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An Artist and Critic's Chelsea Satire

by Jonathan Gondelman

Posted: Nov 07, 2012 05:12 PM


 

Hurricane Sandy, far from an art fan, flooded and ruined many of Chelsea’s galleries, particularly those west of 10th Avenue. Several do not expect to be functional again until after Thanksgiving. Peter Plagens's The Art Critic, a novel now available in e-book format from Hol Art, Books restores Chelsea to all its antediluvian, minimalist glory.

Arthur, Plagens’s titular critic, writes for a major national newsweekly (Plagens himself previously worked for Newsweek and currently writes gallery art criticism for The Wall Street Journal) and exhausts himself each Saturday by making that particular circuit of west-side Chelsea galleries. He's a true art lover, though he is unambitious and suffers from a certain complacency; his principal weakness is an eroticism that he denies himself only because he realizes that he's just too damned old to make a convincing Casanova. His foil, the marijuana-addicted sculptor Tom Mannheim, spends most of the novel working on a massive, bronze-coated serpentine sculpture incorporating a “narrative video element”; as far as one can tell, this magnum opus is utterly monstrous. Whereas Arthur is pleased merely to be paid to write about what he likes, Tom, naively believing that commercial success and artistic value somehow coincide, desperately wants to make it as an artist; digging her spurs into his haunches is his wife, Sharon, whose status as breadwinner of the Mannheim household offends Tom's masculinity. Coming between Arthur and Tom (as well as between Tom and Sharon) is the beautiful and talented publishing assistant Helen Issacson, whose art-collector and media magnate father Mel just so happens to be able to guarantee Arthur job security and Tom artistic celebrity, should either of them be able to put an end to his daughter's chronic dissatisfaction.

Though billed as a love triangle, the principals don't begin to step on each others' shoes (let alone into each others' beds) until halfway through the novel. Most of the book is concerned with Arthur's perambulations between various artistic hotspots in and beyond New York City. One of the funniest sections concerns the week he spends as a visiting critic at a commune in New England, during which he has a long conversation with the rum-soaked painter Esther Koenig. Esther persists in painting artistically viable, though culturally passe, still lifes. To Arthur's suggestion that she cash-in her “counterintuitive retro cachet” and accommodate contemporary taste, she laughs and asks, “What do you want me to do, put a fluorescent pink dildo in the basket with the eggplants?”

The Art Critic is an entertaining read, neither too short nor too long, but it does tread familiar ground. In the era of Gallery Girls, do we really need more satire of the art world? Large sections of the novel detail the predictable struggles at Arthur's magazine between the writers and management, who continually insist on implementing more populist elements such as a one-to-four-star review system. Though never tedious, these sections fall just below the level of comedy; the tensions between the craft- and artistically-minded and those who pay the bills are so familiar. It is more frustrating that the characters never really reach the level of fully-formed human beings; Helen's motivations, in particular, remain vague throughout. Many of the most interesting characters are also the most minor, such as the aforementioned Esther Koenig and Jonathan Hirsch, Arthur's highbrow rival critic who writes for a much more prestigious magazine.

The novel's most affecting sections do involve the minor characters, as when Arthur, mortified, witnesses the gay Hirsch, after having had one too many at an opening, debase himself by attempting a pass on a macho straight critic. Tom Mannheim, at wit's end after having seemingly lost two sponsors, visits his assistant Jimmy O'Doole at home in Brownsville only to find that Jimmy plays a very different role in his own neighborhood than he does in Tom's studio.

Though The Art Critic is a roman a clef, one need not be an insider to get all the jokes and its brisk plot keeps the story moving through the novel’s twenty-four chapters. The book is a fun, light-hearted read perfect for the seemingly interminable subway delays Sandy has left behind and will satisfy any impatient gallery-goer until the Chelsea scene has recovered.

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