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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
18.
Jimmy had left a brief, almost cryptic phone message saying he was unspecifically "sick" and wouldn’t be coming in. That left Tom to drop his tools and answer the phone himself. So the unbuffered call from David Thornton surprised Tom all the more.

"I’ll be quick and to the point," David said. "My next show has fallen through. Typical neurotic artist bullshit that I won’t bore you with. Could you fill in?"

"Jesus Christ, David. With what?" Tom said.

"With what? With that great big. . . thing. . . of yours, what else?" David said.

Tom said it’d take a few days, minimum, to get the sculpture ready for delivery to the gallery, at least a week after he’d gotten it to the gallery to get it reassembled and get the electronics running, and a couple of days after that to clean up. Then things clicked in his brain. If he were to be a real artist and act like one, then he wouldn’t get too obsequiously grateful for the sudden exhibition opportunity. "And what about publicity?," Tom asked. "Can we do the piece justice?"

"There’s time enough, Tom, if you tell me right now you can do it," David Thornton said. "We’ll do up a nice typographic announcement card. It’ll make the show seem important, and a bit of an enigma. We’ll mail the cards -- all of them, not just those for the press -- in envelopes, with a press release folded inside. Mingue will write it. She’ll be calling you in a bit for information. And I’ll make some calls -- I’ll make the whole thing look like a sudden opportunity, not an emergency. How’s all that strike you?"

With a spike of gladness from realizing that all those other pretenders he knew were on the David Thornton Gallery’s mailing list would be now presented with a document detailing his significance as an artist and member of the gallery’s stable, Tom said yes. Take that, Lucy Keller, Lindsey Hyde, Quincy, and everybody else!

Tom hung up and quickly called Jimmy. No answer. Again, and again no answer. A third and a fourth time. Same result. In a semi-panic, he telephoned Tony Givens at the Academy and asked him if he knew of a couple of sculpture students who’d be willing to work for, say, fifteen bucks an hour to help him break down his magnum fucking opus and truck it over to the David Thornton Gallery in Chelsea.

What’s up? Tony asked, and Tom told him. Quite a coincidence, said Tony, since he’d felt guilty about Tom ending up with only a single class this spring semester, and had been rejiggering the next fall’s schedule and had come to the conclusion that the sculpture program, in particular, needed a jumpstart. He had been going to call Tom in the next day or two, he said, and offer him two classes -- the meat-and-potatoes Beginning Drawing class nearly everybody on the faculty had to pitch in and teach at least once every couple of years, and an Intermediate and Advanced Sculpture Workshop.

"And here you are, right at my door!" Tony laughed with a professional heartiness. "And about to have a major exhibition. A feather in the Academy’s cap! So, can you do the classes?"

Tom said probably, and he wasn’t being strategically coy. The joy and fear of the show filled his head and whirled away serious consideration of anything else. Tony said he understood, but told Tom he was penciling him in and to please, please, to call him if he changed his mind. Tom said O.K., and Tony checked that item off the hand-printed list on his daily three-by-five card. Then Tom mentioned the sculpture students again. Ah yes, Tony answered, and promised Tom he’d call him back by the end of the day. Tom hung up, uneasy. His anxiety grew worse when he tried Jimmy twice more, letting a phone somewhere in Brownsville ring twelve times each time, and still got no answer, not even a recorded one. Jimmy presumably had a cell, but he’d never given Tom the number. Tom remembered Jimmy giving him some story, long ago, about why his mother didn’t, and wouldn’t, have an answering machine. Tom thought it was silly bullshit then. Now, he thought it was a saboteur’s bullshit, directed at him personally.

A couple of hours after Tom finished talking to Tony, two Academy sculpture students called Tom. They moved stuff for a living they said, mostly furniture, hardly ever art, but, hey, they were sculpture students and figured they could hack it. They’d bring their own truck, a fifteen-foot box on first call to them from the renter. Day after tomorrow, real early in the morning, to get a good start? they asked. Tom calculated: he could break the piece down in two days if he and Jimmy worked like maniacs, so the soonest he’d need the students and their truck would be the day after the day after tomorrow. Is that O.K.? Tom asked. Great, said the students. Great, said Tom in return, and felt his headache diminish by ten percent.

Sharon was singularly unimpressed when Tom came home from the studio that night. In fact, she was, as Tom perceived it, sullen and almost grudging about his sudden good fortune. He made a half-hearted attempt to wrap the show in a package with Tony’s offering him two classes -- just like she’d wanted! -- that showed what a bright future they now had. And then he remembered Helen and, feeling not so much duplicitous as over-extended, dropped the matter. Sharon opened a bottle of red wine, poured herself a glass to the brim, and drank it watching television as Tom told the girls that "Daddy was going to have a big art show." Tom put the girls to bed, had three hits off a joint by the opened kitchen widow, then climbed beneath the comforter Sharon’s grandmother had given the couple as a wedding present. Sharon slept on her side, turned away from Tom.

The next day, on the phone at the studio, he got approximately the same treatment from Helen. "You’ve got an awful lot on your plate," she said. "And this show is especially important for you. So I think I should stay on the sideline for the while," she said.

"Don’t worry about me," she added. "I’ll still be here when the time comes." Whatever that meant, Helen thought, and then refused to think about it any further.

Tom didn’t worry all that much -- about Sharon and the kids or about Helen -- until Arthur Whateverthefuck-hisnamewas, the critic, showed up at the gallery while Arthur and the two Academy sculpture students were reassembling Tom’s huge work of art. Tom was on his knees, wearing his Mets cap and safety goggles; he looked up, and there was Arthur. Before there could be an awkward hello, Arthur spoke while Tom was still rising to his feet.

"I’ll bet you’re wondering what I’m doing here," Arthur said.

"Well, yeah," Tom said, almost stammering.

"David Thornton called me at the magazine, and pitched your show," Arthur said. "You know, I hardly ever do commercial gallery shows, except as part of some kind of bundle, with a thematic hook. But David called, you know, and we talked. I thought what the hell, there might be something here, a story. ’Counterintuitive,’ they call it at the magazine. Anyway, I’ve come around to see what’s going on with the piece. So, do you mind if I just sniff around for a bit while you’re installing, and then come back perhaps tomorrow, or the day after, and ask you a few questions?"

Mind? Tom thought. Jesus Christ! At last, a genuine big break!

Tom came home ecstatic, but Sharon blindsided him.

She knew about Helen. She said she’d be leaving in the morning with the girls. They’d be staying at Hilda Roeninger’s house -- a mansion was more like it -- while Sharon thought things over. No, don’t try to call, Sharon said. I won’t answer, and I won’t answer e-mail, either.

How long? asked Tom, forgetting completely to at least recite the standard denials. As long as I fucking well feel like it, Sharon said, and Tom could only ask how the girls would get to school. Hilda’s limo; Hilda’s driver will pick them and bring them home, Sharon said. Does Hilda know why you’re coming to stay with her? Tom asked. Of course she fucking knows, Sharon said. And to add to your well-deserved ignominy, Sharon continued, she thinks you’re a clueless, ball-less, chickenshit, money-grubbing, self-indulgent pretender who isn’t worth the dirt under my fingernails. Of course, Hilda has always thought that, Sharon said. She just hasn’t had events bear her out quite so clearly before. Will I be able to see the girls at all? Tom asked. Twist in the fucking wind, Sharon said.

Tom got up early and made coffee for Sharon and breakfast for the girls. We’re going to Aunt Hilda’s for a vacation while school is still open, the girls said. Aunt Hilda has an indoor swimming pool, so we can swim even though it isn’t summer yet, they said. Will you come visit? they asked. Tom looked at Sharon. Sharon just stared at him icily, not even bothering to look away. After the Roeninger limousine had pulled away from the curb, Tom quickly did the breakfast dishes in order to keep himself from crying. Still buffering himself, he called Jimmy.

Tom didn’t expect to get an answer, and none was forthcoming. With a subway map and a five-borough guide stuffed in his jacket pocket, Tom went out the door, heading for Brownsville. I can go there in the daytime, he thought, but I’m still too much of a wuss to take the Audi and park it on the street. He also thought, by way of rehearsal: "Jimmy, you’ve seen more of this sexual jealousy shit get out of hand than I have; tell me what the fuck to do." That was on the sidewalk. On the subway, Tom wondered, in randomly repeating order, whether Sharon would still contribute to the loft rent, whether he should tell David what had happened before the show opened, and whether he should try, whatever Sharon had said, to get through to Sharon at the Roeninger place, if only to say hello to his daughters.

The address Tom had for Jimmy O’Doole turned out to be a surprisingly (to Tom) well-kept three-story townhouse with large, ornate and unvandalized cement pots of unbloomed germaniums on either side of the outside steps. The front windows were curtained, and the curtains were drawn tight. The doorbell seemed almost new. Tom rang it.

Black fingers parted the white curtain in the front window for a second, then let the cloth spring closed. The door opened six inches. Jimmy O’Doole asked Tom what the fuck he was doing there. Tom said he needed to talk to someone. Tom said his life was exploding all around him. A whole lot of shit -- good and bad -- was happening and he was as confused as hell about everything. Tom said he needed to talk to somebody he could trust. He trusted Jimmy. Could he come in?

Jesus, no, Jimmy said, and with that, Tom noticed that Jimmy was wearing some kind of white caftan and a matching white skull cap. Jimmy told Tom that his real name was Jean-Baptiste Jervaise. The alias "Jimmy O’Doole" sufficed for his job -- and, O.K., the gay scene --across the river.

Tom then heard a woman’s rich contralto voice from somewhere deep inside the house ask, "Who’s that, Hakim?" Jimmy / Jean-Baptiste shouted that it was something about "work," then turned back to explain to Tom that "Hakim" had been laid on him by his mother’s boyfriend. Nothing devoutly Muslim, Jimmy / Jean-Baptiste said, just an African roots thing. But the boyfriend’s here now. That’s why I’m dressed like this. And I gotta get back in there right now. I’ll call you.

Tom put his hand on the door to keep it from closing. He told Jimmy / Jean-Baptiste / Hakim that he’d really hung him out to dry with David Thornton, that he’d cut and run on him at the most crucial moment in his artistic life. I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry, Jimmy / Jean-Baptiste / Hakim said. It’s this man in my momma’s life. I’m trying to help her get her shit together. I had to choose between you and my Moms for a few days and, hey, that one don’t take no brain. I’ll call real soon. I hope you’ll still let me work for you. The door closed.†

*     *     *
Tom vomited twice in the gallery bathroom on the afternoon before his Friday night opening. Shortly before Tom threw up, he’d told David he was "having some marital problems." He tried to be vague, until David said, "So Sharon found out about Helen Issacson? Everybody knows about it, Thomas, which is all to your favor. You’ve been the object of considerable buzz, my friend. Which -- quite frankly -- is part of the reason I thought about you when the exhibition slot came up."

When Tom emerged from the gallery bathroom still wiping his mouth with toilet paper, Mingue handed him an envelope. In it was a note from Helen. She wasn’t going to be attending the opening. The note said, "It’s best to keep my distance, this time at least. I’m with you in my heart, though. Love --H."

After that and a couple of tokes, Tom’s head swam. It didn’t stabilize itself until the cleanup crew began to collect plastic cups with fluttering crescents of a surprisingly good red lingering in them. Measured as an event, the opening was a huge success. Arthur had come, notebook in hand, with Kerri Mitchell and Marsha Guzman ("Pleased to meet you, pleased to meet you") from the magazine. Quincy Wilber-Carr and sister Chakira had also showed, as had Jonathan Hirsch, the chief critic from the Tribune, the director -- quelle surprise! -- of the Modern Museum and his wife, and, by Mingue’s official estimate, about two hundred citizens of the art world.

On Saturday afternoon, however, David Thornton sidled up to Tom, who was haunting the nearly empty post-party gallery and told him that now would be a good time for him to take a little jaunt to Europe. He should drop in on a few dealers whose names David would give him.

"I usually pre-sell a show pretty well," David said. "But there wasn’t time, with us crashing this one like we had to. If we’re going to sell more than just the usual couple of drawings this time. To have this current huge piece help move some of your other work I’ve got in storage, I need to work the collectors, Tom. I need to get them into the gallery and talk to them one by one. Nothing personal, but it’s much easier to do that when the artist isn’t hovering -- either on the premises or fretting in his studio. And if I can say you’re ’in Europe,’ ’working on things,’ that kind of perfumed horse manure, you’ll be all that more exotic and important-sounding to them. Stop in Monday; I’ll be here. Mingue will have a check -- an advance on sales -- and a list of the contacts. I’ll make a few calls and send out a few e-mails to smooth your way. And who knows? A trip like this may actually come to something."

On the way out, Tom remarked to Mingue that David was being totally cold and businesslike with him and seemed entirely devoid of any real feeling for art. "I might as well be a high-end handbag maker," Tom said.

Mingue was hand-to-chin sympathetic but told Tom that this was his big moment, his real chance. He had to decide, she said, whether to go for it or not. A lot of artists can get hyper-dedicated in the studio, she said. David’s desk was littered with their slides and CD-ROMs. Only a few knew that a little hustling, a little traveling, a little following their dealer’s advice was what made all that dedication in the studio finally amount to something, she said

David’s check turned out to be for much less than the trip would cost, and would have amounted to but a fraction of it had not Jimmy (plain ol’ Jimmy O’Doole again, for the time being) showed up and helped him score a pretty good discount airfare, online. Tom departed the country within the week, at which time the total sales from the show had indeed been two drawings, confirmed, and a hold on another. He left a message with an unctuous person answering the Roeninger phone: He was going to Europe on art business and would call again when he returned. In the meantime, he said, he wished the girls all the best and [hesitation] Sharon well. He called Helen and asked her to go with him. She declined, citing work. To herself, she laughed and asked what was it with the men in her life that they all thought the thing a girl wanted most was to tag along on a business trip to Europe? She asked Tom to call her first thing upon his return.

The trip wasn’t a disaster -- far from it. Very few artists, even with the backing of a New York dealer like David Thornton, could have gotten an audience with all the various Klauses, Heiners, and Ursulas, with a few chin-stroking "interesting"’s and "perhaps"’s thrown in for good measure, that Tom enjoyed. Tom also walked a hundred fascinating streets in a half-dozen fascinating cities. He ate in astutely selected -- by the seat of his pants -- local restaurants and drank more brands of better-tasting beer than he’d known existed. And he enjoyed the clean, saggy, fluffy beds in well-chosen -- on David Thornton’s list -- locally owned two-star hotels. He forgot, for the moment, about Sharon and the girls and almost forgot, for a millisecond, about Helen.

The gallery toward which David had pointed him in Amsterdam, the last city on his itinerary, no longer existed at that address, or at all, as far as Tom could discern. The weather was cold and somewhat rainy in that indecisive way which added irritation to the other sensations of shivering dampness. On a trolley car, Tom realized with alacrity that he probably could never quite cut it in this business of turning himself from a damned good sculptor, who was a good-natured regular guy with all the art-world debilities attendant to that, into a fatuous, "based-in-New-York" artist with several "gallerists" handling his sought-after work, and gross yearly sales in seven figures. But if he ended up with Helen and had to pay child support, and maybe even something in the way of alimony to Sharon, money would be a problem. Besides, Helen wanted him to be a successful artist, didn’t she? At least she wanted it more, down deep, than Sharon ever had. For Helen, he’d have to try.

Tom had two hours to kill before his train back to Brussels, where he was scheduled to catch the plane home. He oriented himself in regard to the train station, and then wandered into the narrow streets near the Altekirke. Below a sign saying Kit Kat Club -- Tom fancied himself patronizing a pathetic attempt at retro-chic -- he entered. He walked past the middle-aged African couple at the bar and into the back room designated as the "Coffee Shop." He told the droop-lidded man behind the scratched glass counter that he wanted something mild, something merely to take the edge off a train ride back to Brussels.

"House weed," the man said. "It’s very mild. Three Euros. Three-fifty if it’s pre-rolled."

Tom picked up the conical, plastic-tipped joint, and a Euro-fifty in change, and sat himself in a vinyl booth. He lit the joint. A wall-mounted television set was showing Dutch second-division soccer highlights. Tom took two long drags and, in a minute, found himself deeply interested in Dutch second-division soccer highlights. When the last replayed goal -- a wonderful bicycle kick by a teenager with flying dreadlocks -- had been shown, Tom looked at his watch. An hour-twenty till the train, which was a seven-minute walk away. He took one last toke, ran the glowing butt beneath back and forth under his nose, put down the roach, and rose to leave. Tom made it as far as the main street, slick with rain and thick with a coachload of Korean tourists. Then the sweats, the nausea, and the sweet dizziness whacked him all at once.

Several passersby helped him rise from the pavement and prop himself, seated, against a wall. A hotel doorman gave him sugar cubes to eat. Two young Indonesian police officers took his name and passport number. Just for a temporary record, one of them said, until a few days go by without anybody finding your corpse in a canal.


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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