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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
3.
Tom Mannheim dropped a short length of white pine four-by-four on his exquisitely sneakered left foot and shouted, "Fuck!" The word reverberated off the concrete floor of his studio and scolded him like a chorus of clones.

Twenty feet away, Jimmy O’Doole said, "You called?"

Tom said, "I hurt my goddamned foot. Just stupid clumsiness. But it’s not funny unless you like banana peel gags."

"Peeling bananas. . . bananas are like. . . hmmm," said Jimmy.

"C’mon, Jimmy," Tom said. "Don’t. It’s too early for that shit."

"It’s half past ten, Thomas. We’ve been here since seven a.m. Time for lunch, man. Mister Jimmy’s so hungry he could eat. . . . Oh, so many men, so little time!"

Tom bent his left leg up and rubbed the insulted instep on the backside of a jeaned calf. He had thick, well-formed legs, though a bit short in the inseam. When Tom stood straight up and was seen from the front, the profile line from his armpit to his butt traced a more or less unbroken vertical. Sharon said he had the body of a toddler enlarged, proportions intact, to a height of five-foot-ten. Though she often told him she found his physique attractive, Tom regarded his build as unsatisfactory. He’d always wanted a lot more height, broader shoulders, a narrower waist, a smaller ass, bigger hands and, for some reason, thumbs that bent backwards like sickles instead of sticking straight up like Art Deco salt shakers. Perhaps he made low-lying sculptures that spread across gallery floors like metal kudzu in order to contradict his own Germanic compactness. But that insight annoyed him almost as much as his own body did.

"Three and a half hours. That’s seventy bucks," said Tom. "Give me one more good hour, Jimmy, and I’ll make it an even hundred."

"Eleven-thirty might as well be noon, and noon’d be five hours. You’d owe me a hundred anyway."

"Jesus, what fucking gratitude," Tom said.

"The white man certainly is a cranky bitch today," said Jimmy. "But don’t get thistles in your thong, Thomas. I’m only kidding. I’ll stay as long as you need me, and I won’t take a cent more than a hundred. Just as long as we’re really done by noon."

Although he didn’t want to smile, Tom smiled. Jimmy O’Doole -- one helluva name for a mere slip of a black kid from Brownsville, so dark-skinned Tom sometimes thought he looked faintly purple -- was witty far beyond his twenty years. He was a terrific studio assistant, too, the best Tom had ever had. Jimmy was manually deft, sensitive to materials, and a whiz with both powered and unpowered tools. He also had what Tom had come to call "esthetic clairvoyance." Jimmy seemed to know what Tom wanted, frequently before Tom knew it himself. Jimmy would occasionally interrupt Tom’s request for a given task to be performed with a pre-emptive "Done." Tom had paid Jimmy ten dollars an hour when Jimmy began with him, then unilaterally doubled it two months later. Sharon thought the wage outrageous.

"We can barely keep this family afloat," she’d said more than once, "and you go and start your own Upward Bound Brownsville welfare program."

"That’s not fair, not fair at all," Tom would answer. "The kid is really good. He’s got intuition and a touch. He saves me all kinds of time."

If Sharon were in a bad mood -- fatigued by their two little kids, and exasperated by her job as assistant to the founder and president of Roeninger’s, a small chain of stores operating in suburban New York and New Jersey, purveying "natural" cosmetics to "the mature woman" -- her dark eyes would heat up and she’d say something like, "Right on, Thomas. Got to get that sculpture done quickly. You certainly don’t want to let that waiting list of collectors get too long."

Which was really chickenshit and hurtful. Tom, of course, had no waiting list for his sculpture. No sculptor he knew had one, either. Tom had no collector-fans in tow, no loyal customers for his work save for Howard Edelman, a south Florida condo developer who’d bought two small sculptures from Tom’s first New York solo show eight years ago and had commissioned -- "in principle" -- a large outdoor piece for a condominium complex, with an option on a second for another project dead-calmed -- perhaps forever -- in the land-purchase stage. The commission had provided Tom, however, a stipend of fifteen hundred dollars a month for the past seven years. Tom knew that Edelman, no matter how rich he was, also had to be a little crazy to dole out that kind of money. He was too excited and flattered to have the commission, though, to want to know exactly how crazy.

Tom figured the piece would eventually budget out at a half a million, plus materials. Based on that estimate, Tom thought the stipend would continue to arrive for another three years, easily, with a big balloon payment when the sculpture was finally installed in Florida. Sharon told Tom he was out of his fucking mind to think the cash flow would continue uninterrupted and unmodified. She said that the stipend was clearly a bookkeeping oversight caused by Edelman’s distraction over his fourth or fifth divorce, and his long-impending fifth or sixth wedding. "You know goddamned well it could end any day now," she’d say, "and then we’ll really be up shit creek."

Hilda Roeninger paid Sharon nicely, but not nicely enough for Sharon to support -- all by herself -- a younger kid in Angels’ Playground preschool, an older one in a public grammar school whose parents association was constantly hitting them up for contributions for "enrichment" programs, a loft in the rapidly gentrifying Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, parking for the Audi wagon Tom had bought with Edelman’s initial largesse, and, mais oui, Tom’s career as a whole. Of course, Tom chipped in the proceeds from the class or two -- depending on enrollment and the whim of the Dean -- he taught at the Atelier Academy of New York in lower Manhattan ("Where Theory Meets Practice" was its lame current motto), and the comparatively rare art sale. These days a sale usually merely meant a drawing for a sculpture, from which the David Thornton Gallery deducted fifty percent commission, plus framing costs. Sharon was the majority breadwinner by a wide margin.

Which was why the waiting list crack was so nasty. Sharon usually forwent barbs about their relative earning powers, but not so much because she knew they were emasculating and unfair. Rather, she knew they were much more effective when sparingly employed. Besides, Tom had a vicious verbal side of his own and, especially on topics like Sharon’s biological clock (weary or not, she wanted a third child), Roeninger’s airy-fairy self-righteous advertising ("Learning to Live. . . with Nature"), and Sharon’s giving up on poetry. (Tom and Sharon had met in graduate school when Sharon still dreamt of becoming the next Elizabeth Bishop). Tom, in fact, could slash ’n’ burn with the best of them. He kept the talent under wraps most of the time, as too gainsaying of what he thought of as his requisite professional demeanor as a wise, friendly, flannel-shirted, mellow woodsman of an artist. Tom was especially reticent when he wore a beard. These days he was clean-shaven and Jimmy wore the studio beard -- if that’s what you called a tiny goatee and a fetishistically groomed narrow line of stubble connecting it to the vicinity of his beautiful little sea-shell Michael-Jordanesque ears.

Tom and Jimmy did finish by noon. In the wake of their labors, a low-lying lattice of four-by-fours commenced at a point six feet from the freight elevator in Tom’s East Village studio (the last of a breed; at the next lease renewal residences for Generation-Y, -Z, or whatever strivers would price him out of his groovy reverse commute), and continued, like a demented horse-country fence, in two directions, toward the walls of alternately broken, plywooded, painted-over or merely grimy factory windows opposite. The beams of the sculpture were held to each other end-to-end by bolted steel clamps.

"It’s all right now, I ‘spose," said Jimmy, stopping to brush flecks of sawdust from his impossibly immaculate babyshit yellow suede construction boots, "But the groovy steel-wood thing -- that’s gonna disappear when the final goes all stainless steel."

"Bronze," Tom said.

"Bronze. Oh, man! A million fuckin’ dollars in materials alone! You gonna lose your sweet, hunky ass on that deal," Jimmy said

"The contract with Howard is cost-plus."

"Not after that Hooters lady gets through with him in court," Jimmy said. "Then he be reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned."

"Howard’s protected," Tom said. "He has a pre-nup that covers his art collection."

Jimmy let that technicality float by, and then said, "Howard should get off that expensive pussy and get himself a nice little queer like me. Get my Tongues Untied untied tongue around his johnson, and I’ll get him off better than. . ."

Tom shook his head and reached for his cowhide welder’s jacket. He wore it as poor man’s suede. "You know Jimmy," he said, "we went almost a whole morning with no blowjob talk. Couldn’t we keep the streak going?"

"Thomas, if I repress it here, it just blurts itself out when I get back to B-Ville," Jimmy said. "Then I get my ass kicked. And that’s just by the women in my apartment. If I say that stuff out loud on the street, to the homies, then I’m one dead nigger. Do you want that on your conscience?"

"No ’nigger’ stuff, either, please," Tom said.

"So much for the liberating effects of art," Jimmy said. "Now even a nigger can’t say ‘nigger.’"

Tom pressed a truly ugly Mets cap down over his thick hair. What design genius thought blue, black and orange went together? He sighed. "Almost a year with me, and you haven’t learned anything."

"Oh yes, massuh," Jimmy said, doing a mock soft-shoe. "I’se learned so very much at yo’ feet. Lessee now, ’Trust fund kids go into art and strike it poor.’ How’s dat? Very large shout out to the brothers on that one. You know it’s a big-ass problem in my world, Thomas. Young darkies depleting those African-American trust funds on frivolous shit like art -- it be destroying the ‘hood’ as we know it."

Tom sighed. "You’re so intelligent, you know. Really, Jimmy. You could’ve gone to college, and a good one, too. But you’ve got such a smart-ass attitude you can’t stand to be uncool for a second in order to learn something. It’s a pity."

While he hunted for a clean shirt in his duffel, Jimmy said, "I learned all I need to know before I ever came to work for you. I learned no contract is worth a goddamned thing until the cash is handed over. And I learned that in second grade at Frederick Douglass. As for you, you got three college degrees and you ain’t learned that Mister Edelman ain’t never goin’ to say O.K. to doin’ the whole thing in bronze. What for? Just for some old Jews to walk by when they go into their air-conditioned apartments to wait for Meals on Wheels to show up?"

"Two degrees. Anyway, it’s wood for the mock-up, steel for the show, bronze for the site-specific. When Howard sees the show, he’ll flip. He’ll probably want an edition of two -- another one for the Tucson complex he’s planning."

Jimmy rolled his eyes like a Moon Equipped decal. He pulled his clean overshirt on and, with thin index and digit fingers, callipered a pack of cigarettes from its pocket. He lighted up as Tom pushed the red elevator button with his own thicker finger.

"Hey, remember? No lighting up until you’re outside," Tom said.

"Sorry," said Jimmy, genuinely. "I’m a little nervous. My Moms’s man is coming by tonight. This little faggot has to pretend to be a young Denzel Washington again. If Mr. Boyfriend cops to me being a homo-sex-y’all, he’ll probably beat on her instead of me."

The image of that injustice depressed Tom as much as the prospect of going home to have Sharon remind him again that he needed to get David Thornton to commit once and for all to the dates for his show. Did he tell her how to attend to her Roedinger business?

*     *     *
"I had a bath all by myself!" shouted Natalie as she scampered across the loft floor toward her father.

"Wait! Natalie, let me get some sockies on you," said Sharon. "There are splinters in the floor. Remember when Carla had to go to the doctor?"

"She was crying and her toe was all bloody," said Natalie, stopping and standing at attention like the good little soldier she was.

"That’s right," said Sharon. "You’re a good girl. Mommy will be right back with some sockies."

Tom threw his cap and coat over a knockoff Mies "Barcelona" chair whose silver-grey saddles weren’t quite matched in color by the duct tape that closed a couple of gaps in the frayed stitching. He took four deliberately bounding, cartoonish steps toward his younger daughter and hoisted her up in the air. "Balloon art! Balloon art!" Tom said in a false bass-baritone, parodying a pretentious sports announcer, as he tossed Natalie in the air and caught her by her little armpits on the way down. She laughed. But Sharon interrupted the fun.

"Keep holding her up so I can put these socks on," she said.

"You say ’sockies’ to me and you say ’socks’ to Daddy," Natalie said, looking at her father.

"Daddy’s little Smarty," said Tom, proudly.

"Criticizing Mommy on technicalities, just like Smarty Daddy," said Sharon, looking at Tom with a sarcastic smirk.

Tom set down the three-year-old. "Maybe I should re-run my entrance, and start over from the subway exit," he said to Sharon. Natalie ran away, happily, toward the bedroom she shared with her older sister.

"Sorry," Sharon sighed. "My bad. I’m a little bummed. Hilda called this morning. She wanted to messenger over some new scents for my approval, and I don’t want to do any work on Saturday, even if it’s just sniffing a few bottles."

Tom walked to a leather couch, their tenth anniversary present to one another, and flopped down on it. "And you said. . .?" he asked.

"I said yes, of course."

"Shit. I suppose that means our drive is off."

"No, no, Thomas," Sharon said, sitting down beside him, running her fingers through his hair in an exaggerated, film-noir vamp manner. "The messenger will be here within an hour. We take the stuff with us, I smell them in the car, and I call Hilda from the road. Très simple."

Tom thought for a second about how Jimmy called him "Thomas" when he was mildly pissed at him, while Sharon used his full given name to signal endearment. "If that messenger’s here within an hour," Tom said to Sharon. "I’ll eat this sofa."

"Thomas, Thomas, Thomas," Sharon said in a Cary Grant riff, "you’re such a doubter. Even if he’s fifteen, twenty minutes late, we’re still out of here by two o’clock. That’s a hundred miles by four o’clock. Still a lot of light, so we’ll see lots and lots of leaves."

"I wanted the girls to be able to romp through them, not just look at them," said Tom. Then he clasped his hands in his lap and fell silent, sensing a tipping point in the conversation.

Sharon flicked her head so that her shiny black page-boy ’do did a semi-twirl in Tom’s face. He loved that, especially in bed. "Romp they will!" she said. "We’ll stop precisely on the hour, or the nearest rest stop to it. The day will still be bright, and you can play Catcher in the Leaves with Carla and Natalie while I get on the cell with Hilda."

Tom kissed Sharon on her forehead. "How come you’re now doing lab research, too?" he asked.

"I’m not," Sharon said, nestling her head on his shoulder. "Hilda trusts my taste. She wants a real opinion, from a flesh-and-blood human being, to weigh against all those boxes checked by focus groups. Besides, there’s good news."

"What?" Tom asked softly. He wanted good news, but down deep he feared hearing about another success for Sharon.

"Hilda’s trying to come up with another title for me. She says she realizes that ’Assistant to the President’ isn’t commensurate with what I bring to the company or with my ‘dignity and bearing in the job.’ Her very words, Thomas."

"Vice-President, then?"

"Oh, good Lord no. Her sons would never stand still for that. Each of them is a vice-president, even Saul with the coke habit. Hilda doesn’t want to diminish their manhoods by putting an outside woman on a par with them. She’s thinking of something along the lines of ’Executive Administrator,’ or ’Administrative Manager.’ Whatever the name, though, there’s undoubtedly a raise in it. And a good one."

"Did Hilda say that?"

"No, Tom. She likes to think she surprises me, as with her ’gifts.’ You know how she is," Sharon said.

Indeed, Tom did know how Hilda was: all fluttery and over-decorated on the outside -- intensely henna’d hair, flowing Gypsy garments with little bits of mirror glued onto them, deftly chosen oversized Indian silk scarves that adroitly tiptoed the boundary between harmony and dissonance, ditto the beaded necklaces and heavily applied Cabernet-colored lipstick -- and all cold-rolled steel on the inside.

Hilda chirpily feigned ignorance of modern art, but nevertheless managed to let Tom know that she thought the purpose of any non-practical human artifact ought to be to bring immediate, unintellectualized pleasure to someone beside its maker, and that she thought Tom’s colorless, over-intellectualized sculpture failed miserably on that count. When she came for dinner at the loft -- always in a dark Lincoln Town Car whose driver waited in the vehicle to take her home -- she brought semi-extravagant presents for the children. Hilda thought because the items were usually small and imported ("These little telescopes somehow came in from Holland with the tulip oil," she’d say, "and I knew your little girls would adore them"), Tom wouldn’t realize how much they cost. Tom had a tic about Carla and Natalie being showily presented with things he couldn’t afford. Sharon, though, didn’t care. Sharon, in fact, made a big, effervescent deal out of Hilda’s generosity.

Sharon’s deference also annoyed Tom. She wouldn’t press Hilda on anything. There was no Mr. Roedinger as far as anyone could tell, and Sharon had yet to find out for certain whether Hilda had been widowed, divorced, or simply abandoned. Maybe she was a murderess, and her late husband was stuffed into a fifty-five-galloon drum somewhere in a Newark landfill.

"Any calls for me?" Tom asked. Sharon had taken his hand to her face and was kissing his fingers. She started to suck gently on one. "I didn’t wash up at the studio," he added perversely. "Trying to hurry home."

Sharon dropped his hand, but without indicating her feelings had been hurt. "The Academy called. They say it looks like only one class in the spring. Dean Givens said that graphic design enrollment is apparently eating painting and sculpture alive."

"Fuck," said Tom. "They call on a goddamned Saturday to tell me that?"

"The secretary said Givens is in the office right now, working on the adjuncts’ schedules, so they can post them on the site. He’s supposedly trying to find you a beginning drawing class, too. He knows you need the money."

"Did you tell them we needed the money?"

"No, dear," said Sharon. "But it goes without saying, doesn’t it? Everybody needs money, especially everybody in New York. And I know you don’t teach solely out of love for eager young minds."

"Beginning drawing," Tom repeated in mild dejection.

"Look, Tom," said Sharon, "it’s a job. Just like mine. You like some parts of it, and others you hate. If you liked all of it, it wouldn’t be work, it’d be fun. And in this world, they don’t pay people to have fun."

"In beginning drawing," Tom said, as if he’d not heard Sharon at all, "you get all the dorks who haven’t mentally graduated from high school yet. The boys want to draw Spiderman, and the girls want to draw fashion models. You try to get them to step back and take a good look at the basics of mark-making, or figure-ground, or positive and negative shapes, or making convincing three-dimensional volume on a picture plane, and they sulk like you’ve filled up their iPods with Ornette Coleman."

"You can’t just teach what you were taught in art school," Sharon said. "The world changes. Minimalism and Earthworks aren’t the godheads anymore. Young people want to fool around with images again, they want to tell stories..."

"You sound like that goddamned Arthur Whateverthefuckhisnameis, sellout art critic to the masses. . ."

Sharon sat up and said sharply, "You certainly didn’t sound all that critical of him at Jonathan Hirsch’s book party -- not critical at all, if I may say so." Then, sensing where the conversation might angrily go from there, she stopped. "Look Tom, don’t take your frustration with the art world -- however justified it might be -- out on me. Besides, that Arthur fellow is considered one of the curmudgeons, isn’t he? When I read him, he seems to be against all that video art and slacker art and. . ."

"OK, my bad. Sorry," Tom said. "I was just hoping for another sculpture class. Not necessarily an advanced workshop, just a meat-and-potatoes intermediate sculpture section. But you’re right: we could use the money, and beginning drawing is tolerable. I’ll adjust my game, give ’em a few comic-book assignments and a couple of girly collage problems. It’ll be fine. Any other calls?"

"Mingue from the gallery called. She didn’t say what David wanted, just for you to call him back on Tuesday when they’re open again. He had a business lunch today and left at noon."

"Maybe it’s the show dates," Tom said with forced optimism.

"Maybe the show dates," said Sharon, and picked one of Tom’s fingers to suck again.

Tom closed his eyes to enjoy the affection, but found himself thinking of Helen Issacson.


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