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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
17.
Helen’s usually cool, steady hand on things had changed, and Ben Greenleaf noticed. Not that she didn’t function. On the contrary, she got more done than ever. What she accomplished was achieved, however, in bursts of manic energy -- fifteen to twenty perfectly composed and astutely politic e-mails dashed off in an hour, five important and even delicate phone calls made in a like span of time, a couple of productive meetings with colleagues done in half an hour -- with regular intervals of motionlessness. Or so Ben guessed, as he walked by Helen’s office and found the usually open door shut, the usual bright daylight into her generously fenestrated quarters decapitated by (he figured) the guillotines of tightly drawn window shades. Should he intervene -- at least make an avuncular knock on the door? Should he call Mel and ask if anything’s up with his daughter? Of course not; that would only alarm Mel, who, most likely, had little or no idea of Helen’s interior life.

To Helen, oddly enough, the problem was not Tom, but Arthur. Arthur had practically begged her to go to on another trip with him, this time to Europe. "Slow days at the magazine," he’d said, "and I’ve been importuned with a couple of freelance assignments, if I want them. I want them if you’ll be with me."

Helen demurred by saying, at first, it would cost Arthur too much. She was sensitive about poorer people’s pocketbooks, but she was still no Dutch treat girl. Arthur said nonsense, that all the taxis and meals and even lodging -- a chic boutique hotel, too -- would be on expenses, without his hardly cheating on expenses at all. And if she was willing to fly with him in coach, on whatever special he could dig up on BonneJournee.com, the airfare too would be on him. In her confused silence on one end of the telephone call, Helen almost thought she could hear Arthur panting like an excited puppy, on the other.

Arthur’s invitation arrived at the very moment she wanted -- no, needed -- to get the hell out of New York again, out from under Tom’s beseechings. Tom hadn’t made his big decision yet and, apparently, he couldn’t make it in the macho incommunicado he’d originally promised. Tom was like a teenage boy, a young teenage boy, on the phone, saying he needed to see her, hold her, and "recapture the reality" as he worked his lovestruck way inexorably toward "what I know I am ultimately going to do."

What was it about men, wondered Helen, that when an emotional crisis hit, they tried to think and talk like generals? Helen didn’t want to be the objective in a military campaign. She didn’t want to be the mistress of a married sculptor. Neither did she want to be the continuing prom date of a fifty-year-old art critic who kept bringing bigger and gaudier corsages to her door. But for reasons known only to a part of Helen’s soul with which she could not communicate in any clear and rational fashion, she didn’t want any of the other romantic possibilities, either. She didn’t want entertaining dates with intriguing strangers, or (down the line) a civilized, quasi-monogamous relationship with one of the any number of legitimately single, mildly amusing, reasonably prosperous, physically attractive and age-appropriate men her beauty, brains and charm could afford her. That quirk in her heart mortified her. She hated to think of herself as Exhibit A in one of those self-help chick books with such titles as Bad Choices: Why Bright and Beautiful Women Don’t Find the Good Men They Deserve. But there it was, wasn’t it?

Reason said to Helen that she should say, "Of course," to Arthur. She knew she could also say, "No fucking on this trip," and make him accept it. She knew she could say, as fallback, "Arthur, I know we’re going to spend several nights in a sexy hotel together, and that we’ll probably fuck a couple of times, but I want you to know that it isn’t necessarily building toward me plighting my troth with you." Either proviso would effectively mitigate any emotional indebtedness Arthur was hoping to gain from her -- one of Arthur’s virtues was that he believed what she told him -- and, at the same time, she could get away from Tom’s torment, and his tormenting her.

But such a trip wouldn’t be that easy to blend in with legitimate business. She’d have to be up front with Ben: "Arthur has invited me to go to Europe with him for about a week, and I’d like to do it. He’s writing some freelance pieces about things I’d like to look into, too. Plus, I’d like to talk to a few curators, see a few galleries, see what’s emerging in the scene over there, and maybe even discuss some book ideas with some critics abroad. Yes, it’d be on company time, but not at company expense. And yes, I’d be staying in the same hotel room with Arthur again. But I’m a big girl, Ben, and it’s nothing serious."

Ben would buy that. (He probably wouldn’t even tell Mel, and she could get by in that quarter of her life with a sweet, brief phone call telling her father she’d simply be out of the country for a week or so on publishing business.) And if Tom found out ‘twas Arthur with whom she’d gone off to Europe, he’d probably try to find out why. When Tom got to Ben, as he inevitably and awkwardly would, at least Ben would say, "Why of course, Helen got my O.K. for the trip," and leave Tom with the faint, irrational hope that it was strictly writer-publisher business. Anyway, Helen thought, I accept the frightening presence of Tom’s wife and children, so he can damned well accept my going on a trip with Arthur. That’d make us even.

But something more bothered Helen about Arthur and the trip he offered; it bothered her too much for her to do the obvious thing, and go. Perhaps it was just too easy, too pat a solution. Whatever the reason, it lay within her, unexcavatable. So she stayed at work, stayed in her office fielding desperate -- though sometimes she thought they were just whiny -- telephone calls from Tom. The calls originated from pay phones near his studio, as if they’d otherwise be traceable betrayals of state secrets. Helen always managed to get Tom off the phone in a few minutes, but his neediness took a cumulative toll. Helen pulled down her office window shades, turned off her desk lamp and monitor, and laid her head in her arms.

Outside her door, Ben paused, thought better of whatever he was thinking of saying to Helen, and proceeded on his way.


PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery. The archive for The Art Critic can be found here.



 




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