Fifty years ago, as a young Manhattan lad, I grew up across the hall from Tom Armstrong, the Whitmeister who died yesterday, and the adman and art collector Dave McCall, who, with his third wife Penny, died on a peace mission to Bosnia for President Clinton 12 years ago. The winter snows were heavy on Lexington Avenue in the early 1960s and, on many days, Mr. Armstrong and Mr. McCall would give me a boost on their shoulders over the snowdrifts to the bus for school.
They looked after me in subsequent years, as well. I so remember Tom Armstrong on the opening night of Julian Schnabel’s universally ridiculed retrospective at the Whitney inviting me, with the baldly goofy Armstrong grin, to lean on one of the many goofier Schnabel sculptures on show. Thus, I was surprised that William Grimes of the New York Times questioned Tom’s eccentricities in his Armstrong obituary, especially Armstrong’s habit of growing tomatoes outside his office window and selling them on the street.
To be sure, Armstrong seldom liked to share the stage with other crazies (he fired Marcia Tucker), but there is a sense, in Grimes’ take, that the days of the gentleman nut-job in the museum chair have passed forever. Indeed, a Wednesday morning survey of art press revealed much pseudo-handwringing, emblematic of the current art zeitgesit, with Sarah Douglas, in the New York Observer, claiming that these days, in sports and movies as well as art, we are more interested in the deal than the creation; Christian Viveros-Faune, defending Ai Weiwei, lamenting the serious frivolity of Art Basel and Venice in the Village Voice; and even ubercollector Adam Lindemann, claiming in the aforementioned Observer, that he is a student of Buddhism and only went to Europe this year to go to the museums.
The only hint of frivolity in the papers today is a slaphappy photo of three Artnet executives mimicking the gunfight at the OK Corral in front of what is alleged to be a Warhol Triple Elvis of the King going holster-to-holster in Flaming Star.
The departed Mr. Armstrong, who left the directorship of the Warhol Museum in 1994 after only eight months, was a cynosure of the art divide between joy and severity: the man who could wear bunny ears to a board meeting saw no spirit of play in the work of Richard Tuttle. We might all look into the funhouse mirror (myself included) in our weird little world and see what laughs back. It won’t be Ryan Trecartin, and it might be a Buddha.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).