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by Peter Plagens
On a December day unseasonably as bright as a leaf and as tangy as cider, Arthur rode to the airport in an Exec-U-Car Lincoln town car -- one of the good, older boxy ones that many owner-operator drivers were fighting the company about having to trade in. The company wanted the drivers to update to the newer, more streamlined but far less roomy sedans. "It is not logical," Arthur’s Sikh driver said, "especially when my customers feel as strongly as I do." Arthur agreed with him, but where the driver wanted to engage in a trip-long discussion of the idiocies of Exec-U-Car’s management, Arthur wanted only to close his eyes all the way through the Holland Tunnel, over the Pulaski Skyway, and into Newark Airport, thinking of nothing but a smooth return flight and that long-awaited dinner with Helen.

Pining, though, made Arthur fidgety and a bit angry. He couldn’t sleep on the plane, or read, or watch the movie, or listen to "Jazz at Altitude" on the airline’s theft-proof double-pronged earphones. He couldn’t work, either, because, outbound, he didn’t have any work to do. A one-page press release had told him in advance all he needed to know about "A Tale of Dos Cuidades: Site-Specific Sculpture in San Diego and Tijuana" at the San Diego Museum of Fine Art. Whatever he didn’t know about the big Juan Gris retrospective at the Los Angeles Art Museum, he could pick up at his scheduled lunch with the museum’s press officer.

Arthur’s attention wandered grumpily to his nearby fellow passengers. Tubby, balding businessmen with fuchsia and turquoise polo shirts stitched with the name and logo of the software conference to which they were headed. Over-perfumed businesswomen with expensive French nails and knock-offs of anchorwomen’s latest hairdos, pouring over bar graphs of knitwear company profits. A couple of teenage Marine recruits with something yahoo-inflammatory silk-screened on every item of clothing they wore. A skinny, be-medaled young woman of about twenty whose shoulder tattoo consumed ten minutes of Arthur’s concentration while he tried, unsuccessfully, to determine whether its slight embossed effect indicated it was only a temporary imitation in henna.

The show in San Diego was a washout. It wasn’t a show, but rather a widely dispersed inventory of ten Earthworks Lite -- glorified trenches and mounds, with a few mechanical embellishments or didactic panels concerning the injustice of the existence of any palpable border at all between the U.S. and Mexico. Five of the works resided on the Mexican side of the line, while five sat in gringo territory. The museum provided a shuttle bus for the press tour. The vehicle bounced like it had no shock absorbers. Arthur’s ass ached all night and into the next morning. Later, the soft leather seat in his rental car eased the pain, a little.

Driving north to L.A., he watched a huge, double-rotor military helicopter practicing landings and takeoffs in the brush, surprisingly close to the freeway. At about one o’clock, Arthur approached the southern apron of the city (he’d taken the more or less coastal freeway instead of the shorter, straighter, diagonal route through L.A.’s eastern suburbs and industrial intestines), and suddenly it was stop-and-go. There was no "rush hour" in L.A. anymore, just a midnight-to-four-.a.m. non-rush hour when you could actually go sixty-five miles an hour. In the recurring stand-stills, Arthur tried to decode southern California’s intricate language of cars: "I drive this and you drive only that. This car proves that I’m richer / hipper / more-butch / more-retro / cleverer than you are." Arthur’s rented bronze Toyota achieved an abject anonymity that, he speculated, afforded him some respite from other drivers’ likewise sizing up the competition.

Herky-jerkily, Arthur passed through an undifferentiated series of districts populated by Conestoga-like "recreational vehicles" for sale or rent, and giant discount electronics stores, each announced with a sign as big as a big house atop a huge steel pole. The same kind of signs indicated the existence of franchise restaurants at their bases. The restaurants were all first-growth architecture; before they were restaurants, their locations had been parking lots or bean fields.

For most of the ride, Arthur listened to Latino stations, but eventually the relentless polka beat got to him. Classical music substitutes -- college stations -- deteriorated into fuzz every ten miles, and the rock outlets spent more time triumphantly announcing how much kick-ass music they allegedly played than playing such music. AM got Arthur only a machine-gun-talking ideologue who wanted the owners of gay bath houses taken directly to the execution gurney in San Quentin, and a smooth-voiced guy prodding a hapless female caller, "C’mon, tell us -- did you ever have sex with your father?"

Finally, as the billboards for foul-mouthed morning DJ’s and "gentlemen’s clubs" got more numerous, Arthur located a Christian station with an unconquerable signal. The speaker was a sixty-two-year-old with a blow-dried haircut and a very expensive suit. (Arthur had seen him on television; the voice matched.) The preacher droned on about the roles of husbands and wives in a good Christian marriage being "entirely equal, but separate" -- an unfortunate turn of phrase, Arthur thought. The radio minister said that to preserve his commitment to "Biblical leadership" in his own marriage, he’d uprooted his family from the Sodom of southern California and replanted them in the God’s country of high-plains Colorado. Though his wife had broken into copious tears, he recounted, at the prospect of leaving the little pastel stucco house they’d lived in for twenty-two years, she knew the decision to do it rightly belonged to her husband alone. And everything, the man on the radio said, had worked out just peachy. "According to God’s plan for us," were his exact words. The minister now presided over a congregation three times the size and with twice the dedication of his previous one. His kids were safely ensconced in a "Bible-based" Christian school. And his wife had made "loads and loads of new friends."

During another halt in the traffic flow, Arthur looked up and saw a vast sign for "Diamond Jim’s Dazzle Dancers, all-nude" in the nearby suburb of Covina Park. It occurred to him that in desiring a woman who would "gratefully yield to the husband’s stewardship," the Reverend Combover and a Diamond Jim’s customer probably had a lot in common.

The Gris retrospective turned out to be the easy choice for coverage. "How could I have ever thought otherwise?" thought Arthur. He typed his review into his laptop on a badly designed faux-Deco desk in a room of an emphatically modern hotel on the Sunset Strip. The magazine’s travel office had booked Arthur into it when he expressed a desire to lay his weary head somewhere halfway between the museum in downtown Los Angeles and the commercial galleries in Santa Monica. The hotel was a concrete mausoleum of old rock and roll scandals. Arthur thought he could still smell the motorcycle rubber burnt in his room by the dead drummer for some forgotten speed metal band. After Arthur filed his story by e-mail, a reporter from the magazine’s southern California bureau scooped him up and took him for a drink with Steve Markowitz, head of the Global Diversity Network, otherwise known as GDN, which of course had been said to stand for Goddamned Network (for its recent quarterly losses), Grossly Dumb Network (for its teen sitcoms), and Git Down Network (for its black sitcoms). Markowitz collected art by young, just-out-of-school artists. He bought entire exhibitions whole, then warehoused them in San Pedro. Arthur estimated his weight at just under three hundred pounds.

"But I’m not a speculator," Markowitz said to Arthur, waving his arm at his office walls, which were covered with what looked at first glance like oversized junior high school drawings in very costly frames. Arthur feared the guy’s suit jacket would rip open at any second. "I genuinely like this stuff, "Markowitz said. "I plan to hang onto it forever." Who was Arthur not to believe a guy who’d worked as a beat cop for ten years after graduating from Harvard Law School?

Since Arthur’s flight home didn’t leave until the next afternoon, he didn’t have to get to bed early in order to rise with the chickens. Instead, he allowed himself to stay up late, watching the replay of a brisk welterweight boxing match on a Spanish language channel. After the knockout, Arthur re-skimmed the Gris catalogue. And after he’d checked the facts as declaimed in the sent draft of his review, he watched a soft-porn movie that played on a cable station for no extra room charge. But Arthur didn’t masturbate. He kept himself pure for Helen.

Falling asleep, Arthur told himself that he hadn’t fallen in love with Helen Issacson at first sight. As he would have put it to one of the magazine’s cold-blooded, obsessive-compulsive fact-checkers: the jaw-dropping, heart-fluttering, dry-mouthed, utter stupefaction he had experienced upon seeing the lady for the first time at Jonathan Hirsch’s book party was not, properly speaking, romantic love. Oh, it was something out of the ordinary, all right, something sensorially equivalent to the time, one Sunday, when he got the thin front wheel of his now-mothballed road bike neatly tucked into a Wall Street storm drain, and pitched himself headlong over the handlebars. Minus the pain, of course. Well, not exactly minus the pain. The pain with the bicycle accident arrived instantly. The pain with Helen took a while to develop.

PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery. The archive for The Art Critic can be found here.