Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

the artist-
voter diary 
by Larry Litt

We dropped the old voter registration drive table down in front of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts on Mercer Street figuring we'd get some of the artists and collectors to register as they came out of the "Artists for Freedom of Expression: Campaign '96 Benefit Sale of Artist Editions" exhibition. In the show are at least two dozen of the most famous, collectible, internationally recognized and capital A level artists, each of whom donated their work for the fundraising drive to support candidates and organizations who support the arts. I like the idea, I like some of the art more than others, I couldn't afford one even if they gaveit to me, considering I'd have to pay taxes on it and, of course, frame it. So I returned to the table where I waited for the politically committed and hopefully flush, to remind them that they could be unregistered. After a few hours of asking, "Are you registered," and always the same or similar answer, "Of course, but thanks for asking," I decided I wanted to do something more than register voters. I decided I wanted to donate a work to the "Artists for Freedom of Expression: Campaign '96 Benefit Sale of Artist Editions" exhibition and really help the causes and candidates who support the arts. So I went into Mr. Feldman's gallery again. Only this time I asked the receptionist, "Is Mr. Feldman in?" "He's very busy. Can I tell him what its about?" she asked with very businesslike courtesy. "Well," I stammered, "I'd like to donate a piece of my art to the fund-raiser for the arts." "Does Mr. Feldman know you?" "No, not really. I mean yes and no. He said 'hello' to me. I'm the guy sitting at the voter registration drive table out front." "Are you an artist?" "Yes." "Do you have a gallery?" "No." "Have you had any shows in New York?" "Not yet." "Well," she said sucking in her breath, then exhaling slowly and carefully, "well, you can send us your slides and resume. We'll let you know." "But the show will be over by then." "We'll be selling works for Campaign '96 until Nov. 5th. You don't have to be in the exhibition for us to sell your work." "I kind of wanted to be in the show." "If Mr. Feldman knows your work it's a possibility. But he knows the work of many artists who aren't in the show. He's very fair about that." "Could I just bring something in and if he doesn't like it he doesn't have to use it?" "Mr. Feldman is a very busy man," she said looking at me pityingly, I thought, "but you can try. I can't promise anything. Just leave it with me." "Oh, thank you very much. I'll be back tomorrow. Thanks again." I turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. "What's your name?" "That's not important. Anyone sitting here can help you." This time I sighed, turned, walked out of the gallery. Back at the table I thought about what I could bring in to impress Mr. Feldman enough so he would put me in the show. I didn't want to do just anything. I had to make a masterpiece, something that's never been done, the first one of its kind. I believed I had to be the first artist to comment on the entire political process itself. I was also giving myself a headache thinking about it. Or it was my hypoglycemia kicking in from hunger. So I closed up the table and went to my favorite Chinatown restaurant, Tai Tung. As I ate my vegetable lo mein I noticed a poster on the wall. It was in Mandarin characters, but it had the big check mark in a box that symbolizes voting in this city. I stared at it long and hard, wondering how many people in this restaurant were eligible to vote. I stared at it and wondered if it meant the same thing to the Chinese as it did to me. I stared at it and wondered what it meant to anyone at all. Finally I began to see double. The poster changed in my mind's eyes from one box to two with only one of the boxes checked. Suddenly I was challenged with the question, "Will there be anything else?" "Yes, I said, "there will be a frame. A really nice frame." "Not on the menu," was the answer. I looked up to find the looming waiter writing a check. I ran back to my apartment-studio, took out a pad and began playing with boxes and check marks. After three minutes I learned that there are only nine different combinations of two boxes and a check mark. My head was throbbing with ideas. Looking back, it could have been an MSG headache. I downed a couple of ibuprofens, then ran over to Pearl Paint to buy supplies. I picked out half a dozen 18-by-20-inch prepared canvases, the same number of gaudy frames, and a dozen tubes of really good acrylics. I lined up to wait to pay. When I reached the counter, I gave them my credit card. A minute later I heard, "Sorry, your card isn't any good." "What! Put it through again please." I tried to control my rage at the Visa idiots, whomever they are. I've learned anger means nothing to functionaries. But no credit? The ultimate shame and disgrace. The art world exists on credit. "I put it through three times, already. Do you want to pay cash?" "Let me see. I'll be right back." I had about 20 $ on me and the charge was for $326. I walked out of Pearl wondering if I'd paid my plastic money bill. I walked up Broadway until I came to National Wholesale Liquidators, the ultimate discount store. I knew they sold ready-made picture frames for a few bucks. I chose a couple of 4-by-6-inch gilded wooden frames after reviewing several styles in chrome and plastic. I paid $5 cash for both. Back in my studio I cut some shirt cardboards to fit the frames. I drew boxes and check marks with colored magic markers and enhanced each design with more colors. By 2 a.m. I had made 20 paintings and chosen two for framing. I believe an artist's day is a journey filled with unknown roads that lead to transcendent vistas. I slept the sleep of creative exhaustion. I took two more ibuprofens for my headache. In the morning I placed the two little paintings into their gilded frames and wrapped them in brown paper bags. I went straight to the gallery. At the reception desk I asked for Mr. Feldman. There was a different woman behind the desk this time. She looked at me, picked up the phone, and said into it, "Mr. Feldman, your coffee's here." "No, no," I said, "I'm bringing some art for Campaign '96. I was told to come back today." I exaggerated my instructions. Omission for art's sake is no crime. Mr. Feldman came through the door. He walked me away from the receptionist. "What do you have there?" I opened the bags and held up the two little frames. Mr. Feldman studied them for a long minute. "I like them," he said (which gave me more hope than anything anyone's ever said to me), "but I can't put them in the show. These works," he turned his head slowly to imply the walls filled with art, "are bankable. I need work that can bring in money for the campaign." "But you can try to sell these." I must have sounded like a beggar. "I couldn't give them away in this show. See me again when you're selling for these kind of prices. But I appreciate your concern. Keep up the good work." He smiled, turned and walked back to the office. Thanks for your time," I said. "Have a nice day." But he was gone. The gallery doors seemed heavier than I remembered. The air was hot, thick and dirty on Mercer Street. My little paintings burned like fire in my sweaty hands. What should I do with them now that they exist? They must be seen, I decided. But by whom? And for what reason? (Continued next month In Artist-Voter Diary) Larry Litt is a New York-based arts activist, writer and performer.