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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
22.
Tom slumped in a chair in his loft. It was his -- alone.

He felt sick. He’d felt sick ever since Amsterdam. The flight home hadn’t cured anything, and neither had sitting around the loft, phoning Sharon at Hilda Roeninger’s to no avail, phoning David Thornton only to be told in euphemisms not to haunt the gallery waiting for "the big sale," and trying to decide whether or not to phone Helen when he hadn’t yet managed to talk to Sharon. The only incoming calls had been from Tony Givens, wanting to "finalize" Tom’s fall teaching schedule at the Academy, and from Jimmy / Jean-Baptiste / Hakim wanting to know when he could start working for Tom again.

Tom had said to him, "As soon as I sort things out from this European trip, which has really complicated my life." Tom didn’t know exactly what that meant except that as soon as he’d walked into his sadly quiet loft, it had hit him that the unanimous response from all those Continental "gallerists" he’d visited was, when you boiled it down, "We’re not interested."

The phone rang. After Tom said, "Hello," David Thornton said, "Tom, I didn’t mean to give you such short shrift the last time you called. There was a lot going on -- nothing yet with your big piece -- sorry -- and I was pressed for time. What I did want to say is, wasn’t it wonderful the coverage you got from our friend, Arthur? Phenomenal, really, when you think about it: an emerging artist getting all that space in a national magazine. While it doesn’t necessarily translate into prodding collectors into action -- most of them don’t base their decisions on stories in the popular press -- but it’s all to the general good, and I’m sure something positive will come of it."

Old food bubbled uncomfortably from Tom’s stomach into the back of his throat. With a hard swallow, he sent it back down. This little added fillip of misery gave him the moxie to ask David Thornton, "David, tell me the truth. Why the hell did you give me that show?"

"I don’t know quite what you mean," David said.

"Well, first you make a big commitment to get the goddamned piece installed in the gallery. Then you throw a really nice opening reception -- thanks for that, by the way. But then you ship me off to Europe and essentially eighty-six me from the gallery while the show’s still up. I don’t understand. What am I supposed to get out of all this?"

"Tom," David said, "don’t be in such a rush. I wanted to put you on the map in a bigger way than you already were, and I want to find good homes for your major pieces. It won’t be easy. I can’t guarantee anything. But I do have an idea or two. Be patient."

"Don’t collectors want to meet the artist who made something like my big sculpture?" Tom asked.  "I sure as shit would, if I were thinking of buying something that big."

"After one has bought it, dear boy, after," David said in his most affected tone. "Beforehand, collectors want the artist to be distant and mysterious. After the sale, that’s when they want to think they’ve bought themselves not only a significant work of art, but a backstage pass to hobnob with the artist. If they can meet you up close and personal for nothing, then they won’t think you’re an artist worth meeting. Trust me on this."

Tom was not convinced, but he said, "O.K., I trust you," anyway.

After a pause, David said, "I think it might be a good idea for you to call up Arthur and thank him."

"Really?," Tom said, taken aback. "I thought critics hated that. It implies they’re in the business of passing out personal favors instead of making disinterested judgments. At least that’s what I heard Jonathan Hirsch say once, at a lecture."

"You’re not thanking him for his praise," David said. "It wasn’t a review; it was more of an essay about the state of the art world. I can’t say I completely agree with everything Arthur wrote, but he did give you space, Tom, in a national magazine. He could have given it to somebody else, so you can thank him for that without impugning his integrity. Do call him, won’t you?"

Tom said he would and, a few seconds later, hung up.

Oh, what the fuck, Tom thought and dialed the general number of the magazine. The very nice operator dialed Arthur’s extension and Arthur picked up.

"This is Tom Mannheim," Tom said quickly. "I want to thank you for the coverage."

"Thanks aren’t necessary," Arthur said equally quickly. He had prepared himself for this call. "And if they are, maybe I owe them to you. Your being an artist and doing the work you do were central to the essay I wrote. It was a goddamned longshot, by the way, to get something like that piece into the magazine. But your work knocked the socks off a couple of art directors here. It was their idea to run your big sculpture right across the spread because it made the layout look so good. Layouts are sometimes a crucial determinant." Arthur paused before adding, "I hope that doesn’t offend you."

Then Arthur asked, "How’s Sharon? She’s pleased with your show and all the hoopla, I hope."

Tom said, in a clipped tone, "Pleased? Yes, I guess she is." Then he decided to redirect the conversation: "Have you talked to Helen Issacson recently?"

Arthur detected in the timbre of Tom’s voice insinuating that he knew something more than talk had taken place. Arthur stayed quiet for a few seconds, then said, "Not very recently, no. But I did hear something interesting concerning her father."

Tom took the bait. "What’s that?"

"It’s nothing definite," Arthur said. "But there are rumblings around here that he’s going to be my new boss. Translation: Mel Issacson is reported to be buying this magazine. What do you think of that?"

Tom didn’t know what to think of that. As quickly as possible, he got off the phone with Arthur, who seemed suddenly radioactive. He lighted a joint, drank two beers, watched part of a bad, old western on television, decided to take a nap and woke up at four in the morning. He put on his coat, scarf, gloves and Mets cap and went out onto the street. Four-twenty-two: he saw the time on a bank’s illuminated public clock. It was the tipping point between waning vice -- a few drunks, a conspicuously pretty and underdressed woman who was probably a hooker, and a couple of angry guys who looked like they’d wanted to commit a crime earlier but hadn’t been able to pull one off -- and waxing virtue: people working hard stocking deli shelves, delivering milk, and dropping off bundles of freshly printed newspapers.  

Tom bought a Tribune, and took it with him to a 24-hour coffee shop. In order to kill serious time, he read every article in the paper, even in the business and real estate sections, and consumed several refill cups of coffee. In a split second, the sky above a row of squat brick buildings to the east became bluer and brighter than their collective silhouetted façade. Morning, real morning. Tom ordered a full breakfast, slipped outside to buy a tabloid with the most substantial sports section, and returned to eat the meal. By the time he put the key in the street door to go back to his loft, yellow school buses, filled with kids painfully similar to Carla and Natalie, rattled down the street.

Better chance if I try to catch her early, Tom thought, before she leaves for work. He punched in Hilda Roeninger’s number.

"Hellooo," said Hilda herself, with the slight puzzlement of someone who’s not used to answering her own phone. If she had caller ID, she’d paid no attention to it.

"This is Tom Mannheim, Hilda," Tom said. "I’d like to speak to Sharon if I can."

"I don’t know, Tom," Hilda said. "It’s very, very early, and she’s said to me. . ."

"Could you ask her?" Tom said, honest pleading in his voice. "Please."

"I suppose," Hilda said. Tom heard the clunk of the receiver being placed down none too gently on a hard surface -- an expensive glass table, Tom guessed -- and then, for nearly a minute, only the faint sounds of a morning television talk show.

Finally, Tom heard Sharon say, "What do you want?"

"When are you and the kids coming back?" he said.

"You’ve got to be kidding, Tom," Sharon said with a rueful laugh. "That’s not the question at all."

"O.K., tell me what the right question is, and I’ll ask it."

"Tom, I don’t want to be cruel," Sharon said. "The question is if I’m coming to you, and the answer is I’m not."

Tom put the phone down and grimaced into closed fists pressed against his face. When he picked up the phone, he said, trying not to let his voice tremble, "You’ve made up your mind then."

He could hear Sharon take a deep breath. Then she said, "Tom, I’m sorry, but. . . No, goddamnit, you should be the one who’s sorry for causing all of this. I’ve made up my mind, yes. I’m going to file for divorce. Hilda is going to help me with a lawyer. You should get one, too."

"That’s it, huh?," Tom said. It was practically a gurgle. "All these years. . ."

"Tom, I’m not going to get maudlin with you. I hope we can do this amicably. But the marriage is over. You saw to that."

"Over," Tom repeated.

"One more thing, Tom," Sharon said. "The girls and I are coming back to the loft. We’re going to live there. For their schools. That means you’re going to have to move out. For the girls’ sake, there can’t be any overlap -- all of us living together again for a while until you find a place, or any of that kind of shit. That’d make it emotionally very hard on them. So make arrangements as quickly as you can, by next week, at the latest. If you have to, move into your studio."

Tears streaming down his stubbled cheeks, Tom cried, "Don’t tell me where I’ve got to move, Sharon! Jesus Christ, my sleeping with another woman didn’t have to be the end. . ."

"Tom," Sharon interrupted, "you didn’t just sleep with another woman. You’re in love with that woman. And you think she’s your fucking ticket to being an art star, to finally being a bigshot in that stupid art world that’s full of pretentious assholes like David Thornton and Jonathan Hirsch and the rest of them. They’re just. . . Look, Tom, I promised myself I wouldn’t sink to this sort of recrimination. That’s why I didn’t want to take any calls from you. And I was right. You’re only trying to rehash everything to weasel out of the consequences, and I don’t want to hear it. We’re getting a divorce, Tom. A divorce. Don’t worry about the girls, you’ll get to see them plenty, and you’ll still be their father. I’m not going to poison them against you. But the break -- the break is here, right now. Please understand that, Tom. The break has to be as quick and clean as possible. Try to be mature about it, Tom, and do it right. Look, I’ve got to go to work now."

Totally bereft of anything sensible to say, Tom asked, "Can I call you at lunch?"

"I won’t be in the office," Sharon said evenly. "Saul is taking me out to lunch. I underestimated him. He’s really quite gentle and kind when you get to know him a little. And the girls have really taken to him, too."

Tom didn’t remember what, if anything, he said after that, only that he put the phone down very softly and stared at it for a long time.

*     *     *
Mingue Jones walked slowly through the gallery -- devoid of weekday visitors -- with Tom, stopping here and there around -- and amid -- his sculpture. Mingue was enthusiastic, but restrained. She didn’t want Tom to think she was just another insincerely effusive gallery worker, a human press release. Tom would never have thought that of Mingue, but she didn’t know that for sure.

David Thornton wasn’t in, hadn’t been in, and Mingue didn’t know when he’d be in. "There’s something finally brewing with your big piece, I think," she said to Tom. "I’ve just overheard a few things, David on the phone. But I wouldn’t want to get your hopes up, and not have it turn out. So I’ll just say that David is working on it."

"Great," Tom said, only marginally more convinced than when last talking to David Thornton himself.

As Tom was on his way out, Mingue slid once more into her chair behind the reception counter. She said to him, "There is some bad news, however."

"Oh?" Tom’s chest went cold. He didn’t need more bad news, especially the kind bad enough to be announced as bad news so that the recipient could brace himself.

"Howard Edelman committed suicide yesterday."

"Jesus Christ," Tom said.

"We got an e-mail from another collector down in Florida. There’s probably a story in today’s Tribune, but I can’t bear to look. I already know some details, and they’re awful."

"Awful?"

"He jumped from one of his condominium developments. A balcony way up, twenty stories. He landed on rocks."

Tom said nothing.

"And then there was the note," Mingue said.

Tom wanted to flee, but he went ahead and asked, "What did it say?"

"It’s crazy. He wrote just five words words: ‘Fuck art. I’ve had it.’"


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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