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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
5.
Naked Tom rolled off naked Sharon and, supine, loudly expelled his breath. Sharon sat up, re-spread her legs, and dabbed at her pubic hair with the towel she’d carefully laid out on the quilt when they’d decided to fuck. A crisply made bed lay beneath the towel. For Sharon, weekday daylight congress required premeditation, the proper equipment, efficient execution, and fortuitous circumstances.

Carla was in second grade at one of those public schools that the gentrification of their little corner of Greenpoint had made not only survivable but desirable enough so that arty couples in riskier sections of Brooklyn lied about their addresses to get their kids into it. Concurrently, Natalie frolicked at Angels’ Playground, wandering happily among the Montessori-approved activity tables. Sharon had been given the day off -- the night before Hilda had phoned to say that she and Saul would be "en charette" with their accountants, going over the quarterly books -- and Tom had forfeited a morning in the studio as soon as he saw Sharon, who’d risen earlier than he, sipping her coffee wearing one of his sleeveless undershirts, her breasts straining at the armholes. Sharon knew that was all it would take to get Tom’s blood from his brain to his groin.

In addition to the towel, Sharon had brought a tube of water-based lubricant to the bed; she didn’t feel like a whole lot of foreplay -- in fact, she wanted to fuck somewhat brusquely, with Tom unshaved -- and figured she might be a bit dry down there. Sex would be over in half an hour. It could take forty minutes if Tom indulged his usual sentimental vices -- cute sexy talk before, endearments during, and mutual congratulations afterward. Then Sharon could remove the pile of pillows covering the phone on the floor. Hilda surely would be calling. Hilda always called Sharon three or four times at home whenever she gave her an impromptu day off.

"That was great," Tom said, grinning like an idiot at the ceiling.

"Three stars, or four? Two tits up, or just one, Mr. Ebert?" Sharon said, patting her face with a dry washcloth she’d placed on her end table covering the autographed copy of Seeing Is Conceiving.

"C’mon, baby," said Tom, "don’t make fun of me. It was beautiful."

"You’re the one," said Sharon, "who addressed my nipples as ‘Dolce’ and ‘Gabana.’"

"That was when I was nuzzling them, getting you in the mood."

"You’re the one who was seduced, big boy. I just wanted a hot load of jism in my twat and you were standing there at the breakfast table, with a big boner."

"Don’t talk like that," Tom protested.

"Like what? ‘Jism?’ O.K., cum," Sharon said. "Is that more decorous? Twat’? I like the word. It has enormous comic possibilities. Besides, what are the other choices? Cunt? Derogatory. Pussy? Sounds stupid. Vagina is clinical. Why do men have all the good names for their equipment -- cock, dick, rod, et cetera? They all sound so noble and take-charge. I’ll gladly accept ‘twat,’ thank you."

"You know what I mean," Tom said.

"Yes, I know what you mean," Sharon answered, wiping the back of her neck with the washcloth. "You mean you don’t want your cute little wifey and conscientious mother of your two darling daughters talking plainly about fucking. . . excuse me, lovemaking. You don’t want me to break the spell. You’re all glowy and misty-eyed toward me. You’re in love with me again,"

"I’m always in love with you," Tom said, putting a hand lightly on Sharon’s thigh.

"Really?"

"Really. I don’t just love you, I’m in love with you," Tom said, propping himself up on one elbow. He took the towel and draped it over his quieted genitals, as in a men’s magazine deodorant ad. "Just like when we first started going out, like when we first slept together, like before the kids came along, like before we had this. . . this business. . . together, and had to get along, or else. All that stuff that’s happened to other married couples we know, hasn’t happened to you and me. I still want to grab you and make out when we’re at parties. I want to put my arm around your waist at David’s openings. I want to put my hand on your butt at the Roeningers’s pool parties. I want to put my tongue in your ear when Howard Edelman has us for dinner in that tropical co-op tower. You make me hot."

"If that’s the case," Sharon said, "let me see if I can give you a jump start on Round Two."

She flicked the washcloth into the air and, while it landed softly on the floor, bent over sideways and took Tom’s penis in her mouth. He hardened instantly. Sharon worked up and down on him, using her hand at the base to boost the effect. She got up onto her elbows and knees and positioned herself so that Tom could see what she was doing. Sharon wrapped some of her hair around his cock and sucked it garnished. Tom arched his back and groaned. She removed his cock from her mouth, smiled at this big, reddened sexual antenna, and shook her head vigorously. Her hair brushed back and forth across his cock.

"I don’t know why, but that’s so sexy," Tom said with some difficulty.

Sharon licked him, white teeth showing gloriously. "Do me from behind," she said. "You’ve got a second one in you, don’t you?"

"I certainly think so," Tom said, preparing to make the move that, over the years, they’d choreographed as if it were part of an ice-dancing routine.

"You can stick your finger in my asshole, too. Not all the way in, but some. You like that."

Tom did indeed like that, but only the deed, not the statement. Sharon saying "asshole" was almost as bad as her saying "twat." His erection was past the point of no return, however, and the sight of himself guiding his cock under her white buttocks overrode any deflating effect Sharon’s excessive explicitness might have had. Tom and Sharon went at it a posteriori for a good five minutes until he grabbed her hard enough with both hands to leave temporary red marks just under her ribcage, grimaced like a weightlifter, and came again.

Sharon undulated her stomach and butt for a few seconds to get her own climax, then dropped heavily to the bed. "Now that was great," she said. "Wasn’t it?"

Tom remained kneeling and looked down at his elongated and semidetumescent penis. He had a weird, abstract-art thought: Could a ridiculous form like this possibly be used in a sculpture?

Hearing no reply, Sharon said with a laugh, "Was it good for you, too?"

"Wonderful. You have a way of bringing out the best in me," Tom said softly.

He collapsed on his back, and looked up at the loft’s tin-paneled ceiling. But his mind was already on other things: leaving the Audi in the lot and taking the subway to the studio, calling Howard Edelman again and disguising his desperation about an absolute commitment as an update on the progress of the big sculpture, calling David Thornton and disguising his desperation about some firm dates for a show as the same update, figuring out how he could snag a review in that magazine from Arthur Whateverthefuckhisnamewas when he did have that show at Thornton’s, and -- somewhat involuntarily and, with the luscious body of his beloved wife lying next to him on the bed, certainly guiltily -- conniving another encounter with that unbelievably beautiful woman he’d met at the book party.

Oh don’t be so scared, he told himself. You know her name. You went to CastleCartwright.com and looked her up on the staff profiles. There was even a photograph of her, a very nice, in color, taken by one of the publisher’s better dust-jacket photographers. She looked almost as good she had at the book party. Helen Issacson. Even her name sounded pretty.

"We’d better take the pillows off the phone," Tom said, rolling over and lifting himself off the bed. "Hilda’s bound to be calling soon."

*     *     *
All the way to his studio on the grungy G train, Tom thought about what had happened to other couples he and Sharon had known who’d gotten married. He mused particularly on the ones he and Sharon knew in graduate school who had moved to one major American art capital or another. New York was still the default city for ambitious artists, but these days L.A. came in a very close second. San Francisco also constituted a reasonably serious destination. Chicago was O.K., too, but only if you were already in the Midwest. If you moved there from one of the Coasts to set up a studio, you had to admit to yourself that you weren’t going for the gold. Miami was new to the lowest rung of the Top Five, and Houston had just fallen off it. Boston didn’t count.

Tom knew at least one peer from where he’d gotten his M.F.A. degree who’d moved to each of these cities -- except Boston. Tom’s grad school friends had been mostly sculptors and sculptors were being mostly male, he was more aware of the fate of artist-husbands than artist-wives. In three sculptors’ cases -- it was difficult to think amid all the swaying and rattling of the Bombardier car, and Tom actually had to count on his fingers -- the wives had gone to seed, either from childbirth or eating too much out of boredom or drinking because of the same, or all of the above. The husbands had come to regard their sex lives as consisting solely of "duty fucks." Whether the husbands had, in their despondencies, strayed, Tom didn’t know and didn’t particularly want to know. In two other cases, the wives had remained -- like Sharon -- real babes. But their husbands had come to think of themselves, for some self-destructive reason, as "authentic artists," unbound by the marital fidelity agreement and even by the basic requirements of personal appearance and hygiene.

One of those husbands was thrown out on his ass after four or five years of dissipation, and the other, still in New York, had reduced himself to a comic figure, dependably drunk and predictably outrageous at every gallery opening at which Tom had encountered him. His wife had become an attorney and had made partner in a mid-size tax-law firm and didn’t want to commit adultery. She woke up her husband in the middle of the night about once a month and, with absolutely no kissing, fucked him. Or so the artist had told Tom. In the last instance Tom could think of before he reached his stop, the couple in question had grown sexlessly fonder and fonder of each other until they resembled, at their comparatively young ages, brother and sister. They ran a mom ‘n’ pop business together: a small art supply store specializing in materials for architects’ models. They never had sex. Or so the artist’s wife told Sharon, who told Tom.

Having his own key, Jimmy O’Doole was long at work by the time Tom noisily opened the door.

"The Nice Man Cometh," said Jimmy cheerfully. "The pun, by the way is in ‘Nice’ for ‘Ice’ and doesn’t have anything to do with ‘Cometh.’"

"You can’t imagine how much I appreciate that," said Tom, surrendering his jacket and Mets hat to the hanging hook.

This morning, Tom wasted no time. He changed immediately into his studio clothes -- one rare perk about being an artist: your old clothes lived an extra life before going to the rag bin. His butch belt filled with tools, Tom lay under the last fencelike section of his studio-consuming sculpture. Diametrically across the big room from Jimmy, he prepared to work his way back around the studio, proceeding not quite furiously, but still energetically on trim ‘n’ finish stuff. Tom was both pleased and disappointed that what he was about to do wasn’t actually sculpting, if you could use that word on any of the cutely repositioned detritus that usually passed for sculpture these days. Tom wasn’t daringly determining any real forms at this point; he was merely -- and reassuringly -- adjusting what he thought of in his old-fashioned sculptor’s conceit about physical nuance as the subtleties of the piece. Not that anyone would ever notice.

Jimmy came over to Tom’s side of the piece, and followed along four feet behind, adhering little torn squares of masking tape to places he thought Tom might eventually think needed reworking, or adjusting, or something. The ready masking tape fragments were pressed -- lightly enough to allow for a second stick onto the sculpture -- in a tight grid on the left thigh of Jimmy’s khaki pants. Jimmy wondered if anybody else stored pieces of masking tape they’d be using right away on a leg of their pants, or if he, Jimmy O’Doole, were the first person to think of it. Shouldn’t there be a kind of a patent available for thinker-uppers of ideas like that? Jimmy certainly thought so.

Tom and Jimmy didn’t talk much. Tom didn’t notice the relative silence as silence, but Jimmy did. Tom was lost in his work. Jimmy thought Tom was being passive-aggressive. Finally, with a trace of cheer left over from his original greeting, Jimmy said, "Are you mad at something?"

On his hands and knees, Tom turned to look at Jimmy. Tom looked like a dog turning back to see if his master was catching up. He stopped and considered the question for a second or two. Then he said, "No, not really. Why? Have I been acting like a dick or something?"

"I won’t touch that answer," Jimmy said.

Tom plopped over sideways, scooted himself a couple of feet to a wall, and braced himself into an upright sitting position. "O.K., I’ll rephrase. Have I been acting like I’m mad at something, or somebody? I’m not mad. At least I’m not aware of being mad. I could be subconsciously mad, but I can’t be held responsible for that."

Jimmy sat up on the floor with his legs in the lower two-thirds of a "Z" configuration. He put his hands on the knee-ends of his thighs and stiffened his arms straight, with elbows a tad hyperextended in exaggeration. To Tom, the gesture was as theatrical as if Jimmy had put his hands on his hips, Bette-Davis style and thrown back long hair he didn’t have. Tom actually liked the flourish, feeling a faint wish to be as free to let go -- or act out, or whatever they called it now -- as Jimmy was. Did the reason Tom couldn’t do that, derive from his not being young, not being black, or not being gay?

If Tom could not outrightly transform himself from white to black, he at least had the freedom of choice to be more liberal, to be more open to things like hip-hop culture, and to be less seduced by libertarian objections -- which attracted him with their simplistically consistent logic -- to affirmative action and reparations for slavery. And if Tom couldn’t simply start having sex with men, he could at least be more enthusiastic, and less who-gives-a-shit, about gay marriage and the civil rights breakthrough it was purported to be. Tom liked to think, then, that the dealbreaker was the most abstract -- and therefore least socially culpable -- of the possibilities: youth, or his increasing lack of it, compared to people Jimmy’s age, and his students’ ages when he taught a class at the Academy. Tom couldn’t help getting older. And trying to act younger was synonymous with looking silly. Age wasn’t his fault. Yep, youth had to be the deal-breaker.

"You just seem a little, you know, pissed in a slightly whack way," Jimmy said.

"Grumpy old man?"

"No. Please, Thomas, don’t do the -- what do you call him? -- on me."

"You must mean ‘Ol’ Sourdough.’"

"Tom, please."

Tom went into his "Ol’ Sourdough" voice: gravelly, adenoidal, with a tobacco-chaw hillbilly deliberateness to it. The voice sounded half like that ancient movie character actor, Walter Brennan, and half like a less well-known ancient movie character actor, Edgar Buchanan. It was pure defense mechanism, employed by Tom whenever he wanted to talk about something he didn’t want to talk about.

"Sourdough," he said, pronouncing it sarr-doe. "Yep, yor ol’ Uncle Tom -- pun in-tended -- probably acted a little, kinda tetchy there this morning. And he apologizes fer it, he certainly does. He didn’ mean no harm. He was jus’ lettin’ off a few minor pent-ups, thass all. Y’all know we all got our minor pent-ups, and sometimes they jus’ gotta come out a little."

"Want to talk about it?" asked Jimmy, not above parlaying some conversational therapy into getting a twenty-minute chat break on company time.

"No -- I mean ‘nope. Ah don’t wanna talk. The Ol’ Sourdough has to put his pent-ups off to the side, and git on with gittin’ this here sculp-chure ready for that thar big art shew."

"We’ve got a whole lotta time, man," Jimmy said. "David ain’t given you the go-ahead for the big show yet. And if he does give it, the show’s bound not to be scheduled until way into next season, maybe the next."

"Shit, Jimmy, don’t say that," Tom said, reverting to his normal voice. "David’ll come through."

"Sure he will," Jimmy said. "By the way, Howard Edelman called."

"Christ! Howard? And you didn’t tell me?"

"Just a voice message. He said it was nothing urgent, that you could call him back anytime."

Tom leapt to his feet and raced to the phone, punching numbers, it looked to Jimmy, almost before he got there.

Tom stared intently at the floor for twenty, thirty seconds, tapping the sole of one foot rapidly. Then the call connected and he spoke, loudly and rapidly.

"Is Howard in?. . . Yes, this is Tom Mannheim. I’m returning Howard’s call. . . No, it’s Mann-heim. I’m in New York. Howard knows me, I’m the artist who. . . Yes, he has my number. . . No, his message didn’t say what his call concerned. . . Look, it’s important to me. . . I know, I know. . . I’m sorry. No, I didn’t know. . . [a silence of forty-five seconds]. . . .

"All right, yes, fine. You’ll give him the message that I called back? Yes, I understand, not until he’s back in the office. And please give him my best, will you? I hope he feels better soon. O.K., yes. Goodbye."

Tom returned to his spot against the wall and slumped heavily to the floor. "Fuck!" he bellowed.

"What’s up?" asked Jimmy. "I hope I didn’t screw something up by waiting to tell you."

Tom ran his fingers through his hair. "I need a fuckin’ cigaret," he said. "No, I don’t need one. I’m not gonna start that shit again just because. . . ."

"Like I said, what’s up? You gonna tell Mister Jimmy?"

"Nothin’, nothin’," Tom said. "It’s just that. . . Shit, I’m being such a nervous selfish bastard about it."

"About what?"

"Howard’s in the hospital!" Tom shouted, then calmed down. "He told his secretary he wasn’t feeling well, like he had severe acid reflex or something. He couldn’t raise his doctor, who was having a meeting with the directors of his medical corporation, so Howard decided to go right to the emergency room. He said he paid taxes, too, he was entitled. His goddamned secretary thought that was funny. He called his office from the hospital and said the emergency room doc told him to slow down, cancel his appointments and calls for a few days. Howard’s out of commission for a while. I think he’s all right, but it fucks me over, Jimmy."

"Of course it does," Jimmy agreed, "you nervous selfish bastard."

Tom stood up. "I need a goddamned commitment from Howard. I need him to tell me the final version of this ridiculous fucking sculpture is an absolute, definite, one hundred percent go -- dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Then I can go out and plunk down for the video equipment. . . ."

"The video’s a mistake, boss," Jimmy said.

"The video is necessary, Jimmy. It’s a step forward for my work, it shows that I’m not just some rodeo-belt-buckle, macho-fart sculptor, like all my teachers back in grad school were. It shows that I can handle narrative within a formal structure, that. . . ."

"It shows you’re trying to keep up with the Bill Violas of the world. That’s what it shows."

Tom banged the back of his head against the wall not so lightly -- once, twice.
 
"Jimmy," he said. "You get your twenty bucks an hour to assist me. I know you’re a smart fucking bastard with a real good eye and you get to help me make some esthetic decisions. But that doesn’t mean that you get to help me set policy for the long-term goals of my work. The inclusion of video in this piece -- which is the most major-major piece I’ve ever done, and most of it so far out of my own fucking pocket, by the way -- is essential to those goals. Do you understand that?" Tom glared at Jimmy.

"I understand that you’re a serious artist," Jimmy said. "But Thomas, you’re also starting to sound like those old white-guy politicians they interview on CNN. ‘Policy for the long-term goals’ of your work. You’re talking that state-department smack, know what I mean? You’re using fancy-ass language to try to talk yourself into something you have doubts about. At least that’s what it looks like to this black gay boy from B’ville who don’t know nuffin ‘bout dat fancy-ass art world." Jimmy ramped up the stereotype accent on the last part of the last sentence.

Tom closed his eyes and said patiently, "Jimmy, my man, there’s art and there’s career. You try to keep them separate, but they’re inexorably intertwined. You always try to make your art better just to make better art. That’s what artists do. But better art, if you play it right, gets you a better career. That’s how it works."

Tom paced slowly along on side of the sculpture, his finger tracing an edge of it. Then he turned around and came back toward Jimmy, using the opposite hand to make contact with his creation. "A better career gets you opportunities -- museum shows, magazine articles, and sometimes actually selling the goddamned stuff. That, in turn, helps you make better art. How? Because you have more money to work bigger or with better materials. You get a commission or two, and that stokes you. And just the general vibe of having something happening with your work stokes you, too. You can see some daylight: no more of that neglected-young-artist crap, no more holing up in the studio because you’ve got nothing else to do, no more making work because that’s the only thing between you and total disillusionment.

"So, yeah, I get pissed when one of the few breaks to come my way lately starts to fall apart...or starts to look like it might fall apart. It’s not the noblest attitude, I admit. But babies need shoes and I need a little self-respect. C’mon, let’s get back to work."

Jimmy stood up and stretched his slender but well-muscled frame. Then he got back down on his hands and knees, while Tom did the same. With the coordination of a curling team, they worked their way along the sculpture, making the myriad adjustments Tom mapped out for Jimmy, and the tiny fixes Jimmy spotted for Tom. Neither talked about the sculpture, or art in general (as they usually did when they worked together). They talked about other things, the main one being, at Tom’s grousey instigation, Tom’s career. But Jimmy tired of the vagueness of Tom’s career complaints, of the commonness of an artist’s bitching that he deserved better shows, more commissions, and a museum purchase or two to get him on his way to inclusion in the history books. Jimmy asked Tom a question.

"‘Self-respect’ means more than just keeping cred with your artist homies, ain’t that right?" asked Jimmy.

"I suppose," said Tom. "Are you driving at something?"

"I get the feeling -- now, don’t get me wrong on this, I’m not trying to insult you -- that you’re worried about keeping cred around the house, too."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning," Jimmy replied, "I don’t want to push on a sore spot, but I can tell when you’re generally up, happy at home, and when you’re not. It comes and goes, it has a kind of rhythm to it. For a little while now, it’s been ‘goes.’"

"Are you insinuating that I’m feeling a little less than a stud with Sharon?", Tom asked, irritably.

"It ain’t sex. Or at least as far as I can tell it’s not. I never know, though, about you hets," Jimmy laughed. "Y’all are real strange."

"Well, it’s not sex, Jimmy. Take my word. No details, but take my word."

"Then it’s something else," Jimmy said. "Maybe the money-something-else."

"Jimmy," said Tom, peering under one of the sculpture’s sort of split-rail-fence welded forms, "My balls aren’t in danger at home. I’m perfectly O.K. with Sharon being the main breadwinner right now. When I was first out of grad school and she was taking oh, a year, something like that, to try to write some publishable poems, I was the chief supporter. She lived off me. Then when the kids came along -- bang-bang, just like that -- I was even more the main income stream for the family. I worked two, three jobs. I packed and shipped other people’s sculpture. I taught shitty adjunct classes here, there and everywhere. I broke my butt doing art moving. I schlepped for an art consultant, installing the worst fucking worthless trendoid shit you ever saw on marble walls in white-shoe law firms. I kid you fucking not, Jimmy: marble walls."

"Then," Tom continued with an audible sigh, "Sharon fell in with Hilda Roeninger -- that’s a long story -- and suddenly she had a nice fulltime job with bennies for all of us. I was able to cut back on the jobs, get back in the studio a little more. I gave up all the outside work except teaching, and was able to get kind of semi-regular gig at the Academy, courtesy of Tony Givens. Then David Thornton picked me up, then I met Howard and -- domino-domino-domino -- this is where I’m at. Sharon brings home the nice salary, has job security, and I’m the freelance. I’m cool with that. Really. Sometimes, when David sells a drawing or a maquette and I’m teaching two classes for Tony, I even out-earn my wife a couple of months of the year. So, no, I don’t feel deballed because Sharon brings in more money than I do."

"Another woman?" Jimmy asked.

Tom laughed. "The last person I would ever, ever tell about having somebody on the side would be you. And by the way, I don’t have anybody on the side, nor would I have anybody on the side."

"Mmm," said Jimmy, meaning "bullshit." "The little kids driving you nuts, then?"

"No, not that either," said Tom, ducking his head back out from under one of the fence-forms, then poking it back under another. "The girls do drive me nuts," Tom laughed. "I’m not going to deny that. But that’s parenthood, my man, and I’m no naïf. I’m smart enough to have figured that it’d be like this. I knew more than Sharon how much time and energy it’d actually take up."

"Something," said Jimmy, "it’s gotta be something."

"Here, Jimmy, I’ll solve it for you," Tom said. "I’m not totally clueless, you know. I worry about letting myself fall into being a glorified amateur -- one of those artists with a bit of a name and some shows and some reviews, but with nothing in the way of fucking money coming in from it. So I keep nipping at the heels of Howard and David, and that makes me feel like a desperate, pushy little shit. I know a hundred artists like that, and I don’t want to be one. So I get cranky."

Jimmy smiled. "So it’s the principle about making money, rather than the money about making money. Do I have that right?"

"Yeah, actually," Tom said, crawling out from under the sculpture and standing up. He shoved his hands into his pockets, as if for coins. "Sharon and I aren’t totally desperate for cash, so it isn’t the money. And I truly don’t mind her being the major breadwinner -- for a while. It doesn’t emasculate me. It’s about being a real artist. To me, a real artist is a professional artist and a professional artist is one who files an income tax return with some real income on it."

"O.K., Thomas, check this one out," said Jimmy. "In order to be what you call a ‘real artist,’ you have to be a plain, non-moneymaking ‘artist’ first. You have to be able to make art for a while, with no money coming in from it, in order to get good enough to be a ‘real artist.’"

Tom paused, like a game show countdown clock. "All right. I’ll agree with that," he said.

"Here’s the second part," Jimmy said. "Sharon is an artist, too, right? I mean, poetry is an art, ain’t it?"

Instantly, Tom saw where Jimmy was going. "I’m not going to be baited into denying that poetry is an art, or one of ‘the arts.’ So?"

"So," said Jimmy, closing the trap, "maybe you feel a little shitty because you have an idea, down deep, that Sharon isn’t getting her chance to make her art so she can get good enough at it to be a professional. And the reason she ain’t getting hers is because you’re getting yours."

Tom said something a bit loud, emphatic and weak about Sharon liking her job, liking being a mother to Carla and Natalie, and about poetry being even more of a deluded-amateur enterprise than art -- even for published, prize-winning poets. But down deep, as Jimmy put it, Tom knew that Jimmy had hit the proverbial nail, as Sharon would ironically say, right on the nose.
*           *           *
The G train running back from the studio toward home was usually more pleasant than what Tom called the "inbound trip." Especially at three-forty, after the obnoxious and slightly frightening high school kids -- a Rainbow Coalition poster for interracial romance in the Great American Mosaic and a one-in-ten gunpackers police statistic, both at the same time -- had gotten themselves home, or wherever it was they went after school. Three-forty, an hour or so before the working hordes, with either ambition clicking their high heels and swaying their briefcases, or dull despondency trying to lose itself in tabloid sports sections, turned the G train into a string of cage matches in the World Jostling Federation.

Tom had a whole row of seats to himself, so he sat somewhat sideways, a bent leg up on the bench. Courteously, though, no foot on a seat somebody else might take; Tom’s lower leg cantilevered off the seat at the ankle. He had pleasant room to spread, physically, and unpleasant time to think. But Tom was irritated, anxious -- with a tinge of dull despondency of his own. Jimmy’s insight wasn’t directly the cause of the unpleasantness, since Tom already knew that he felt. . . call it guilty. . . for Sharon not having written -- unless secretly, which wasn’t her style -- a single line of poetry in four and a half years.

When he met her, she was serious, and when they fell in love, she used to joke that she’d be seduced into giving up poetry before he gave up sculpture. A poet, she said, was more easily convertible into a private-school English teacher or an advertising copy writer or a public relations drone than a sculptor was into -- what, auto mechanic? welder? interior decorator? She smiled when she said such things, as if she were looking forward to the morphing. Tom had no reason to think Sharon had done a one-eighty lately about the feasibility of continuing to be a serious poet. Or had he?

After he’d gotten off to transfer to a train that would take him as close to Chelsea as you could get by subway, he gave the suspected change in Sharon -- yes, it was undeniable when he thought about it -- some serious and painful consideration. She’d hardened -- that was the word Tom fastened on after a conscious, even earnest, search of his internal thesaurus -- since the birth of Natalie. It had nothing to do with the physical toll of motherhood, though. Certainly not.

Sharon was, as they say, an amazing physical specimen. She was still a little chunky, true, but in a sexy way. Post-partum for the second time, her stomach returned quickly to flat, her butt neither sank nor softened a millimeter. And her tits were right out of those specialist skin magazines that photographed only women with "naturals." Her face was now a little fuller, less contoured, sure, but she had absolutely no wrinkles, eye-bags, or (astounding in a woman much closer to "meatball" than "toothpick") the beginnings of a multiple chin. And she craved sex: more often and more unabashedly than Tom did, with less murmuring about her need for tenderness and foreplay before getting all animal in bed. She’d gotten a little raw, and Tom was a little non-plussed by it.

Tom resented his resenting. Not that he ever quite put Sharon on that most common artist-in-love pedestal, that of the Pre-Raphaelite maiden, but he did fancy the word "poet," especially when it indicated the passion of a woman instead of a man. And he’d liked Sharon’s way with words in conversation, especially when they were out to dinner with his friends. Now she was losing that; her language to him was either blunt businesswoman, common-sense mommy, or horny sex savage. Tom tried to enjoy the sexual badinage, and to put up with the other two modes. After all, what man wouldn’t be happier than hell to have a wife who looked like Sharon, talked cute-dirty like Sharon, and wanted to fuck like Sharon?

Tom Mannheim, Tom answered himself. And why? Because he missed seducing his wife. He missed nuzzling her neck from behind in front of an open refrigerator door in a wavy-floored, downscale apartment, and trying to sweet-talk her into letting him lead her to the bedroom. He missed striking out every once in a while when his wife was of out of sorts because she’d not been able to find exactly the right two words to complete a line of poetry. The words "Sharon has given up poetry on account of you" boomed inside his head.

Christ! He shouldn’t say it like that! Sharon hadn’t "given up poetry"! She was just on hiatus, her poetry on hold until the girls got a little older, and into all-day school, both of them. Tom told himself that without believing it. No, the problem wouldn’t solve itself automatically with the girls getting a little older. He should do something to solve it. He should bring in some money. In fact, he should try to hit it big, so that Sharon could cut back at Roeninger’s. Hilda could make her a consultant, or get progressive and let Sharon work via e-mail and phone from home most of the time.

In the immediate future, Tom had but two shots at getting his hands on a sizeable chunk of money: the Howard Edelman commission, and a knockout show at David Thornton that would put him on the major-piece-purchased-by-a-museum map. (Somehow, there’d be a second large-ish work in the show, that the Modern Museum would buy.) But Howard was in the hospital. Tom could imagine -- perhaps it was just fear -- the whole Edelman thing going down the drain. (Sharon would turn out to be right about that, another dagger to the heart.) The show at David’s hadn’t been -- to put it mildly -- firmly scheduled. Of the two possible financial bonanzas, the show was the only one of the two that, right now at least, Tom could do anything about. That penny had dropped even before Tom rolled out from under his sculpture for the last time that day. That’s why he’d suddenly leapt up in the studio, told Jimmy to take the rest of the day off at pay, and bolted for the subway. His destination was the David Thornton Gallery.

*     *     *
It wasn’t the biggest gallery in Chelsea; spatially, it wasn’t even in the top ten. But David Thornton -- the owner’s name referring to both the person and his emporium -- had a reputation that most of the bigger galleries would have traded a lot of floor space to get. Located on a numbered eastbound street running between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, but not one that was end-to-end with art galleries, David Thornton icily greeted visitors with a facade of frosted plate glass windows framed by brushless stainless steel siding. The gallery’s name spoke itself quietly but self-assuredly in raised metal letters less than three inches high, posted just to the left of the entrance -- which was situated in turn at the west end of the gallery, which sat on the north side of the street -- on a ground of battleship grey stucco.

Inside the door, to the left, and behind a reception-desk barricade of ivory Formica sat Mingue Jones, a light-skinned young woman whose black mother had founded the Harlem Classical Dance Company and whose white father taught classical free-market economics at one of the city college campuses. The blue-white glow of the auction-price database emanating from the LCD computer screen in front of her turned the lower part of her face an oddly lifeless grey. Such a small defect, however, did little to detract from Mingue’s attractiveness. Her bright red lipstick, orange hair, black Spandex top and black flowing skirt, and dancer’s body provided a small jolt of happiness to everybody who passed through the front door. Her master’s degree in art history lent her conversation -- from the slightest "Hello" to disquisitions on the current exhibition delivered to ladies from the hot-air ballooning countryside of New Jersey -- a friendly authority. And Mingue’s musical voice made it all sound like wind chimes.

"Hello, Tom, good to see you," she said, looking away from a digital graph indicating a 23.4% price rise at auction over the previous two years for one of the gallery’s more prominent artists.

"David in?" Tom asked, suddenly thinking he should have changed clothes at the studio. Artists wearing studio clothes in an elegant gallery invariably looked like beggars, not choosers.

"He’s in the back, with a client. I’m taking a few things to him in a second. I’ll see what his schedule is. Why don’t you take a look at the new show while you’re waiting? You haven’t seen it, have you?" Mingue’s charm made the invitation sound much less like "have a seat, the doctor will be with you in a few minutes" than it probably was.

Tom walked away from the reception desk, then down two steps. An insurance-necessitated Please Watch Your Step sign nearly ruined the gallery’s plutocratic aloofness. The big, cold room -- forty feet by thirty feet, a thirteen-foot ceiling with fixed wall-wash quartz lighting devices as small as shower heads dangling in precise rows from it, a tung-oiled polished concrete floor, and blindingly white walls -- contained five huge color photographs by a twenty-seven-year-old British recent graduate of Goldsmith’s art college in London. Each photograph depicted a single nude figure in a different old English graveyard. There were three women and two men, all fellow-artist friends of the photographer, in the pictures. One of the men crossed his hairy arms over his hairy chest and glared at the camera like a rock musician in an alley; his penis hung down like a tangerine dowsing rod. The other man sat on the grass and leaned against a tombstone, smoking a cigaret, with a "What’re you lookin’ at, mate?" expression on his face.

If you weren’t turned off by the extreme warts-and-all clarity of the photographs, the women were each sexually attractive. Textural details of aureole, small protrusions of labia through ample pubic bushes (none of the women sported the "Hitler’s moustache" cut so popular among their generational peers), and revelations of faint tobacco stains on index fingers either enhanced or diminished, depending on your taste in erotica, the photographs’ potential for arousal. The picture of the woman who sat astride a tombstone, her vagina in intimate contact with aging limestone and lichen, both fascinated and repelled Tom, who was still staring at it when David Thornton strode up behind him.

"Really catches that edge, doesn’t it?" David said to Tom, surprising him.

"Yeah, I guess so," answered Tom, who then mentally kicked himself for saying something so vague, obsequious and dumb.

David wore a suit, as he always did at the gallery. This time it was dark blue with an almost invisible pinstripe. The outfit was embellished by a pale blue tie with no pattern other than the conspicuous rib of its rich, shiny fabric, and a plain white handkerchief in the jacket pocket. David had a principle, announced publicly more than once, of never matching the handkerchief to the tie. "Too much coordination makes you look like your own flunky," he often said. David wore stylishly matte black lace-ups with very thin soles.

The gallery owner stood Tom’s adequate height, but he was much thinner. Tom had never seen David without a jacket, let alone shirtless, but he suspected his dealer’s calm, cool mind inhabited the body of a dedicated marathoner or wickedly competitive tennis amateur. David’s head had the shape of a Yoruba sculpture’s head: the profile of Africa itself, with a large, brain-filled cranium extending noticeably, as it were, to the east and a long, thin, face on the western coast. His nose was pointed, lips almost nonexistent, eyes narrow and ornamented with small, circle-lensed and pewter-framed eyeglasses that had gone out of style five years ago. David liked to be stylish, but he was unwilling to suffer the work or expense of keeping up with fashion’s yearly changes. A linear grey moustache, composed of hairs no longer than the ones on his head, came and went on his upper lip. This day, it was gone.

David’s wife was named Melanie. She was English and seldom came to the gallery. Supposedly, she was an excellent horsewoman. The couple had no children.

"Let’s go to the office," David said with a hint of "Let’s get this over with." "Do you want some coffee?"

"I’m draggin’," said Tom, "so sure, thanks."

"Mingue," David said to his assistant as they passed by the reception desk and turned to walk past the smaller "Project Room" gallery and catalogues-for-sale wall, "two coffees, please, in my office. Both with cream. No sugar. That’s how you take yours, if I remember. Right, Tom?"

Tom nodded. Mingue Jones smiled at him to let him know she didn’t consider him responsible for this particular dip for her into goferhood.

Tom paused in the Project Room. He felt a twinge of dread that David would propose that if Tom wanted a show soon, he could have a small one here. The Project Room ostensibly dedicated itself to riskier art by untried tyros right out of art school, and that, supposedly gave it some cachet. But practically every gallery in Chelsea, SoHo and Brooklyn contained a similar room; collectively they were known as tryout spaces for opening acts hoping to be headliners themselves one day. Quincy Wilber-Carr had started off with a Project Room show at David Thornton. Tom helped him install it, both as a favor to David and as a refresher course for himself in "What are the kids up to these days?" When they’d concealed the final projector cord, the Yale-educated Quincy had stood back and said, "Not bad for a nigger show." Tom understood the epithet to refer to the gallery equivalent of a seat on a segregated bus, and not to the artist’s race. He also understood how Quincy enjoyed the frisson the word caused every time it came out of his mouth in the presence of a white person.

David slid immediately and smoothly behind his minimalist desk with the black leather working surface. With an offhand gesture, he beckoned Tom to a seat in front of it. Tom sank, physically comfortable and psychologically uneasy, onto another black leather surface, surrounded by chrome tubing and claiming the pedigree of a long-dead teacher at the Bauhaus.

"How’s it going in the studio?" David asked, giving Tom a quicksand base from which to launch his pitch. Why is it, Tom thought, that when we’re supposed to be on the same side -- promoting my work and selling it -- I feel like I’m in the fucking docket when I come in here? He answered himself: Because there are so many more decent artists than decent dealers; David can easily replace me, but I can’t replace David, even if I dropped a couple of rungs on the prestige ladder to do it. I’m always on fucking trial.

"It’s going well," he said. "Jimmy and I have been putting a lot of time into the big piece. It’s almost done. I’ll start on the video hookup next week. Maybe the week after, you can come by for a sneak peek."

"Unfortunately, I’ll be in Europe starting day after tomorrow," David said. "I’m staying for at least a couple of weeks, perhaps longer."

Tom decoded the statement: I’m preoccupied with international business, maybe scoping out a few European artists. You aren’t one, so you go back-burner. So back-burner, in fact, that I won’t take the initiative to suggest that we can get together in your studio soon after my return.

"Sorry," Tom said. "I mean I’m sorry you won’t be able to see the piece until. . . [fruitless path, so he changed course]. . . It’s a big investment for me, and I was hoping that it wouldn’t shut down the studio for that long. You know the piece takes up the whole working area of the studio. I mean, David [fuck it, go for it, Tom thought], I was hoping to exhibit it as soon as possible."

David bent over to the side to put a piece of paper into a desk drawer. An important piece of paper, no doubt, Tom thought. Probably a letter from an absolute top-of-the-line dealer in Berlin, proposing a split-commission New York show for one of his stars, one of those former propaganda poster artists from the former East Germany who’d retooled himself into the cat’s ass of postmodernist painting.

"Why don’t you do an open-studio thing?" David asked without raising his head. "Clean everything up, get a caterer, serve champagne. Beverly Blakemore did that before her piece went to the Taos Biennial. It was a big hit. She got considerable press. There was even a Q & A in the Tribune. That was better than anything she could have gotten with an ordinary gallery show."

David was a master. "Ordinary gallery show": Now Tom, you wouldn’t want one of those passé things, would you?

"To be absolutely blunt," Tom said, deciding that he couldn’t fancy-dance with David, "I was hoping for just that. And as soon as possible. My piece would occupy the big gallery with just as much impact as those photographs." Uh-oh, bad move: using another artist’s art as a climbing-hold to make a point.

"Apples and oranges, Tom" said David. "Those photographs acquire their kick from both their delicious imagery and the installation, with enough breathing room around them to let their iconoclasm take effect. Your sculpture -- and I’m speaking of what we’ve exhibited so far -- gets its impact from pure, non-narrative physical presence. Right now my clientele wants narrative images. They want stories, if you will. All I can do is go with the flow. I’m running a business here, you realize, not a kunsthalle"

Tom broke out in a sweat. Light, but it covered his whole body. "This new piece will incorporate a narrative video component," he said.

"Still. . . ."

"So are you saying that you can’t exhibit my work?" Tom blurted. There it was, like a turd in the punchbowl.

"No, Tom, I’m not saying that." A reassuring smile arrived on David’s face and, with the villainous moustache momentarily missing, it looked almost genuine. "What I’m saying is that I can’t commit the large gallery anytime soon -- meaning until well into next year’s season, April soonest, May most likely, even June -- to anything outside the program, which for the time being is narrative art. I’ve got expenses nobody but Mingue and Melanie know about -- legitimate professional expenses, mind you. I’m trying to reposition the gallery within the current context of the art world -- without losing its ongoing integrity. Which includes your work, Tom. You were early with us and we were early with you. However, we still stand behind and fully endorse your work."

Man, can I not negotiate, thought Tom. I walk in here trying to get a solid commitment for a show and I’ll walk out feeling thankful just to get David’s vague implication that he’s not going to just up and dump me.

"Well," Tom countered, "all I can say is that right now I’m standing behind my own work. I’m making a major stride with it, and I could use a little help."

"If it’s a matter of money," David said almost absent-mindedly, "your drawings always sell moderately well. We could do a small show of them in the Project Room. I might even be able to guarantee you a modest figure for it. People know about you, and they wonder what you’ve been up to. Show them some new drawings -- drawings for your magnum opus, perhaps -- and they’ll snap them up. An exhibition like that might even pique interest in the big piece itself. Then you could. . . "

"I have drawings, David, but they’re real working drawings. I can’t let them go until the piece is absolutely finished."

"A ton choix," said David. "If I were you, though, I’d think it over. This business about remaining an absolute mystery until the unveiling is a little old fashioned. Nowadays we need to manage the mystery, alleviate it a little bit at a time, to generate interest. A nice, small, teasey show of your drawings could accomplish that."

"I’ll think about it," Tom said with forced bravado. "But I’d still rather have a big show of my big piece. You know that Howard Edelman has just about signed on the dotted line for it to end up in Florida."

"Then you don’t have a problem," David smiled. "You finish the sculpture, we sell the sculpture to Howard -- presto! Mission accomplished. Why go through all the torment of an exhibition?" David sat back in his chair as if he’d just enabled the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace.

"David, this is the biggest and best thing I’ve ever done," Tom said. "Even if I get back my investment and make a profit on it, I don’t want it going directly from my studio down to the front lawn of some gold-veined-mirror condo tower in Tamiami Beach without the New York art world ever getting a look at it. Besides, Howard’s sort of counting on a show of it to get some buzz before it gets to Florida."

"Ah ha," said David, as Mingue Jones entered with the coffee. "And I presume Howard is still going forward with things in spite of his little. . . illness."

Wonderful, thought Tom. Howard has already called David. I’m getting fucked on both ends.

Tom’s and David’s conversation turned -- as prescribed by the protocols of the contemporary art business whenever an artist and his dealer came to loggerheads -- to matters other than the professional business between them. Sipping their coffees down to the last lukewarm, tan crescents in the small white porcelain cups, they remarked to each other upon Jonathan Kirsch’s book, the latest screeds in the fallout dialogue over the Modern Museum’s "Cuteness & Cataclysm" show, and a few foreign films not to be missed. Tom put his cup down on the floor (there was no other furniture in the office other than David’s desk and the two chairs) and rose.

As firmly as he could manage in his untenable position, he said to David, "O.K. then, I’ll think about a drawing show in the Project Room if you’ll think about letting me have the large gallery for my big piece as soon as possible, even if it’s a year from May."

"Agreed," David said and didn’t rise to say goodbye.

On his way out, Mingue Jones gave Tom a thumbs-up sign together with an exaggerated quizzical expression: How’d it go? Tom shrugged: Well, I tried.

Tom opened the gallery’s door to the street, and the sudden sunlight confused him. A dark silhouette stood in his way. It spoke, and said, "Why, hello Tom."

He stepped outside and moved to the side of the figure, which turned into beauty itself: Helen Issacson. She wore God knows what (Tom couldn’t remember later), and carried a copy of Seeing Is Conceiving, along with a slim, translucent plastic portfolio of Scandinavian origin.

"Hey," Tom said, heart aflutter, "nice to see you. What are you doing here? I thought you didn’t do art, just publishing."

"Oh, I’m just dropping off an autographed copy of Jonathan’s book for David," Helen said. ‘Personally’ doing it, as Mr. Greenleaf likes to say. I’ll bet you didn’t notice that we had David blurb it on the dust jacket. Counterintuitive, Mr. Greenleaf called it -- having a dealer whose shows Jonathan has sometimes scourged, complimenting him. ‘Love him or hate him, read him you must,’ or something like that."

"Clever," was all Tom could come up with.

"And, oh yes, my father asked me to recommend which of the several photographs in the current show he should buy. If he’s going to collect this fellow, he said, he wants to be majority owner. So maybe I do ‘do art’ after all."

Helen said those last words with the tiniest inference that she might be willing to include Tom’s art under that rubric. The possibility seared his consciousness all the way home.


PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery.