Sunday, November 28, 2010

New York and Me—Part 2

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.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Rainy Weekend with Antoni Gaudi and Max

My brother Mike has given us a subscription to National Geographic for several years. The magazine excites my son Max. This weekend he opened the current issue and saw this drawing of Antoni Gaudi's unfinished cathedral, 

Max said we should begin building a model of the cathedral immediately. We spent a good part of this weekend on our model, and Max is deservedly proud of it.

I first saw cathedrals in Europe when I was twenty-five. After an afternoon inside Notre Dame in Paris, I wrote:

These people wanted to construct an edifice so big and high and powerful that everyone would look at it and say, "Wow, they must have mighty faith! I'd better listen to them!" The weight, the solidity, the permanence of the cathedrals was a reminder of a faith just as solid and indestructible. When I stood under that magnificent vaulted ceiling, I couldn't help but think that they succeeded.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New York and Me—Part 1

New York, you’re a fickle woman. Just when I want to leave you with no regrets, you pull off your blouse and rub your breasts in my face. —1994

Coming to New York for the first time is like meeting a famous world leader. You can't hope to separate the actual city from the legends told about it. I grew up far away, but the city forced its particles into my brain: Central Park, Radio City Music Hall, Times Square. Growing up in any part of America, we'd hear these place names many times. Half the power of visiting Manhattan is to plug in to their reality: "There's Radio City Music Hall! It's real!"

New York took on new allure when I watched Woody Allen's movie, Manhattan. I left the theater jumping up and down with excitement. It was a vision of a different life. A place where people talked for entertainment, where a beautiful woman might call and say, “Would you like to walk through Central Park with me this afternoon?” No freeways, no loud music. It looked like a black-and-white heaven to me! I loved the silvery photography. I loved the Gershwin music. The love stories were a bit silly, but I wanted to be Woody, to live in that world. Of course I would discover that Woody's Manhattan did not exist. But first I'd have to get there. 

I was twenty years old. My art school in Philadelphia organized day-trips to New York, and I went up on the first one. How can I describe the excitement of just walking along Fifth Avenue on an autumn afternoon? New possibilities opened up in every direction. Each minute felt more important, when spent here. The stones throbbed under my feet. I stood on the beating heart of the world. 

During the 1980s, I cultivated a connections in New York. I spent many days and nights in Manhattan. I felt comfortable, never threatened or intimidated by the city. The excitement did not wear off, but I had to deal with reality, not cinema. Woody Allen's characters do not stand shivering on urine-soaked subway platforms; the subways were a vision of Hell during the 1980s. 

Another let-down was the constant noise of New York. Allen's characters exist in a hushed environment, where they can speak in whispers and be understood. In the real New York, a rumble pecks at your brain always, everywhere, and no amount of money can protect you from it. More than once, I awoke on Central Park South at 3AM, to the sound of crashing metal and spine-tingling shouts. I looked out my window and saw—what else—sanitation workers, screaming at each other and bashing trash cans together, working as though they were paid to keep every person in the city awake. Like other frightening titles given to New York, "The City That Never Sleeps," isn't an exaggeration.

Another title well-deserved, New York is the capital of the art world. Other American cities have good art galleries and museums, but people rarely fly to them specifically to see or buy art, as they do here. When I first saw it, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was New York in miniature for me. I thought every important painting in the world was here. All the images I'd only seen in school textbooks, like George Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. On my first day at the Metropolitan, I stayed four hours, determined to conquer the place with my eyes. I failed. At the end, the museum had many more rooms, but I couldn't bear to see anything else. I ran from the building, breathing hard. 

Central Park, 1986, L to R: the author, Regina Pettus, Reginald Pettus
At graduation, I was happy to stay in Philadelphia. I had a restaurant job I liked and a serious girlfriend. I even had money in the bank from a grant award. I contacted art galleries and made appointments to show my paintings. No one scooped me up, as I'd hoped. This disappointment fed into a larger re-consideration of my future. Within a few weeks my girlfriend broke up with me. At the same time, I noticed that Philadelphia was difficult to live in when I didn't have school to build my life around. I spent most of that summer alone, thinking hard about what to do next. 

I didn't come up with many ideas, at least not consciously. I went on working my job, and got a new apartment for the next year. I didn't know it then, but that summer would have been the ideal time for me to move to New York. If the idea hit me, I didn't take it seriously. Instead I signed my new lease and gave Philadelphia another year to turn around. 

Meanwhile, a less conscious part of my brain said, "What you need is a new girlfriend." In September I duly acquired a new girlfriend. For the following ten years, every decision was determined partly by my desire to keep her. New York could not help in this effort, so moving was off the table. Nevertheless, New York and I would meet again.