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travels with uncle anthony

by Suzaan Boettger  

Anthony Haden-Guest
with rolodexes.

   Imagine that you have a summer visit from a hip uncle, a journalist in New York City. You've seen some of his accounts of the art world in Vanity Fair and the New Yorker and are eager to hear the latest. He seems to spend his days trotting between galleries' back rooms and artists' studios, and his evenings checking out exhibition openings, followed by hopping between exclusive celebratory dinners at the bistros-du-jour. His head is swimming with art chat, and it compulsively spills out. He tells endless tales of the foibles of famous young artists, their ambitious dealers, avaricious collectors, how much everything costs and who is -- or is not -- paying those fabulous prices. What a world! What a guy!

This is Anthony Haden-Guest, a loquacious companion speaking through his book True Colors. His boastful subtitle, The Real Life of the Art World, adds an interesting celebrity-gossip twist to the postmodernist interrogation of "truth" and "realism." Along with such contingencies as gender, class and ethnicity, add blood-alcohol level and position on the A-list!

Like so many editors and writers at those two trendy Manhattan-based magazines he writes for, he is from the British side of the family. But unlike Tom Wolfe or Robert Hughes, H-G is sincerely sympathetic to the art world. H-G's has been a journalist for more than three decades and has written other books, including his 1973 report titled The Paradise Program: Travels Through Muzak, Hilton, Coca-Cola, Texaco, Walt Disney, and Other World Empires. His most recent volume, written soon after True Colors in what must have been a millennial fever, is The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night.

In nine chapters, True Colors explains the art world of the past 30 years. H-G's lively if telegraphic style keeps the pages turning. He is particularly good on those he has personally observed, basically what he terms the "Julian Schnabel/Mary Boone phenomenon." Schnabel's present-day portly profile is not a sign of the self-indulgence of success, Haden-Guest reports, but a legacy of a "plump" childhood during which the celebrity-artist-to-be was "outfitted in the `husky' department of clothing stores." H-G's numerous interviews flesh out Schnabel's well-known passage from cooking in the kitchens of downtown bars to holding forth as guest-of-honor at uptown ones.

H-G sketches as well the backgrounds of Schnabel cohort David Salle, and successors Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, to reveal them as vulnerable young men. Here's an item useful to my future art history lectures: "Picabia is very connected in art lore with his co-provocateur Marcel Duchamp. Just so Rauschenberg is seen as grappled in competitive friendship with Jasper Johns. David Salle is nothing if not history minded... It seems clear that he had cast himself as the self-contained Johns to Schnabel's boisterous Rauschenberg: `Julian was the bull in the china shop, and I was the intellectual. In the long run we couldn't use very much of each other. But we liked the proximity.'"

As you might imagine, these art-world peregrinations also unearth scintillating bits of ephemera. Handed an archival copy of the Spring 1975 issue of Art-Rite magazine, H-G brings to our attention the prescience of its editors Walter Robinson, [now editor at ArtNet] and Edit deAk for their recognition of a then-renewed interest in painting. "This issue has its share of forgotten names, but there is a four-page conversation with Brice Marden and a two-pager about Neil Jenney; there are also single-page chats with Nancy Spero and a rakishly thin young artist, Julian Schnabel."

More frequently, H-G's material is of a less momentous note, such as Boone's rationale for buying herself a new nose. (You can judge her decision yourself by comparing the early picture of her with old nose and breast-length mane vs. the later one with less of both.) Her "pale scaly shoes, chosen from `between 102 pairs' were cobra." In defense of this gratuitous detail, H-G addresses the reader, "Do I dwell on trivia? Trivia are not necessarily trivial. Those shoes were made for walking, and clean out of the bohemian ghetto." (As H-G maintains an implacably detached, non-critical demeanor, this adverb is probably an inadvertent reference to Boone's well-known mania for tidiness.)

True, in the right hands trivia can become the useful building blocks of history. Unfortunately, while H-G claims "truth" for his account of the art world, his approach to the accuracy of his chronology is casual. He attributes the beginning of Conceptual Art to Joseph Kosuth, oblivious to the controversy around this lineage and of Sol LeWitt's preceding 1967 article "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art." He conflates the early `67 "Angry Arts Week" and early `69 "Art Workers Coalition" into an undated "Angry Arts Coalition" founded by Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, who were among many members of the AWC. He puts Paula Cooper as a SoHo pioneer at year too late (it was 1968), and says Michael Heizer participated in "Earth Art" at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in L.A., which was closed by then; it was "Earthworks" at Dwan New York, ("Earth Art" was curated by Willoughby Sharp for Cornell University, February 1969). Other confusions are produced by misspellings, mistaking a "palette" bed (you paint on it?) for a pallet bed (futon), or by garbled syntax, as in "Ashley Bickerton, the object maker, told Ileana Sonnabend he was going to start making traditional paintings during his 1993 opening." A live action reception?

This "true" account also suffers from the myopia endemic to contemporary histories, that of slighting the contributions of both women and artists of color. Discussing Robert Kushner as an originator of the "Pattern & Decoration" movement (crucial to the late `70s resurgence of painting), which "was also perhaps the first moment in which women played an equal part," H-G overlooked the specific leadership of Miriam Schapiro and the feminist underpinnings of this integration of domestic textiles. His cursory comments on David Hammons' Harlem sources also makes it clear he's never really looked at Hammons' powerful constructions. Maybe he didn't run into Schapiro and Hammons on the opening circuit. It's clear here who he did encounter, and that he believed every self-serving word they said. As for books, fellow Britisher Peter Watson's 1992 From Manet to Manhattan, the Rise of the Modern Art Market is transparently beneath H-G's version of the auction houses, but literary critic Walter Benjamin's famous 1936 essay on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," claiming the loss of art's "aura," is reduced to an obliquely dismissive quip.

So as long as you don't take this too seriously, you can enjoy the fluid tales and the crystallizations that occasionally gurgle upward. My favorite is "Vito Acconci is a New Yorker with the saggy, melancholic face of a spindlier Rembrandt and a voice like a collapsing mound of gravel." How "true"! He insightfully describes Ryman's white abstractions as "succulent as an albino Soutine" and Bruce Nauman's work as "clangorous, delectably repellent." As a summertime companion, True Colors deserves this assessment by Uncle H-G, "Kiki Smith is uneven, but her [his] modeled figures can be gruesomely compelling."

Anthony Haden-Guest, True Colors, The Real Life of the Art World, Atlantic Monthly Press, $27.50

SUZAAN BOETTGER is a New York art historian and critic.