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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
20.
Helen, of course, had no idea of the story behind Arthur’s article about Tom’s show at David Thornton. It appeared about a week after the opening reception, while Tom was off in Europe. The magazine had never before published a piece on a non-traveling commercial gallery solo show, let alone one by an artist as unknown to its readers as Tom Mannheim. Arthur had pitched the story to Marsha, and then to the Mullahs himself, as a guest at the Top Editors’ meeting. He pitched it as a pop-sociological case history of a serious, solid, "and talented" mid-career sculptor making his bid for a breakthrough into the big leagues. To everyone’s surprise -- even the Mullahs’ themselves -- they bought it. "Wonderfully counterintuitive," Karl had said. "This’ll give you a chance to stretch your writerly wings, Arthur, and we all know you can do it."

Arthur did have an inkling, of course, that he’d sold out considerably in concocting and selling the piece. The first woeful compromise was promising to take his article beyond a mere review of an exhibition that only a handful of the magazine’s readers would see in the flesh, into a somewhat distanced -- Arthur knew that the editors would push that quality into the genuinely jaundiced -- take on the machinations of the art world. In other words, Arthur would end up catering to the readership’s oh-those-wacky-artists soft-core philistinism.

The second sin, though, was more serious: Arthur knew that the bane of every ambitious artist’s existence was in being cast, as the French would say, comme un type, which is exactly how Tom would come off in print. He wouldn’t make his debut in the mass media as Tom Mannheim, the fascinating and unique sculptor who did that huge, gallery-gobbling work in Chelsea. Rather, he’d bow in as an older still-"emerging" artist whose obsession with this giant albatross at the David Thornton Gallery was putting his domestic happiness, and that of his long-suffering wife and kids, at risk. "Such a nice young man," Arthur could hear readers thinking as they read. "Why doesn’t he go out and get a real job?" Worst, Arthur knew that Tom would end up looking a bit silly, knew that he knew that, and wondered whether the whole idea -- which he’d not really expected to succeed with Marsha, let alone the Mullahs -- wasn’t an ingenious plot of his own, hatched subconsciously, to sabotage Tom’s attractiveness to Helen.

Helen had arrived at work early, bought the magazine from a sidewalk newsstand, and locked herself in her office with it and a four-dollar frothy coffee. She wasn’t elated with the headline: Carving a Niche. Tom didn’t carve, he assembled, and for a headline writer to obviate that crucial difference was simply irresponsible journalism. She hoped Arthur hadn’t written the headline himself. He hadn’t. His had been The Mannheim Solution, which had been rejected on the tertiary grounds that Tom’s last name wouldn’t mean anything to the reader, on the secondary grounds that Arthur’s play on a thriller-like title was lame, and on the primary grounds that it was six characters too long for the layout.

But Arthur’s writing, Helen judged with professional acumen, was surprisingly good, a little above his usual quality and considerably above his magazine’s usual fare. Arthur managed most adroitly to tell his intended readers -- a substantial cut or two below Helen’s sophistication, but nevertheless not necessarily dummies -- about the plight of abstract sculpture in the current postmodernist miasma of video, installation, conceptual, and photo-text art. He also managed, Helen thought, to let them know he simultaneously considered the matter a little too complicated for them to deal with directly, without a guide like him, and that he -- like they -- suspected the whole "postmodernist" predicament smacked a bit of the emperor’s new clothes. Tom’s work, Arthur deftly implied, was one of the last genuine crusty, dusty old-school artist’s denim jackets an artist-emperor might have an opportunity to wear.

Arthur segued into a cool, un-rantish criticism of the current art world. It had, he wrote, morphed and bloated itself over the last three or four decades from a poor-but-honest little avant-garde club into a slick, moneyed arm of the entertainment industry. Parallel, Arthur opined, to what had happened to "alternative rock," which was now just another highly profitable style of fodder for FM disc jockeys who seemed to spend more time telling you how much music they could cram into an hour than actually cramming music into an hour. Galleries now thrummed, Arthur said, with the whirr of electronic machinery, and they beckoned visitors into curtained dark cubicles to watch, in effect, short movies embellished with lots of gear-placement bells and whistles. A trip through Chelsea, Arthur wrote, was like a couple of days at one of those Montana ski-resort film festivals populated by people who looked like artistic types in sheepskin coats -- but whose minds worked more like a film mogul’s in a Fitzgerald novel -- and their fashion-model boyfriends and girlfriends.

At that point, Helen began to glimpse dagger blades. David Thornton’s gallery was very much part of the scene Arthur described. David might have been a runway kitten or two short of where the others were, Arthur implied, but he was enthusiastically into the glitz of the new art world right up to the top of his elegantly bristled head. David’s gallery represented Tom. Ergo, Tom couldn’t be that far outside the gravitational pull of the dark stars of big money and desperate fashion. Suddenly -- paragraph four, line two -- it occurred to Helen that Arthur might actually be dissing what he was purporting to praise: Tom’s big, brave ambitious sculpture. An especially oily little insertion, about Tom’s "attempt" (attempt!) to integrate "a very 21st century video component into his rambling creation," gave her further, and graver doubts, about the nature of Arthur’s enterprise. Was he really trying to convey his sincere understanding of Tom’s situation, or was he slyly letting some blobs of hot tar from the wide brush with which he was coating the art world fly off and land on the sculptor?

Then -- paragraph six, line ten -- Arthur waxed semi-convincingly favorable again. At that point Helen thought: "Everything is going to work out all right. These two men are going to end up liking each other. At least I won’t have ruined that."

But from shortly after that juncture until the end of the piece, Helen lost her original passionate interest. One could take only so much purée-ing of serious art so that it’d slide more easily down the gullets of readers out there in the heartland. The increasing extravagance of Arthur’s paean to "the inherent bravery of such an inconvenient and magnificently gnarly work of art" wore thin. And duplicitous. Helen’s discomfort rose from nothing specific -- no highlightable, key phrase or sentence or paragraph, but rather an overall suspicion that seeped from between the lines of the whole article. Arthur was wooing her by dumping on Tom by praising him to the skies in language that denizens of the art world would recognize as damning! Was Arthur capable of such a subtle and complex ruse? Did he have so much talent as a writer that he could really pull it off?

While Helen tried, at one and the same moment, to recover the breath she’d lost in admiration of Arthur’s rhetorical skill and to suppress the horror of what it signified, and to decide whether she was emotionally hallucinating the whole thing or not, the phone rang.

"It’s your dearly beloved, long-lost father," the voice on the other end said.

"You never call me at the office."

"I’m neglectful in calling you at all," Mel Issacson said. "Or so I’ve been told."

"Not by me," Helen said.

"Then by a guilty conscience," Mel answered. "Is this a bad time?"

"No, not at all. And I’m sorry to be snippy. My head’s in a little whirl."

"Arthur’s piece about Tom Mannheim?" Mel asked.

"My goodness. And without a clue yet extracted from me. You’re still very much the sharpie, aren’t you, Daddy."

"The two men in my daughter’s life? Information is power."

"Good God!" Helen shouted. What seemed like an eternity of silence followed. She tried not to cry.

Mel Issacson resumed, in a very calm, reassuring tone. "That’s not what I called about, at least not directly. I called to tell you that one of your boyfriends will shortly be working for me."

"I’m not. . .," Helen began.

"The lawyers called me this morning," Mel said. The deal’s gone through -- right straight through without so much as a word hitting the book-business papers, let alone the Tribune. An impressive feat of tradecraft, as the spooks at the C.I.A. might say."

"Daddy, what on earth are you talking about?" Helen asked.

"I’ve managed to buy the magazine, Helen," Mel said. "Arthur’s magazine. It’s now part of New Century Media. What do you think of that?"

Helen recovered more quickly from this bulletin from her father than she had from his cruelly coy revelation a few seconds previous.

"I think there’s a chance it might further complicate my life in the immediate future," she said. "But aside from that princessy little whine, I think it’s terrific for you. My illustrious father enjoys yet another huge success. Why would I think anything but ‘It’s wonderful’?"

"Then I can ask a favor?" Mel said.

"You can ask."

"My hard-hearted daughter."

"Your gene," Helen said.

"Don’t tell Arthur for a few days. The story has managed to stay unreported, and we’ll announce in about a week. You can tell him a few days beforehand, but pretend you learned it from me just then. That’s not too much to ask, is it?"

"Is this personal or business?" Helen asked.

"Business, strictly business," Mel Issacson said. "I have no qualms one way or the other about ending up, oh, common-law father-in-law to Arthur. No, it’s simply that Arthur works for the magazine. He’d run right over and tell everybody there. He should do that, too, you know; otherwise, he’s not much of a journalist. But it means a real, tangible gain in value -- that’s money, Helen -- if the deal goes through smoothly and we look like we’re in control of everything, right down to the timing of the announcement. Of course, we’ll make a private announcement to the magazine’s staffers a day before the public one."

"All right" Helen said. "Favor."

"And a second favor, which isn’t really a favor but a request for understanding."

"I don’t know what you want to be ‘understood’ about," Helen said.

"The collection. The financial blowback -- on me, personally -- will be, until the leverage is earned back, noticeable. I’m going to take a portion of the art collection to one of the next big auctions. But as soon as we’re out of negative cash flow, you and I will go art-hunting again. Dashing young daughter will make her old Dad younger at heart again by persuading him to buy hipper art by younger artists. How’s that strike you?"

"You know I do not enjoy shopping for art," Helen said. "That’s your passion. . . "

"And Arthur’s."

"Please, Daddy."

"Sorry."

"O.K.," Helen said. "I’ve got a lot to think over, don’t I? So I’ll ask you to make this a short call, all right?"

"Certainly. But here’s something to go have sweet dreams on tonight."

"I’m listening."

"How would you like to be an editor over there? Not a Top Editor -- that’d be muscling, and you’re not quite ready -- but an editor. Triple, at least, what you’re getting now. And you’d be earning it, legit. Not some extravagant allowance from Daddy."

Jesus Christ! Helen thought. "No! Absolutely not!" she shouted, loudly enough so that Ben Greenleaf, standing outside and very near to her office door, could make out the exact words.

"A step up, Helen," said Mel. "Into the spotlight -- which you’re going to have to do one of these days anyway, or else skulk away from New York and pretend you really like Wyoming. You’re qualified for the job, for starters, and for closers, you’d have to work your ass off to keep it."

"It’s still no!" said Helen, so loudly that Ben Greenleaf skittered quickly away.


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.