Saturday, November 17, 2007

Art for Adults

Every muscle in my body is complaining after 48 hours of running, running, running uptown and downtown to see art. If I kept up this pace I would be thin as a rope. I spent the bulk of the week in Brooklyn, by myself, going to previews of major contemporary art auctions and watching the live feed of the Sotheby's night auction on the internet over a bottle of wine, with my best friend from college, keeping a running tally of the final prices like a bridge score. Let me tell you, it was jaw-dropping entertainment to watch a Francesco Clemente painting - I think it was the image of a bullfighter, painted by someone extremely nearsighted - go for $41 million. Jeff Koons: the highest price paid for the work of a living artist sold at auction. Oh great, now we are going to be subjected to endless "art" of Jeff Koons' genitalia. American reverence for anything, including art, always comes down to money, and that's the dirty laundry of a capitalist society. A friend of mine in Brooklyn says in the future, maybe in as little as one generation, you won't be able to own a house in this country unless you inherit it. Thank God for critic Roberta Smith, who writes in today's Times in regard to Lawrence Weiner's current show at the Whitney, "As Far as the Eye Can See" (nytimes.com/design):

"Driven by the joy of language and quite a bit of humor, Mr. Weiner's ebullient work asks tough questions about who makes or owns art, where it can occur and how long it lasts. It reminds us that while art and money may have been inextricably entwined throughout most of history, art's real value is not measured in strings of zeros, high-priced materials or bravura skill, but in communication, experience, economy of means (the true beauty) and, yes, the inspired disturbance of all status quos."

Artist Joe Lewis III, who used to be head of faculty at CalArts and is now the Dean at Alfred University upstate (and who looks like a boxer more than an artist), characterized New York as the Old World compared to LA. In New York the status quo is status, whereas in LA it's all fluid: you can see what you want, say what you want, be what you want, wear what you want, make what you want; there aren't any rules. It must be admitted however that the exigencies of being a broke artist in a city of show-offs can produce brittle or superficial results.

The night after Sotheby's raked in $319 million (the house tacks on an additional 22% fee to the gavel price), I sat between Mr. Lewis and Lenny, the curator of a photo show hung in the lobby of an office building at 1155 Avenue of the Americas, where the snowy landscapes were a breath of fresh air against black marble walls, at a little opening night soiree. Also in attendance were Kathleen, the gallery director (who represents Joe Lewis's work, as well) and Gail, the artist of the evening, plus the gallery assistant and the artist's sister. I think we walked almost to Tenth Avenue to a little French restaurant; I have no idea of the name or whether I could find my way back there, but the owner took great pride in showing Joe and I (both ex-Californians: I was informed that if I lasted a year in New York, I was now officially transplanted) his beautiful, curved, zinc-topped bar, which he shipped in the cargo load of a boat all the way from Marseilles. I asked the owner if he had any of the newly legal absynthe, and indeed, yes; also pastis. Joe Lewis III asked me if I was going to get high. We knocked on the bar and I told him I had heard it was bad for your...reputation.

As we sat down I felt delighted to be dressed up, with artists, in a French restaurant. It was watershed moment; I was truly a grown-up, honored to be invited, sweating whether I was sufficiently witty to be admitted to such a party, and immediately stone deaf. The accoustics were so poor (the noted glass ceiling) that the only remarks I could hear clearly were those of Lenny, to my right, and of course, Joe to my left, who had a booming voice and gold front teeth. Lenny was a vivid reminder of Allen Ginsberg, albeit with a smaller, neater beard, much as one worn by an iconic Freudian analyst. He was equally balding, with the tasteful windshield glasses of the French intellectual. Lenny has been everything, according to Kathleen, even a hairdresser. Lenny spent 15 years in Catalan Spain (1/4 of his life, as he pointed out), and this is the name of the wine he wrote on my napkin:

MARQUIS DE RISCAL ROSADO

He said if you find a 1964, nab it, and be sure to call him. I was recalling our luncheon bottle of Rose in the South of France, light, slightly peppery and divine on a hot summer day - nothing like the boxes of Kool-Aid called Rose in this country. Lenny says Spanish wines are the real wine, as the vines in Spain were untouched by the major epidemic that destroyed so many old French vines after the War. The Spanish vines are ancient, he said.

He lived right on the border, near Morocco; his friends were some of the world's biggest drug dealers. He sat on the beach and watched them load 200 tons of hashish onto a boat. He "did it" all, and now he's done. He might smoke a little with friends or buy a bag occasionally, niggling his way through it with one or two of the little Moroccan pipefuls in the evening. "I don't want more," he said. "I have too much work I want to do."

"Salt," Gail the photographer piped up, "Is the new cocaine."

The waiter brought for the table three dishes of mystery condiments, which turned out to be hot pepper paste, a mystery glue that tasted like tamarind without the little screech of brakes at the end, and salt mixed with cumin. Lenny insisted we taste it, so in turn we each licked a finger and dipped into the dish, and I can report that I'll never eat my salt any other way.

Gail also confided that Labs are much less judgemental than poodles, and you should never buy a poodle that can't look you in the eye, because the whole relationship is founded on that rapport. I wanted to tell her about a study Wayne heard reported on the radio, in which researchers found that they were soon able to train wild foxes to find a hunk of meat, simply by indicating its location with their eye movements, whereas chimpanzees couldn't understand that eye movement at all and didn't even acknowledge it as a signal.

Joe Lewis posed the question, What's going to happen to other societies when they get what they think we have, like cell phones, video games, money?

The same thing that happened to our society, Lenny snapped.

He said he never could identify with LA. Last time he was there, he stayed in Benedict Canyon. At midnight on New Year's Eve, everyone went out in their back yards with their shotguns and shot a hole in the sky. He was simply repelled by this; he never liked guns. He says it's not the weather he dislikes, not the radiation, since Catalan Spain is the capital of sunbaked, and he soaked it up like a lizard. The thing he finds appalling about LA is how people who go there become imitations of themselves. "I prize authenticity above everything," he said.

In Japan and Korea, according to Lenny, the young women are gorgeous. Poreless skin, perfect eyes, perfect teeth, perfect nails, not a hair out of place: they wear only the best, buy only the best. The generation gap in those societies is literally two feet. The old people are this tall, with the long spine, tucked-under butt and short legs that were the ideal of beauty in Asia for a thousand years. They look up at the young people with their long legs, bubble butts, V-shaped torsos and chiseled jaws, and what do they see? They see a world that has no place for them. Oh, the young people generally treat their elders with respect, but it is a hollow esteem, since they don't look to them for any knowledge; instead, they look to their hand held devices for entertainment. The old people freak out, having absolutely no way to grasp or relate to what's going on around them.

"Look, imagine you're, say, a German peasant in the 1700s, a shepherd. You come down out of the hills once a year, on Easter, and enter the church: you sit down and hear a full symphony orchestra play Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. That is really transcendental music; it takes you the full distance, from A to Z, and on into outer space. It's like dropping 10 micrograms of LSD. You've been out in the pastures for months, with nothing but birds, the wind, the sheep bleating, maybe a flute if you're lucky, and then you go and witness this transcendental performance by one of the world's great geniuses. It's a mind-bending, trance-inducing religious experience. It is said that audiences greeted one of Beethoven's last performances of his work - he was already deaf - with utter silence. He thought his piece was a failure. Then someone managed to break out of the stunned trance he had induced, and he was heralded with thunderous applause.

"That's the kind of gap between generations people are experiencing all over Asia. The ancient cultures are not being passed down. The old people look up at the new race of giants," Lenny said, "And I reject that it's all the effect of nutrition. I think it's a paradym shift. So much of who we are is mental."

"Ugh!" Lenny interrupted himself, "I hear a child's voice in the restaurant."

He shuddered visibly. I stared at him, wide-eyed.

"This only started happening in New York within the last 5 years," he said. "In Europe, the children are civilized early. If they're brought into a restaurant at all, they sit quietly and watch. They don't try to rule the table with their loud, shrill voices."

Then he went off, talking about an occasion where he had gone with a large group of people to a fine dining establishment, where his meal alone cost $200 and the final tab for the table came to about $2500. So people were paying a lot for dinner, and a couple brought an infant into this restaurant. It proceeded to "cry and shriek and scream and piss and shit and projectile vomit through the entire meal, the little asshole! It was absolutely disgusting! Mother's little darling! Someone's got to draw the line.

"So I called the waiter over," Lenny went on, "And said, 'I have had to suffer through every disgusting bodily function during the entire course of my meal because of that child! It is absolutely disgusting, and I will NEVER eat here again; and furthermore, everyone at this table agrees with me. So you can just present my check to the people at that table, because I refuse to pay for it."

"What do you want me to do, sir?" the waiter pleaded, "It's only a child."

So the restaurant bought Lenny dinner because they refused to present his check to the other table, and he has never been there again.

"There has to be some prerogative for being an adult," Lenny said.

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