After a year of post-school life in Philadelphia, I moved back to Dallas, Texas and got married. Things did not go well. My wife suggested we take a three-day trip to San Francisco, because she'd always heard it was interesting. I was not interested, but agreed to go along. I'd never been to California. I'd heard about it on the TV news, growing up: earthquakes, mudslides, forest fires, and hippies on drugs.
What I found surprised me. Here was a city with some of the excitement of New York, but it was relatively clean and quiet. I could imagine getting on with life here, not merely surviving and paying the rent.
I walked the costal trail through Lincoln Park. I couldn't believe how pretty and peaceful it was. Seals played in the water. Downtown, I saw people fishing from the Ferry Building pier. I never saw anyone fishing the waters around Manhattan. On the third day, I decided we would live here.
I'm kind of weird that way. My parents moved several times while I was growing up, so I don't have a normal person's reticence about it. To them, this is like proposing marriage on the first date. If I see a place I like, I figure, "What am I waiting for?" I'd only been to Philadelphia once before moving there for five years. I don't like to travel at all, but when I do, I'm open to changing locations permanently.
|Me in seagull city, 1986|
Life in San Francisco went much better. We got an apartment across the street from Lincoln Park, so I could paint on the cliffs every weekend. I got my first office job, and we managed well, despite the higher cost of living. I built up a considerable number of paintings, but galleries in San Francisco were unanimous in their rejection of my work. I published a weird brochure, with photos of my paintings and a strange, unrelated story inside. I sent this to every promising listing in the ArtNews Gallery Guide. Responses were negative or non-existent. Then one day I opened a letter from a gallery on 57th Street in New York. Accustomed to rejection, I harbored no hope for anything positive.
To my great shock, the gallery director—I'll call him Otto—wanted to see more work! I corresponded with Otto and spoke to him on the phone a few times. He said, "Don't make a special trip, but if you happen to come through New York, I'd like to meet with you."
I had spent a lot of money on the printing, and only had a few hundred dollars free to spend. I wasn't going to breeze through New York by accident any time soon. I decided to spend my remaining pennies, and go see Otto. It wasn't a difficult decision. Only one person in the art industry liked me, and even though he was well-situated in midtown, the art business was highly volatile. Any day Otto might move on, or the gallery might close down. If I didn't go now, I'd always wonder what would have happened. I made an appointment to meet him on 57th Street and bought a plane ticket.
I got up early on the day of our appointment. I walked up Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum, to see some pictures before going to 57th Street. I phoned the gallery from the museum, to let Otto know I would be right on time. Otto's assistant Seth answered. When I told him I'd be there soon, he said, "I'm not sure you want to do that. Otto's not here. He had to take a picture back to Italy yesterday, and he's still there."
This was not good.
Seth encouraged me to go ahead with my other business in New York—like I had other business—and Otto would see me on my next visit. Oh no, he wouldn't. I went on down to the gallery. Seth gave me an interesting exercise in groveling, which was all I could do, under the circumstances. He looked about 25 years old, and already he had that detached, effeminate, expressionless look, like Andy Warhol. I dubbed this type The Art Fop. True to this type, Seth was only polite to the extent I forced him to be. He said, “Our gallery only handles mid-career artists.”
I replied, “Yes, of course I’m not mid-career, but I’ll soon be middle-aged. Will that help any?” This provoked a slight smile, which he immediately squelched. Trying to warm him up, I asked, “How did you get into this business, Seth?” He waved the question away, “Oh, it’s what I’ve always done. I’ve been in galleries forever.”
“Seth, you’re 25 years old,” I thought, “you haven’t done anything ‘forever.’”
A few days later, Otto returned and agreed to meet with me, shortly before I had to fly home. On my way in, I saw Seth coming out of the building, and I half-waved, half-saluted him. He turned his face to the wall, ignoring me.
Otto was a handsome man, mid-40s, with raven-black hair that looked dyed. He was dressed impeccably, and I was glad I came well-dressed. We went into his office in the corner of the building. The windows looked out on 57th Street and Madison Avenue. Dark gray carpet, white walls. A couch that looked ordinary revealed its high quality when I sat down on it. A priceless painting—I'd seen it in an art history book—lay on the desk, unframed. Otto did his best to encourage me while promising absolutely nothing. In his opinion, I should choose an identifiable theme for my work, paint a show around that theme, and then send slides out to galleries. Otto would cheer from the sidelines. I had decided to come three thousand miles to hear this. If the information was ultimately useless, I had no one to blame.
On my way back to my hotel room, I noticed a sign in the elevator for the Garden Terrace and Sky Garden Tea Room, so I pushed the 31st floor. When the door opened, there was Central Park, set out like a banquet table. The sun was setting, the lights were twinkling all around, sheer Heaven. "New York, you’re a fickle woman," I thought. "Just when I want to leave you with no regrets, you pull off your blouse and rub your breasts in my face." I came in from the terrace and wandered through dark, vacant dining rooms with big windows, so elegant and [unusually!] quiet.
I never saw Otto or Seth again. Soon after my return to California, Otto left the gallery. Strangely, this did not end my relations with New York. Coming soon: Part 3.