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Fiction

Lives of the Artists

Lives of the Artists
In the morning Robert lies in bed watching patterns made by the sun on the floor and laments his predicament. Why did he have to be born at this moment in history, when all the good ideas were taken? Things were easier a hundred years ago. All you had to do was paint a tie on your shirt like Picabia and Apollinaire and you were making a radical statement.

Not that radical is his aim, necessarily. Robert used to be a painter, the most traditional thing of all. Then, four years ago, he gave it up. He stacked his canvases in the yard outside a friend’s house upstate, doused the pile with lighter fluid and set it on fire. Chemicals in the paint added color to the blaze: a decade of work going up in smoke. But even this was a tired gesture. Artists ritually burn their paintings all the time. Baldessari even made a work out of it, cremating his paintings, baking the ashes into cookies, and displaying them in a glass jar.

Robert has had other ideas. He started on an installation using cathode ray tubes and saved up enough money to take six months off. He woke every day at seven and worked, sometimes until midnight, making videos and sketches. But after a couple of months he wasn’t sure. The work felt dated, like something from the early nineties. He finally gave up and shoved the CRTs into a corner, breaking several in the process. Now instead of getting up early, he sleeps until noon, eats breakfast at a diner around the corner from his apartment, and goes into Chelsea to visit friends working in the galleries.

***

At night he dreams, but it’s always the same dream.

He’s walking down the middle of an old cobblestone street somewhere in lower Manhattan. There are no street signs or numbers on the buildings. His scalp begins to tingle and his breathing becomes difficult. He’s about to panic when suddenly a famous artist appears, standing on the corner before him. He’s never met this man but he’s seen him in photographs, lecturing under images of his work or bent over a table in his studio. Now he stands there, beckoning.

Robert, he says, gesturing with his hands. It’s all about ideas!

Then Robert’s breathing becomes easier. He doesn’t need to paint or make cunningly crafted objects. He just needs to focus on the ideas, to make people think about the way they look at and experience the world.

But the dream isn’t over. The artist turns away and Robert continues up the street and the same thing happens. He’s scanning the buildings for numbers. He’s looking for street signs. Panic rises in his chest. Then another artist appears.

Robert, this one says. It’s all about materials and scale!

Then Robert’s heart slows and he knows what to do: think like a formalist. Let the materials decide what they want to become. Make it big. Dwarf the viewer with your awesome creation.

He’s found a solution, so the dream should end here. But it doesn’t. Instead, Robert finds himself back on the cobblestones, sweating and panting, searching for some clue to orient himself until another artist finally appears.

Robert, the last one says. Don’t you know everything is political?

Then he realizes he’s been thinking all wrong. Art isn’t separate from life. It’s not about going to a gallery or museum and forgetting where you are. It’s about context, social relations, exposing how people and institutions manipulate, coerce, and oppress.

When he wakes up and goes over everything, he sees it’s just a classic anxiety dream. No street signs, the feeling of panic: he doesn’t know where he stands. But that doesn’t make it any easier. It doesn’t solve the original problem. If everything has been done already, what is there left to do?

***
One Saturday after a late breakfast in the neighborhood he takes the train to Chelsea and visits his best friend, Paul. The gallery where Paul works is between shows and he’s touching up the walls with white paint. Robert sits on the floor, watching.

Did you go to that party in Dumbo last night? Paul asks.

Yeah.

What was the deal?

Some developer bought the building and everyone’s being evicted.

I heard people were throwing things out the window.

Just food. And a couple pieces of furniture. Then the cops came.

Sounds like a good party.

It was okay.

They’re quiet for a minute.

Getting work done? Paul asks.

Some, Robert lies.

I wish I could take time off. After work I just end up watching TV.

Time off is good, but it’s more pressure.

Yeah, but it gets old, hanging other people’s work.

What’s up next?

Group show. Amanda’s in Berlin. I should hang one of my paintings while she’s gone and add it to the checklist.

Do it! Robert says, although he wouldn’t and he knows Paul won’t either.

They’re quiet again. Robert sits watching Paul’s arm move across the wall and remembering what it feels like to have a paintbrush in his hand. He hasn’t thought about painting in a long time but as he watches the new coat go on over the old one he suddenly has an idea. He sits for another minute then stands up.

I’ve got to go.

Okay, Paul says over his shoulder.

Robert leaves the gallery and heads east, keeping his head down so he won’t see anyone and have to stop and talk. The idea is growing inside him and he doesn’t want to disrupt it. He turns south and walks down Eighth Avenue, stepping around people and over dog leashes stretched like tripwires across the sidewalk. He pushes through a group of high school students standing outside a pizza restaurant, takes the stairs two at a time, and stands on the subway platform breathing hard. He hasn’t felt excited like this in a long time.

At home in the studio he finds some stretchers stashed behind a steel cabinet. He hasn’t saved any canvas though, so he walks to an art supply store off Bedford and collects what he needs: brushes, canvas, more stretchers, gesso and his favorite paint, made by a guy who stopped doing art and moved to Vermont.

Haven’t seen you in awhile, the shop owner says.

Robert stares at the supplies on the counter. He feels like a lapsed drug addict returning to his dealer.

I quit painting for awhile.

Well, glad to see you back.

The supplies come to almost eight hundred dollars. Robert puts it on a credit card and lugs it all home rather than spending more money on a cab. Back in the studio he staples canvas to the stretchers and applies the first coat of gesso. When that dries he sands it down and adds another layer, repeating the process until he’s created a good base. This is what people pay assistants to do but he can’t afford one and anyway, preparing a canvas is as personal for him as arranging a desk to work at or a bed to sleep in.

When the gesso is dry he starts laying down color, a different one for each canvas, then white on top of that. A few coats and the colors become pastel, then ghostly tints. He fixes pictures torn from newspapers and magazines to the wet surfaces and paints over them until the images grow fuzzy. He’s pleased with the results. He works through each day, letting his calls go to voicemail and stopping only to eat or make coffee. He sits on the old canvas-covered couch looking at his work, wondering why he didn’t think of this earlier. If he hadn’t given up painting, he might’ve gotten here a lot sooner.

***

The dreams continue. Only now when Robert walks down the cobblestone street, he feels relaxed and confident. As he approaches each corner, the artists greet him and shake his hand and speak to him like a colleague. They have one thing in common: they all made white paintings at some point in their careers. It’s as if Robert has cracked a code and joined a special club. Now he understands. If everything has been done already, you have to become a master of recycling. For once, he feels like he’s arrived in a place where he belongs.

***
In three weeks he’s finished six paintings. He’s never worked this fast but he knows it can be done. He stops to let the paint dry and consider his options. He could call Paul and get him to come over and offer his opinion, but he’s sick of these amateur critiques. They’re like art school crits all over again, with everyone standing around saying what comes to mind. Instead he goes online and scrolls through gallery listings. He’s in a better position now than before: practically everyone shows painting because it’s the easiest thing to sell. But after working in galleries and going to openings for nearly a decade, he still doesn’t know anyone in a real position of power—except Paul’s boss, Amanda. At least she’ll take his call.

Hi Robert, she says when he’s past her assistant. Have you heard from Paul?

No. Why?

I thought that’s why you were calling. He called in sick yesterday. He never calls in sick and now I haven’t heard from him today.

Oh. Actually, I was calling about something else.

What’s up?

I’ve made some paintings. I think they’re really strong. But I can’t tell you any more. You have to see them.

She’s quiet for a moment and Robert worries he’s overplayed his hand.

Okay, she says finally. I suppose I could come on Friday.

Let me see … Friday works.

You called me, remember? she says, laughing.

Right. Sorry.

Then Robert feels like an idiot. But she’s coming. They agree on a time and he hangs up and gets back to work.

***
The night before Amanda’s visit he is standing in the studio with a roll of paper towels in his hand when it occurs to him: he doesn’t know what the paintings are about. Malevich, Rauschenberg, Ryman—they all had some catchphrase, like a marketing slogan that made the work sound interesting and important. Reality purified into abstract components. Airports for particles. The how and not the what of painting.

Robert has overlooked this. But it’s not too late.

He starts scanning his shelves, pulling down books: Zizek, Vidler, Deleuze.

Death is what is felt in every feeling, what never ceases and never finishes …

But this is stupid, trying to slap something on after the fact. He returns the books to the shelves and sits on the couch, staring at the canvases propped on their little wooden blocks. He remembers stories he’s heard about other painters.

Is this a painting? Pollock supposedly asked Krasner about one of the drip paintings.

Warhol asked Ivan Karp the same question about the painted Pop pictures.

Because this is how it works: the painting becomes as familiar to you as your own hand. You’re not objective anymore. You’re irrational. One minute you’re a genius, the next you’re a fraud. Pollock boasting he was as good as Picasso then immediately retracting. I’m no good. I’m a phony.

Robert prides himself on being critical. When he fails, he admits it. He destroys the work and moves on. But can you destroy everything and still call yourself an artist?

The paintings are finished. There’s no point in tacking on some bullshit theory. He finishes cleaning the studio and for the time in weeks goes out for a beer.

***
That night he has the strangest dream of all. He’s walking down the old cobblestone street when a figure emerges from the shadows. He’s wearing an odd costume with tights and a billowy tunic, like something you’d see in a Renaissance painting. As Robert gets closer he realizes – somehow, with the clarity that comes in dreams, he just knows – it’s Giorgio Vasari, the painter and architect who wrote all those unreliable biographies of Renaissance artists. The guy’s been dead over four hundred years, but here he is, standing in the middle of a street in downtown Manhattan.

The white painting, Vasari says, waving his arms above him like an orator, is the buon fresco of contemporary art. If Michelangelo were alive today, he’d be making white paintings.

Really? He’d actually be painting instead of something else?

Vasari shrugs. I suppose so.

You don’t sound convinced.

You’re over-thinking it, Vasari says. Relax.

Robert would like to ask another question, but before he can, Vasari has vanished.

***
After breakfast Robert goes to a coffeehouse near his apartment. When he was younger he imagined an artist’s life was like this: spending long hours in cafés, reading newspapers, and talking to friends who stop by. Now he knows better and feels embarrassed to be sitting here doing nothing. But the paintings are finished. He’s earned a day off. He gets another refill on coffee and opens the sports section.

At three the sky turns gray and he heads back to the studio. Amanda calls at three-forty-five to tell him she’s running late. By the time she arrives an hour later rain is crashing against the lead-cased windows. He buzzes her in and she stands in the doorway, her umbrella dripping and the pants of her gray suit soaked below the knee. She’s not much older than Robert – thirty-five, maybe – but she’s got that haggard, distracted look of someone who’s already spoken to dozens of people today. She steps out of her high heels and holds up a soggy take-out cup.

I couldn’t find a cab. And my coffee is ruined.

I can make you an espresso.

No. Let’s see the work.

Robert leads her to the wall of paintings and tries not to watch as her eyes scan the surfaces. It’s been a long time since he’s had a studio visit and he feels self-conscious having someone in his space. He never invites people over – not because he’s afraid of someone stealing his ideas, like some artists, but because people have a bad habit of offering their opinions, even when a work isn’t finished or they haven’t been asked.

She doesn’t say anything. After a minute Robert can’t take it anymore.

You know Rauschenberg’s white paintings?

Of course.

Well, instead of airports for particles these are more like voids.

Hmmm.

Actually, he says, suddenly hitting on an idea, I call them Virtual Mirrors.
Interesting. What does that mean?

They’re like … instead of purity and all of that – all the modern-painters stuff – these reflect back at you.

Like a mirror?

Yeah. Exactly.

Amanda moves in front of one of the canvases. I don’t see my reflection.

It’s not literal. It’s just an idea. Robert feels the adrenaline pumping, the concept starting to take shape.

What about the ‘virtual’ part? And the void?

Well, you know how the computer screen is like this black hole? It’s like a void … except it’s a mirror too, reflecting all this imagery and information back at us.

So, like two things: a void and a mirror.

Yeah.

Hmmm. And the virtual part?

It’s like cyberspace. Like this deep, swirling void.

But they’re flat, Amanda says.

Yeah. But there’s stuff underneath, he steps forward and points to the ghostly images under the paint.

They suggest, like, the unconscious of the painting, the fact that it goes much deeper than what you see on the surface.

That’s a lot of stuff going on. I mean with the mirrors and voids and all that.

Yeah.

They’re quiet for a moment and Robert wonders if he’s said too much. He wishes he’d thought of the Virtual Mirrors idea last night, but it’s too late to worry about that now. He’s made his case. Now he has to wait for the verdict. Finally she speaks.

You mentioned Rauschenberg and ‘airport for particles,’ but he didn’t really hit his stride until the Combines. That was his moment. Going out and finding all that junk and bringing it back to his studio.

Yeah.

And then borrowing the idea from Calder’s Mobiles for the name. Nobody could handle them until they had a name that made sense. Calling them Combines is obviously such an important part of it.

Robert nods, although he would like to skip the art history lesson and just hear what she thinks.

I guess you could say the same thing with Virtual Mirrors, she continues. It’s your stab at making Mobiles or Combines. I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something, but I just don’t feel there’s enough. I don’t think the work is holding up its end of the bargain.

Robert nods. He wants to be angry. But Amanda was nice enough to take him seriously and she’s only being honest. He should be thanking her for coming out here in the rain and telling him the truth. He drops onto the couch with a thud. She sits down at the other end.

I should just burn the fucking things, he mutters.

He imagines holding a lighter to the corner of a canvas and the flames taking hold. Holes open up in the center and paint rolls in fiery dribbles down the front. This is what he’s best at, after all: burning his work. So good, in fact, he should’ve made fire paintings instead of white ones. Except that Yves Klein and Warhol and Rauschenberg – fucking Rauschenberg again! – already beat him to it.

Amanda begins to laughs.

What’s so funny? Robert says.

Have you heard of Apollodorus?

Who?

Apollodorus. An ancient Greek. Pliny called him ‘the madman’ because he was so self-critical he destroyed most of his own work. You’re a bit like him.

Says who?

Paul.

Robert wonders what else his friend has said about him.

De Kooning was famous for destroying his work in the 40s. But then he stopped. You will too, one of these days.

They sit there for a moment then Amanda pushes herself up from the couch.

I should be getting back.

She walks toward the door and slides her feet into her wet shoes and turns toward the windows. The storm is over. The sky is clearing. She leans down to pick up her umbrella and stops.

What’s that?

She points to the pile of cathode ray tubes and broken glass in the corner.

A project I was working on before I went back to painting.

What is it?

Robert moves around the studio, hooking up one of the CRTs. An image pops on: a body of water with a current twisting through the surface.

Where is that?

Over here, he points toward the East River. Watch out for that broken glass.

She nods and takes a small step away from the pile. Robert leans forward and picks up another CRT and plugs it in. Another image pops on: an early morning view across the river. He remembers waking at five and trudging through the cold, stopping at the all-night deli for a coffee and sitting on a rock in the park waiting for the sun to rise over Brooklyn and shine on the water.

He waits for Amanda to say something, to tell him this has been done before, the water’s surface drawn and painted by Monet and the Dutch, the Japanese, the ancient Greeks. Entire civilizations obsessed with water. That’s not even counting the contemporary artists who’ve filmed and photographed and painted the water’s surface, or drawn a big spiral with basalt rocks on the shore of a lake …

He hands her a plan for the installation and glances at her face. He learned early how to tell what someone thought of his drawings, even before they spoke. It’s all there in the eyes and the mouth, an involuntary cue.

It’s beautiful. Why’d you give this up?

Robert looks over at the windows. The rain has stopped. The sky has gone pink. A flickering image is reflected on the surface of a painting across the room. He looks back at Amanda, surrounded by a halo of rose-colored light and imagines her as an angel, arriving to deliver his work into the world.

Martha Schwendener has completed a novel about artists and other members of the contemporary art world, titled Lives of the Artists. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, the New Yorker, Artforum, Art in America , Bookforum, Time Out New York , and other publications.