Sunday, March 11, 2007

Through a glass darkly ...

8 March 2007 ~12 midnight

“Nights are long since you went away …,” my Uncle Tom once lullabyed to me in his fabulous Chicago apartment way back in the Pleistocene era. And for some reason, the line and sentiment come back to me as I mull over the evening and, uh, one of ‘my buddies’ (I’ll call this one, ‘opera buddy’); and the question I ask about almost everyone (and maybe everyTHING) – how well do we actually know anyone? How much is entirely beyond our grasp, beyond our reach – vaulted and entirely inaccessible? I sometimes feel like Alice Toklas (yeah, in more ways than one) in the trajectory my life seems to take – one long sequence of dinners (or drinks) with geniuses, the great and near-great (and, it must be conceded, more than a few non-entities). It’s as if, absent a sit-down, on-the-record interview, that’s about as well as I’m going to know any of them.

I feel incredibly fortunate that some of them are my pals; but there are moments when what I learn about them calls into question almost everything else I’ve assumed I knew about them; when the river between us seems more like an ocean. (The ‘object in your [mental] mirror may in fact be more ‘distant’ than it appears.) I’m feeling guilty about essentially playing hooky on the Robert Irwin ‘conversation’ with LACMA Director Michael Govan (though reports on the previous ‘conversation with Jeff Koons’ did nothing to whet my enthusiasm for this one). Chatting with opera buddy, as we speed down Wilshire Boulevard in the opposite direction from LACMA (I mention Irwin’s spiral serpentine garden at The Getty, and wonder if a “confrontation”-style event might be more interesting, say, for example, a little set-to between Irwin and his Getty foil, architect Richard Meier. Hey – they’re both about light and space, no?), I ask her what she thinks about Irwin. She shrugs her shoulders as she places him in the overall contemporary art scheme. “Yeah.. Uh -- don’t care. You think he’s important?” “I’ll take that to mean you didn’t catch his MOCA retrospective.” I have to laugh – it’s not as if I’m not just as dismissive occasionally. ‘Oh yeah – he’s doing this, that, . . . and this – NEXT!’ Or complaining (as I was only soooo recently) about ‘too much’ painting – in actuality meaning too much of the same kinds of painting – but how quick I am to dismiss what doesn’t immediately fall into (or, alternatively, way outside) certain criteria. But it’s one thing to say something like this about some submerging schmo in a gallery and another entirely about someone like Irwin.

The subject turns to New York, from where we’ve both just recently returned, and what we were up to respectively there. I mention a few things that grabbed my attention at the fairs and the records that were set at the Christie’s auction I attended. She talks a bit about what she’s writing – extrapolating into the defining parameters of art itself. It shocks me a bit that she is somewhat adamant about drawing a firm line between film and “fine” art. “Films [and I do mean feature films by this] can’t be art?” I ask. “Movies are entertainment,” she pronounces definitively. I start to pursue this a bit, starting with a couple of films she knows quite well and throwing in another couple of examples, but quickly drop the matter. Absurd to waste my breath on a moot point – something that’s already been arbitrated by the culture of an entire century. I’m hoping she’s not planning to pursue this bogus extension of the otherwise interesting points of her essay. She asks me if I noticed work at the fairs by a painter who’s garnering quite a bit of attention in the art press in the last couple of months – whose work we’ve both admired (indeed mutually discovered – at least for ourselves) a couple of years or so ago – and whose market has risen accordingly. She now wishes she had purchased one of the paintings we admired then. (I had – though not the sort of thing one might expect from this particular artist.) “Were you seriously considering buying one?” I asked, thinking it not entirely outside the realm of possibility. “Maybe you should have.” “Would YOU have spent that kind of money?” she asks me. “If I had it, I might.” She suddenly seemed incredulous. “You’d throw that kind of money at a painting?” (She knows how little I make.) “I’m not talking about ME. And it’s not like I’m going to do something financially self-destructive. But for YOU – it might be a reasonable thing. And you really liked it.” “No,” she says, almost scowling. “I just wish I’d bought it now. As an investment.” “Just as an INVESTMENT? That sounds pretty crass.”

“You think it’s crass to buy art only as an investment?” “ONLY as an investment? Yes. Of COURSE, it’s an INVESTMENT – but the decision can’t be about money alone.” “That’s just stupid. Of course it can be for money.” “And why would you be selling it [the hypothetical admired painting] now anyway? Her market hasn’t gone up that much.” It occurs to me now how many artists she’s passed by whose markets have gone up “that much” in recent years. The same thought occurs to her – and she mentions it. (Defensively?) But the more important thing she’s left out here is an essential factor in the investment process – whether financial or artistic: the risk to be considered – intellectual or financial, and in the art world – both. The notion of making money from the re-sale of art, in itself, isn’t crass at all. But the level of return, not so differently from any other financial investment, will always bear some relationship to the level of risk. And there is always the possibility that the market will not behave ‘rationally.’ (Or that it will.) Even in the rarefied world of old masters, there is rarely anything like a ‘SURE THING.’

Not to be sanctimonious about it, though, there’s something almost offensive to me about the notion of simply ‘flipping’ a piece for a short-term, dead-end capital gain. As closely as I follow the markets – as I follow money trails all over the goddamned place – art is not something I think about in primarily economic or utilitarian terms. To deal with it strictly in such terms seems degrading to me. Coming from an artist – as this does, it’s nothing less than astonishing. I’m appalled -- and a little nonplussed. And it occurs to me that Irwin applies here just as he does in the parks and wide-open plazas and exhibition and quasi-theatrical spaces where his work is seen to advantage. Here, in this confined space, with the light rhythmically traversing the car interior and strobing across her (always amazing) silhouette, I suddenly see opera buddy in a different and disquieting light. Later, outside Royce Hall (which is where we’re headed), she crosses the quadrangle, presumably (I think for a moment) to take in the Powell Library (something else we’ve both admired), then turns to me with impatience, as if to say, ‘are we going already?’ Uh, okay, I think – and it’s as if I’m walking through several half-lit scrims or mirrored walls to see a person I only now realize I hardly know.

[MORE – about the art market, Irwin’s notions of light and space – and the “not-Irwin” event – Denyce Graves’ recital at Royce Hall]

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