Tama Janowitz – Slaves of New York,1986

tama janowitz_slavesof new york 1986


The juice of New York was something he could understand. American rage, freedom from European classicism and the deathly Common Market. Still, he had problems with his stomach. It was fifteen or sixteen years since he had moved to New York. Now his artists were famous for painting cartoon characters, primitive computerlike drawings, rip-offs of Navaho and African art. He was riding the crest of the future, it was better that he hadn’t stuck with painting. He had been involved with a revolutionary group, in the 1960s: one of the members had gone up to the offices of a famous art publication and chopped off his finger on the desk of the senior editor. This was a statement. He and two others had bombed the information desk at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a small bomb; none of them expected that a few paintings would receive smoke damage, shrapnel. Only a Miro was beyond restoration. A year’s suspended sentence: ten years later, people still tried to fight with him in bars. But his old self no longer seemed to have any relationship to his present one.

He had told George Lodge he would go up to his Forty-second Street studio to look at his new paintings that afternoon; by now it was too late to go to the gallery first. He took a cab uptown. The streets, even this early in the summer, were unbelievably filthy; the pavement seemed to be oozing its own sediment, the reek of grilling meat, hot dogs, shashlik, burnt and greasy, was like the smell of some garbage incinerator. He had to fight his way around the hustlers, past the electronic junk stores, to get into George’s building. The elevator stank of roach spray and mothballs.
The radio was turned up so loud he had to bang on the door over and over before George heard him and let him in. “George, George,” Victor said, “how can you listen to that junk?” He walked into the room. To work in such squalor. The reek of acetone, a tipsy brain-crumbling shrillness, almost knocked him off his feet. Spray paint, fixative, polyurethane.
No molecules resembling oxygen were left anywhere, the air conditioner was apparently out of order and the windows sealed shut. The 0 and CO2 forced out by the tougher, manmade particles, which lacerated the lungs as they floated here and there. George stood sulkily by the door, his long galoot face surly and elegant, as Victor pulled stuff from the racks. Scrawled on various half-finished canvases:




Victor, did you get my letter?” George’s arms were too long, like a gibbon, shooting from imaginary tree to tree.
“What letter? Why don’t you get a chair, someplace I can sit?” He went and looked out the window. It was bleak here on Forty-second Street, no sign of vegetable life to prove that the season was spring. Across the way was a peep show, two nude women in neon; one, with the tube burnt out in her leg, flickered on and off. “Give me some paper.” George didn’t move. Victor peeled a piece of newsprint paper off the floor and took a gold pen from his lapel pocket. “I’m excited about what you’re doing, George, but I’d like to see you working from from extensive drawings, it would give me the feeling that you’ve spent time working these things out.. See, this is what Oldenburg did. He started with small sketches, let’s say for his giant cigarette. He made sketches, these today are worth a hundred thousand. Then he went out and found cigarettes, hundreds of butts. He studied these. Then he had a craftsman, a master craftsman, make a small cigarette butt from metal. Then he had medium-sized ones made from clay.”
“Victor, didn’t you read that letter I sent you?”
“Wait, just let me finish. Then you’ll talk. This is important, George. This could change your whole way of working. How Oldenburg worked, when he was finally ready, he built his giant cigarette butt in soft sculpture. Whether you like his work or not—”
“I like Oldenburg.”
“You have to agree that the man was a genius. So have the whole gamut, do you see what I’m getting at, here, George? You have the whole gamut, from sketches to paintings to the final soft sculpture; it’s not as if he just got an idea and slapped it onto canvas. When you’re working, you should do drawings first, then you should make the painting in squares. Each individual square, a segment of the painting, should be as complete and fully realized as the whole work. Go and look at Léger, George. He knew about composition. That’s who you could be like, if you spent a little more time on these things. In his excitement the thick, oily feeling rose up in his chest, as if the stomach contents were backing up the esophagus like a kitchen sink. He fumbled for a Tums.
“Victor, can I say something now?”
“What? George, I came all the way up here this afternoon, just to take a look at your work, and I can see you’re already on the defensive.”
“Victor, I’m trying to tell you: I sent you a letter listing twenty points that would have to change for me to stay with the gallery, and I don’t think you even read the letter.
“No, I haven’t read any letter! George, I just got back from Chicago, I had to spend all week getting ready for the Madrid art fair, I’m leaving for Madrid tomorrow—what’s your problem?”
“I don’t know if we should talk about it until you’ve read my letter. Basically, it’s about your attitude. I’ve seriously been considering leaving the gallery for a long time now, Victor. I don’t see how I can stay unless you have a change of attitude.”
“Attitude! What attitude! George, why don’t you come to me if you have problems? You go around complaining to your friends, this doesn’t make me look good.”
“How can I come to you, Victor, when I can’t even get into your office to see you? This is the first time you’ve come to my studio in eight months.”
“You’re not listening, Victor. Don’t you see yourself? How terrible you look?”
“I’m going to call you, George. I would love to stay and talk this through—”
“I don’t want to talk! I want you to read my letter!”
He could hear George flinging objects this way and that as he waited for the elevator. He would suggest to George the name of his old psychiatrist. George, whom three years ago he had found. working as a janitor, barely able to make enough to buy supplies. What did he want from him?
In the taxi he remembered it was Sistina’s birthday he hadn’t gotten her anything. There was something about going out to dinner that night with Schmuel—Sam—and some of her model friends. He looked in his appointment book. There was an opening around the corner he had promised to go and see and a dinner afterward for Monica Bell, a painter whom he had shown two years ago who was still working on new stuff.

. . . . .

He walked into the gallery rubbing his head; Leo, his brother, was standing stunned in front of one of the paintings at the far end. “Sasha,” he said to the blond, bored-looking girl who sat behind the front desk. He could feel her bristle as he got near. Literally begin to bristle. This fury, to be met with it in his own gallery! “I have to have something to eat, Sasha. Would you go around the corner and get me a cup of chili?”
“Madrid called,” she said. “They can’t get the paintings out of customs.”

Tama Janowitz, 1957.       Slaves of New York,1986

In the age of art-hype and inflation, where new dealers sell the new art of Warhol, Haring, Basquiat, Schnabel to the new millionaires of Wall Street, the stories of artists, dealers and gallery owners in Slaves of New York feature episodic tableaux of aspirational, egotistical, paranoid, crazy, immoral talented/less chancers, hustlers and potheads with an eye on fame and riches in 1980s urban Bohemia. The art world is a permanently shifting scenario of artists hyping themselves on the way up or out, jostling for recognition and the big exhibition, project, collector and commission, and most important of all – a nameplace at the right A-list post-exhibition dinner.  Reality and satire converge in the characters of on-edge neurotic Jewish art dealer Victor Okrent, overworked and underfunded, fighting a losing battle with his staff, gallery artists and the Betsy Brown Gallery, or the sleazy dealer, Stephen Borali. The artist Markey Mantello tries to persuade the wealthy collector Chuck Dade Dolger, boyfriend of his dealer Ginger Booth, to invest in his ‘Chapel of Jesus Christ as Woman’ in Rome, adjacent to Vatican. Chuck is already funding “…an environmental artist moving heaps of mud from one part of Montana to another.. a man attempting to get permission to cover the Golden Gate Bridge in Band Aids…a gal handcuffed to a Korean and a Dalmation making a videotape overy moment of their year chained together.” Chuck, in between feeding Marley obscene amounts of cholesterol packed breakfast, buys his picture ‘The Party of Beauty’, “..a big get together of all the beautiful people, the Venus of Milo, Aphrodite, Hebe, the Graces, Peri, Houri, Cupid, Apollo, Hyperion, Antinous, Narcissus – “ Another artist, Shash Stoz makes paintings based on the difference between good and evil, using cartoon images – Bahalooey, Chilly Willy, Bullwinkle, Mickey Mouse and various Byzantine characters. The rich, powerful and vulgar make the avant garde-artists run around like pimps and courtesans to satisfy their wealth and egos while the real money goes on the blue chip pictures of Roy Lichtenstein, Eric Fischl and Van Dyke Brown.

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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