Thursday, January 1st, 2009

The Art Critic by Peter Plagens

Peter Plagens Untitled 2007.  Mixed media on canvas, 48 x 44 inches.  Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery
Peter Plagens, Untitled 2007. Mixed media on canvas, 48 x 44 inches. Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery

I’ve long felt that Peter Plagens and I had a community of interest, as we’ve both written about art for weekly newsmagazines (he for Newsweek, I for Time, having preceded Robert Hughes in that slot). Imagine my delight when I learned last August that Plagens was publishing his second novel, The Art Critic, in 24 installments on artnet! Twenty-four installments later, I’m happy to report that I really enjoyed this book, but that the author and I turn out to have less in common than I supposed. For one thing, Plagens is certainly no Greenbergian. Though his take on the current art scene is somewhat dyspeptic, he finds more to like about it than I do, nor do any of the many characters resemble the late, great Clement. However, they do bear tantalizing resemblances to other art-world denizens.

We have, for example, Tony Givens, director of the Atelier Academy, an art school in Greenwich Village—but this can’t possibly be Graham Nickson, of the New York Studio School, since Nickson is a Brit, whereas Givens comes from Australia. The school building was formerly owned by Amanda Cartwright, a rich society sculptor who patronized herds of artists—but this can’t possibly be Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, since instead of founding the Whitney Museum, Amanda left her money to found the Atelier Academy. And so it goes. Another prominent character is an art critic named Jonathan Hirsch, whose tastes are no more avant-garde than conventional landscapes and still-lifes. This makes him sound like Hilton Kramer, except that Hirsch writes for The Financial Journal, which makes him sound also a bit like Eric Gibson, of The Wall Street Journal. Then again, he’s portrayed as young and very prolific, suggesting a dash of David Cohen of artcritical as well.

The plot is slender and not unfamiliar—a romantic triangle, with two talented men competing for a gorgeous young woman. She’s named Helen Issacson, but this can’t possibly be Helen Frankenthaler as she’s not an artist, but assistant to an art-book publisher. Her father Mel is a fabulously wealthy collector and owner of a magazine empire, sort of a cross between Peter Brant and Si Newhouse, with perhaps a soupcon of Charles Cowles thrown in. The rivals for Helen’s attentions are the eponymous Arthur, a single, fifty-ish art critic for the second-largest newsweekly whose last name nobody seems to be able to remember, and Tom Mannheim, a married abstract constructivist sculptor whose work sounds like a cross between that of Mark di Suvero, Clement Meadmore and maybe Michael Steiner—except that he’s struggling to jazz it up for the contemporary market with video monitors (Bruce Nauman? Plagens is currently working on a book about Nauman).

Arthur and Tom Mannheim sound like Plagens at war with himself, since in reality he’s both an art critic and an artist (exhibiting at Nancy Hoffman). The subplot involves the agonies that Mannheim undergoes while trying to bring his latest project to fruition, and persuade his gallery to give him a show (he gets solid support from his very smart, gay black studio assistant, Jimmy O’Doole). The ending is bittersweet, but the real fun of the book lies in its encyclopedic portrayal of the art scene as Arthur sees it in his weekly rounds. Plagens has it all spot on, from the basse-couture fashions worn by Chelsea gallery-goers to the gobbledegook of museum brochures, from the glitz of Manhattan openings and the grue of gallery intrigues to artists’ colonies in the Northeast Corridor and the attitudes of artists marooned in Arizona or San Diego.

What do Arthur and I have in common, and where do we part company? I suffered as he does from the almost total lack of interest in art upon the part of my newsweekly colleagues, but I didn’t have to struggle with editors to get stories about art into the magazine the way that Arthur does. In my day, color photography was still something of a novelty on newsmagazines, and Time was so proud of its superior color reproduction that it was happy to show it off with art. Also, Arthur seems to think of his mass-audience readers, those millions out there in the heartland, as complete yahoos—but by comparison with Time’s readers, those of Newsweek in the ‘60s were relatively enlightened, nor do I see any reason to doubt that these differences persist today. Finally, Plagens is a man and I’m a woman. InThe Art Critic, two of three main female characters are sexual predators, while both principal male characters are incurable romantics. As I see it, women are more likely to be romantics, while men are the ones hipped on sex. Still, Plagens’ way of telling it does enable him to work in a few lively bedroom scenes. As Spencer Tracy says, at the end ofAdam’s RibVive la différence!