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On Art and Fascination

by Brian Dillon

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In Affinities, Brian Dillon, who Joyce Carol Oates has said writes “fascinating prose . . . on virtually any subject,” explores images and artists he is drawn to and analyzes the attraction. What does it mean to claim affinity with a picture? What do feelings of affinity imply about the experience of art and of the world? Affinities is a critical and personal study of a sensation that is not exactly taste, desire, or solidarity, but has aspects of all three. Approaching this subject via discrete examples, Dillon examines works by artists such as Dora Maar and Andy Warhol, Rinko Kawauchi and Susan Hiller, as well as scientific or vernacular images of sea creatures and migraine auras. Written as a series of linked essays, Affinities completes a trilogy, with Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, about the intimate and abstract pleasures of reading and looking.

Additional Book Information

Series: New York Review Books
ISBN: 9781681377261
Pages: 320
Publication Date:


Brian Dillon’s essay collection “Affinities” is nominally a book of art criticism…but its real charm (for this reader, anyway) is in the “fascination” part of that equation, as Dillon meditates on the various ways an image or story or striking detail can come to exert a hold on our imagination….Dillon has acquired a deserved following for his bracing, cerebral meditations on art and language.
—Gregory Cowles, The New York Times

In this engaging and exhilarating Wunderkammer of a book, he offers us the world — in this case, the visual world — as he experiences it: his way of seeing, and of being, in a web of thrilling, sometimes unexpected, connection.
—Claire Messud, The New York Times Book Review

In a series of belles lettres on the artists to whom he’s drawn…Dillon develops an argument on the meaning of “affinity.” It’s not always rational, which works we most identify with; it’s both simpler and more magical than that.
—Maddie Crum, Vulture

Dillon’s prose itself is packed with affinity—his sentences are in unresolved, constant motion. . . . [He] brings the nothings, the elses, to life, makes them the center of the portrait, graces them with verbs and adjectives of their own.
—Apoorva Tadepalli, Artforum

A a provocative and open-ended investigation of art’s ineffable allure.   . . . Dillon’s accretive method is itself a textual demonstration of affinity that helps his various subjects cohere.
—Jeremy Lybarger, Art in America

His taste in these essays is for the hovering, liminal quality in a wide range of work and personalities.
—John Banville, TLS

Dillon completes a hat trick of smart, idiosyncratic nonfiction books with what is perhaps his most ambitious. . . . and, to this writer, Dillon’s best.
—J. Howard Rosier, Vulture

The author is at his most free as he oscillates between writing about photography and the nature of his own allusions.
—Jonathan McAloon, The Financial Times

[Dillon] has an affinity, in effect, for affinities — attractions so pronounced that, far from sequestering us in our private passions, they briefly annihilate us.
—Becca Rothfield, The Washington Post

The affinity – a connection, a resemblance, a mood; a slight, sub-critical impulse: a feint in the general direction of analysis – is the book’s ruling conceit. . . . expanding the object of our attention, without in the slightest unmaking it.
—Bailey Trela, Frieze

A dreamy meditation on four centuries of artistic practice.
—Eliza Browning, Full Stop

As expected, this book is a delightfully meandering collection. . . . Nearly everything cited is a film still or photograph, many of which evince some sort of visual imprecision or flux. Through a series of short essays, Dillon looks closely at the things he loves, creating a pinboard of one man’s visual enchantments.
—Grace Linden, BOMB

The images collected together in this book become, in Dillon’s hands, an affinity. And, by looking at them with him, he makes an affinity of us, too.
—Anil Gomes, The Guardian

Brian Dillon’s involvement with the word and meaning of “affinities” is in itself worth any time spent perusing these pages. . . . [A] stupendously fascinating bunch of essays.
—Mary Ann Caws, The Brooklyn Rail

One of the most anticipated books of 2023.
The Millions

Affinities is a book of enthrallments. Brian Dillon ‘performs' and ‘embodies' that tautology of fascination, its unspeakability. On titans like Julia Margaret Cameron, Claude Cahun, Francesca Woodman and Tacita Dean, Dillon is revelatory. Conceived during the pandemic, Affinities shares the eccentric pain of the moment, the intimate revelations of self-doubt imposed on us all. Affinities is a book after my heart.
—Moyra Davey, author of Index Cards

Brian Dillon’s Affinities eloquently describes the relationships we have – both physical and mental – with works of art. Dillon reflects on the nature of these relationships, the affinities for the selected works, through his research and personal history with them while intermittently allowing us insight into his mediations about the complexity of affinity itself.
—Hans Ulrich Obrist, author of Ways of Curating

The most moving essays in this superb collection are the autobiographical investigations, but every piece, even the most ostensibly impersonal, arrives imbued with Brian Dillon’s signature tactic of bliss-seeking focus on visual details, on impalpable atmospheres, on connections drawn as if in a state of clairvoyant summation. He spins language’s roulette wheel with a finesse and seriousness that recalls the severe yet secretly florid tones of Sontag, Sebald, Benjamin, and other principled foragers in the realm of the buried, the overlooked, the ecstatic. I feel safer in the world, knowing that a diviner as keen-eyed as Brian Dillon is operating the control panel of the sentence.
—Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Figure it Out

In Affinities, Brian Dillon has woven a sparking electric web of aesthetic attention, an astonishingly deft and slantwise autobiography through the images of others. With this third panel in his brilliant triptych—with Essayism and Suppose a Sentence—Dillon has made himself a quiet apostle of close looking, drawing such intimate connections between such disparate things that he reveals marvel after marvel, and miraculously passes his affinities along to the reader. His project, it seems to me, is a nearly holy one, born of deep generosity and love for the world.
—Lauren Groff

Brian Dillon is always invigoratingly brilliant. His sentences, his stylistic innovations, the range and potency of his intellectual adventures; he is a true master of the literary arts and a writer I would never hesitate to read, whatever his subject.
—Max Porter

Loaded on every page with extensive and extravagant subtleties, these Affinities dazzle even those who, like myself, have been entrapped, exhausted, and endlessly admirative of Brian Dillon before and long before.
—Mary Ann Caws

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