When it comes to the world of contemporary art, it can be difficult for a journalist to paint the people and the parties in their true colours. So perhaps it is unsurprising, given the suspension of disbelief required by the market and the legal protection afforded by fiction, that the most convincing picture of the art world has, in recent years, come from novelists rather than critics.
This piece considers two historical novels about the art world which capture life in New York, and in London, at the times when art in each of these cities was booming. The first considers NYC just as the 80s were taking off and is the work of poet and filmmaker Richard Dailey.
Dailey’s book, Unplugged Yellow, borrows its title from the painting of an artist called FleX, who destroys himself. His prodigious talent comes with prodigious appetite for drugs; and the author captures both the wealth and squalor of life on the cusp of artistic fame. Dailey’s narrator has a voice as attitudinal as a punk from CBGBs, and as poised as a model from Studio54.
And yet, Unplugged Yellow goes beyond the clichés surrounding either of those scenes. It delivers the excitement of great painting, by introducing a cast of living characters, rather than long dead local colour. (FleX is crazy about astrology, rather than the French symbolists feted at St Marks. He ends his days in the Mali desert rather than a cold water commune.) The book is at once plausible, and highly original.
Dailey made time, before a reading at KGB in New York, to talk via Skype about his book. My first question was about his whereabouts in 1979 and 1980, the years in which his fiction is set. “I was there,” he tells me. “I was not an artist. I was a poet and I worked with a number of artists, either writing for them, incorporating my poetry in their works and hanging out.”
He recalls a time when, “Basquiat was still sleeping in Thompson Square Park in a cardboard box”. This was New York before the money hit, when a duplex apartment could be found for just $300 a month, jobs were plentiful and the living was cheap. “It was a nice time,” recalls Dailey. “Everybody had this vague dream of making it, but nobody really had much sense of what that meant”.
FleX is inspired by a real life painter who committed suicide (“Nobody remembers him”) and Dailey notes the passing of a generation of artists and critics from his chosen milieu who’ve already been overlooked by the history books. It makes this historic novel more urgent. The amnesia can be part blamed on the injustices of capitalism and of the art market in particular.
“There’s an abstract quality to both money and art,” says the author. Without the faith in something called art, a painting is worthless, he suggests. And without custom and convention, even loo roll is worth more than pound sterling. “Either you believe or you don’t,” he says, unsurprised that the two investment vehicles get “confused and mixed up,” because, “of course, art is an investment”.
So Unplugged Yellow is perhaps more interested in money than artistic content. Dailey has said he intends it to be “a real meditation on the collector, and the role of the collector, and the psychology of the collector.” At the same time he notes it is a love story, which widens his audience. Civilians that most of us are, perhaps we can relate to the collector better than the artist.
I also learn that, having been there on the Lower East Side at the time in which his unfolding story is set, Dailey came under great pressure from publishers to write it differently. “They were like, just turn this into your memoir, turn it into a real memoir and give us some photographs please.” Lucky for us, the author was stubborn, and this gem of a book is the result.
In the same month Unplugged Yellow came to my attention, I read another, more or less nostalgic, historical art world novel. This was Randall by Jonathan Gibbs: the result of a doctorate from UEA, the first and perhaps best of the many universities who now offer courses in Creative Writing. Unlike Bailey, Gibbs was not quite ‘there’ in the milieu he describes. But like many who remember the 1990s on these shores, this journalist and novelist grew to be fascinated by the Young British Artists.
Let’s first state the obvious. Randall (or to give the book its alternative title, The Painted Grape) is about Damien Hirst. And never mind the fact that a character called Damien Hirst is killed off in a train crash near to the start of this rollicking novel. We meet the eponymous main character as a Jack the lad and we soon discover his genius for marketing that most spurious of commodities, contemporary art. More enjoyable still is the chance to spend time in with Randall and his court. No, Gibbs wasn’t there, but if neither were you, you’d think he could have been.
With impressive powers of imagination, the author ushers us into pubs, squats, country houses and, of course, galleries in the magnetic company of the eponymous Randall. But our narrator is no hipster, rather he is junior banker Vincent, who falls in with these young upcoming artists and becomes for them a talisman. While the narrative here is strong and the characters painted with warmth, Gibbs is also highly interested in what it means to look at art. Several memorable pages are devoted to a somewhat painful attempt, by this narrator, to commune with the Rothkos at the old Tate Museum.
“I’ve never really had any proper contacts in the art world,” Gibbs tells me via Skype from London. Instead he encountered the yBas as a young Shoreditch gallery goer in the 1990s, and shored up his impressions with research about the art market. So he excuses his lack of first hand experience with a laudable get out clause: “Because my narrator is an insider, but not an artist and not a critic, I felt that was my camouflage to pretend to get close to it all”
Writing about this movement in later life, Gibbs tells me, “I was a bit more critical about the art and I was a bit more cynical abut myself”. The result is a mixture of autobiography and wish fulfilment as Vincent lives the dream of any twenty-something in London at the time. For the first time in the UK, art was as hip as music and Randall is the story of a generation who relocated to the capital in the years leading up to Cool Britannia.
But Gibbs is not only interested in the way artists create and viewers gaze. Like Unplugged Yellow, Randall is a fierce attack on the market and the instant monetisation of fashionable art. “What was so clever about that whole scene,” Gibbs says of the yBas, “is that it made itself appeal to young urban professionals, while at the same time having an entirely different set of conversations with the dealers and the collectors and people like that. They got to have their cake and eat it”.
Since conceptual art went mainstream with the yBas, Randall is concerned with a quite different art form as compared with Unplugged Yellow. The painted grape on the title page refers to a legendary contest between ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them. Parrhasius painted an illusionistic curtain, which in turn fooled Zeuxis into thinking the work was concealed behind. When Gibbs tells me about Ekphrasis, this is surely what he means: art “as a rhetorical exercise” according to Wikipedia.
“That’s the whole thing about conceptual art,” he concludes. “It doesn’t take very much to imagine it. If I say ‘a shark in a tank’, your idea of that is going to be pretty close to the experience of being in the room and looking at it.”
To read either of these books has little in common with going to a gallery. Nor do the encounters with Randall or FleX bear strong comparison with a meeting with a real life artist in 2017. Art has become an alibi for writing a pair of vivid novels which are at once historical documents, critiques of capitalism, travelogues and love stories. They surely do for London and New York what Michel Houellebecq does for Paris in his celebrated art world novel, The Map and the Territory – and that won the Prix Goncourt.
Dailey tells me he’s read this book twice in French and that he is a great fan, but he cant resist a chance to gossip. “Did you see Houellbecq’s show?” he asks me, referring to his art exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in 2016. “Honestly, it was just awful! But you know, good for him. He’s a writer.”
The technical challenges of poetry have usually to do with meter, rhyme and form. In Mons this year, the greatest poetic achievements have all been around measuring buildings and tracking down their owners. By the end of December, the results will be 10km of verse painted onto the city’s stony grey facades.
This single, sinuous line, by multiple authors, began to snake through the streets at the beginning of 2015, just as Mons began its stretch as European Capital of Culture 2015. It comes and goes from all four corners of the scenic Grand Place and runs a ring around the city’s imposing prison. And, as it begins and ends at the station, it is the first and last of the attractions that visitors see.
Locals, meanwhile, will live with the well-chosen words and find they change meaning along with the individual’s mood and the weather. During my visit, there was a drizzle in the air and the poetry took on an air of rainproof defiance. It may not be a good idea to read a book in the rain, but stopping for a poem of hope on the damp walls of a prison is recommended.
The instigator of this project is author, artistic director and journalist Karelle Ménine; she told me a bit more when we spoke on the phone. “I deeply believe we have to rediscover our own literature. We have to try to rebuild the link between literature and the people,” she says, with a passion that must have been needed to plan and execute the world’s longest line of poetry.
Ménine and her team, which includes graphic designer Ruedi Baur, were faced with contacting 400 landlords with varying fondness for the business of verse. “Maybe it would be impossible to create this kind of project in any other place than in the Capital of Culture,” she muses. Meanwhile Baur was faced with typesetting 250,000 characters for some 77 streets.
Gritty, urban typeface Garaje was chosen for the project and letters have been stretched to grab the attention of passersby. “If you want to read it, you absolutely have to slow down. You can’t rush, as usual. You have to walk. Walking pace is the right speed to catch this poetry and memorise the line”, says Ménine. Much of this verse was composed before cars were the dominant mode of transport.
So who are the poets now lining the streets of Mons? Well, they all have connections with the city. Best known is Paul Verlaine, who spent two years in Mons prison after he shot Arthur Rimbaud, in Brussels. “When he was in jail, he wrote so many beautiful poems which changed French Literature really,” says Ménine. “It was an important movement for poetry, the presence of him in this jail”.
Then there are the poets of surrealist group Rupture who were writing between the wars. Poet and resistance fighter Marguerite Bervoets. plus Flemish poet and local resident Emile Verhaeren can also be rediscovered on the walls here. During WWII, Bervoets and prominent surrealist Fernand Dumont were also detained in the prison, which was for them both, sadly, just a stay of execution.
“It’s not two worlds. It’s the same world, in or out,” says Ménine of the prison. “Literature maybe can be a kind of common thread.” She tells me that as part of this unifying project, which goes by the singular name La Phrase, the team has organised workshops to re-introduce prisoners to the comforts of reading and, “also to give them the ability to realise that they really need literature”.
So the literary pedigree of Mons, which will come as a surprise to many, could this year earn the Belgian city comparisons with Prague (with the 19th century prison as Kafka’s nightmarish Castle). Ménine, however, thinks that visitors to the Czech capital often fail to go to the texts which have made the city famous, happy just to visit cafés where Kafka is said to have frequented.
“The thing which we tried to do is to open the book and to offer you the opportunity to read these poems, these writers, this movement, and because we are here for one year we offer you also the possibility to read it every day,” the project director explains, offering the wide Belgian skies as the changing context for her chosen authors.
Put that way, the setting is indeed more favourable to poetry than advertising or municipal signage. “Public space is a fabulous blank canvas, a fabulous opportunity to show something very important,” says Ménine. At the moment this space is invaded by advertisers, a fact which the director bemoans, before adding: “If you want to take a pen and write the word freedom on the wall it’s forbidden. It’s called graffiti”.
“I don’t think that literature is superior to anything else,” she insists. “I just think that literature is really in danger.” Her energy for the project appears to stem from this awareness. La Phrase is a mission to restore books to an audience which doesn’t even know what it’s missing. “Putting literature into the city is giving people the chance to feel the necessity of literature,” she says.
But whereas a billboard might occupy a site for many years, most of these lines of poetry are due to be erased in January. The programme director tells me this has been a political decision rather than an artistic one, but she remains positive. She hopes locals will miss the verse, and respond by visiting libraries and bookshops: “to take the further step,” as she puts it.
If a single poem can change a life, the work of 40 poets can surely change a city. In one voice, this year, they speak of a love for Mons and the vitality of the written word.
Mons remains European Capital of Culture for less than a month. Plan your visit soon!
Whether you call it a weatherbox or, more correctly a Stevenson Screen, this object provokes even more curiosity than usual. It doesn’t belong in a gallery. It doesn’t often exude a blue light.
The light comes from a speaker wired up in there to make this sculpture appear sentient twice over. It glows and it also, growls, grunts, and gurgles.
Impossible movie buffs will recognise the soundtrack from the transformation scene in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931). Art buffs may know Douglas Gordon also used this.
But here it has been repurporsed to look at the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson and his father Thomas Stevenson, inventor of the apparatus.
The screen offers limited exposure to the elements in the same way, as creator Williams explains, that all parents everywhere might try to bring up their child. It appears nurturing.
Yet Thomas and Robert may have had alter egos. Hyde goes on the rampage and tramples a child. Of what might the father of the father of that monster have been capable?
Hyde sounds as if he could break out of the cage. That would be the next act. But the polite gallery goer will look on from his or her own cage content to live as a Dr Jekyll.
But RLS did break out. Williams is fascinated by Stevenson Jnr’s reappearance in the South Seas “dressed in a Sarong”. That must be the result of some violent change or other.
Though for now we find him still boxed in a gallery, on the cusp of escaping his father: a great writer produced by a great engineer, in the persona of a surely great chemist.
Stevenson Screen can be seen in Bedwyr Williams: My Bad at Ikon, Birmingham,until July 8 2012. See gallery website for more details and/or Culture24 to see what the artist had to say about this piece.
As a novel set in an art gallery, Old Masters might be of some interest to readers of this blog. Viennese readers especially, since it is set in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Thomas Bernhard narrows things down even further by setting the entire thing in the vicinity of a single painting: White-bearded Man by Tintoretto.
But the good news here is that, unlike another museum based book which sold more than 40 million copies, there is no cryptology in these pages and only a little conspiracy.
Instead there is polemic. 99 percent of the novel is the reported speech of an aesthete called Reger. He writes music reviews for the Times of London and hates art.
He may have a 30-year habit of visiting the same room of a gallery every other day, but here is an example of Reger in full flow on the subject of artists:
“The painters, all these old masters, who most of the time nauseate me more than anything else and of whom I had always had a horror, always served one master and never themselves and hence humanity. They always painted a fake world, faked by them from within themselves, which they hoped would bring them money and fame…”
Other terrifying generalisations made by the snobish Reger include the observation you won’t find one single well painted hand in the whole of Vienna’s greatest gallery. I’d be too stunned to argue.
If you too are someone who tends to venerate the greatest names in the art canon, not to mention those of literary and musical renown, you might find this book of some value.
Bernhard’s 250 pages about the uselessness of art are so far out on a limb that their distance from the common view may well give them equilibrium with the many tomes written in praise of classical art.
So Old Masters is both depressing and amusing. And it will not escape your attention that, for all his bile, Reger cannot give up on art. And if he can’t, what hope for the rest of us?
I’m not taking commission for this, but you can buy the book on Amazon here. Better still go to a bookshop!