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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
7.
Quite abruptly, the magazine assigned an outsider as a new Mullah "upper-editor" for the entire "back of the book," which included Arthur’s Entertainment Plus section. Diane MacEvilly came from the culture department of the Financial Journal where she had been, among other things, Jonathan Hirsch’s direct editor. Now she was going to upper-edit Arthur’s stuff once Marsha got through with it.

Diane MacEvilly looked to Arthur to be in her mid-to-late-thirties. She was attractive, in a general sense, but entirely unsexy to Arthur. Which was a good thing for him. He would be able to feel free, in what he expected to be their infrequent and entirely business-related encounters, to enjoy her generic prettiness, tailored poise and subtle perfume without trying to peer down her blouse or musing on the buttocks lurking underneath her dark blue pinstriped skirts, hemmed discreetly at the knee. The husband -- whichever Westchester pseud he was -- who’d furnished her with easily the biggest engagement-ring rock in the history of the magazine, could take care of that.

The incumbent Mullahs threw a little welcome lunch for Ms. MacEvilly in one of the smaller dining rooms off the main executive dining room, which was located on a floor designated, by management, in backlighted, anodized aluminum letters opposite the elevators, "Estate No. 4."  It was called "OTR" by labor. The initials stood for "off the record," and alluded to the periodic lunches the editor-in-chief held with prominent persons in the news. Other attendees at these dog-and-pony shows would be a couple of Mullahs, and a writer or two whose specialties fell within the eminence’s turf. In return for dropping some inside poop on the magazine’s table, the special guest received a very good meal and an absolute promise that whatever he or she said was not for quotation. The main dining room was often used for purposes other than dining: in-house press conferences announcing one of the magazine’s endless and difficult-to-detect "total redesigns," late-night closing dinners for special projects, ribald farewells for longtime staffers and gallows-humor memorials to recently deceased longtime staffers. Real journalists were supposed to be able to laugh, Arthur supposed, in the face of death.

At the lunch for Ms. MacEvilly (Arthur never quite got comfortable with "Diane") the new Mullah was surprisingly gosh-and-golly about "meeting all the fascinating people here involved in the arts." She obviously meant by that not only the staff writers in the section -- the jock-sniffers of movies, TV, pop music, theater, best-selling books and art -- but the people they wrote about, and their fabulous friends, too. She told Arthur she was especially interested in getting to know something about contemporary art, and suggested a tour of the Chelsea galleries, guided by him, in the very near future. Weeks later, Arthur had yet to hear a peep from her about it.

But he heard a lot about her. Ms. MacEvilly was apparently rigid in the extreme about how she thought a story should be structured. For instance, the "roadsign" (the single sentence that "tells the reader exactly why he should read the story") should never show up any farther down in the story than the second sentence of the second paragraph. The thinking behind the rule was that the writer got an opening paragraph to set up the story -- "the ol’ weather opening," "the mystery person opening," "the startling quote opening," etc. -- and the first sentence of the second paragraph to signal a transition to the meat-and-potatoes part of the story. The very next sentence must function as the roadsign.

In spite of how she chirped at the lunch, Ms. MacEvilly turned out to be absolutely unashamed -- even proud -- of her Know-Nothing philistinism. In her second week, she took Kerri Mitchell’s review of some brainless CD by a brainless boy band (which Kerri had indeed deemed "brainless") and, after Marsha had essentially given it a free pass (two "better word?" queries in the margins, a question about the spelling of the bassist’s last name, and a nice tongue in the ear at the end), tore it to shreds. Ms. MacEvilly went absolutely ballistic about the roadsign ("Here we are at the end of the third ¶, without a clue whether you think this album is worth the reader’s $17 or not. Come ON!"), trumpeted her musical ignorance ("Who gives a crap which ‘70s punkers influenced them?"), and threw in a personal insult for good measure. "Kerri," it said. "You’re one of our stars, but you can’t merely phone it in when you feel lazy. Our readers expect your very best -- every time!"

The E+ writers -- who’d read the edit in the "open queues" of the magazine’s computer system -- unanimously opined that Ms. MacEvilly’s show of power was simply a show of power, a shot across everybody’s bow indicating that the briefest of honeymoons with the critics was over. And for Marsha, it was a public schooling in how a woman with real balls should perform take-no-prisoners editing.

Marsha said nothing to her writers. She calmly parted the little Red Sea they formed when gathered to cluck in the hallway, and made her way upstairs to Ms. MacEvilly’s office. When she returned, she called Kerri. The pop music writer habitually kept her office door open, and Arthur could hear all of her side of the conversation. He figured that Marsha told Kerri that she’d gotten Ms. MacEvilly to retract de facto most of her complaints, but that the electronic marginalia for many of them had been left on the draft. Kerri was to make the most minimal cosmetic fixes for them so that Ms. MacEvilly wouldn’t be hung totally out to dry. In return, the new Mullah would replace the dick in the ear at the end of the review with "Thorough and witty takedown, but I’ll probably still buy it for my 12-year-old son." Kerri read the compliment out loud and laughed so hard Arthur’s little inflatable Edvard Munch screamer fell off his bookshelf.

The MacEvilly contretemps, albeit experienced only indirectly by Arthur on a Friday night, put him in an even worse mood than normal for a Saturday round of the Chelsea galleries. Understandably, he didn’t invite Diane McEvilly along.

*     *     *
Arthur started late because there were a couple of Satuday night openings he wanted to caboose onto his tour. Arthur’s encountering Tom Mannheim again actually occurred before Arthur arrived at the "gala" (the word appeared on the Lucy Keller Gallery announcement card) opening for the debut solo show of Charika Wilber. (Quincy Wilber-Carr’s sister didn’t hedge the honoring of her mother by merely prefixing her mother’s last name to her father’s by means of a hyphen. She simply deep-sixed her father, whom she’d never liked much anyway.) Sharon Mannheim stood about four feet back from the sidewalk, in a tiny alley too narrow for any motor vehicle. Her shoulders were hunched over and Arthur heard her say in a loud whisper, "Hurry up!"

He paused in midstride and said cheerfully, "Is that Sharon Mannheim?" Sharon turned around and Tom coughed.

"Oh, hi. It’s. . . it’s. . . I can’t see," she said, giving Arthur a squinting military salute to shield her eyes from the glare of a streetlight.

"Arthur. The critic," he said.

"Oh," she said and went silent for a few seconds. Then, as if a switch had been turned back on, "Hello, Arthur. Come on back here for a second. It’s nothing weird. We’re. . . Tom’s just. . ."

One step in and Arthur could see Tom dragging on a joint. Tom shuffled his feet like a soft-shoe dancer, walked several more feet back into the alley and exhaled marijuana exhaust through a chainlink fence. He returned to where Sharon and Arthur stood and said, "Sorry, I was having a toke. I need something to round off the edges at an opening like this."

"Perfectly understandable," said Arthur.

"Otherwise," Tom said, "I know I’ll get desperate, angry, intimidated, sad and happy, all at the same time. If any wine gets in me, happy loses out. And I’d rather not feel shitty tonight."

"No apologies necessary," Arthur replied.

"Want a hit?" Tom asked.

"No thanks," Arthur said, and explained that, while he wasn’t above an occasional puff, tonight he thought he’d stick to the same alterers-of-consciousness everybody else was consuming. That way he could partake of the consensus vibe, whatever the fuck that was going to be.

"So art critics are like policeman -- never really off-duty?" Sharon asked him with either charm or malice. Arthur couldn’t detect which. He hoped charm was the operative mode. Sharon looked great: smart tailored late fall coat over nice black slacks and a shiny purple blouse. Tonight, too, her lipstick (deep pink) went surprisingly well with what she wore. Arthur tried to smile easily at her, a shruggy, hands-in-the-pocket kind of smile. He couldn’t tell if it came off.

"Simple practicality," he said. "I know I’m going to have at least a couple of glasses of wine. I’m going to be talking to people and I don’t want to be conspicuous by holding up my palm and saying no thanks to the roving servers. Better I should hold something and sip it just like other people do." Arthur, of course, didn’t reveal that he hadn’t had sex in weeks and that, at an occasion like this, with beaucoup des beautées on view, marijuana would make him horny to the precipice of blue balls. Three cups of gallery grigio and he’d probably make a sincere pass at someone seriously out of his league and manage to embarrass himself, his magazine, his city of residence, his country, and his mother in Moline.

"You make it sound like work," said Sharon, increasing the odds against charm.

"Last call for goofy bush," Tom said. "I’m going to stub out the joint, and pocket the roach. Sure you don’t want a hit?"

"Can’t you see the man’s on duty?" said Sharon as much to Arthur as to Tom. The friendly irony in her voice, he felt, made charm a slightly better bet.

Tom, Sharon and Arthur formed a little threesome climbing the steps of what had once been a loading dock before being converted by yet another stylish young architect into a gallery’s formal porch. If people noticed them, they most likely thought Sharon and Arthur were the couple and Tom was their artist-friend. Tom had not shaken that awful striving artist’s habit of wearing studio clothes to gallery openings. The construction boots were a particular giveaway. Giveaway of what, of merely being an artist? Tom asked himself. He knew some of his own faults, but not all of them.

Like practically every other human being on the face of the planet, Tom was full of himself but convinced, at the same time, that he wasn’t worth a shit. We are all combinations of those two things, Tom knew. Most people keep them in some kind of workable balance. Artists, however, should appear to be out of balance on that front. If they want to appeal to dealers or collectors, they should be either overtly overconfident boors or timid, sensitive little souls. The one thing dealers and collectors can’t stand is a balanced artist. Dealers want to say to collectors, in effect, "The artist who did this can’t rein in his tortured but creative personality, and I’m the only one who can act as a conduit between him and polite society."

Collectors say to dealers, in effect, "Look, if I’m going to plunk down mid-five figures for somebody who’s not in a major museum collection, I want him at least to be a genuine weirdo." Nothing spoils that little mutual backscratching more than a balanced artist who’s overconfident enough to show up in work clothes and simultaneously timid enough to feel he has to show up, period. Or the reverse.

Sharon and Arthur decided not to wait to be brought drinks, and headed for the bar. Tom said he’d hang at the reception desk.

"You think it’ll be any good?" Sharon asked Arthur on the way.

He trotted out a standard recital. "The third-worst show you can see is an installation by a really bad artist. The second-worst is an installation by a really bad artist with too much money. The worst is an installation by a really bad artist with too much money and a new baby."

"Tom said Chakira Wilber is married to a rich white lawyer and they just had a kid," Sharon said.

"Three for three," Arthur replied.

"No, just two, Arthur," Sharon said. "Chakira Wilber has usually done installations before, in the group shows Tom’s seen. But he says that she decided to get out from under her brother’s shadow for her first solo and go with separate things, hung in a horizontal row on the wall."

"Separate art objects hung on a wall, next to each other in a row" Arthur said. "What will these young artists think of next!" As they arrived at the bar, two Asian art students moved aside to let them get to the counter. Arthur was momentarily embarrassed.

"Red," said Sharon.

"White, please," Arthur said.

While one bartender scrambled to fish another bottle of white from the huge black plastic garbage can filled with melting ice and another searched for a corkscrew to apply to a new bottle of merlot, Arthur did a quick surveil of the crowd. Sexagenarian surgery queens, check. Their husbands with minds on other things, check. Their bored grown daughters, born late in their mothers’ lives, check. Male lawyers in their early forties, in just-popped-by- from-a-meeting-with-a-client suits, check. A few young women who looked like slightly older, slightly fatter versions of the auction-house greeters Arthur had met five or six years ago, check. (These were the auction-house greeters; they’d accomplished their missions and married in the interval, several of them to those lawyers.) Young artists: aggressively resentful, or happy to make the scene, or going through the motions. Check, check and check.

Arthur once would have thought that kind of social taxonomy was probably just a bit too cynical, a little too opinionated. Now he knew it wasn’t. When Arthur had first come to New York, everybody he just mentioned, except the young artists, would have been white. Now Ed Koch’s "glorious mosaic" had extended it’s corn-and-bean-salad colored tiles into the serious lookie-loo’s and genuine purchasing classes. The aggregate within the serious onlookers, in fact, had reached the same degree of non-whiteness as that of the young artists. There were only so many smart black and Latino kids, after all, who cared to forsake a beachhead in more established, stable and lucrative professions such as banking or real estate, for a long shot at being an "emerging artist" picked up by David Thornton or Timothy Freelander or Lucy Keller and, eventually, collected by the Modern Museum. White kids privileged enough to be allowed to major in art at expensive colleges, on the other hand, had no real sense of urgency about their lives as a whole. They could afford to play in this sandbox.

"Here you are, sir," the bartender said to Arthur’s back.

When, drink in hand, Arthur turned around, Sharon Mannheim was gone. Somehow, that hurt his feelings. He’d assumed, as one assumes these passing things in a millionth of a second, that they would continue their conversation wine cups in hand. She would defend Charika Wilber’s art out of feminist loyalty to another mother whom she didn’t know and whose work she hadn’t yet seen. Arthur would play the winningly open-minded expert and concede that Sharon had a social point or two -- yes, it was harder for a woman, especially a black woman, to get off the schneid in the art world -- but he would add that the proof of either view lay in the work itself, which they hadn’t seen. Then they’d shove off into the crowd to examine a few examples together, laughing and chatting about all manner of things, not just art. Fuck Tom.

Sharon had apparently assumed otherwise, so Arthur ambled off, cleaving near to the perimeter walls of the gallery, to see the little works of art up close. At an opening, Arthur knew, people gathered in the center of a gallery, to talk to each other and not look at the art. Nearest the art, one had all the room in the world.

A little voice spoke to Arthur. It was a voice familiar to him, but one that spoke up when Arthur was least expecting it. The voice always said the same thing: "Not bad."

In his mind, Arthur replied to it: "Really? You think Chakira Wilber’s work isn’t bad? What the hell has it got going for it that anything else in Chelsea ain’t got?"

The little voice repeated the same two words, more quietly but with increased persuasiveness. Arthur looked at the art again. Wire, threads, frozen drops of some clear liquid, large bits of cardboard, smaller bits of archival rag paper, a little glue, a few pieces of balsa wood, and hairy twine. A full-on attempt at direct visual poetry. No pretentious narrative, no whining memoir, no special pleading, no self-righteous scolding, no empty posturing. Just modest materials adroitly manipulated in precariously graceful configurations. The two works Arthur saw most closely worked marvelously, the two to either side (when he moved to them momentarily) less so. Still, if these four were T.S. Eliot’s "objective correlative" of the inner state of Chakira Wilber, Arthur thought, she must be one brilliant woman.

Even better, after one perambulation of the entire exhibition space he still had hardly a clue as to how the works really worked. They ran counter to several of Arthur’s esthetic principles. One said that there should be a very tight cap imposed on twee. A second declared that forty-seven shades of beige, the master printmaker’s perennial fail-safe formula, was the most cowardly way to cohere a work. A third cautioned that delicately abject materials handled with reverence usually signaled artistic self-congratulation at its worst. Chakira Wilber flouted all three, yet won Arthur’s heart. She prompted that little voice -- dejectedly silent for so long -- to pipe up. This was no mean feat on a leg-weary critic who otherwise hadn’t seen one fucking thing he really liked all day long.

Arthur would have departed the opening in a good mood -- Sharon Mannheim’s deserting him at the wine altar notwithstanding -- had he not witnessed two dispiriting occurrences on his way out. The first was Jonathan Hirsch, drunker than the proverbial skunk, deep in conversation with Arthur’s much more famous counterpart at the other major news magazine, the fellow who commanded five dollars per word (plus expenses) at fashion magazines whose pages were shinier and thicker than the cover stock at the magazine Arthur wrote for. Nothing prima facie wrong with that, Arthur conceded. He could have easily butted in. In fact, he’d started in their direction when he saw Jonathan’s right hand, heretofore inactive hanging at jacket-hem level, flick out and touch his conversant’s forearm.
 
Aw shit, Arthur thought, reading the gesture instantly and perfectly. The gesture said, "Please be more to me than just another art world brother-in-arms. I am a terribly, terribly lonely man." It bothered Arthur greatly to witness Jonathan beg, even if he was in his cups.

Jonathan, who lived alone, had a bad habit of trying to hit on straight men, though more out of some kind of emotional need than a physical one. The other critic was the art guy at the magazine directly competing with Arthur’s. He was as Falstaffian-het as they came, though with that many defunct marriages there were inevitable rumors. The critic quickly moved his forearm away. Jonathan looked up into his eyes. The critic bellowed a change of subject, something about "simply must come to Tasmania with me sometime," intended to becloud jovially the gaffe that had just been committed. As Arthur was about to execute a U-turn, Jonathan averted his gaze from that of Arthur’s counterpart. It fell on Arthur. Jonathan had seen Arthur see him. There were some sights that cut through any degree of drunkenness and seared themselves on the next day’s sober consciousness. Arthur feared for Jonathan that this would be one of them.  

Arthur moved quickly from Jonathan, determined to find the exit that precluded his saying goodbye to Sharon, who’d wordlessly crossed his path looking like she wanted to pick up the lost thread of their original conversation. Near the door, standing to the side of the heavy traffic in and out, Tom Mannheim and Helen Issacson stood in deep discussion. At least Tom was deeply discussing something, but Helen wasn’t fending him off. Stoned, he was telling her his life story. Arthur could suss that out without hearing a word, just as he could intuit the heavy implication, however obfuscated by distance, that Tom’s oral autobiography would end up with the "ain’t it the damndest thing" conclusion that he had wound up with the wrong woman. A wonderful, sexy, intelligent, responsible woman, the kind every male artist should have, but, alas, the wrong one for him.

No woman is the perfect woman, Helen’s listening eyes would say. Helen’s eyes would also ask, But I can’t imagine any real person who could possibly come closer to being ideal for you than Sharon, can you? The whole face, body and soul of Tom Mannheim would silently give her his answer.

The little married fuck, Arthur said to himself.

*     *     *
The next week, Arthur called Helen at Castle / Cartwright "just to chat," and to tell her how disappointed he was not to have been able to talk to her in person at Chakira Wilber’s opening. He said he thought Chakira was perhaps a better artist than her brother. Helen said she missed chatting with Arthur, too. Arthur said that Sharon Mannheim and he both liked Wilber’s work -- implying falsely that they’d walked around the gallery and seen it together -- but that Tom, "who wandered off somewhere," hadn’t conveyed an opinion to him.

Helen avoided the trap. "Tom doesn’t strike me as somebody who’s quickly opinionated about other people’s art," she said. Then, retroactively trying to soften the blow, she added, "I didn’t mean that you are. It’s your business to have opinions about art, and you have a wealth of background and experience to draw upon."

Arthur tried draw her into a discussion about Charika Wilber, about her brother Quincy, about Lucy Keller’s going in for younger artists, about Andy Warhol, about Pollock, about Picasso, about anything. But Helen was either shockingly dense, or just wouldn’t play. After seven or eight strained attempts, Arthur finally blurted out, "The magazine’s sending me to California, to see a couple of shows, one in L.A., one in San Diego. Whichever tickles my fancy gets reviewed. I’ll be gone four or five days. Would you like to have dinner when I get back?"

"That’s certainly a possibility," Helen said brightly, partially reimbursing him in tone for what her answer lacked verbatim. Arthur’s heart filled to overflowing with hope.


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