To Paul, Sybil and Phoebe
Criticism is easy, and art is difficult.
Arthur’s recent but rising dyspepsia concerning what he was seeing in the galleries owed mostly to his feeling old and increasingly out of touch with the postmodern art world. He wasn’t that square; he genuinely liked modern art, especially abstract art, all the way up to and including Minimalism. High-end formalism was king o’ the hill back when he was a graduate art history student. Nowadays, Arthur complained constantly (but mostly inwardly): all that goddamned storytelling art that had put him to sleep during any number of slide lectures slipped -- albeit morphed into PC agitprop -- back into fashion at about the same time he’d become a professional art critic. And it had only gotten more pervasive since.
Worse, all those current artists who indulged themselves in actual words -- paintings with words in them, "photo-text pieces," video works stuffed with dialogue, and other works requiring more didactic printed material slapped up on the walls than you’d find in a science museum -- weren’t the worst of it; the sin of language was a misdemeanor compared with whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus, installations with more electronic equipment than an arena concert, and hugely expensive wannabe architecture in which designer drugs were somewhat mitigated by the assistance of a structural engineer. Although the artists boasted in the accompanying press material that the art -- what a big tent "art" was now! -- "forces the viewer to confront" some geopolitical issue or another, the local stuff, at least, seemed to be made by upper-middle-class kids who could afford the tuition for a Master of Fine Arts degree and then a studio in some rapidly gentrifying quarter of Brooklyn. The bar for "oppression" had apparently been lowered to anybody looking cross-eyed at them on the subway. Between the lines, so to speak, their art told whiney stories about putative victimhoods, or self-congratulatory stories about their empathy for other people’s misfortunes. And they didn’t want their messages to be confined to mere galleries, either. You could feel them looking toward wider, more glamorous horizons. "Face it," the film critic at the newsweekly where Arthur plied his trade had once said to him when he took her along to a couple of exhibitions, "they all want to direct."
On the other hand, Arthur knew he couldn’t throw in with the hidebound conservatives who thought that paintings like, oh, Esther Koenig’s landscapes and still-lifes were about as avant-garde as things should ever get. Don’t get me wrong, Arthur said to himself within the ongoing interior debate that constituted the great constant of his professional life, Esther’s pictures were solid and reputable, with much more than just a touch of personal poetry in them. But decent, sincerely felt work like hers shouldn’t have been used -- by Jonathan Hirsch at The Financial Journal, for one -- as a Maginot Line protecting some imagined noble Nation of Real Art where every blessed citizen Really Knew How to Draw from incursion by postmodernist neo-barbarians. Didn’t he, of all people, know how fucking stultifying it was to find yourself trapped in a gallery with nothing but small, mayonnaisey oil paintings of views out the windows of summer cottages? This was, after all, the day and age of the Mars lander, cloned buffalo, big-screen plasma TVs and cell phones capable of shooting thirty-minute videos. Fairfield Porter may have been a wonderful and charming painter in his day, possibly a near-great one (Arthur had always been a hard grader), but he wasn’t a genius for the ages and, bottom line, he was never the cutting edge of anything except a lawnmower blade. We have to move on, folks!
In physical fact, Arthur really wasn’t all that old. His weight was healthfully proportionate to his height, and he was in reasonably good shape. Since his mother’s genes cried out for sedentary obesity, he took pains to keep a gym membership current and, when in town, went there faithfully at least twice a week to lift very moderate amounts of weight on elaborate machines designed with the safety of white-collar workers like him primarily in mind. For "aerobic conditioning" (Arthur loved applying that phrase to himself; it made him feel like an astronaut), he preferred to run a few miles on city streets. It was starting to kill his knees, and there were the goddamned dogs to contend with, but Arthur was "energized" (another word from the gym brochure) by the sights and smells and sounds of early-morning Manhattan. He never carried anything with earphones attached to it. And the dogs gave him occasion to repeat to himself his favorite original witticism: "People have a taste for dogs because dogs have no taste in people."
Arthur had good teeth, although just a little too small and unfluorescently white to have been a game show emcee’s. The slow but steady loss of his graying chestnut brown hair (his father’s genes) was reasonably well-disguised by the very expensive and very short haircuts to which he treated himself in a Tribeca salon. His nose was straight, his lips were thin, his eyes were hazel, and he sported no tattoos or major visible scars. Arthur also flossed and used an electric toothbrush daily. He loved to shower, and had no aversion to a small splash upon his face of a fragrant liquid with a silly name. The result of all these efforts was that women usually carbon-dated Arthur as about five years younger than he was, "in his mid-forties."
Unmarried Arthur’s bedmates had most often been a couple of fallback semi-steadies: two women he’d dated, entered the foothills of a "relationship" with, then disagreed with on the combining of apartments, and finally arrived at serviceable mutual respect with. Which is to say that Arthur would call up one or the other when he had on offer a black-tie dinner at the Modern Museum, a big art-world party at a prominent collector’s penthouse, or just a jones to see a play and eat a nice dinner. Afterward, it was always understood, he and the lady would go home -- to his or hers, it didn’t matter -- and furnish each other with an orgasm or two. Arthur’s sexual predilections were well within the bounds of bedroom civility -- a little oral, occasional doggy-style, once in a while all the lights left on -- and he was considerate enough to get up afterward and bring a bottle of mineral water avec gaz and two glasses back to one of the night tables. While a lady guest was in the shower, Arthur never turned on the television set to check the score of the Knicks game. In short, Arthur was a good, clean, considerate fuck with few if any harmful side effects.
But most of the women Arthur met whom -- on the basis of looks alone -- he would liked to have fucked, were a priori disqualified by him. Women artists, for instance, were either conflict-of-interest prohibited, just too scruffy, or simply too likely to spurn his unhip advances in some particularly humiliating way. Anyway, they said "like" every third word, and they frequently disfigured their sinewy bodies by appropriating those hard, Third World tribal practices so enthusiastically adopted by soft, First World white youth -- tattoos and piercings. Arthur wondered whether he was allowed think in terms of "Third World" anymore. Was it now "Developing World"? Was it like "Oriental" as opposed to "Asian"? Arthur sometimes lost track of the latest changes in politically permissible terminology. He made a note to himself: Ask the copydesk.
Female art dealers were likewise no-go zones. Museum curators, ditto. Arthur’s fellow journalists? The old joke line, "Politics is show business for ugly people" could, in Arthur’s mind, be dependably ratcheted downward to, "Journalism is politics for even uglier people." Currently, Arthur was unattached. Although he told himself he was content to be fancy free, he was, in fact, a little lonely.
Chelsea was a neighborhood on the far West Side of Manhattan running north from the former Meat Packing District (which had turned overnight into a huge, overpriced, de facto food court) twenty blocks to 34th Street, the avenue of the Empire State Building. Its eastern and western boundaries were Fifth Avenue and the Hudson River, respectively. Over the previous ten years, Chelsea had replaced SoHo as New York’s main gallery district and seemed bound to repeat that quartier’s recent history. In 1960s SoHo, a few pioneer galleries followed homesteading artists into the dilapidated, often deserted, old cast iron buildings south of Houston Street (thus "SoHo"). The dealers were then gradually joined by eateries -- at first funky cafeterias, then charming cafés and finally expensive bistros -- and "gourmet deli’s" (Arthur’s favorite oxymoron). At a certain point clothing boutiques joined the crowd -- again, at first funky, then charming, and finally the more expensive franchises. By the end of the 1980s, SoHo was transformed. When the galleries sat down with their landlords to renegotiate tenancies, they found there wasn’t a hell of a lot to negotiate. Quadruple -- hell, quintuple! -- what you’ve been paying, or get out. If you don’t like the terms, we can always rent this bodacious space to a chain that sells $200 jeans and $600 safari jackets to putzes who’ve driven their Land Rovers in from Short Hills, New Jersey, and think Saturday shopping in SoHo is the domestic equivalent of exploring opium dens in Monmartre.
Meanwhile circa 1970, Chelsea was nothing but taxi bivouacs, auto repair garages, greasy spoons serving Caucasian food in the literal sense, and various warehouses. Then a couple of the about-to-be-evicted SoHo dealers discovered Chelsea and the relative ease of converting a body repair shop into not only a gallery, but one of those ostentatiously airy, voluminous ones in Los Angeles that surfer-artists and starfucker-dealers had at their disposal. To paraphrase that old shampoo commercial, "He told a friend, they told their friends, and they told their friends, and. . . ." In a decade that passed in a blink, Chelsea’s daytime populace went from turban’d cabbies in pea coats into turban’d women in fur coats accompanied by their deeply tanned husbands in ultra-supple suede bomber jackets and Italian sunglasses, stepping out of black Benzes and into the cool, authoritative chambers of places like the David Thornton Gallery.
Don’t misunderstand me, Arthur argued with himself while he put his coffee cup into the dishwasher in his compact but smartly appointed downtown apartment, it’s not the real estate bonanza nor the wussification of a formerly gritty Noo Yawk neighborhood that gets me down. (I’m il wusso del tutti wussi.) Nor is it walking up and down those Alphaville Streets in desperate search of art with feeling rather than strategy at its core; nor is it, particularly, the monotony of one deluded, aspiring David Thornton wannabe after another displaying -- to the accompaniment of laughably pseudo-enigmatic publicity material -- another artist they think to be the next enfant terrible. (I can usually assent to either half of the term, but hardly ever the whole.) No, it’s the art itself that gets me down.
How many paste & doodle shows am I condemned to see today? he asked himself as he plodded up the subway stairs at 18th Street. How many discarded supermarket flyers drawn on in attention-deficit anger spasms with crayons or Sharpies, à la Jean-Michel Basquiat, will assault my eyes? How many dentist-diploma pseudo-academic "texts" with every other word ending in "-ification," written by artists acting as their own theorists-at-law, embalmed on birch plywood under glossy layers of polyurethane, will I be forced to read while I stand on fucking cement? How many Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show-meets-Fashion-Week performances will I be forced to endure? How many Granny’s-attic-on-crystal-meth installations need I stumble through? How many huge Cibachrome prints of exquisitely posed suburban-gothic banalities, produced with budgets that must have consumed whole trust funds in a single gulp, must I try to decode?
Even the relatively good stuff was relatively depressing to Arthur on that particular round. Take Carol Gascoine’s "Suburban Underbelly" exhibition at one of the better galleries among those with cutesy, rock-band names, FleaMarket. Gascoine’s show wasn’t on his Magic Marker’d map; FleaMarket didn’t advertise in Exhibition Guide (i.e., didn’t pay the requisite bribe), so its large, fourth-floor walkup location on West 21st Street didn’t rate a black-dot-cum-agate-font-caption on the printed map. And the gallery didn’t send out snail mail announcements. Its publicity appeared entirely on the Web and, somehow, its spammish "e-vites" to Arthur’s computer at the magazine escaped relegation to the dungeon of spam. The most recent one, which Arthur had printed out and had taken with him, folded up in one of the many leg pockets of the cargo pants residual vanity should have told him he was thirty years too old to wear, read:
As you know, the purpose of FleaMarket is to expose the work of emerging young artists gifted with an innovative vision. FleaMarket brings those artists to the attention of art professionals and a discerning public. We are assisted in this by an advisory committee of established artists themselves interested in supporting cutting-edge contemporary art.
Our current show is Carol Gascoine’s "Suburban Underbelly," a powerful exhibition that [there was that phrase again!] forces the viewer to confront issues of repression, sexuality, violence and love. Carol’s latest work comprises digitally altered photographs which incorporate mementos from the artist’s exploited and abusive childhood in Connecticut; excerpts from texts written by Carol during her college years as a Women’s Studies major, police reports and legal documents relating to her lawsuit, for sexual harassment, against the university where she completed her graduate work in Literary Gender Theory; and images from family videos of her two daughters, Lilac and Persimmon, taken by her husband, acclaimed novelist Frederick Schue.
Carol’s photographs are simultaneously records of one woman’s entrapment in the illusory "prosperity" of 1970s America, her struggle against the patriarchal control of cultural production, and her triumph in becoming both a noted artist and mother of, as Carol herself puts it, "two proud, dynamic and progressive young women who aren’t going to take any shit from anybody!"
The rest of the printout went on to wish its recipients a "wonderful art season" and signed itself, "Yours in the power of art, Mauricio and Deborah, Co-directors, FleaMarket."
Gascoine’s show was about the tenth on Arthur’s list. He’d decided, this time, to exit the subway at 18th Street and make his way north. He usually rumbled on the train all the way to Penn Station and wore out his eyeballs heading south, so that when he was done he was nearer home, closer to lying down on the couch with a pillow over his eyes, forgetting as much of what he’d just seen as he could.
FleaMarket didn’t do nighttime opening receptions -- too commercial for Maury and Deb, Arthur supposed. They just threw the doors open for the first day of the show on a Saturday and made sure the artist was present. The place was packed for Gascoine and, in spite of hectoring titles (The Imperative Series, No. 5: Overthrowing Daddy Dearest) on otherwise innocuously well-designed digital collages, people seemed to be enjoying themselves. Occasionally, pairs of women viewers paused in front of a particular picture and nodded to each other in an "ain’t it the truth" manner.
Arthur was standing in front of Just Because He Writes the Checks Doesn’t Mean You Check Your Rights when the chief art critic of the Tribune sidled up next to him. She was nearly Arthur’s height and he saw her unmistakably prominent nose -- "that wicked WASP weathervane," Jonathan Hirsch called it -- out of the corner of his eye.
"God, I’d love to write about this show," she said.
"What’s to keep you?" Arthur asked. "You’re la jefa." They stood side by side, looking straight ahead while conversing, like a couple of B-movie spies.
"Carol’s a friend," said the Tribune’s arbiter of artistic taste. "We were in graduate school together, although I was doing art history while she was in literature. She and Fred and Sam and I are also a kind of insufferable foursome during the summers. For the past five years, we’ve rented a cabin in New Hampshire together."
"’Kids come along?" Arthur asked, feeling the tiniest tickle of wanting to trouble her. Rumor had it that the Tribune’s chief art critic and her husband Samuel Bieckert, a true-crime author, had tried and tried and tried to conceive and couldn’t. As a result, she’d become as publicly anti-child as W.C. Fields.
"She farms them out to her mother in Connecticut," the chief art critic said matter-of-factly. "She drops them off on the way north. Grandma Purvis indulges them in horseback riding, kiddie golf lessons, and water parks. Much better for the little tykes than hanging around with four sarcastic adults who play bridge, drink Pimm’s Cup by the gallon, and bitch about the weather."
"Purvis?" I asked. "Wasn’t Grandpa’s name Gascoine?"
"Richard Purvis, the rich old bastard, died the day Carol went off to college. Nobody to abuse anymore, Carol says. She immediately changed her last name to her mother’s."
"Mmm," Arthur said in extreme non-commitment. Nobody was going to bait him into that briar patch.
The Tribune’s chief art critic waited a moment for Arthur ask something more, particularly about why she wanted to write about this work, so she could lobby him into thinking he should write about it. When Arthur didn’t, she said, "This is really a terrific show. And not just because Carol’s such a good friend, Arthur. This is major work, with something important to say. Be seeing you."
Maybe it’s a woman thing, Arthur thought for about the four thousandth time at a New York gallery show. He certainly didn’t get it. Gascoine -- who, in the first place, didn’t fit FleaMarket’s profile of an "emerging" artist -- was one of those photographers who got semi-big in the 1980s on the long coattails of Cindy Sherman. She and several others (some male, and some not photographers) used ironic pop-culture references and technical slickness to strike a chord with the raised-on-Sesame-Street generation. Gascoine’s initial specialty was doll houses photographed against projected long views of Levittown. She evolved to photo-collages of faces of her own parents grafted onto the bodies of Ward and June Cleaver and her own face onto the physique of the Cleavers’ younger son. "The Beaver Series," Gascoine titled them in double-entendre mockery. Then she went back to doll houses, only this time interiors, as murder scenes. Viewers were supposed to think at first that the woman of the house killed her husband, with great justification, only to find, upon examining the details of the photographs, that it was the wife who’d been sliced and diced. "Housework is Murder," Gascoine had called that show, her one and only at Thornton-Battenberg, which had been the name of the gallery until David Thornton’s partner died of AIDS.
The trouble for Arthur was that he didn’t think Carol Gascoine was really angry or, if she was, it was really about her never getting the traction that Sherman had, her bouncing to a new gallery for every show, and her having to re-cast her self improbably as an "emerging artist" in order to get her work up on Chelsea walls these days. Nobody knows what goes on in the dark, behind closed doors in Westport and Darien, Arthur thought. But unless Richard Purvis was truly Richard Perv, all he could see in the plastic-wrapped bio sheet at FleaMarket’s white Formica reception desk was an only child who’d enjoyed all the subsequent perks: a first-class education through to the master’s degree all paid for, and a rather traditional marriage -- presumably happy -- to a successful writer who’d had four novels made into movies, with him writing the screenplays for three of them. The two freckle-faced, gap-toothed daughters, from what Arthur could see of them in the work at FleaMarket, hardly seemed to be card-carrying members of the Future Deballers of America.
The FleaMarket show atypically boasted a genuine catalogue: sixty-four pages, perfect binding, color illustrations, and an essay by the head of the Women’s Studies department from which Gascoine had gotten her B.A. The essay didn’t help, though, unless 3,500 words breathlessly justifying every tiny esthetic move the artist ever made -- junior high to the present -- with quotations from Simone de Beauvoir and Catherine MacKinnon was proof of artistic greatness.
Fifteen shows later (by then Arthur had a blister on his pivot foot), he staggered into Rooftop, which had just moved from cramped non-Chelsea quarters to fairly spacious second-floor digs not all that far in distance, size and polish from David Thornton’s stylishly austere palace. If this was a co-op, Arthur thought, some sugar daddy somewhere is certainly cooperating. The artist on display was Gregory Appel, a painter of complex, heavy-on-the-palette-knife riffs on Old Master "history paintings." He was also one of those blustery assholes with a guaranteed opening-day crowd consisting of his cult of current and former students medicated by the anti-everything doctrine he’d dolled out as an art professor -- in Appel’s case, thirty-three-years-and-counting of messianic, reactionary teaching at Kings County College.
Arthur had had a serious run-in with him a few years previous on an artists’ fellowship jury. Appel -- a big man with big everything, big eyebrows, big nose, big mouth, big belly, big shoulders, big voice -- shamelessly proselytized and voted the straight Appel Party line -- that is, for friends and ex-students who faithfully followed his narrow, curmudgeonly esthetic. After the first blinding round of thousands of projected slides (the world for Arthur went black and then came on again every seven seconds for two weeks thereafter), Arthur mentioned to Appel in what he thought was an appropriately gentle manner, that Appel seemed to be reluctant to support anything beside paintings that looked like his. Appel laughed so uproariously Arthur could see flecks of the tuna fish sandwich he was eating plummet past his tonsils.
"For Christ’s sake, don’t be such a naïf, Artie, ol’ boy," Appel had said. "You’re here to support your constituency, and I’m here to support mine."
"I don’t have a constituency, Professor Appel," Arthur had answered. "I have esthetic preferences, to be sure, but I try to be open-minded. I’m here to try to pick the best artists, regardless of style."
"Spoken like a true child of the ‘60s," Appel had sniffed. "Even a few of your hippie friends -- the ones who really wanted to stop the war and not just smoke dope and schtup those little hairy-armpit girls in some tin dome in Colorado -- knew that politics made the world go ‘round. You do something for me, I’ll do something for you. You don’t do something for me, I’ll screw you over the first chance I get. I stand up for my people, you stand up for yours. Let’s duke it out and the last man standing wins. That’s the way the world works. Anybody who was a kid during the Depression, like I was, understands that. You’re just too young, Artie."
At the end of the jurying though, Appel’s hollow hardball lobbying had gotten him only weak, half-of-the-time support from the juror appointed as a sop to non-urbanites, a mousey painting instructor from a Christian college in South Carolina. The meek little fellow had started the week deliriously happy to be cavorting with "all you heavyweight guys from the big city" and ended it in a near-suicidal funk. The other four members of the panel went their own civilized-majority way. The only reason two of Appel’s acolytes won fellowships was because the foursome was too fair-minded to turn down good artists simply because their champion was such a consummate jerk.
At lunch on the last day (sandwiches on paper plates eaten under the cold conic beams of the slide projectors; the panel had gotten very far behind), Appel had walked in with a lemon meringue pie. "I thought we all could use a little sweetness before the final vote," he’d said. "Here’s your slice of the delicious Bygone Inducer." Grinning ingratiatingly, he’d slid a paper plate of quivering yellow and white next to Arthur’s vegetable wrap.
Arthur had taken a great big bite and answered with his mouth still full, "Fuck off, Gregory." Appel had turned his big, bear-like body immediately away from Arthur and trundled off toward another panelist. Arthur ate the whole piece of pie, went to the box resting at the elbow of the sulking professor to take a second slice, ate it, and had never spoken to Appel again until this show.
"Good of you to come," Appel said, offering Arthur a meaty hand and a smile full of food particles.
"Just doing my job, seeing what’s out there," Arthur answered.
Appel paused for a few seconds, and then said, "This is the real thing, Artie, art in the great tradition of the Masters -- a tradition that’s traveled intact from Raphael to Manet to Picasso to Hélion, and to me, if I may say so. I hope it doesn’t have too much protein in it for your delicate system. That is, I hope you don’t choke on it." Appel’s smile disappeared into his last words, and he abruptly walked away.
Chastised, but trying to feel above it all, Arthur gave Appel’s show a longer, closer look than he’d intended. He’d intended, in fact, to make a sprinting lap of the gallery, sign his name in the telltale guest book at the desk, and then get the hell out of there. But he could see Appel, swiveling his head away from one adoring clot of believers after another to track his presence. Surveiled, Arthur gave Appel’s show a full fifteen minutes.
Appel merited perhaps a little more respect than Arthur had previously estimated -- the paintings must have consumed months each to execute -- but less affection. They seemed to Arthur like an attempt to re-do Thomas Eakins’ The Swimming Hole in brighter colors, with a palette knife. The boys in the paintings sported tattoos and nose jewelry and their discarded clothes were recognizably Old Navy. A few had rose pink erections. Arthur headed out the door into the balmy afternoon.
"Arthur! Pleasant surprise!" Esther Koenig said to him. She and her husband Abe, an abstract sculptor who liked to call himself "the last of the red-hot marble carvers," were on their way into Appel’s exhibition. Abe looked older and more bent over than Arthur remembered -- mostly from art-magazine photographs -- but his deep, wet eyes twinkled strongly.
"Nice to see you, too," Abe said to Arthur. Turning to his wife, he added, "Greetings only, Esther. No chit-chat. My back is killing me and I want to get in and out of here in a hurry."
"Arthur and I hardly know each other, dear," Esther said. "We were on a panel discussion once, at the Atelier Academy. He probably doesn’t even remember me. He’s probably wondering why some strange old lady is shouting to him."
"Nonsense," Arthur said. "I know very well who you are." As with Arthur and many, many artists, he knew the work, not the person, and, whenever ambushed like this, feared he knew the work not nearly well enough.
Perhaps stricken by a soupçon of guilt for his abruptness, Abe tipped his head toward the gallery and asked Arthur, "Any good?"
"What can I say?" Arthur said. "It’s Gregory Appel, the pied piper of Kings County College and your wife’s co-opmate. You still want the truth?"
"I can handle da troot," Abe said and laughed like it hurt.
"Well then," Arthur said, clearing his throat. "Upstairs, I thought it was Eakins degraded by way of De Stäel. Right now, I’m leaning toward a leaden pastiche of Benjamin West: a lot of people standing around in stagy poses looking like parodies of one of those modern dances dedicated to the Four Seasons. It hardly gives a new pulse of life to realism -- as Jonathan Hirsch claims. It’s dead and fucking embalmed classroom realism, that’s what it is. Appel knows that, so he tries to tart up his stuff with that stupid palette knife of his. He hopes people won’t notice that he doesn’t believe in realist painting any more than, oh, Quincy Wilber-Carr does. And he’s too invested in his role as the Scourge of Fashion to try anything new. So he tries to hide his mediocrity behind a lot of paint tricks, hoping people will think he’s somehow ‘transcended’ academic art. De Kooning once insulted someone as being ‘a great artist from the elbow down.’ Well, Appel is a merely good artist from the wrist down. Anywhere nearer the heart or the brain, he’s bombastic crap."
"You think he’s that bad?" said Esther, a little hurt on behalf of her co-op.
"That bad," Arthur answered.
Abe offered Esther his elbow. "Suddenly my back is feeling better," he said. "I want to give this artist my fullest attention." He winked at Arthur, and went inside.
PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery.