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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
9.
If a nicer, kinder, more ethical man than Ben Greenleaf walked the earth, Helen didn’t know him. He tolerated what Helen called her "in-betweenness" -- her dizzying displays of intelligence, diligence, even talent (if the business side of publishing could be said to utilize any qualities that could be called by such a name), seriously mitigated by her apparent lack of overall career ambition -- with patience, even kindness. Ben would tell her every day before lunch, and every afternoon when she returned, that she had real potential in publishing which had nothing to do at all with her father’s money and clout. Those were just lucky bonuses, he’d say.

Helen would blush, or in the occasional absence of reddening skin, perform the fetching shrugs that usually accompanied a blush, and say that she was still sorting things out in terms of what, ultimately, she was going to do with her life. But -- she quickly offered -- if there was anything at all that Ben thought was lacking in her job performance, she’d immediately work harder at providing it. No, no, no, the nice and ethical Ben would say, pat her on the shoulder, and wander off, shaking his head, to consult with one of the many Castle/Cartwright employees and authors he treated as kindly as he did Helen.

On this particular morning, Ben happened to be standing by her office door when she arrived at work, five minutes early. Helen had scarcely placed on her desk the collared paper cup, containing the usual medium skim latte, when she asked Ben if it would be all right to take a long lunch hour today.

"A date?" asked Ben, with cheerful avuncularity.

"No, certainly not," Helen laughed in not-so-mock protest. She slid into the ergonomic chair behind her desk. "I thought I’d go down to Chelsea and take another peek at Chakira Wilber’s exhibition. It’s been extended a couple more weeks. Have you seen it?"

"I’m not much on contemporary art," Ben said. "Jonathan Hirsch’s criticism of it is about as close as I care to get. I’m more of a Stubbs’s horses person -- in reproductions, of course. I couldn’t afford the picture hook for a real Stubbs. But you -- I didn’t know you were becoming so avant-garde."

"Actually, Ben, I’m thinking of a book," Helen said.

"What, writing one?"

"No," Helen laughed. "I think I might have an idea for a book we might publish. That’s part of my job, you said when I started here -- thinking up book projects and running them by you."

"So, go ahead," said Ben. "Run it by me." He perched himself on a corner of Helen’s desk, grinning like a proud parent. The toe of his left shoe barely touched the carpet.

"It’s not a real proposal yet," Helen said. "But, as long as I’m the one who kind of hinted at the subject, I’ll tell you the idea. But please don’t say an outright ’no’ until I’ve fleshed it out a little. Promise?"

"I promise," said Ben.

"All right," said Helen, "it’s about black artists. But wait, it’s not what you think. I’ve got this feeling -- no, more than that, a real impression -- that there’s a kind of new elite coming up in the art world. It’s not one of those ’mafias’ people always like to talk about; it’s more like a budding aristocracy. . . "

Ben’s smile narrowed a little. "I’m not quite sure I understand what you’re getting at. Remember, I’m not an art-world insider. Try to make it clear to a simple old book peddler like me."

Helen swallowed. "Sorry," she said. "I was just trying to say that what I have in mind isn’t the usual cheerleading about African-American content, or black artists struggling to break through to recognition in a rich, white art world, and all that. I mean that there’s a whole group of black artists, and dealers and collectors out there. It’s comparatively small, perhaps, but it’s operating right at the top right from the start."

"Give me a few names," Ben said. Most likely, I won’t recognize any of them, but it might help me to see that you see."

"Well, Chakira Wilber, for one. That’s the artist whose show I want to see again on my lunch break. She’s the sister of Quincy Wilber-Carr. Quincy’s a rising star, and really enough of a star already that you can probably leave off the ’rising.’"

"Him, I’ve heard of," said Ben, a bit relieved. "He does kind of. . . well, militant things, doesn’t he?"

"Chakira’s his sister," Helen said, quickly moving on from Quincy. "Her work was kind of like her brother’s -- big installations, that sort of thing, but maybe a little more about beauty and a little less about politics. But in this new show, she makes an interesting break from it. Some people think it’s quite brave of her."

"That’s two artists, Helen. Three would be absolute minimum," Ben said.

"There are more, Ben. But there’s also at least one dealer, Lindsey Hyde, who’s moving his gallery from Harlem down to Chelsea. Quincy’s scheduled for the gallery’s first show in the new location. And everything Mr. Hyde does is apparently first-class, without any of this struggling hand-to-mouth-in-Brooklyn posture that a lot of young dealers affect."

Ben smiled. "It’s probably not a posture, Helen."

"You’re probably right," she said.

"Anyway," Ben said, "if you don’t mind my saying so, Helen -- but you probably will mind my saying so, nevertheless, I’ll say it anyway -- this sounds less like a Castle / Cartwright book and more like an article for that pet-project magazine of your father’s." Ben waited for Helen to sulk or snap back. Bringing Mel into the conversation was dirty pool, and Ben knew it. But he thought that, at least right now, his purpose was chidingly didactic, and nothing more.

To his surprise, Helen seemed to welcome the intrusion as a chance to clear the air. Her father was always the elephant in the room where almost any conversation she was having took place, and people were usually afraid to mention him. That bothered her more than Mel’s pachydermic presence.

"Ben," Helen said, "when you hired me, you said that part of the reason was my. . . ’unconscionable youth,’ I think, was the way you put it. You said that part of my job would be to push you into thinking a little younger, a little more ahead of the curve, about book ideas. Well, that’s what I’m doing. Quincy and Chakira and Lindsey Hyde and a few others might be more magazine-article material at this point. That, I’ll admit. And I think there will probably be more than one piece about them in magazines like Art Discourse in the next several months, the next year. But that’s exactly why I think there might be a book here -- the first book on them and their circle, and their impact on the art world. If we start doing the groundwork now, and a book comes out in perhaps a year or eighteen months from now, the timing will be perfect. We’ll be ahead of the curve, just like you want." Helen folded her arms across her modest bosom.

Ben thought for a moment. "A real book or a coffee table book?"

Helen laughed. "Another thing you told me at the start was not to think in standard categories. I’m not. I’m thinking perhaps of something in between: a nice design, and an insert of good illustrations, in color, but a serious read at the same time. That’s what I’m thinking."

"Who’d write it?" Ben asked.

"There are lots of people who could write it," Helen answered. "The problem would be to find the person who could write it best. Obviously, Jonathan would be a candidate. He should really be thinking about a through-written book right now, rather than just waiting another ten years for somebody to staple together his collected reviews again."

Ben squinted tightly, either thinking hard or acting like it. "Jonathan’s too conservative for this kind of thing. That’s not my personal opinion, since anybody who writes about that stuff they show in the galleries nowadays seems pretty radical to me. But that’s the gist of what I hear from people who are expert in the field."

Helen said, "An assignment like this could help Jonathan break out of that tweed shell down at the Financial Journal. He’s got enough of an ego to be attracted by the idea of writing about something nobody would’ve thought he’d write, of making a little splash."

"All right," Ben said. "A possibility. Remote, but a possibility. Still. . . "

"Or Arthur. He could do it, Ben."

"He’s never done a book, not even a collection," Ben said. "And one thing I do know is that if you want somebody to do a book, you should get somebody who’s seen his name on a cover once or twice before. Arthur’s strictly a master of the glib short form in that news magazine argot. I don’t know if he has the staying power. How about a black writer?"

"I think that would be too predictable, Ben," Helen said. "And it would ghetto-ize the whole project: a black critic saying that the new important thing is a black elite within the art world."

"Point taken," said Ben. He slumped slightly at the shoulders, then hopped off Helen’s desk.

She felt a twinge of sorrow for him, and wanted to lift him back up, if not physically then at least in terms of cheer. "Perhaps you’re right, Ben," Helen said. "And perhaps this isn’t really a good book idea after all. That’s why I want to look at Chakira’s show again, perhaps chat with Lucy Keller -- very informal, revealing nothing, you understand. When I come back from lunch, perhaps my balloon will have been punctured, and I’ll have to start thinking of something totally different."

Ben, appearing at least a centimeter taller as he paused momentarily in Helen’s office doorway on his way out, turned and said, "Take the afternoon. Have a good long look and a nice lunch, and then take the afternoon. My hunch is that tomorrow morning, I’m the one who’ll be thinking this is a great idea. You’ve got your father’s instincts, you know."

After Ben’s departure, Helen softly closed her office door, picked up her merely warm latte and thought, What have I done?

The visit to Lucy Keller’s gallery, which was to have been a beard for a lunch with Tom Mannheim, which was in turn to have been an audition for a seduction, or for being seduced, had wormed its way up into the higher ground of her mind and become an idea for a Castle / Cartwright book. She couldn’t help it. Ideas came to her so thick and fast that she had trouble shutting her brain off at night in order to get to sleep. She’d put in the earphones and lie on her back in the blackness turning into blue-grey dimness, listening to high-powered rock and roll. During the day, she couldn’t stand that sort of music, but while trying to drift into unconsciousness, she found that the visceral certainty of the insistent beat and the gravelly voices relaxed her until the influx of thoughts flatlined. Often, the CD player played all night and the double-A batteries were dead the next morning. Helen consumed a pound of them every month.

She found herself unable to reject any idea instantly and outright. The possibility of sex with Tom Mannheim was such an idea. Almost always with Helen, having sex started with an idea. From the loss-of-virginity professor to Jean-Claude and through the few carefully selected lovers she’d entertained until now, she saw it all in advance first: the venue, the small talk, the foreplay, the positions, the immediate conversational aftermath, even the medium-term consequences. Not that any of this conceptualizing made Helen cold, or unresponsive, or the slightest bit passive in bed. She liked fucking. But fucking did not propel her life; she didn’t live to fuck. Otherwise, she would have welcomed far more men into her bed or dived into theirs. But she didn’t avoid it, either; she didn’t worry about waking up with remorse concerning having fucked yet another guy. Helen simply rationed sex. And Helen’s enjoyment of the sex she did permit herself, she attributed to the occurrences’ origin as an idea entertained long before the act. So far, everything had worked out hunky-dory.

Tom Mannheim wasn’t the handsomest man who’d come on to her, nor was he the most famous. Tom was, in fact, barely on her radar screen in terms of notoriety, especially when compared to the novelists and essayists -- many of whom doubled very visibly in Hollywood as screenwriters, under contract at Castle / Cartwright -- or agents and media types who dropped by to visit Ben. Perhaps one in five, by her rough estimate, had made at least an initial approach to her. But Tom’s comparative defects constituted much of his attractiveness to her. Too many candidates for lover wore their résumés -- express or implied -- like custom-tailored suits, flashed their fancy addresses like costly wristwatches, and set their good looks on the counter like fine cold cuts. Their sense of entitlement repelled Helen.

Tom, however, was married. Fucking him would be adultery. Helen had qualms about that, if not outright principles against it. She didn’t want to hurt anybody. She didn’t want to hurt Sharon Mannheim, who was as far as she knew a devoted wife and mother. And she didn’t want to excuse her appetite by rationalizing that Tom was a big boy, that he knew what he was doing, that he was obviously so needy on a deeper level than mere carnality, and that he had all along been pursuing her. If she committed to going to bed with him -- why else would he have asked her to break bread with him? -- it would be her own premeditated doing. There would be no going back. Of course, as yet it was just an idea. But like all her ideas, it had gotten tangled up with another one arriving so quickly on its coattails: a pretty good idea for a book for Castle / Cartwright.

Now, instead of slipping off to an illicit lunch -- forbidden, if intentions counted -- she’d be going down to Chelsea to attend to more than an alibi’s worth of legitimate business. Helen put her face in her hands and laughed silently. I’ve managed, she thought, to corrupt my corruption.

Why not Arthur instead? she asked herself. After all, he was equally willing -- that pending dinner invitation -- and eager, and as a single man, much fairer game. In spite of his age -- after all, Arthur wasn’t that much younger than her father -- he was almost as desirable a male body as Tom: a bit more sedentary (a writer, of course) and without a headful of thick and wavy. But he seemed to keep himself in reasonable shape, and avoided such vulgarities as a toupee, a comb-over, hair dye, and a faux-twenty-something goatee. Arthur’s conversation was quicker than Tom’s, and he wore his chapeau of self-doubt at a much more entertaining rake. But maybe, Helen thought, Arthur was a little too at ease with his demons. He’d turned his cynicism about what he wrote, and what he wrote about, into armor plate itself, instead of chinks in it.

If a romance with Arthur took root, Helen thought, there was a distinct possibility that, deep down, he’d want it to fail. He’d want -- against his own desires, actually -- one more thing to feel wearily bitter about. All of this speculation concerning Arthur, Helen realized, was mere guesswork, reading tea leaves at the bottom of a cup from which she’d yet to drink a drop. She and Arthur had exchanged only small bursts of words. What was there to go on? Helen had a feeling, that’s all. Her father’s instincts, as Ben had said, just applied in a different direction. If they were good enough for Ben, they should, she thought, be good enough for her.

Uncharacteristically, Helen did no work at all that morning. She stayed in her office and went over everything, in her mind, slowly, again and again. At noon on the dot, she grabbed her handbag and left. When the lobby door opened and she stepped out onto the sidewalk, Helen was surprised to find that a gust of wind informed her that she had a tear in her eye.


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



 




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