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.”