Monday, October 04, 2004

Tragedy strikes again

Richard Avedon *can't* be dead, dammit. He wasn't supposed to die until he'd photographed me for my big biographical interview in The New Yorker, tentatively entitled "The Healer". Where are all my ambitions, now? Dust, dust, everywhere I go.

Actually, the first time I saw Avedon's work it scared me shitless. As luck would have it, I came of age at the moment that the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth, Texas, known principally for their (to me, totally uninteresting) collection of cowboy paintings, mounted an Avedon exhibition entitled something like "The American West," with soul-flaying portraits of drifters, carnies, oil-workers, prisoners, and blank-faced girls in Farrah Fawcett hairdos. My parents purchased the book for their coffee table. I knew then that if I ever saw Richard Avedon setting up shop at any carnival I attended, with camera and stark-white backdrop, I'd run the other way. Every distorting blow that life had dealt these people was highlighted in naked relief; to my teenage mind, tormented by a subscription to Seventeen magazine which had subliminally convinced me that nobody would ever love me if I didn't get a nose job, these photos were indecently cruel.

Nearly twenty years later, I think those same photos are beautiful, just like the fashion photos which revolutionized the medium, just like the celebrity shots, just like the New Yorker portraits which I will never be one of. The portait of Avedon in his obituary, standing in front of one of those grim oil-workers blown up twice his size, still scares me. This is a man who looked, and looked, and looked, and never stopped looking. He dropped in harness at 81, photographing a series of war wounded, in Texas. While I, finally living in New York, fret over my financial and matrimonial prospects and wait for my underpainting to dry. I wish I were a lot more like him. He will be sorely, deeply, irrevocably missed.

Yesterday I splurged on a ticket to a "New Yorker Festival" debate, "Art and Politics," with Adam Gopnik, Anna Deaver Smith, and some other noted intellectuals named Simon, Bernard, and Clive. The ticket was twenty bucks, and the mandatory "convenience fees" imposed by Ticketmaster came to eight-fifty. Scalping the intellectuals! Horrible! I nearly slammed down the phone. But opportunities like this were one of the major reasons I moved to New York, and for the last two years I've looked at the listings and reviews for plays, festivals, concerts, performances, and all the other wonders and promised myself that when my finances stabliized, I'd go. And this hasn't happened. Two years later I have yet to attend any of the cozy French bistros in Park Slope, let alone in Manhattan, nattering excitedly with my intellectual friends over the latest off-Broadway hit. I am not likely to see many familiar faces at Chelsea gallery openings, except those of people I'm sort of avoiding. I feel like I'm standing on a vortex of rent, heating bills, car insurance and parking tickets which is rapidly devouring my soul. Well, I suppose MOST aspiring artists who move to New York must feel this way, and few have already racked up their first dramatic, public failure, after only two years in the city.

But anyway, the debate made me very, very happy. Adam Gopnik said, at the end, "It's a measure of how interesting this was, that I was uncharacteristically silent." Indeed, Adam Gopnik in person is almost a stereotypically neurotic New Yorker; he talks too fast and has the physiognomy and mannerisms of a man with big psychological Issues that he has spent the last twenty years assiduously avoiding. But the debate was sheer bliss, because it was carried on by expressive, informed, intelligent people who think and argue for the sheer love of Stuff. Usually, when attending lectures entitled "Art and Politics" sponsored by lesser mortals (such as the SFAI faculty), I knaw at my fists for forty-five minutes before exploding into fluent and disgusted speechifying, after listening to dullards discuss whether Art is Political or Not, if Serious Art Should Say that War Is Bad, what the Responsibility of the Artist is in Response to AIDS, and other unbelieveably simplistic shit. During this debate I sat in rapt contentment as real humans chuckled over the unreliability of intellectuals, illustrated that transcendence is almost universally grounded in circumstance, and pointed out that many great artists have turned out to be political morons. Also that politics tends to come and get you wherever you're hiding. Nothing earth-shattering. Just conversant. I wandered out into the rain after the debate, basking in my love of the world in general, and New York in particular.

Then, oh then, I shopped. Sorry to shock you, but it's true. I had a GAP gift certificate from my sister, and I was set to savor it. I went to Barneys and found a display rack full of the very same hats that were hanging in my own personal gallery, one year ago, priced considerably higher than what they didn't particularly sell for last year. No, I wasn't bitter--well, I own three of those hats, acquired in barter at discount rates. And so my gallery WAS cutting-edge, and now I can prove it, and as an artist perhaps it's better to HAVE HAD a cutting-edge gallery then to still be running the damn thing, and thus have no time to make art.

Eventually, of course, I stumbled over a GAP, way sooner than the one I knew about at Astor Place. There are almost as many GAP stores in Manhattan as there are Starbucks, which is why my sister buys me gift certificates from there even though it is bland and arguably evil. Usually at the GAP I go to the sale rack and eke out my artist's budget on radically discounted, generic T-shirts and sweaters and linen pants, which I then wear with ethnic prints purchased from street vendors, until they become paint rags. Oh, this time I don't know what went wrong. I try to be immune to emotional manipulation by the GAP.

But the clearance rack depressed me. There was cute, cuddly postmodern lingerie on the clearance rack. You might think, having been recently dumped, that I'd want to splurge on some new lingerie, to re-affirm my erotic self, to clear away the cobwebs, to nurture the idea of future intimacy. I could not cope with the lingerie at all. Lifting it off the rack turned a knife in my heart. No, what my wounded limbic brain wanted was a preternaturally soft, bright white turtleneck sweater and a faux-shabby, fitted corduroy jacket lined with antique-looking cotton print fabric. The total price came to twice the amount of my gift certificate, but my limbic brain would not relinquish either item. It did the same thing in Philadelphia over a pair of crossed-lace men's snow boots. What appears to be the issue is that my emotional mind wants to feel comfortably, warmly, cozily armored. It wants clothes that will do the masculine job of protecting it, while not completely relinquishing femininity. Anything that smacks of intimacy freaks it the hell out.

Because last year my now-ex-boyfriend dragged me into a coat shop in Greenpoint and thrust me into a royal blue, full-length down overcoat with a fur-trimmed hood and embroidery on the cuffs. When I protested that I couldn't afford a new winter coat, he paid for half. I put the hood up and the color matched my eyes and he said I was adorable. One afternoon he came into my gallery with a pair of flannel-lined jeans in my size. I felt like a beloved woman. This year I will have to wear that coat and those jeans because I can't afford to throw them away. I have to live with piles of gifts that he gave me, furniture and appliances and tools, which are too big and necessary to give back. I wish I could take a tractor and dump every bit of this in his yard and set fire to it, spray-paint the walls of his dank little apartment with obscenities, smash the windows of his van. I haven't done this yet and will probably be able to restrain myself. But don't you dare tell me I'm crazy and violent, don't you dare. Betrayal makes people crazy.

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