Tuesday, August 26, 2008

On "The Art Critic" by Peter Plagens

The first installment of The Art Critic, a novel set in the New York art world and centering on a fifty-something critic for a weekly news magazine, recently appeared on Artnet. The book will serialize online over the next 24 weeks. It is written by Peter Plagens, painter, writer and art critic for Newsweek.

This comment was originally posted on an Artworld Salon thread on the book.

Plagens allows his alter ego, Arthur, to disparage a lot of contemporary art as pretentious and laughable. He admits being stuck with a legacy of “high-end formalism” and abstraction from his graduate school days. Employing a habitually rueful and sardonic tone, voicing an almost obligatory impatience with Chelsea, he is “in desperate search of art with feeling rather than strategy at its core” and sick of “all that goddamned storytelling”. He is a sour, world weary pedant who prides himself on being nobody’s fool while remaining oblivious to many of his own contradictions. Ever in denial, he can wryly congratulate his middle-aged sexual persona as “a good, clean, considerate fuck with few if any harmful side effects”.

An elder statesman’s (or aging crank’s) rejection of the Unmonumental, Whitney Biennial aesthetic, which he labels as “Granny’s­-attic­-on­-crystal­-meth installations” or “whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus”, extends to the ponderous self importance and pervasive texts he dreads confronting in so much recent MFA work. He tends to rail against easy targets: a droll send up of an exhaustive (and exhausting) feminist catalog, a chuckle at jargon in gallery press releases, even the well peppered roasting of an academic realist painter revealed as a contentious blowhard.

The Art Critic will please those readers looking for barbed observations of art world realpolitik as well as scandalous insider revelations. Because the ultimate guilty pleasure of any roman à clef is discovering real life equivalents for the pseudonymous roles in the novel. To his credit, Plagens tries to create composite characters, each inspired by a number of actual sources in the New York demimonde. This is a more imaginative and synthetic strategy than thinly disguised, one-on-one correspondences. For example, to identify the “Carol Gascoine” character simply as Laurie Simmons is to miss a lot of subtext drawn from other sources.

But Plagens can also be crushingly direct. When he contemplates “huge Cibachrome prints of exquisitely posed suburban-gothic banalities, produced with budgets that must have consumed whole trust funds in a single gulp”, it seems aimed right at Gregory Crewdson. Similarly, conservative critic “Jonathan Hirsch” is a clear stand in for Hilton Kramer. As for other art world figures who pop up as naughty or nice characters, everyone can start making their own list and checking it twice. Or rather 24 times, the number of weekly installments that will appear in Artnet.

Interestingly, Cindy Sherman is the only figure (thus far) who appears under her own name, and in a fairly benign usage, as an historical marker. She might escape further gouging as the plot thickens. But everyone else, it would seem, is grist for the mill.

Chapter Two Has Been Published

The setting of the second installment: a book party for an anthology of art criticism by Jonathan Hirsch, at the home of "conspicuously short" publisher Ben Greenleaf, a cavernous apartment in a prewar building.

Cast of characters:

Publishing assistant Helen Isaacson, beautiful, pertly intelligent daughter of a famous collector.

Ambitious sculptor Tom Mannheim, a "stocky, thickly maned man" with "a slightly Slavic, chiseled but friendly face ... a forest green corduroy sports jacket and sneakers that looked like the Space Shuttle".

His sassy, sexpot wife Sharon, with "splendid rack, great orange dress, dominatrix hair, and flame red lipstick."

Jonathan Hirsch, who "looked like a bright young English professor at a second-tier college ... in a tweed sport jacket, blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt, and small-pattern paisley tie ...octagonal eyeglasses with black metal frames of the sort European architects wore. His eyes were noticeably far apart. Jonathan’s curly brown hair topped a triangular face with a conspicuously broad forehead and small chin." And who is gay. Since this does not match the description of Hilton Kramer, perhaps I need to revise my search parameters.

Also making cameo appearances, and available for conjecture as to their real life equivalents:

"sallow-cheeked, once-famous Earthwork artists with limp, stringy ponytails"

"the Pop artist whose recent eightieth birthday had been cause for more commemorations than D-Day’s sixtieth"

"sullenly scruffy 'emerging' artists"

"Italian-tailored museum executives"

"inferiority-complex’d 'independent curators' hoping to land major exhibition projects"

"university art history professors trying to dust off their mothballed hipness"

"the Falstaffian critic for the larger rival to Arthur’s magazine, a native New Zealander who also contributed regularly to as many glossy fashion magazines (four) as he had ex-wives"

trade magazines such as Art Discourse, Art Intervention, Art Unpacked and Art Scene Now!

the "Perkins Fellowship -- three months in residence at the journalism school at a university known unto itself -- and itself only -- as 'The Harvard of the Midwest'"

the recent "Catalcysm & Cuteness: The Paradox of Late Postmodernism exhibition at the Modern Museum"

Hirsch’s book, "Seeing Is Conceiving, fresh off the press from the Linden Creek imprint at Castle/Cartwright, Inc.", with the slogan "publishers of quality books for quality readers"

a vulgarian collector in pin stripe suit - a "crude ol’ rich bastard ... one of those self-made farts who grew up poor on the Lower East Side, still chews with his mouth open ... He’s got an investment problem and he’s standing in front of a young guy who’s not nearly as tough as he is, and who might be able to help put in the fix, so to speak. He wants service, now." - who is hectoring Hirsch, in effect demanding: "Why the fuck aren’t you writing stuff in that Wall Street newspaper that all my fellow plutocrats read? Why aren’t you doing your bit to pump up the eventual auction prices of all those young, tattoo’d Goth slacker painters I’ve been buying wholesale at bargain prices?"


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