Magazine article The New Yorker

On Broadway

Magazine article The New Yorker

On Broadway

Article excerpt

ON BROADWAY

In the late nineteen-nineties, Elise Engler asked an upstairs neighbor a vexing philosophical question: Is a safety pin a thing? Engler is an artist, and she was working on a sequence of drawings called "Everything I Own," and the answer to the safety-pin question would affect the size and the character of the finished work. (She owned a lot of safety pins.) In the end, she and the neighbor, Mark Getlein, the author of the textbook "Living with Art," decided that a safety pin is not a thing, but a box of safety pins is. That was a help. Still, the resulting piece, which she executed in pencil and colored pencil, covers eighty-five square feet. It consists of thirteen thousand one hundred and twenty-seven individual images, many of them no larger than a largish postage stamp: an expansive and almost endlessly ponderable self-portrait in stuff.

"Everything I Own" was a watershed work for Engler. Since finishing it, she has made a number of what she calls "list drawings," including a series depicting the contents of the purses of sixty-five different women. "That was really a collaboration," she said not long ago. "Sometimes people would take things out before I started drawing, because they didn't want them in the picture, and sometimes, I think, they would put things in. Like, I did the purse of a fifteen-year-old girl, and there was a condom in the bag, and I'm pretty sure she added it to impress me." Engler also began drawing the contents of her suitcase whenever she went on a trip. In 2009, she was chosen by the National Science Foundation to spend two months as an artist-in-residence in Antarctica, and the body of work she produced during that project includes detailed pictorial inventories of her luggage, both going and coming. She said, "You can't buy anything at the South Pole, of course, and I had to deal with two seasons, because we left from New Zealand, where it was summer. But most of what I took was art supplies."

Engler is fifty-eight. She has slightly unruly curly hair, which she stopped dyeing after a boyfriend told her he liked it gray. She has lived in Manhattan for most of her life, usually within a block or so of Broadway. A little more than a year ago, she decided that it would be interesting to draw each of Broadway's two hundred and fifty-odd blocks. "I thought it would take five years," she said. …

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