Roof Life

Roof Life, by Svetlana Alpers

Roof Life, by Svetlana Alpers

Recently I was at the library, and on the shelf near the book I was looking for was a different book. It caught my eye because it was written by one of my former art history professors, Svetlana Alpers at UC Berkeley, someone whose lectures I thoroughly enjoyed. On a whim, I checked it out.

It was a bit of an oddball (not an insult) and I can’t stop thinking about it. Through vignettes of various lengths, Professor Alpers unpacks the psychology of looking, and settles on how a certain amount of remove and distance is needed to really see something. She writes about selling a Rothko painting from her parents’ estate after their deaths, witnessing the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers from her window, looking at photos of herself, and selling her family home (which just happened to be designed by Julia Morgan), among other memories.

The artist in me lit up to read these intimate details about a Rothko painting, for example. Art porn.

But she was after something deeper. In a short passage, she wrote about witnessing the events of 9/11. She didn’t write about it in a dramatic way, but thoughtfully, with reserve. I appreciated that, because so much of the words around 9/11 are designed to provoke a reaction, and I find that to be cheap. Cheap emotion from cheap shots. The way she described the scene – watching from a little bit of distance, noticing the odd way that the cityscape flattens the scene, feeling the simultaneous remove yet complete personal investment in what she was witnessing – is exactly how I also witnessed those events 15 years ago (although I was farther uptown than she). I happened to read that passage on the morning of the anniversary, which I was steadfastly attempting to honor in my own private way, without watching or reading any news accounts, as I do each year. The day is difficult enough without the sensationalism of those images, and it’s always tough to strike a balance between remembering while not falling prey to that crassness. (Patriot porn).

Anyway, I picked up the book early in the morning, determined to not wallow in anniversary tributes. I was at that point in the book where I wasn’t sure yet that I’d finish it – far enough to wonder if it’s really my cup of tea, but not so far that I felt I’d given it a fair shot. I had no idea that it touched on September 11th at all, but it suddenly came up, and there I was, reading about that day, against my intentions. But I didn’t mind; in fact, I welcomed the opportunity to read this compassionate, understated account that so closely matched my own feelings.

This book sort of appeared when I needed it. I felt that was the most perfect, profound tribute. I couldn’t have read anything better had I searched for it that morning.

Encouraged, I kept reading. I learned about the home Professor Alpers lived in while she taught at Berkeley (fascinating because it was designed by one of my favorite architects, Julia Morgan, a treasure of Berkeley, and also because I was learning about the private life of one of my professors, including a dispute over earrings bought at a tag sale that ended a friendship. School porn). She even mentioned my art history class at one point, though when I Googled the painting she referred to, I didn’t remember having ever seen it, and I felt guilty.

I waxed nostalgic when she mentioned various details about Berkeley, or especially New York, where she lives now. I enjoyed reading her descriptions of contemporary art, since our class together focussed on much older art history.

In the end, Professor Alpers advocates for the practice of looking. Looking in order to learn. Looking because it’s fun. And beautiful, even when the subject is painful. And by looking – beginning to see.