The Big Night: Art Opening in New York

supreme chicken                                                        Supreme Chicken, Oil/Canvas, 1987

In the late eighties I showed my paintings and drawings in a little gallery in Wilmington, Delaware.  Susan Isaacs was the owner and dealer.  She was sophisticated and catholic in her taste and willing to take chances on new artists.  She called in a dealer from New York to jury a show at her gallery, and Joseph swooped in and raided her files.  He picked out several of Susan’s artists as potential exhibitors in his gallery in a dodgy part of the East Village.  When I received a summons to show him my work I talked to Susan about it.  She diplomatically reported that Joseph never lied, but often didn’t tell the whole truth.  I decided to take a chance anyway, and told myself that Susan was probably worried that Joseph might clean out her stable of artists.

A friend drove me and a box of paintings to New York.  When we passed Cooper Union I saw a group of homeless men spreading rags on the sidewalk at an intersection near our destination.  I asked Jim what was going on, and he explained that the rag men were selling their rags to other rag men.

Joseph buzzed us into his gallery and lined my paintings up against a wall.  He trained color adjusted spotlights onto them, and they looked good even to me.  I felt like a professional.  Joseph made a few positive noises and seemed to be heading in the direction of offering a one man show.  Then he reined in his enthusiasm and said, “I’d like to put you in a try out show first, a group show with a few more artists.”  He put a finger alongside his cheek as he searched for an appropriate title and said, “I think that I’ll call it…Representations.”  I left feeling both disappointed and hopeful.  A show in New York in any form might open the door to an actual career as a painter.

A few months later I received another call from Joseph summoning me to New York.  I brought along another box of small paintings and met with him in his new location in SOHO.  This gallery was much larger, was sleek and airy with broad white walls and a huge window looking out on a sweeping view of Manhattan.  The old place had been a grubby hole in the wall in a marginal neighborhood.  Joseph made a selection of work for the show and picked only the most traditional still lives in the group.  I began to suspect that he saw me only as a conservative painter of kitschy Americana and didn’t understand my subversive intent.  That was the first alarm bell.  The second was his announcement that I would have to pitch in $500 to help cover the cost of the show postcard and the refreshments at the opening.  I felt that I had come too far to back out at that point and agreed to write him a check.

In early December my wife and I drove to her parents’ home in eastern Pennsylvania and dropped off our one year old daughter.  Judy and I took a bus to the Port Authority in New York on the night of the opening reception for “Representations”.  We found the bus station in its usual state of disarray with dirty, trash strewn floors, graffiti sprayed walls, beleaguered and angry guards, and the typical New York mix of both respectable and extreme characters.  I had to pee and got in line for a urinal at the nearest men’s room.  I could hear someone mumbling and cursing behind me.  When I got my turn and opened my fly the voice became distinct and disturbingly close to my ear.  It growled, “What are you doing what’s taking so long quit jerking off buddy hurry up!”My wife took one look at me when I exited the rest room and asked, “What happened?”  I was too angry and embarrassed to explain and said, “I couldn’t go.”

We were running a little late and scurried out the door and into a subway station at 7th Avenue.  We asked for directions and found our platform.  While we waited a tall, well-groomed man in a elegant coat walked by with a wooden box.  He stopped ten feet away from us, stood on the box and began to deliver an incoherent sermon.  I didn’t worry too much about the raving preacher until I noticed that the folks around us had begun to back away from him.

Our train arrived and we made our escape.  I could tell that we were headed south, but the line curved in a serpentine fashion and I had no idea where we were really going.  We need to head southeast to SOHO.  When we got back on the street we were both disoriented.  I happened to look down a long avenue and saw the twin towers.  I realized that we were a mile too far to the west of our destination.  As we walked along Houston Street in the darkening winter gloom I felt overwhelmed once again by the size and intimidating aura of New York.  I was an ant in a gigantic anthill.

We passed by a church and saw a man standing by a lighted outdoor creche.  He had no coat on but didn’t seem to notice the cold.  His body was as rigid as a statue.  He stared and pointed at something that horrified him, something that was invisible to us.  As we hurried on I felt guilty for not stopping to try to help him.  I was afraid of what he might do if he suddenly came to life.

We came to within a few blocks of the gallery and stopped at a Blimpie sandwich shop to get our supper.  Judy and I finally got a chance to catch our breath and for me to relieve my  bladder.  We walked into the reception feeling a bit more confident, but our hope faded as we toured the show.

My paintings and the artwork of four other artists in “Representations” had not been given an opening devoted to our work as expected.  Instead we were a sideshow in a small area near the rear of the gallery.  The main event was the reception for an installation of large metal sculptures of horses done in the manner of Deborah Butterfield.  Joseph and his staff appeared to have developed cases of situational deafness and blindness.  They were unable to see or hear me when I came to say hello, but were able to respond to potential buyers of the life size mechanical horses.  Judy and I drifted over to the area where my paintings hung on a wall.  We tried to blend in and look casual.  The only ones looking at “Representations” were the artists and their families.  Judy encouraged me to strike up a conversation with my fellow victims, and I got into a few abortive discussions.  One young man who did Picasso-esque drawings of still lives and cityscapes asked me where I was from.  He was originally from Rhode Island but had a studio in The City.  When I told him, “Pennsylvania,” he rubbed his chin and looked up at the ceiling as if trying to recall a vague memory.  He said, “Pennsylvania.  I’ve heard of that…”

My bladder beckoned once again–visits to New York always seemed to stimulate renal productivity–and when I returned I saw a pack of wolfish young men closing in on my wife.  She had worn a slinky black dress, held a wine glass in her hand, and stared thoughtfully at a painting.  She looked brainy and gorgeous.  I rushed up to her, took her hand and reclaimed my exclusive rights.  She had noticed the attention and was amused.   Her wine glass was filled with water, not white wine, and she was a research scientist and mother, not a bored socialite or an art groupie looking for action.

As the reception went on I began to sink into a depression, but Jim and his wife Sally showed up unexpectedly.  Sally introduced me to an artist from Delaware, and we had a long and somewhat comforting discussion about art world economics.  Jim and Sally ushered us out of the gallery long before the reception ended.  I had no desire to hang back:  I had long since realized that my $500 check had been used to pay for the horse sculpture opening and that my presence was not required or desired.  The four of us drove in Jim’s car to a restaurant in midtown Manhattan and ate a meal together.

I was immensely grateful that Jim and Sally had made the effort to support us on a night that had turned into a rolling disaster.  They continued their kindness by saving us from another subway misadventure:  they dropped us off at the Port Authority. Judy and I picked our way through a crowd of homeless men and women who sheltered in cardboard boxes set over grates in the sidewalk at the entrance of the station.  Clouds of steamy air rose around their makeshift hovels.

The bus trip took two hours, but I was glad during the ride to be putting distance between us and New York City.  When we got back to Judy’s parents late that night we looked in our little girl.  She slept snug and warm in a crib.  I thought, “Here’s my real life,” and some of my disappointment faded.

I sold nothing in the show.  Joseph professed to be puzzled by my hostile attitude when I came to pick up my work in January.  A few months later I looked in a gallery guide for New York and saw an upcoming show advertised at his gallery.  The title was, “Representations”.

I got a letter from him the following year in which I was invited to participate in another group show.  The bait was a promise that I would be allowed to choose which paintings would be displayed.  The fee was $750.  I got a phone call from one of his assistants a few weeks later when Joseph noticed that I hadn’t responded.  I didn’t say much when she invited me to air my grievances about the December show.  I didn’t tell her that I was aware that the proposed show was scheduled in July, a time of the year when most buyers, art aficionados and critics were vacationing out of town.  I didn’t say that I wasn’t stupid and desperate enough to help pay the gallery’s summer rent, or that I had no faith that the opening reception would actually be dedicated to the show in which I would be participating.  I only said, “No, thank you,” and hung up the phone.

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3 thoughts on “The Big Night: Art Opening in New York

    • That night killed a lot of my ambition to show in New York. I realized that I needed to bring a lot more clout and influence to the table to make it worth trying again. I remember you telling me a story about your one-man show in Chicago. Things got a little crazy with the dealer and odd things happened at the opening.

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