One city block, 77th Street between Park and Madison Avenues, separated two opening parties on May Day evening this week, twinning two very different conceptions of suffering.
At the elegant apartment of Laurel Cutler and Ted Israel, a group including two elite art historians, Calvin Tomkins and John Richardson, gathered to celebrate an exhibition about the artistic influence of Sara and Gerald Murphy, which opens at the Williams College Museum of Art on July 8, 2007. A block away, Takashi Murakami opened his monumental portraits of Daruma, the sixth-century founder of Zen Buddhism, at Gagosian.
Hedonism, of course, unites the Murphys and Murakami. The title of Calvin Tomkins’ bestseller about them said it all, Living Well Is the Best Revenge. Antibes in the ‘20s, where Scott Fitzgerald remarked that "a certain skin of workman’s jeans came into fashion" because Gerald and Sara wore them, remains the Bohemian belle idée, much as Murakami, bumming cigarettes at his opening from his retinue of young Nipponese beauties, celebrates the sensual today. With prices starting these days at $110,000 for a tiny flower painting the size of your hand, Murakami also fulfills Fitzgerald’s dictums that the rich are made of money.
Daruma, however, allegedly meditated for nine years, until his limbs fell off, before he reached enlightenment. The Murphys, models for the tormented Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night, suffered the loss of two young sons to illness, in quick succession, as well as periods of intense financial and psychological deprivation. Murakami’s Daruma portraits, a cut above the drivel he has produced previously, are bullish mounds of sweaty torment. The element of self-portraiture in them is unmistakable: surrounded by the cameras and tape recorders of the adoring Japanese press at Gagosian, the artist’s own massive skull turned ochre grey in a haze of smoke and furrowed commentary.
A block away, art journalists of a certain age, such as David Ebony, Barbara MacAdam and Robin Cembalest, watched a documentary replete with photos of Picasso frolicking on the beach and designing sets for Diaghilev, under the tutelage of Gerald Murphy. Pablo has never looked so carefree and relaxed. And who would confuse or conflate suffering-infused enlightenment with relaxation? In the drag of a furtive smoke or the sunset of the Riviera, is zoning out for a few moments the real Zen, sans all the huffing and puffing?
Then let all the angst, and hell, and striving, and dough, if only for a moment, come tumbling down.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).