more than that or quote them here. Someone at the party took my copy, failing to realize it was inscribed to me, and made no effort to return it. One of the hundreds of things that one always means to do: Ask George to sign another copy. Of course, one very seldom does any of those things and, now that he is dead, it’s too late, as it generally is.

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David Salle, The Old Bars (after MH), 2017 oil, acrylic, flashe, charcoal and archival digital print on linen, 1.7 × 2.3 m. Courtesy: © the artist, VAGA, New York, Skarstedt, New York, and DACS, London

Trow was a mercurial presence in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Film and theatre projects were started, then set aside. One could feel his restlessness, his agitation. I asked him to write for the catalogue of a show I was having at the uptown Gagosian gallery. The paintings were large compositions whose underlying structure was based on tapestry designs. They had a shimmering, silvery light and an implied sense of narrative, time travel and musicality. In lieu of an essay, Trow contributed song lyrics without the song; he had always modelled himself, to a certain extent, on the lyricist Moss Hart. This went over the heads of most people in the art world. In a short introduction, he wrote: ‘The magnet moves underneath the pattern, the pattern of American life.’

By the end of the 1990s, we were merely survivors, the natural ebullience starting to erode. There was a dinner at Ballato’s on Houston Street where Trow read aloud his letter of resignation to The New Yorker’s Tina Brown. I still have the typed copy he was carrying in his suit pocket that night, some corrections made with Wite-out, like a hastily written term paper. The first line he read so loudly that everyone in the restaurant could hear: ‘Tina, Tina, Tina – ZEITGEIST ALL WRONG!’ The unthinkable had happened: he had severed his connection with The New Yorker, the magazine that had been his real home for most of his adult life. His sense of humour was beginning to fray. Dinner was terrible: John Ballato had died the previous year, and his widow had sold the restaurant to amateurs who only traded on that lovely name.

Nearly 40 years later, the book still stuns. The old cliché, ‘frightfully original’, for once, is true. Trow’s originality was alarming, scary even – the way he could see inside the beast that American culture had become and read its mind. There came the disappearances, the sightings, a move to Alaska and the severing of connections. The prodigious drinking. The solitude, the despair. The move to Europe, first to Barcelona, then to Naples, a place where one really can disappear. Gone at 63, he had been alone in his room for several days before anybody found him. In a way, this too had been foretold. After the big cultural shift that Trow had mapped metastasized into its present state, there was no way he could live in it.

This article appears in the print edition of frieze, May 2018, issue 195, with the title Cold Comforts.

Main image: George W. S. Trow at his home, New York, 1986. Courtesy and photograph: Robert R. McElroy/Getty images

David Salle is a painter based in New York, USA. In 2017, he had a solo show at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris, France. His work is currently on view at Skarstedt, New York, until June. He is also working on a memoir that will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2019.

Issue 195

First published in Issue 195

May 2018

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