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Bill Powers


by Walter Robinson
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Bill Powers, What We Lose in Flowers, 2012, New York, 66 pp., $20.

We know Bill Powers, the Half Gallery proprietor and "Work of Art" judge, and his wife Cynthia Rowley, the adventurous fashion designer and sometime visual artist. Bill has also been an editor, and now he has written a new paperback book, What We Lose in Flowers. A short story, really, it is distinguished by its title, which rhymes with the author’s name (do writers do that?), and also by its cover, which is designed by Richard Prince and features black-and-white soft-core porn.

Parsing a fiction written by a friend can make for a self-conscious reader. Just how autobiographical is this tale of Yul and Emily, a middle-aged artist and his second and younger wife? An initial note of sweetness -- he “wants to tell his wife she’s the eye of his storm” and her hug is “a lei of arms clasped by interwoven fingers” -- makes you wonder if this slim volume is Bill blowing a kiss to Cynthia.

But Yul is a surfer, and burly, and "wears pajamas like clothes." Is he really Julian Schnabel? He makes plate paintings with bondo, but no, Yul isn’t Julian. "At 51, Yul reveled in his boorishness," writes Powers, encapsulating an obnoxious trait that all but defines today’s avant-garde (though not Schnabel, who I’m sure doesn’t think of himself as a boor).

Yul also quotes Ovid, like some kind of macho Cy Twombly, and uses a projector to trace the outlines of Bernini's Apollo and Daphne onto an eight-foot-square canvas, like any number of Postmodernists. And Yul's last name is Franco. A relative of the Generalissimo or the actor?

Within this delirium of not-quite-idle references (for an authentic contemporary artist cannot really be imagined from whole cloth), Powers deftly and believably puts together both a character study and a morality tale set in the contemporary art scene. Our artist is a show-off and a bit of a bore. "Any monkey with a camera can take pictures," he says to a sycophant who praises his photographs (of Africa, perhaps like Peter Beard). "It's an idiot's profession."

More importantly, the affection Yul and his wife once shared is hollowed out by bickering and contempt. Our artist knows the art racket, he has his wisecracks and slide lectures, but all that doesn’t add up to much. It’s a sad story, What We Lose in Flowers, sad because it rings so true.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.