The Art Opening

Sculpture: Tom Butter

I went to a friend’s art opening the other night. I entered the building, stopped to check the directory to locate the gallery and turned to find my pal Tom standing right behind me. That’s a good sign since a trip to a gallery where I don’t know anyone is usually brief and depressing. Brief because I don’t much care for looking at new art and depressing because artists are, as a rule, terrible conversationalists. Artists don’t talk so much as they give a point by point recitation of their resume. It’s a transparently self-centered exercise and unforgivably dull. The only upside is that invariably these people’s egos are as fragile as the thin film of burnt sugar on a creme brûlée. It’s a combination that fairly demands a little soft tissue probing. Torturing artists can be fun but it’s so easy it barely qualifies as sporting.

Tom thinks that I’m macho because I’m in heavy construction as well as the fine arts. In fact, a lot of people seem to think I get a lot done for someone with three kids, a full time job and a so called career in the arts but Tom genuinely seems to be impressed by it. Maybe he’s just shy and it gives him something to talk about. We are friendly now and there is a real warmth, but that was not always the case.

Tom is a sculptor I met back in my Philly days. I worked in art galleries as a preparator, which sounds like a salad position in a restaurant but is more like a salad position in a gallery. You know, hang the work, paint the walls, date the receptionist, that sort of thing. Back then, Tom was one of the few artists whose work I could really identify with. He lived in New York and was in a good gallery and he taught and was good looking and super talented and he has a great last name; Butter. Tom Butter. How can a name like that not shine? It’s inevitable. Like an unfair advantage. Tom was also mysterious and ultra-smart. For me, he was an artist to be like. Not that I wanted to make his work, or have his life, but I wanted to be a respected artist with important things to say, a good gallery in Manhattan, an exotic girlfriend and a great name. Man, then I would have it all. Back then it didn’t seem like too much to ask, it just seemed so far away. Except the name. That! That was too much to ask.

I felt back then that a good first step would be to befriend this guy. It wasn’t a strategic move, it was simply that I wanted his approval. Like many young people and not so young people for that matter, I sought the approval of those I respected who were in a position of authority. I guess that’s normal and certainly beats seeking the approval of those whom no one respects and have no authority at all. Better to aim a little higher, I say.

Well naturally I didn’t get his approval which should come as no surprise. I, and almost everyone else, always look for approval from those who won’t give it. Which is probably just as well. Where is the value of something that is given away for free? I was forced to admit that, unfortunately, this was going to require some work. If I wanted respect, I was going to have to earn it. In fact, I was never able to find a way to talk to Tom at all. I’m sure I was awkward but I also think he was a bit tightly wound.

Years later, after I moved to New York, I would run into Tom every so often at his art openings or at Parsons School of Design where I worked as a technician at night and he taught during the day. It was always the same. A simple hello; totally ungratifying. Even more so because he was so animated with his students. Eventually it dawned on me that he was comfortable in a position of authority like the student teacher relationship. All I needed was to put myself in that position. In other words, all I really needed was a question.

By this point I was more grown up and beyond caring about the approval of others. Age and the daily abuses of heavy construction had pretty much cured me of that, but Tom was a loose end from my youth. My desire to connect with him had lost its sense of urgency and need; it was now more like a hobby.

Around this time, it so happens, I was working on my own show. It was my third solo exhibition and I was trying hard to grow the work around a tightly focused idea. I always underpin my work with a ton of research and in this instance I was meddling in art history. History is a place I have an interest in but I probably shouldn’t be allowed to go. I have a terrible memory and I’m not a stickler for facts, even when I know them. I had been doing research on the mathematics of Postwar American Art. There has never been a period of such raw experimentation with such astounding successes and yet that aesthetic passed away like all the others before it.

To me it was a mystery and I thought if I revisited some of the more formal tactics used by the greats I might learn something. Maybe some of that greatness would rub off on me.

I was using everything from John Cage’s chance operations and Myron Stout’s handmade, obsessive precision to Barnett Newman’s personal preferences for canvas size. From the standard intervals of Donald Judd to the variable intervals of subway stops on the A Train between West 4th and 125th street, I used it all.

I couldn’t see it then but I realize now that these names were the superheroes of my youth. I did not read comic books until I was in my twenties when I stopped watching television. But as a kid I would always look through the picture books in our house and, my father being an artist, all the picture books were contemporary art books; all the magazines were art magazines.

I was trying to tether my work to this most explosive period of American Art when I ran into Tom at school. I cornered him, if it can be said that someone can be cornered in the middle of a hallway, and shot him the question that I’d been rolling over in my mind and which doesn’t seem to be answered in any book. It is also the question which I had formulated for just this occasion. The only other question on my mind was: “Will he take the bait?”

As any fisherman will tell you; when you go fishing it is important to know your prey and to use the right bait. The right bait on the wrong hook will not get you dinner. The wrong lure in the right place will leave you hungry. But if the lure is convincing and the fish is provoked and you are quiet, all that remains is patience. I am a patient man.

Hey Tom,

What was the failure of modernism?

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Jackpot!

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The Good Book

There are some books that you want to read. There are some books that you have to read. And there are some books that are ill-fitting shoes; you try to get into them but there’s just too much resistance and they are set aside. And then there are the classics. Books that can be read again and again with something new taken away at each reading.

It’s been awhile since I dove into a classic so I thought I’d go straight to a book that pretty much everyone is familiar with. Anyone stressed out from a cross-country road trip will find a copy in their motel room. It is there to calm, and to soothe, and to inform. In fact, in one form or another, it’s probably the most read book out there. I am, of course, referring to the phone book.

I am a purist so I prefer the White Pages but for raw excitement I will occasional succumb to the cheap thrills of the Yellow Pages. Illustrations, bold type, extravagant claims; it can be a little overwhelming. All flash; very Hollywood.

No, for me it’s the small label, indie film charm, of the White Pages. Visually calm but with the promise of discovery ’round every turn of the page. Did you ever take a strong magnifying glass to the beach and look at sand? Do! You’ll be surprised. The White Pages is like that. It is the map and the treasure; X marks the spot but so does every other letter. In fact, in my phone book, X is represented by a phone number and a single X. No first name or initial; no address. Very mysterious.

The phone book is like that; there is history, mystery and romance.

The phone book I’m reading is, I believe, a classic in its own right. The September 1998 to August 1999 Bell Atlantic White Pages for Brooklyn; Area Code 718, complete with six pages of CUSTOMER RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES (their caps not mine). The very first line reads “The last thing we want to do is turn off your telephone service.” You see? From the very first line you are in its grip. Hold that up to your “Call me Ishmael.” This is a threat! To you personally! And it’s real!

In reality, almost every phone book can be considered a classic. The hidden gem of a small, exclusive hotel, shares so much with the boutique qualities of a small town phone book. Those books are a history lesson in geography and the migration of people’s. Rural Minnesota books full of Anderson’s and Andersen’s; the French and Scottish surnames of Coastal Maine. And every book has its standouts. I am reminded of a mid-70’s Philadelphia White Pages of my youth. It takes me back just thinking about that manuscript; the leaves unbleached, thin as rolling papers. Maybe it’s hometown pride but that book had what I consider to be two of the finest entries anywhere. Phillip and Douglas Updegrave. Yes, you read that correctly. Phil Updegrave and Doug Updegrave. What a great family legacy. And these names would have been unavailable to the world at large were it not for being documented in the White Pages.

But for sheer variety it’s hard to beat Brooklyn. The Brooklyn book has a nice balance of names both familiar and unfamiliar. Sure, Queens is the most ethnically diverse place on the planet but when they say a fat man has more chins than a Chinese phonebook it’s just a joke; a little word play. Take it from me, there are way, way, way more Chin’s in the Chinese phonebook. The Chinese phone book is the king of the Chin’s but the Queens phone book has got to be running a close second.

Reading from the Queens book is like reading from a book in a language you don’t understand. In fact, it is reading from a book in a language you don’t understand. The Queens phone book is page after page of what look like menu items. A few hundred thousand names that are obviously phonetic spellings, transposed from alphabets that don’t contain any familiar letters. These names are wonderful I’m sure, but for a westerner they are sound without meaning; they don’t connect to anything. There are no narratives to build around them; they don’t remind you of anyone you might know or even know of. Bottom line? It kills the book’s dramatic tension. So Brooklyn, as in so many other spheres, is the place.

In place of all those Chin’s, Brooklyn has the Smith’s. The nice thing about the Smith’s is that everyone knows them.  They are America’s default next-door neighbor. You would think that Smith was the most common, English speaking, last name and there are a bunch of historical reasons that it is but in this Brooklyn book they are outnumbered by the Williams’, unless you count variations like Smythe, Schmidt and Kowalski, which is Polish for Smith.

With the big entries like Smith, Johnson, Brown, Williams and Jones, I like to see if the first names are represented by every letter in the alphabet. Sadly, Johnson and Williams are each missing an X. It’s always an X isn’t it. There’s always something getting in the way of perfection and it’s always something like an X; an element that seems deliberately inserted to foil a flawless performance. One more reminder that nothing worth doing comes easily.

The nice thing about reading the phone book is that you really can start anywhere. The story is timeless and familiar, the characters like old friends. Oh look! There’s John McCrudden. He actually is an old friend. The only Dockbuilder I know who can do justice to song after song from the golden age of Broadway musicals. Oklahoma, The Music Man, South Pacific, West Side Story; his “I Feel Pretty” will bring you to tears. In fact, it isn’t him at all. My John doesn’t even live in this state but you see it doesn’t matter. The connection is made.

No two people read the phone book the same way. Without guile, the telephone book interacts with you. The White Pages would never presume to leverage your affections. It is happy to let you write the story; you create the narrative. You see? Here is Daniel Walker. Daniel Walker was my first friend. He died and yet here he is. It’s good to see him. It brings back memories.

Plotnick, Plotnick, let’s see Barbara, no; David, no; Elizabeth, no; Seymour, no; aha! Walter! Walter Plotnick and I each had a broken arm in first grade. His was left, mine was right. It must be getting on 40 years since I last saw Walter and here he is. Not really though, but maybe. I live in a different city than the city whose suburbs I grew up in. It’s unlikely that this is the same Walter but that’s the beauty of the phone book. Everyone you know or ever knew, including fictional characters, is likely to be here but not if you don’t want them to be. All the names of old enemies belong to someone else. Their names have been diluted to the point of anonymity. Or not. Your choice.

Even though you can start reading the Phone Book anywhere, it’s only natural to start by having a look for your own name. You know, see if there are any others of you roaming around out there. I imagine it’s a strange feeling to see your name in a phone book and know it’s not you. Like there’s another you; a you who may be living one of the lives you misplaced along the way.

Then a review of those who share your last name. I have an unusual last name but there are other Mednick’s out there and though I doubt we’re related, they feel like lost family members when I read their names. It’s reminiscent of when you see old photographs of relatives who died before you were born.

The adolescent in me had to look up Lipschitz but who knew that I would be rewarded with a Lipshits? Truly a gratifying moment but let’s be honest; I don’t care if your dad discovers the cure for cancer, if your name is Lipshits, it’s time to go get yourself a name change. That said, the adolescent does wonder if the world would have been different if Lipshits had been Jesus last name. Jesus Lipshits. You gotta think so. In these matters, it’s important to let that internal adolescent have his way. He will take you places that will make you laugh; no harm is done and you know he so rarely gets out these days.

After that I believe it is only proper to introduce yourself to the first and last names in the book. I consider it a common courtesy. To quote Dirty Harry, “A man has got to know his limitations.” The limitation of our knowledge of this discreet universe will fall between AAB and ZYZINSKI. That knowledge may seem trivial but it does tell us something; like the person whose presence is noted by their absence. There are no people who are named by a number. In my phone book, no one is named by a symbol or pictograph.

It seems inconsequential but it does tell us about conformity. Jung spoke about archetypes; the unconscious patterns we follow. Every culture may have a different creation myth but every culture has a creation myth. Every group may be structured differently but every group is structured. So it is with names. Everyone has a name but nobody is named R2D2 or 7come11 or i8 1-u8 1 2. Sure there is an M. Four, a J. Five and an E. Six in our book. There are Aziz, Joe and Doris Seven as well as Willa Eights but that’s not the same. I’m talking hard numbers here and I’m just not finding them. And do you know why? Yeah, me neither. I can’t figure it out because the kid next door would give his last Twinkie to be named C3PO and he is by no means unique in this desire. For years my own sister was known only as #1.

After these few introductions, simply move as the spirit moves you. Allow the connections to make themselves and follow up every lead, no matter how daft, because you never know where it will take you and that really is the point isn’t it?

So first off, there are a ton of SAINTs. I mean, I’m no religious scholar but I never heard of half these saints. Saint Albord? Saints Arromand and Aude? Saint Felix? I guess he was the happy saint. Saint Finbars? Saints Perix and Pard and Preux? Who the hell are these people? All these folks named SAINT and yet there is not a single entry under SINNER. And this is New York City! How are we to explain that? I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking going on here.

Like salt on watermelon, comedy and tragedy go together in life and therefore in literature and this applies no less to the phone book. But comedy is the reaction to tragedy; tragedy is the dominant theme. Maybe that explains why, while there are some HIGHs in the phone book, they are greatly outnumbered by the LOWs.

Examples are as common as tears and each is equivalent to the next.

You see, I know it ended in a lot of death and heartache and jail time between the families of Devil Anse and Ole Ran’l down along the banks of Tug Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River but this isn’t the line between Confederate Kentucky and Union West Virginia. That issue is not an issue here. But maybe the past just wouldn’t stay put down there and something had to give. Time is a distance but sometimes not as much of a distance as separation requires. Maybe it was time to leave the past behind and start anew. Whatever the case, up here in Brooklyn, there are way more McCOYs than there are HATFIELDs

Pride and vengeance were the undoing of those families and that line of thinking will always lead you back to Romeo & Juliet.

It saddens me to say this but while there are plenty of MONTAGUEs in the Brooklyn White Pages, there is not a single CAPULET. Wherefore art thou Juliet?

But romance is ever present so sometimes it’s just relaxing to see if you can find two people who need to meet. A few of my favorites are:

GRIN and BARET (Jeanette and Michael respectively) who should probably never date.

NOW and THEN (Susan and Rafael respectively) who should probably just go out occasionally.

KISS and TELL (Morris and K., who seems to prefer a little anonymity. You can understand why) who are gonna have a blast but will be running into commitment problems.

Speaking of KISS, what have we here? Another KISS, first name Hersch! Oh man, I hope his middle initial is E.

Then we’re on to STRAIGHT and NARRO (Danasia and Aureliano) who will have a steady, joyless relationship that they’ll both feel really “good” about.

And finally:

LOVE and MARRY (Sonia and John) who I think may have a real shot at happiness.

I guess the luckiest guy in the phone book lived up in Bay Ridge. Of the ten people with the last name of LUCKY, there is one with the first name VERY. Very Lucky. I worked with Lucky for many years but we all knew him as Lucky Sweeney. The phone book name was his little joke. He was a dive tender; the topside help for the commercial diver. The tender is on the radio with the diver and looks out for the divers needs including tools, materials and air. Air is a big one. You want to piss off a diver, just let his air run low. They hate that. Lucky’s tag line was:

Every day’s a holiday.

Every meal’s a banquet.

He was great to work with and around the winter holidays he made a wicked Glogg which had the entire crew hammered by coffee. We don’t work that way anymore and in a way it’s a shame. The new rules took a lot of the joy and camaraderie out of the work.

Before exiting the good book, I like to see if I can build a familiar phrase using only the available names. Today’s result was most satisfying because in the end the White Pages is really about the connections between people and in that way it’s appeal is as universal as a catchy tune.

Mei, An, Yoo, Ann, Yoo, Anne, Mei,

Noe, Madar, Howe, Day, Toste, Tha, Dyes, Ittehad, Abedi,

Onn, Leewah, N, Formey, Yisu, An, Yoo, Formey,

Soe, Happy, Toh, Gheith, Er