The New Yorker
by David Owen
June 8, 2015
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. “But I have a photographer friend who told me, ‘You can’t do a project that takes five years—that’s ridiculous!’ ” During the first month, she managed to cover twenty blocks, and realized that if she paced herself she could do it in a single year. She also realized that, if she began at both ends and worked toward the middle, she could finish on her own block, at West 107th Street.
On a recent evening, a group of Engler’s friends and neighbors gathered at the northern tip of Straus Park, where Broadway meets West End Avenue, to watch her begin the last panel, exactly three hundred and sixty-five days after she began the project. She had chosen that particular spot because by sitting there and facing east she could include in the picture the windows of her studio, which occupies what was probably meant to be her apartment’s living room. She began by sketching with a pencil, then switched to watercolor for some mildly ominous clouds above her building. “Back at home, I’ll finish this with colored pencil,” she said. In its completed form, “A Year on Broadway” will require slightly more than the available wall space at Robert Henry Contemporary, the gallery that sells her work: it’s just six inches high but roughly a hundred and twenty feet wide. Groups of friends took turns looking over Engler’s shoulder as she worked, or crouched on the sidewalk in front of her and took pictures with their phones. Getlein—the neighbor, author, and safety-pin philosopher—said, “It’s like Courbet’s picture ‘The Painter’s Studio.’ ”
When Engler decided that she’d done enough, the group applauded, then accompanied her back to her apartment. She pinned the panel she’d been working on in its place on the wall of her studio, and retrieved several bottles of Prosecco from a neighbor’s refrigerator. Then she joined a group of people studying the completed sequence. Someone said, “This is Columbia, right here,” then added, “Oh, no, this may be Columbia.” Engler said, “I’m a Broadway expert now. I would scout blocks before I drew them, so I really got to know it.” She pointed to a pair of panels depicting the upper halves of several buildings. “I mean, look at those rooftops. Who knew we had rooftops like that?” A woman standing near Engler’s drawing board said, “I love uptown—it’s so red. Downtown is so brown.” ♦