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The Arts Voyager, 6-18: Pieces of a Dream
Mariscal, Barnet, Hamad, Haring: A NY State of Mind Moves Out

Barcelona-born jack of all arts -- notably, comics -- Javier Mariscal, featured above, is just the latest master of bande dessine , and so much more, on display at the Galerie Martel (through September 3), located in the 10th arrondissement of Paris below Montmartre and above the Grands Boulevards, and which is fast making a name for itself as the leading gallery in the world focusing on the so-called 'alpha-art.'

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Wednesday night, 8 o'clock. Our evening starts at the Old Heidelberg, dining with Martha Graham's complice and rightful heir Ron Protas, an accident that wasn't an accident, because the setting, unplanned, will set the tone. Once upon a time in New York there were critics of mettle who applied real writerly chops to art by artists who were more than clever, for whom technique was just a means and not an end, and who needed critics with chops to interpret the new art they were creating. This critic, John Leonard, started out as a novelist, beginning with "The Naked Martini," whose hero, Brian Kelly -- another writer with New York City dreams created by a writer with New York City dreams -- would wrap up a day of toil in the advertising houses of "the Lexington Avenue foothills" with a mug of dark beer, a kielbasa, and a proposal of marriage to the Old Heidelberg barmaid inevitably called Helga, swigging the cheap beer (as it was then) from his corner window table looking out at (in the book) York Avenue, somewhere around 86th. (Our waiter tells us the Heidelberg has been at its current location, 2nd just before 86th, since 1963; before that it was somewhere on or around 86th; Leonard's book was published in 1965.) So when the 'large' pitcher-sized mug of dark beer comes, I propose a toast to John Leonard, his ghost still sitting in the corner, but it might as well be a lament, a dirge for a city of ghosts, where art by dead artists is usually more interesting than the artists who can afford to live in Michael Bloomberg's New York Version 2.011, where we are told not to worry that the rent stabilization laws just expired, the last barrier to the complete Bobo-ization of New York crumbling with little sounding of the alarm.

My companion at the Heidelberg, Ron Protas, lived that New York, and accompanied for the last 20+ years of her life Martha Graham, who, were she to try to launch her elemental enterprise today, would not be able to afford to live in Michael Bloomberg's Manhattan, nor have the ready stock of acolytes on which to mold her new technique and medium for exposing the psycho-social turmoil of the mid-twentieth century, because none of them could afford to live in New York.This, I think, is why the art is so bereft. The artists are all ingenuity and little inspiration, and the newer gallery owners -- in Chelsea, anyway, the pickings being much better in the West Village and Lower East Side -- seem to have gotten into it because it would be cool to own a gallery. They have little taste or judgment, even less art historical awareness, and often mistake tricks of the trade for tradesmanship. Rare are the galleristes like Robin Rice, whose exhibition on the Los Angeles-based photographer Ron Hamad, ending Sunday at her Robin Rice Gallery, features one of the rare contemporary artists on view in New York who understands, as the Impressionists with their experiments in light did, that science in art only works if it's in service of an artistic idea. Thus Hamad's "Storm" may draw attention at first because it looks like it's a photo from another time, but it holds it because Hamad found the right (dancer) subject and put her in the right position, and she held the position even when it started snowing. And Rice gets it, because she's clearly not just looking for artists with new gimmicks, but artists who, if they do employ novel tools, use them to distinct artistic ends.

Ron Hamad's "Storm," created by Ron Hamad with a chemical process used in lith printing, in which each print is unique. On view at the Robin Rice Gallery in New York through June 19. Photo ©Ron Hamad and courtesy Robin Rice Gallery.

So the heir of Martha Graham and I spend a good chunk of our evening kvetching that the current custodian of the shell of Graham's company and about 45 of her works -- awarded to these usurpers after a publicity campaign that duped the dance public and a manipulative legal assist from then attorney general Eliot Spitzer -- feels it's necessary to explain (through sub-titles -- that's right, sub-titles for dance -- or getting up on stage herself during a performance) art that is so elemental, so basic, created by someone who became a choreographer to express in dance what could not be expressed in words. Or, as Ron Protas reminds me, "Two of Martha's credos were, 'The body says what words cannot' and 'I care little that you understand, I care that you feel.'" We have finally concluded that one of the reasons the current custodian, Janet Eilber -- custodian is the mot juste here -- that the reason she likes to explain the work is that it is a way of injecting her own presence into the oeuvre, of somehow puffing herself up and putting herself on an equal plane with Martha Graham. She doesn't understand what another Graham, Bill Graham, did, that in letting the work speak for itself and keeping herself out of it, she exalts both the work and, in fact, herself, as its champion.

But this is the New York of Michael Bloomberg, where it is not about self-effacement, it's about ownership.

So I leave Ron, stuffed with sauerbraten, potato pancakes, potato dumplings (or so the menu promised; only one arrived, because the New York of Michael Bloomberg is also about smaller portions for more money; could the contemporary equivalent of John Leonard, a 23-year-old aspiring writer, even afford to chow down at the current Old Heidelberg?) and so much beer -- after the pitcher/mug, I had a second medium-sized -- that I realize I might not make it all the way home on the E and G subways to Greenpoint without having to find a corner in the cavernous Court Street station to take a wicked piss, and I'm guessing that Michael Bloomberg's New York version 2.011 does not look kindly on pissing in public. (Though pissing on teachers in public seems to be acceptable.)

Will Barnet (b. 1911), "Self-Portrait, 1952?53." Oil on canvas. ©Will Barnet. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1999.5. Barnet's work is the subject of "Will Barnet; Relationships, Intimate and Abstract, 1935 - 1965," on view through December 31 at the Carter Museum.

So as soon as my friend leaves me, I head over to Central Park. Deciding that the CP Zoo building is just too well lit-up for me to unload, I walk a block or two uptown, the stoned sidewalk rough on my Fort Worth Mexican flea market cowboy boots, and enter at about 65th, which is actually a car entrance, I discover, not a human entrance to speak of, but I am able to hoist my 50-year-old 10 pounds heavier after the sauerbraten self onto a ledge and over onto a little hill, looking down on a path lined by benches and the old-style CP lamps. I piss into the woody dirt, praying that I won't surprise a 'cat-rat' in its hovel or vice versa. I resist a temptation to slide on down the hill and sit on one of those dimly lit benches and pretend I'm back in, oh, I don't know, 1950s New York, when any day might bring new work by Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis (the thing I love about Stuart Davis, besides his political engagement as the head of the Artists' Union, is that while he's labeled an 'abstract' art, in fact his abstract work was usually composed of recognizable objects, art as mirror, like the work of his contemporary Martha Graham, making interlopers even less necessary), artist and artist educator Will Barnet, whose stylistic evolution was marked by his search for the symbolic potential of forms, a search that culminated in the monumental "Self-Portrait" (1952-1953) in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and on view in the museum's new centennial exhibition, "Will Barnet; Relationships, Intimate and Abstract, 1935 - 1965," through December 31. There was Graham, too, who also used technique to come up with forms exploring relationships and the psycho-intimate, often aided by the semi-abstract art of Isamu Noguchi, Balanchine, whose dance often anticipated the sculptors', Bernstein, Hitchcock, Jazz, Hitchcock and Jazz, Davis and Jazz... with the Judsonites, a less crafted if equally crafty semi-abstract vision, waiting in the wings, with Jill Johnston along to usher them in (or maybe it was the other way around; which one lasted?).

... But instead of using a CP bench as a time machine and playing Paul in '50s NY art world wonderland, I leap back over the stone wall and make my way down the Avenue towards 53rd. At the CBS satellite building on 60th -- I think it's where the news show is broadcast from -- there's a reminder that the nightly news bimbo who was not even the epidermis of a shell of a shell of even the legendary offspring of Murrow, who held that chair in the '50s, has been replaced by someone of more substance, so perhaps there's hope. Finally I arrive at Mecca.

Mecca, of course, is Tiffany's, not because diamonds are a faux art critic's best friend, but because the diamonds Audrey Hepburn gazed at dreamily when she stood in front of that window on an early film morning of 1961 dipping her croissant in her coffee, in Blake Edwards's realization of Truman Capote's Holly Golightly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" -- those diamonds were stand-ins; fill in your diamond, artistically inclined 1950s-'70s child of the midwest dreaming New York dreams that were not the dreams of acquisition of Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg's New York, but the dream of artistic ascension, of art that ascended, of art that uplifted. It uplifted its creator as well, sure -- you need a good dose of ego to make it here -- but would also, its creator hoped, be he Capote or, say, Keith Haring, who stood in front of this same window 18 years after Audrey/Tiffany, sketching penises, uplift at least his contemporaries, his generation, be their voice. Already, just seven years after Haring stood in front of that Tiffany's window in 1979, Holly's diamonds having been replaced by penises as this guy's best friend, and 21 years after Brian Kelly's naked martinis may have addled his dreams but didn't derail his morals in Leonard's 1965 coming of age in NY novel, the dream had dwindled for the next generation of big city dreamers; Tama Janowitz's heroes were "Slaves of New York" because fear of ever finding another apartment kept them enslaved in bad relationships; in Mike Bloomberg's New York version 2.011, it'll take you $2,000 minimum, brother hipster, to even land a one-bedroom in the Brooklyn hinterlands of Greenpoint, where a sign on my street announced today that cars will be towed Monday to make way for the filming of "Girls," "a new series about the struggles and occasional triumphs of a group of 20-something friends!"; real 20-something Hollys and Keiths can't actually afford to live in New York, anymore; all that's left is to watch Mike Bloomberg's Film Commission's tele-reality stand-ins for themselves have lives now out of reach for them; advance scouts Holly and Keith have been replaced by Sirens; don't go near those rocks, brother; they may glitter like Holly's but they'll tear you to pieces faster than you can say "room available in Staten Island apartment, $1,000."

Keith Haring. Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks, 1978. Graphite on paper. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (21.6 x 14 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York. On view at the Gladstone Gallery through July 1.

No rocks awaited me when I arrived before Tiffany's @ 57th & the Avenue at 11:15 Wednesday night, but lockets: In the first window, a silver dollar-sized and a quarter-sized one, the first with a white rose atop it, the second with a turquoise pearl. They dangled from chains, encadred in a double layer of false green brush; behind them rippling frothy ocean waves on a turquoise-blue sea projected on a screen. I imagined the white-rosed locket as Audrey/Holly's, pure as ivory; the smaller was Keith's -- the dream had diminished by the time he stood before this window just 18 years after Audrey -- and tried to imagine him balancing his small sketchbook on the marble ledge below the showcase window.

I asked myself whether my own projecting of all this was just an excuse to publish more of Haring's "Sketching Penises in front of Tiffany's" drawings from the Gladstone exhibition in New York, masking my more sensationalist tendencies and risking that some readers might find them obscene. Then I looked up at the towering monstrosity next door, and realized that this was the truly obscene phallic figure: Trump Tower, symbol of Mike Bloomberg's New York Version 2.011, making it all the more vital to celebrate Keith's more innocent dreams, those of a girl-guy who, like Holly, just wanted to have fun. Sure, business and money have always gone hand in hand with art and literature in making this town run, but the balance has slipped precipitously. For John Leonard's Brian Kelly, the Mad man perch was just a key to open the door to the Emerald City, a means to an end, not the end itself. In Mike Bloomberg's New York Version 2.011, the arts are little more than a means to market mecca, a mecca where living artists can no longer afford to live. To say nothing of arts writers and editor/publishers, which is why for me it's so long Ghost Town and Go West, young man, to Fort Worth, where the housing's still cheap, the living is large, and New York giants like Davis and Barnet are still celebrated in art temples like the Carter.

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