I didn't expect to feel so completely, utterly fulfilled and content once this show was hung. It's not as though there were much likelihood of its being a dramatic, public and unqualified success, á lá the opening night of "Once in a Lifetime," by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, which opened at the Music Box Theatre sometime in the thirties. The opening of my art show was not attended by thousands; in fact, it didn't even have a reception. It wasn't received by glowing reviews in all the major journals, hot off the presses soon after midnight, eagerly awaited at all-night diners by a throng of friends, family, cohorts and well-wishers. It didn't gross so many profits on the first evening that I could afford to leave my Brooklyn apartment forever, with only a few family photos, smashing everything behind me, and move immediately into a Manhattan hotel. I expected all these facts to bother me, sort of, a little bit. They didn't. I feel like I did what I set out to do, and I feel fine.
That Brooklyn-apartment-smashing episode is the crowning event of Hart's autobiography, 'Act One,' which Mrs. Wertz bestowed upon me in seventh grade, saying "I think you'll like this book." I have NO IDEA how she knew. I reread 'Act One' several times a decade. It's one of the reasons I felt instantly at home in New York, I think, despite the fact that things here have changed a tad since the nineteen-thirties. The last time I reread it I realized how deeply the story had sunk into my bones, and informed so many of my major decisions in life; I also realized that Hart's ironic, self-mocking and hilarious tone had seeped into my writing style, long before I even knew he was hilarious. In seventh grade I took him utterly seriously--his infatuation with the theatre, his determination to be a part of it against all odds; the thrift, the poverty, the graveside vows, the all-nighters, horrible jobs, humiliating rejections, sudden revelations and paradigm shifts, grueling and unremunerated work, refusal to quit, desperate appeals, brilliant eleventh-hour insights--and finally, his triumphant success, snatched from the jaws of failure. It's a fabulous book. I highly recommend it. You can find three or four copies for a dollar in most major used bookstores.
Anyway, as I said, my show didn't even have a reception. This was rather a slap in the face, since the Art World holds receptions for the opening of every envelope, practically. I've had receptions in bookstores, bars, waiting rooms, Internet cafes and bathrooms. But when I asked when the reception was scheduled, the manager told me "We're not planning on it," in a tone of voice that did not admit discussion or argument. It was embarrassing, but I contented myself with fantasies of showing up suddenly with fifteen friends in tow and some champagne, to cheerfully wreak my retaliation, four or five times over the course of the summer, and forged ahead.
I also had to do, and pay for, all my own promotion. I didn't even bother with a press release, since I have spent enough hours of my lifetime writing press releases that are roundly ignored by absolutely all press on the planet. But I did design and print a card, sending back the first proof, re-shooting the image so that the colors came out accurately, and harassed my entire mailing list both electronically and in person, and got my mom to harass her Christmas card list as well. I even skipped blithely into a few tony stores on the upper East Side and asked them to distribute my postcards. It's really hard to get rid of a thousand. And although I had no press release, I did send cards to all the fancy Art World people that my former friend the Famous Artist should have introduced me to last year, and didn't. Also to the curator of the Whitney Biennial. Hell, it's a very long shot, but the gallery IS just up the street from the Whitney. Maybe they'll stroll in on their lunch break, and gasp, 'eureka!'. Maybe.
The day before hanging, I spent shooting and re-shooting high-rez, color-controlled images of everything in the show, re-writing my bio, resume and statement, printing up a portfolio, burning CDs in case by some miracle the press did show up, and bubble-wrapping the actual work. I finished around midnight. As I lay, exhausted, on my disintegrating couch (it gets feathers all over the place when you sit down, now) the top two paintings in the pile glowed calmly at me through their bubble wrap. I noticed that they were doing it, the thing, what I painted them to do; they were creating a beautiful, beautiful energy in my space. They were speaking of warmth and light and depth and poetry.
The next day it drizzled, or threatened to rain until it did. I made about nine trips up and down three flights of stairs to load the truck unassisted. I kept in mind one of the keys to happiness that I'd heard on the radio, a few nights previously; say to yourself, "I GET to," not "I HAVE to." 'I GET to hang my first show in Manhattan, on this beautiful, soft, cool, rainy day in New York City.' Not, 'I HAVE to climb three flights of stairs nine times on my chronically sore ankle, to hang my underappreciated paintings in a furniture store, without promo or a reception.' It worked. When I got there the assistant showroom manager said, "Oh, it's you."
The assistant's assistant was really sweet, though, and guarded my car in the bus zone until I was unloaded. Then I took my time finding a free parking spot, and having a very greasy breakfast at the diner down the street. The short-order cook took a liking to me and gave me a free slice of turkey. I gave him a card. It was good turkey.
It made my ankle even sorer, taking off my shoes to climb all over the furniture while hanging the show. Also, there was a new, huge cabinet blocking one of the major walls that I'd counted on filling. I actually thought I'd painted too many paintings, and would have to take some of them home again. After some finagling, though, they all fit, and they looked GREAT. Even the assistant showroom manager thawed a bit. Then I spent the evening biking in the rain to one social engagement after another, with people who paid for my drinks and congratulated me, so I didn't have time to mope.
The rest of the weekend was even busier, if possible; breakfast at the Whitney, for a Member Preview of a show of really horrible paintings. Well, except for Julie Mehuretu, or however you spell it. Julie's were wonderful; I sat in her room and blissfully absorbed them. Most of the other rooms I could not even walk into. We are talking gigantic canvases of things that looked like psychedelic tumors engaged in flaming car wrecks. They didn't even follow any formal principles of decent painting; they were edge-aware, lacking a center of gravity, ignorant of color theory, overworked, far too busy, chaotic, ugly, and pointless. And whoever curates shows at the Whitney actually looks at Julie M.'s work alongside this crap and CANNOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE. I tell you, it scares me. So much for a Whitney curator wandering into my show and recognizing it for what it is.
Because IT IS. When I re-wrote my bio I took out all the ironic, self-mocking, defensive statements that were supposed to be humorous. I streamlined and purified my artist's statement, and put in the 'inclusive' résumé that runs to five pages. I tell everyone I meet, "Please go see my show. It's beautiful." I am so proud of myself; I did what I intended to to, despite heartbreak, depression, repression, abuse, and the World's Indifference. The paintings glow, they sing, they move, they murmur of peace through fire and grief. They call out to the street even from the second floor, at an angle. The showroom manager called that evening just to tell me, "We switched two of them around because we had to rearrange the room again. But really I called to say I love it, love it, love it!" Apparently her fear was that the paintings would turn out to look better in photos than they did in person, like their last few shows did. Ha! They look BETTER. Infinitely, hugely, deeply better, and they look damn good in the pictures.
So then we went to see Barry McGee's show at Deitch Projects, and, my God. I'm worried about Barry. I don't know whether he's still grieving for Margaret, or whether he's been co-opted, corrupted and destroyed by the Big Art World Dealers, or whether the deeps of his soul really ARE full of nihilism, chaos, graceless ignorance and a Graffiti Theme Park by Disney, but it was AWFUL. I must write a screed and send it to the Brooklyn Rail, as if. Poor Barry. There are worse things than showing in a furniture store.
After that it was more social madness, shoe-shopping (march me all around Manhattan in a pair of old shoes and then pass a sale at Timberland and you have a guaranteed buyer, no matter how poor I am), an opening at which I got cornered by a drunken, socially clueless anti-war activist who still believes that people will Come Together and live in harmony if only he describes face-melting weaponry with enough gory accuracy to the hapless citizenry, and a late-night video of "Henry Fool." Sunday was co-op shift, Site Osmosis brainstorming and an impromptu dinner party, because Caroline was in town. It was all better than any reception.
One thing which has contributed to my feelings of inner peace and well-being is the understanding that I could not have accomplished this if I were still with my former boyfriend. I used to think I could absorb or deflect any amount of attempted sabotage by damaged people and still succeed. While I was with my boyfriend I didn't count the sunk costs of resistance. There was not ever a really big chance that he would convince me to rent an apartment in Staten Island with strangers and get a job stocking groceries to pay the bills. He didn't succeed in forcing me to do chair massage in bars, nor to take a full-time, underpaid job as 'gallery assistant' and personal slave to a ninety-year-old, third-rate art dealer on the upper East Side. I continued to make judicious use of low-interest credit for career advancement, rather than hosting utterly unpublicized events, walking barefoot on my damaged ankle or painting on scraps out of dumpsters. But he never stopped trying to cripple me, as though my agreeing to any of these unacceptable solutions would save our relationship. He got very, very angry with me for my failure to acquiesce in all his plans, 'as if his salvation depended upon it.'
All of this subtle, ceaselessly negative spiritual pounding took its toll. It's not as if I wasn't up-front about my intentions, but too many people are so accustomed to pipe-dreamers and windbags that they don't take me seriously until they've known me for a couple of years. The first few times we spoke I told him, "I'm real. I'm good at what I do, and I mean it." After awhile he could see that this was true, but he never stopped trying to derail my intention into some dead-end alley of his own paranoid devising. And then, at the end, he said he wanted to "maintain the friendship" and that he "wanted me to be happy." Hello? What friendship? Happy, how? Am I to imagine that, having done his best to annihilate happiness, understanding, communication and respect between the two of us, that he would then become a friend worth having?
Finally it is clear to me that I could not afford that. Yes, I did love him, which was why I put up with him; yes, on some level I still do, and probably always will. But I won't sacrifice my happiness for anyone, least of all for someone who doesn't value it.
So the reason I know my show has succeeded, even if nothing sells, even if I have to get a temp job next week, is that I held true to my own internal compass. Happiness is not possible if this is not the case.