Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button








THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
8.
The video monitors, projectors, relays, cables, couplings and adapters lay more or less in the same state as when they’d arrived several days ago, in a single load on a dented truck with Borough Park Photo & Electronics lettered on its bruised cargo box. Two young Hasidic men had carried the gear from the truck to the street-level door to the stairs leading to Tom Mannheim’s second-floor studio without the use of a dolly. They refused a ten-dollar tip apiece for their labor. Tom and Jimmy O’Doole had carried the boxes upstairs. Tom had opened a couple of the boxes, and was tiptoeing into the first stages of assembly.

As the truck drove away, Jimmy O’Doole said to Tom, in the Uncle Tom dialect he assumed when he thought Tom was wrong, or had screwed up, "Now we’se sho’ up de  creek, Massuh Thomas. What you done saved on the discount, you’se gwine to have to pay back, and mo,’ to some jive-ass video consultant to come over and tell us two cottonfield niggers how to put all dis shit together and make it work."

Tom ignored him. "Jimmy, hand me the yellow video-out cable," he said, sitting on a carpet of corrugated cardboard.

"Yellow be video-in, Thomas," Jimmy answered. He was working five feet away, on the sculpture itself, giving the beams a patina.

"It says ‘out’ on the diagram," Tom said.

"Takes an expert to read that diagram," Jimmy answered, resuming one of his more conventional voices.

"No, it doesn’t. This is written for non-professionals. I can handle it. I just need a little bit of time."

"What’s time to a hawg?" said Jimmy, repeating the punchline of a joke Tom had told him.

Tom and Jimmy went on like the Bickersons for a couple more hours. Between whines and jibes and puns and jokes, Jimmy slowly colored the sculpture to Tom’s specifications -- a golden-ish pewter tint which was supposed to both preserve the "integrity" of the steel and preview an eventual bronze version, on view some fine day at a Howard Edelman development. Tom, like a slow learner in nursery school trying to make a model city out of Tinker Toys, connected and unconnected cables to various electronic boxes.

Eventually, conversation ran thin. Jimmy stood back from his labor and asked Tom, "Waddaya think? Still too light?"

Tom said, "Mmm," and nodded his head inattentively. He scooted his butt away from the nest of cables in front of him and asked Jimmy to bring him another component.

Jimmy said, "Sure," and brought it. He rolled his eyes, but only because Tom couldn’t see him do it.

Early in the afternoon, Jimmy decided to broach a subject that had been bothering him. "What’s happening with the teaching job?" he asked.

Tom was standing, draped in leis of electrical cord, a snake-laden shaman for the digital age. Or the court jester. "I don’t know," he said, his right hand caressing the red cable which passed over his palm while his left hand held a folded sheet of paper containing another diagram. "I should probably get my ass over to the Academy very soon and check on it. Today, in fact."

"So you’re going to do it," Jimmy said.

"Yeah, probably. Why? Something wrong?

"How many classes?" Jimmy asked.

"I’m hoping for two."

"That’ll really cut into your studio time," Jimmy said evenly, unsuccessfully trying to disguise his vested interest.

The penny dropped for Tom. "And your studio time, too, you mean," he said.

Jimmy hesitated. "Yeah, that’s part of it."

"I’m your only gig?"

Jimmy tucked his staining rag into his back pocket, bent over and carefully set the can of colorant on the studio floor. "Thomas, you’re not my only gig, no. But you are my main gig, the one I depend on for my basic income, know what I mean? Everything else I hustle up here and there. It comes and goes. You know that. A little helping out a brother who’s deejaying, a little deejaying myself when the brother can’t show up, a little unloading a truckful of sneaks for a store, a little what you might call ‘miscellaneous’ for people I meet -- homies from B-Ville, you know."

"Does ‘miscellaneous’ mean illegal?" Tom asked, knowing the answer.

"Aw, c’mon, Thomas. Sure, sometimes. I hang a little lookout for some guys while a deal goes down. But I ain’t in on it. I’m just hanging on the corner with a cell phone, ready to give the word if somebody who ain’t ‘sposed to be there shows up. Not a lot of gold in it for me, but it’s quick and an uneducated nigger like me can’t afford to turn down nothin.’"

"You can get sucked in," Thomas said with ecclesiastical seriousness.

"I’m very careful, man. I don’t want to get sucked in. I don’t want to know what’s going down, and they don’t want me to know what’s going down in case I get rousted by the cops. And nobody’s offering me a cut of anything, because they know what a fuckin’ clean-ass nigger I am."

"Please cut the N-word, Jimmy," Tom said.

"Yassuh, Massuh Thomas. You be practicing pee-cee for the Academy?"

"Look, Jimmy," Tom said, dropping the electrical cords. "I’ve got to bring in some money, just like you. Howard Edelman’s stipend doesn’t cover what it costs me to run my studio, and, frankly, I’m a little worried about him. His health. I don’t want to be a total selfish bastard, but if what he’s going through gets worse, it could put a big dent in what he can afford to pay me to keep going on the commission. And -- I don’t want to lay all my troubles bare, but what the fuck -- David Thornton isn’t doing me a hell of a lot of good lately, either. As I keep telling you, Jimmy, babies need shoesies."

"So when you’re out copping footwear for your daughters," Jimmy said, "what’s gonna be left over for me?"

Tom thought about throwing Jimmy a rescue line of exaggerated hope. He reconsidered. Be a man, he told himself. "A couple of half-days. Some weeks only one. A couple times during the semester, when I’m doing crits or grades or some bullshit faculty meeting or something, I may not get here at all."

"Shit," said Jimmy. A bit of genuine despondency crept into his voice.

"Sorry, I want to be honest with you." Tom said.

Jimmy answered: "Honest would have been not waiting until I brought up the subject."

"My bad," said Tom. "But that won’t change the sitch."

"Well, Thomas, what if it’s me who can’t make it now and then?"

"My back’s to the fucking wall with this," Tom said. "You know that. If I don’t get this version done, photographed, and all cherried out for David to come over to see it, then I don’t get on his schedule until. . . man, until who the fuck knows when! If David doesn’t show the goddamned piece -- my magnum fucking opus -- or at least schedule showing the thing, then maybe Howard backs out. Maybe he even cuts back the stipend immediately -- I don’t have a written contract, you know. Anyway, why wouldn’t you be able to show up?"

"Another job, maybe," Jimmy said. "‘Scheduling conflict,’ as you smart-ass art-world motherfuckers like to say."

"What other jobs? More deejaying? I hope not more lookout-ing." Tom said, sounding like a third-grade teacher trying to save a pupil from a life of crime.

"Quincy Wilber-Carr."

"Quincy Wilber-Carr! How’d that come up?" Tom was astonished.

"A party. Lindsey Hyde."

"That black dealer, with the gallery up in Harlem?" Tom asked, knowing full well who Hyde was.

"He’s moving to Chelsea. Quincy’s gonna be the opening show." 

"But Quincy’s committed to. . . "

"Quincy calls his own shots, Thomas," Jimmy said, starting to enjoy sticking it to Tom a bit. "He shows where he wants. He don’t do ‘commitments’ to dealers. He told me that."

"He told you that?"

"At the party," Jimmy said. "Mister Hyde is a Brooklyn brother, it turns out. He’s got a big fucking loft in your Greenpoint, right in the middle of all that gentrification and preservation bullshit. You know, that stuff that white folks do when they move into darkie neighborhoods to convince themselves it’s all for the benefit of society as a whole. Anyway, the gallery started in Harlem and Lindsey stayed just long enough to make a statement."

"And what the fuck kind of statement would that be?" Tom asked, anger beginning to rise in him.

"Hey, you know," said Jimmy. "A statement that real art can exist uptown, too, and it can be sold to rich uptown folks. ‘Uptown’ means black, Thomas. No need to kiss the asses of rich whiteys in Tribeca to stay in business."

"Don’t patronize me, Jimmy, and I won’t patronize you."

Jimmy said nothing.

"So, let me get this straight," Tom said. "You get invited to some kind of big art party at Lindsey Hyde’s place in Greenpoint, and Quincy comes up to you and makes you an offer to jump from me over to him?" Tom felt the hot flush of righteous pissed-offedness.

"No, Thomas, he didn’t," Jimmy said, assuming that Bette Davis posture. "But Lindsey did ask me if I had any free time coming up, because he’d heard about me through David Thornton and thought I might be able to help him meet this big deadline for the show. It’s a long way away, Quincy said, but it’s still a deadline. I said I didn’t know, I’d have to check your schedule. My first priority is with you, I told him. And it is, Thomas. But don’t go getting all gooey about that. Quincy pays less than you do. Fifteen an hour, and he won’t go above that. He’s got a whole lotta art-student hotshots lined up to work for him for fucking free, he says. But he’d rather have a real pro, like me, he says. Still, he can’t go twenty an hour."

Jimmy continued: "One more thing, Thomas. You’re not my only contact with the big, sophisticated world outside B-ville. I have a lotta friends, you know, who aren’t deejays or coke dealers. I know some actors, some dancers, and some poets. The poets ain’t just rappers, either. Some of those people know Lindsey. That’s how an invite to the big loft party came my way. Lindsey was glad to meet me. He said he might even be needing a preparing guy. . . "

"Preparator. Pre-pare-a-tor," Tom said, using the first rhetorical blade that came to mind. Jimmy was hurting his feelings.

"Whatever the fuck," Jimmy said. Tom could be so trivial. "But I don’t want to work in an art gallery, with all that selling to rich whiteys bullshit that goes on. I told him I don’t mind working with artists, though. That’s when he took me over to Quincy. And just for patronizing me with that ‘pre-pare-a-tor’ shit, I’ll tell you something else. David Thornton was there, too."

"David?" Tom was aghast.

"David isn’t a big fan of Lindsey," Jimmy said. "He thinks the new, slick black guy on the block will take business away from him. You know what? He’s right! So it’s like a spy thing. Lindsey invites David ‘cause he wants to show he’s a brother who’s moved to the bigtime now. Pride. David comes ‘cause he gets to see how the man operates. Envy. And David also comes, Jimmy Oh-Dee here thinks, so he can get a piece of Quincy for himself."

"You think so?" Tom asked, now quite miserable.

"I saw it, Thomas. Whatever that story is about ‘Doctor Somebody and Mister Hyde,’ it might’ve kinda been like that. Your man David is good. Right now, he’s better than Lindsey, but Lindsey is young and he’s learning fast. He’ll probably end up better than David."

"Better at what?"

"You know," Jimmy said, a little exasperated at telling Tom what Tom already knew, or should have known. "What those art dealers do. Get almost as much as the artists do for their art, just by putting it in front of rich whiteys to look at. And at the same time, they get more money because they’re getting half of the retail price, as fucking much as the poor artist gets. And a dealer reps -- how many? -- fifteen, twenty artists? Even a dumb nigger like me can do the math on that, man. The dealer takes in fifteen, twenty times what one of his stupid artists gets. And don’t bullshit me about gross and business expenses and all that. Dealers make out. They get more famous than the fucking artists, too. You really gonna have to hustle your ass real hard to get as famous as Mister David Thornton. No shit, and no disrespect to you, either. That’s just the way this art thing is."

"Christ," Tom said barely above a whisper. He sat down atop the pile of electrical cords.

"What’s so scary about that, Thomas?" Jimmy said. "You gotta know this shit already."

"David is chasing a hot video artist, and a hot black video artist, to boot," Tom said, agitatedly stroking the side of his face with one hand. "And here I am with this huge, self-induced project that I’m hoping -- hoping against hope, in fact -- will do both the things any artist wants his work to do: maintain his personal artistic integrity and make him famous because, bottom line, the right people like it. Quincy’s got a helluva lot more of the right people lined up than I do. And if he comes over to David, I’ll go to a back burner that’s way, way back from the fucking one I’m already on." Tom patted his pockets for a pack of cigarets. He didn’t have any. Jimmy took out one of his own pack, lighted it, and handed it to Tom.

"Hardly anybody gets both fame and integrity, Jimmy," Tom said, the words accompanied by a small blast of white smoke. "Only the really good ones and the greats. De Kooning, or Serra or Eva Hesse. The merely successful artists I see around me, the ones I’m busting my ass to try to be like, haven’t gotten both. All they’ve gotten is the second one -- the right people liking their art. And that’s because the right people liking their art is all they really want. They think the old thing about ‘integrity’ is some kind of white, male oppressive bullshit. They think that even if they’re white males themselves. The white male artists I see making it don’t think the charges apply to them. They’ve figured out how to be smooth and dogmatic at the same time. They think the interesting thing is the game itself: to get the right people to like their art by ironically imitating the mannerisms of integrity. Sometimes they do it in their work -- look at all those fucking painters who can imitate the appearance of struggle. All that dripping and scraping and reworking -- it’s all fake, like ‘distressing’ a new piece of furniture by hitting it with a chain to make it look antique. Mostly, though, they do it in their public lives -- all that glowering and wearing black and shaving their heads. They know that’s what ‘rich whiteys,’ as you call them, think that artists of integrity look like. So they dress up to fit the part."

Tom got up off the floor and started to pace back and forth. He paused occasionally to drag deeply on his cigaret.

"What scares me, Jimmy, is maybe I’m too much like that, too. Maybe all I really want is the right people to like my sculpture -- people like  David, Mel Issacson, that Arthur Whateverthefuckhisnameis, the critic, and a whole bunch of younger sexy people who have the money, or whose families have the money, to hang in the art world and maybe buy some stuff." He stopped and looked up at the ceiling.

"Maybe I’m just faking the artistic integrity thing, or maybe it’s just habit from all those years of getting taught and then trying to teach myself that I’m the real thing -- you know, a fucking artist. I think I’m one, but I don’t really know. So the only way I can find out is to go out and do this big goddamned piece and put everything I’ve got into it, come hell or high water."

Tom dropped the butt on the floor and ground it out with his boot. "I’ll get what I deserve," he said. "If a few people who are too much like me like it, but it fails in the art world, then I’ll know I’m one of those artists who grow old in coffee shops and sit around griping. And then I’ll have to decide whether I’m that much of a passionate, driven artist to keep going straight ahead with my art in spite of looking like a fucking failure.

"On the other hand, if I get to show the piece at David’s and it gets good reviews and Howard orders up a second and I sell some spinoff to museums, but none of the people I really respect like it, then I’ll know I’ll be successful but maybe kind of hollow underneath. Then I’ll have to decide if I want to go through life feeling like that, if that’s the way I want to live out the rest of my life."

Jimmy stared out the window. "So what does Quincy have to do with any of this shit?" he said. "What your reality turns out to be shouldn’t be affected by Quincy at all." Jimmy had suddenly turned earnest, wanting to help Tom find a way out of his misery.

"Oh, but it sure as hell is!" Tom shouted. Then he calmed down. "I know that hardly anybody gets both integrity and success, but we all want both. Like people who buy lottery tickets, we think the odds don’t apply to us because we’re somehow personally special. Every time we put something out there, we hope so hard we’re going to get both that we end up thinking we are going to get both. We’re fucking disappointed when once again it doesn’t turn out that way. Worse, we almost always get the same half: we come away with our useless fucking artistic integrity intact. We’re on way to the coffee shop. I mean, if I’m going to fall short, why can’t I fall short on the side of the right people liking my art? If I sell a whole lot of work and get rich enough to buy a floor in a building somewhere, and at the same time I see the handwriting on the wall that I’m not a creative genius, and start to turn out nice, respectable variations on a theme for the rest of my life, that doesn’t make me a sellout or a criminal. I’m just an intelligent artist whose work got as good as it could get under the illusion of artistic integrity, and who recognized his limits and didn’t overreach his talent. If I sell a lot of work or this commission, which isn’t going to happ. . . Shit, I can’t say it. All I can say is that right now the odds are a lot more than fifty-fifty that I’ll end up in the coffee shop."

"You’re not making any sense, man," Jimmy said.

"It’s simple, Jimmy," Tom said, with the veins in his neck standing out. "I’m an artist. I want both. To get both, I can’t lose either. Artistic integrity, I can’t ‘do’ anything about. I’ve either got it or I haven’t. It’s like DNA telling me whether Thomas Jefferson is my ancestor or not. I can’t ‘do’ anything to make it fall one way or the other. I just have to sit and wait for the results of the test to come in. Showing this big fucking thing -- that ’ll be the test and the results will just come in. But I can do something about giving myself a chance to take the test. I can push David to treat me better as an artist in the gallery’s stable. I can push him to show the piece as soon as possible."

Tom turned around to look directly at Jimmy. "If David takes on Quincy, then I’m pushed further down the pecking order. Worse, David won’t treat me like an asset to the group of artists the gallery represents. He’ll treat me like I should be grateful just to have my drawings for sale in the back room."

Jimmy said nothing to that and Tom, having made himself feel even worse with his soliloquy, retired to the studio’s little office, formerly a shop steward’s cubby, and the phone. He picked it up and punched buttons. David Thornton wasn’t in -- a relief in immediate retrospect, for Tom had no idea what he’d have said had he gotten the dealer on the line. Perhaps he’d have caved to a Project Room show of drawings; perhaps he’d have whined some more about showing the big, still untitled sculpture; perhaps he’d have just asked for some face time and put himself in the same situation -- "what the fuck will I say when I get David sitting down and listening" -- only more painful for its being in the flesh.

So Tom punched more buttons and called Tony Givens at the Academy. Tony was in, but sounded distracted. He asked Tom to call back in twenty minutes, half an hour. Tom said, "In that case, I’d rather come over, in person. Is that O.K.?"

"Sure," said Dean Givens. "Long time, no see anyway."

Tony Givens was an Australian who managed to speak English with a British accent. It was well short of "impeccable," but good enough to give the impression, which Givens took no trouble to dispel, that he’d been schooled in London rather than in Brisbane. "Look, if I’m out of the office when you get here, I’ve just gone down the hall to get a Coke, or across the street to one of our marvelous neighborhood latté parlors. As soon as I’m recaffeinated, I’ll be right back. My secretary’s off today for some mysterious reason, so just let yourself in and have a seat."

*     *     *
The school, whose chief academic officer Givens was, stood entirely contained within a massive, and century-old, five story brick building in a western corner of the Village, formerly known as "the West Village" during the brief heyday of the East Village in the 1980s, before and after which it was known as Greenwich Village. The building had been built by a manufacturer of electric motors as a residence for his large family (seven children) and its necessary servants. By the time of The Crash in 1929, the family had splintered and scattered for reasons both usual and not, and the motor manufacturer and his wife padded around discontentedly in the capacious but increasingly unlivable mansion (difficult to heat, brick walls in desperate need of pointing, staircases sagging, and more), at the literal mercy of the two remaining members of their onetime platoon-strength staff. The old couple, who’d survived Black Tuesday and its aftermath in astonishingly good financial shape ("Even a Depression needs electric motors," the manufacturer had said), decided to sell and move to a hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.

Amanda Cartwright bought the place, for herself. Her husband, Livingston Cartwright, Jr., tended conscientiously and profitably to an enormous inheritance from Mr. Cartwright, Sr., who’d owned half of Cartwright-Universal Oil, half of the Tribune, three-quarters of the Manhattan American Insurance Corporation, and the whole of Cartwright Publishers, Inc. He preferred not only to reside in his Park Avenue townhouse, but to limit his perambulations in the city to the territory above 34th Street.

Amanda, the mother of Livingston’s two banker sons and poetess daughter, fancied herself a sculptor. She wasn’t bad, but she wasn’t nearly as good as the sculptors she invited to her famous (below 34th Street) or infamous (above 34th Street) soirées. Her legacy, as her beneficiaries would say in confidence, would ultimately be more as a patron of the arts than as an artist. Amanda Cartwright would go down in the history of modern art in New York as a bringer-together of the most flamboyantly bohemian creative personalities of her day, especially after she’d purchased the big brick building in Greenwich Village.

Amanda’s sculpture studio (forge, foundry, kiln) occupied the basement and the entire first floor, where dozens of approximations-in-clay of the human figure stood, supported by heavy wire armatures and in varying states of dryness -- some requiring being swathed in wet towels -- on dozens of wheeled sculpture platforms. The second floor was a gallery for the finished versions of Amanda’s corporeal odes to the eternal beauty of the human body, as well as the works of her friends, peers, and a lover or two. Above the gallery lay "the entertainment rooms," as Amanda called them: a large, opulently furnished salon for her soirées, a couple of smaller chambers with dining tables, for dinner parties of varying sizes, and a huge modern (relative to the times) kitchen. The fourth floor was given over to bedrooms and private bathrooms, the fifth to living quarters for servants and itinerant poets and artists Amanda charitably put up as houseguests.

When Amanda died in the late early 1930s, she bequeathed the entire building and its contents, lock, stock and barrel, to The Atelier League, a group of Amanda’s artistic friends who’d banded together to conduct "classes in the arts which bring together the discipline of Tradition with the progressiveness of the Modern," i.e., meat-and-potatoes life drawing and still-life painting classes for beginners and mutual-admiration painting and sculpture workshops led by one or another of the Biblically bearded "genius" artist particularly favored by Amanda. Although "The League" -- as members of the group liked to call it for a shorthand sense of mission -- conducted their classes outside Amanda’s building (her generosity stopped at the point where her name would slip on the marquee to below that of the collective), Amanda would swoop by now and then to grace one of the classes with her presence and receive the fluttering admiration of the students.

With the gift of the building (briefly, fiercely and unsuccessfully challenged in court by Amanda’s children), The Atelier League changed its name to The Atelier Academy of Modern and Traditional Art. It invited the public to attend -- for reasonable fees -- the wonderful classes now conducted in Amanda’s former studio and showroom, and all "artists of reputation" to partake of its workshops.

A dispute soon broke out, however, between an older faction of the Academy devoted to the "unseverable cord between the achievement of Traditional art and the vision of the Modern" and a group of young turks who wanted to jettison all "reactionary, sentimental, literary and illustrative figuration" in favor of abstraction only.

While they were still arguing, into the early 1960s, over the relative merits of Edward Hopper and Fairfield Porter on the one hand, and Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline on the other, Pop Art reared its ironic head. That development woefully complicated the debate, and an even younger, snottier faction sprang up. They not only affirmed the denunciation of Tradition, but also demanded that the abstractionists allow into the institution’s purview art that aped Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg. The argument was never resolved, but to avoid an irrevocable three-way schism the organization’s name was changed to the simpler "The Atelier Academy of Art."

The big, mostly empty building (the judge awarded Amanda’s children her furniture) and multiple faculty viewpoints led to a profusion of classes, which led in turn to the hiring of teachers from outside the old League’s alumni and fellow travelers. The enlarged faculty organized themselves, of course, and hired an administrator. They gave him the simple title of Administrator in the hope that he’d function as their subservient clerk. He did just that, and followed orders from anybody and everybody. The Academy quickly descended into chaos, with conflicting class schedules, unclear prerequisites for advanced classes, and even competing catalogues. Paying students demanded coherence, so the faculty met, fired the Administrator, and set about hiring another. 

The new one -- a retired curator at the Metropolitan Museum -- took the job under the condition that his title be President of the Academy. Once that request was granted, the President hired an assistant, two secretaries and a part-time public relations officer. The ongoing boom in classes, lectures and small exhibitions (part of the first floor had by then been turned into a gallery for faculty work) justified the staff expansion. The proliferation of classes, its attendant further multiplication of esthetic points of view among the faculty, and the increasingly rancorous disagreements at faculty meetings with no person of authority in place to resolve them (the President declared himself above all that), necessitated the hiring of a Dean.

The first Dean was an alcoholic, fourth-generation Abstract Expressionist who happened to have the M.F.A. degree requisite for a credible listing in the Academy’s now-unified catalogue. He lasted four months. The second was an art historian -- an "independent scholar" because he never managed to complete his doctoral dissertation and couldn’t get a permanent university job -- who lasted twenty years until he died of a stroke in his leather swivel chair. His paramount achievements were to ally the Academy to the nearby University of Manhattan -- where art students could take liberal arts classes -- and thereby get it accredited to offer bachelor’s degrees. He also cleaved the Academy’s curriculum to what he called "hands-on art." Leave the electronic and conceptual flash and filigree to the state colleges, he said. They have the budgets for all the equipment such pretense requires.

After an interim dean dragooned from the faculty struggled for six months before begging to be released from bureaucratic hell, the President proposed tending an offer to Tony Givens, assistant dean and professor of sculpture at the leading art school in Melbourne, Australia. The faculty concurred because Givens, interviewed via a conference call, smoothly came off as though he’d be neither overly friendly nor an outright enemy to any particular faculty faction. In short, the faculty preferred a devil it didn’t know.

Givens was a big success. He charmed the students with his Down Under dash. He even married one after seducing several ("the audition part of our courtship," his wife would tell friends). He drank beer with the faculty and convinced all sides that he could see the merits of all of their points of view. And he got along splendidly with the current President, a woman who’d previously shepherded the vast contemporary art collection of the biggest bank in New York.

The downside to the Australian was that he’d gradually abandoned his own work as a sculptor. First, he downsized and bowdlerized his work so as not to appear to be openly part of any particular faculty clique’s esthetic. Then he said he was "temporarily putting it aside so I can concentrate on making the Academy run as smoothly as it should." Finally, he forsook all pretense of "having a few ideas cooking." That final creative capitulation rendered him -- just an inch or two below the surface -- extremely bitter. The trait took the form of his enjoying the way in which being Dean allowed him to tweak the lives of the working artists who taught at the Academy. He dragged out their promotions, trimmed their raises, toyed with their teaching schedules, and used his anglophile rhetorical gifts in casual beer conversations at the legendary and nearby Cedar Tavern, site of most of the famous artists’ fistfights of the mid-20th century, to subtlely undercut faculty members’ confidence in their own work.

*     *     *
This day, Givens preferred to torment his victim over a big latté brought back in a paper cup.

"So, Tom, do you think you can squeeze in two classes?" he asked.

"Absolutely."

Givens leaned back in his titling chair, toward a wall of bookshelves. His red hair and van Dyke beard, plus rimless eyeglasses lent him the aura of an Impressionist-era dandy. His jeans, running shoes and hooded navy blue sweatshirt imprinted with Hell’s Kitchen gave him the air of a student, or a poseur, or both. Givens was in good shape (he regularly played squash with some deans at the U. of M.), of good size (six feet-two, a few ounces over one-ninety) and greying only slightly. His two kids attended a private school in Greenwich Village founded by Quakers, and his wife, still lovely, taught there. Except for the bile of sculpturelessness slowly percolating in his gut, Givens enjoyed what seemed to be a perfect life.

"They won’t be an interference with Mannheim’s Folly? Just kidding, Tom. So how is it going?"

Tom squatted on a low hassock a few feet away from Givens’s desk. Tom’s knees rose slightly higher than his hips sat. All available chairs providing a more dignified posture were stacked with art books and catalogues. Givens had piled the books there as soon as Tom had said he’d be coming over in person. Being Dean had taught Givens certain negotiating skills.

Tom rubbed his hands together, a sculptor’s way of signaling esthetic thought in progress. "It’s going pretty well. Jimmy -- my studio assistant -- and I have got the basic configuration, which is actually pretty complex, down pretty well. I mean, the thing exists, full-size, in the studio. Jimmy’s been laying a tone on it while I’ve been making some spatial adjustments, and seeing if I can make the break-down points for shipping a little more. . . convenient, practical. And then there’s the video element I’m integrating into it. It’s all coming together."

Givens flashed his very white teeth. First he’d given up his pipe, then he’d gone to a dentist who advertised bleaching treatments on the subway. "So, it’s moving out of the studio sometime soon?" Givens asked, faux-naïvely.

"No, not real soon," Tom said. "One of these days, though, the steel version of it is going to go down to Howard Edelman -- you know, the condo developer who collects -- in Florida. It’s a commission for one of his new complexes. But I want David Thornton to show it first, with all the warts and nicks and shit, so that Howard gets a little pedigree, and some reviews, to go with his commission."

"That’s not quite David’s cuppa, these days, though, is it?" Givens said. He looked straight up at the ceiling, as if checking a diagram of universal verities about art before committing to anything specific. "I mean, he’s been going more and more into very, very. . . how shall we say, elegant?. . . kinds of art. A lot of electronics, a lot of those giant C-print photographs. Quite impressive, but a little too much ‘untouched by human hands’ for my old- fashioned taste. Lately, he doesn’t seem to want to take a chance scratching the floor. That’s not how you see it?"

Tom answered, "Not really. David keeps his fingers in a few different pies. One of them is younger artists, and that kind of work, the kind you’re talking about. But he hasn’t left his core commitment behind. He’s still doing major shows of hardcore painting and sculpture."

"Does he still consider you ‘hardcore’? I mean what with the new video element in this piece?" Givens smiled.

A little rankled at being pushed -- well, a slight nudge at this point -- to defend his own work, Tom began his reply with, "Look," then continued, "What I’m doing is integrating a narrative component into an abstract sculpture. You know, Tony, my sculpture’s always been abstract. I haven’t bounced all over the place trying to keep up, superficially, with what’s ‘hip’ out there in Chelsea. I’ve always believed the longest-lasting art is art that sticks to its guns over the long haul, and particularly if those guns in sculpture are about space and materials and proportion and surface and the rest of it.

"But now I want the work to mean a little more, and to simply exist, physically, a little less. So I’m going to have some monitors -- flat-screen, real sharp rectangles, steel-colored, nothing too showy -- integrated into the sculpture itself. And on the monitors will be images -- I’m working on them right now, with a grad student over at the U. of M. -- derived from family photographs. Not explicit, or corny or sentimental, but derived. And they’ll give the piece an autobiographical flow, a sense of my having had to live my life over time and to having devoted a pretty big fucking chunk of my life to this piece."

Tom took a deep breath. "That’s a minor point, though. The major point is that the narrative flow and the spatial flow of the whole sculpture will be intertwined. I’d like to say ‘one and the same,’ but that’s probably impossible. Hey, if we artists didn’t have the impossible to strive for, we might never get up in the morning, would we?"

Tom got up. His legs were stiff. He paced around the office while Tony interlaced his fingers, placed a knuckle under his lower lip, and considered his reply.

"I guess that’s always the struggle, isn’t it?" Givens asked rhetorically. "To have our artistic cake and eat it, too, in a way. To retain, in your case, the physical and esthetic integrity of a piece of monumental sculpture -- the thing sounds damned big --and yet keep up with recent developments. I must see it in person sometime soon."

"The art world isn’t a static place," Givens continued, throwing his hands in the air to indicate, remarkably effectively, his problems as a Dean dealing with both restless students and restless faculty. "If anybody realizes that it’s me. I wish you well with this Herculean task, I really do."

Before Tom could respond, Givens asked, "And how’s the lovely Sharon? And your two young daughters?"

"They’re all fine," Tom said. He was frustrated, suddenly wanting to talk at length about the great untitled abstract-autobiographical sculpture commandeering his studio. But this little meeting wasn’t about that, he reminded himself, and so he waited for Givens to get back to the matter of classes.

Which Givens did, in a blink. "Two classes, that’s what you’re looking for?"

"Well, Tony," Tom said, "I figured I was automatically good for one. What I’m looking for is one more. And I’ll take the Beginning Drawing class; I’ve decided that’s no problem. I’ve been drawing all along, and David is even interested in doing a drawing show of my work. So I can bring some real energy to the classroom. But. . . "

"But," Tony echoed dubiously.

"I’d really appreciate it if I could get a sculpture class as the second one. I am, after all, a sculptor."

"Three-dimensional design not good enough?" Givens tapped his lower lip with the tip of his finger.

"Sure, Tony, it’s ‘good enough,’" Tom said. "But black and white cardboard cubes and classrooms criss-crossed with black and white yarn, and the rest of it, aren’t quite sculpture. Hey, I can teach the living shit out of three-dimensional design. You know that. But I’d like one of my classes to be one where I can get my artist’s ya-ya’s out, you know -- really show these kids how an artist thinks in three dimensions. It’s like having the students really write something, so to speak, instead of just giving them vocabulary lists and spelling tests."

"I’m with you there, Tom," Givens said with an almost credible fellow-soldier air. "Nobody respects what you bring to the classroom here more than I do. But there might be a bit of a problem with some of the faculty."

"A problem? What the hell kind of ‘problem’?" Tom realized his voice had risen.

"I’ll level with you, Tom" said Givens, leaning forward on his elbows in the time-honored pose of somebody who wants somebody else to think he’s leveling with him. "We’re increasingly a niche market. The whole bloody art world has become a complex of niche markets. I don’t like it, but can’t I control it, and I have to deal with it. Our students don’t come here to get what they can get in the art department at the University of Manhattan. Or uptown at Columbia, or over by Gramercy Park in that hotbed of whoever’s in the ‘Chrysalis Alert’ column of Art Discourse each month. Or at those state colleges out on Long Island and up in Westchester. They come to us for something solid, something no-nonsense."

"What’s that have to do with me and a sculpture class?" Tom asked, more puzzled than pissed off.

"The Academy has an image -- no, a real substance -- of being a place where art is still something you make with your hands by acquiring skills," Givens said. "The skills aren’t entirely crafty craftsmanship stuff, mind you. At the Academy, we’ve got quite a large thought component. But at the Academy, thought has to flow -- to use your word -- out of the end of your arms into your hands and out of your hands into the art. . . ."

Tom interrupted: "I still don’t get it. If anybody works with his goddamned hands on sculpture, it’s me. Here, look!" Tom held up his hands, the backs of them toward Givens. The Dean duly noted all the little scrapes and scabs and, particularly, the thin black crescents under Tom’s fingernails. Being confined to a Dean’s office had its advantages, Givens thought.

"From one’s hands directly into the art," Givens repeated as a bookmark. "The faculty -- the full-time faculty -- is fiercely proud of that. They smell of oil paint and welding solder. They’re covered in flecks of pigment and sawdust. Of course, they’re also deep into modernism and postmodernism, and they’ve certainly got no qualms about any ‘edgy’ kind of imagery. But they do regard themselves as holding fast to some kind of line about ‘real’ sculpture and ‘real’ painting. And since they share in the governance of this institution -- pardon the Dean language, Tom -- they make that point of view known to me. Which is to say, they might get a little prickly about letting you teach outside of Foundation."

"Jesus, Tony," Tom pleaded, "I’m not some kind of naked, tattoo’d performance artist, shoving vegetables up my ass or something. I’m a sculptor."

"You and I know that, Tom. But to a lot of people on the faculty you’re -- you know, showing with David Thornton over in Chelsea, being mentioned in cocktail chatter as ‘going into video,’ although that’s obviously a false impression. . . "

"What cocktail chatter? I’d love to have my name dropped at parties, but it ain’t happening, I can tell you. Who’s supposed to have said it, anyway?"

"Do you really want to know?" Givens asked, tilting his head like a preacher who’d just introduced a moral conundrum to his congregation. "All right, if you’ll promise not to tell. Irene Golorduris heard it at an opening from somebody who was at some party that Quincy Wilber-Carr was at, and Quincy was talking to your assistant who happened to show up. Your assistant -- Jimmy’s his name, right? -- was telling Quincy about your video ambitions for this big piece of sculpture, and this person overhead it Don’t get me wrong, Irene said this person said that your Jimmy was praising you to the skies, trying to get Quincy to see that you’re just as talented and ambitious as Quincy is."

I can’t win for losing, Tom thought. "How does this affect the faculty’s thinking about me teaching a sculpture class?" he asked.

Givens smiled a between-you-and-me-brother smile and, "Irene’s a bit of a ditz, especially at faculty meetings. We had our meeting about adjuncts recently, your name came up naturally, and Irene was all aflutter. She’s a fan of yours, but she’s maybe the youngest person teaching here, and her medium is textiles. But as you Yanks have taught me to say, ‘What the fuck does she know?’ Not a lot outside of non-loom weaving, as far as I can see, but the some of the old bulls -- and heifers -- furrowed their eyebrows and said well maybe ol’ Tom should be confined wholly to Foundation -- where you’re damned good, they all admit -- but where you can’t pied-piper sculpture students off into video."

Suddenly, the game-theory aspect of it hit Tom all at once: An ambitious departure in my work gets me a hundred-to-one shot at a big reward, but it also gets me the probability of fucking failure and egg on my face and a big hole in my bank account. On the other hand, retrenching and/or alibi-ing about what’s going on in my studio to supercilious shits like Tony Givens makes me an odds-on favorite to teach the classes I want and put a floor under my income, although it’s nickel-and-dime by comparison to what these full-time bastards are hauling down.

Tom’s mind was so instantly occupied with sorting through the ramifications that he fairly robotically said to Givens that it didn’t matter all that much to him whether the second class he taught was Foundation or sculpture, just as long as he got two classes. On the sidewalk, trying to decide whether to look like a cell-phoneless schmuck at a pay phone in order to put in a call to Helen Issacson, or simply go home, like he knew he should, Tom was even more self-distracted.

*     *     *
Natalie and Carla had a play date that included dinner. Sharon, home a little early from Roeninger’s, set out stemmed wine glasses and candles with dinner -- Korean takeout, but nicely arranged on their good china. Tom took the hint and made love to his wife after the meal. On the way in the Audi to pick up his kids, however, he stopped and made a call to Helen at her office on the off-chance that she’d be working late. She was. Helen agreed to meet him the next day for lunch. And it was she who suggested they should meet at Lucy Keller’s gallery, and that the rendezvous be disguised as a happenstance crossing of paths.

You’ve become quite the little gallery-goer, Tom said, giddily.

Helen answered: Ben Greenleaf doesn’t know it yet, but he’s becoming more interested in books about contemporary art. Then she quickly hung up.


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