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?








I Hear Voices

I have this friend. We’ll call her Melissa Stern because that is her name.

Melissa Stern is a sculptor and a brave, or perhaps foolhardy, one because she has allowed others to tamper with her work. I am one of those people so perhaps temerarious would have been a better word but I don’t know how to use it in a sentence.

One of the reasons people become artists is that it gives them ultimate control of the universe; even if it is only the universe of their work. It is a godlike responsibility because, as Uncle Ben would tell the youthful Peter Parker shortly before being offed by a criminal; “With great power comes great responsibility.” As we all know, Peter’s initial indifference to crime, even as Spiderman, caused him to decline the chance to stop a fleeing thief. His apathy caught up with him later the same day when the same criminal killed his Uncle Ben during a burglary. Oh,The Irony!

Melissa Stern, in her role as god, has created woman and man. Seems stereotypical doesn’t it. A requisite skill; indispensable for any deity’s curriculum vitae.


“Ok, have a seat. Let’s take a look at your resumé. Stars in the sky; Good. Animals of the land; very nice. The giraffes are an especially nice touch. Fish of the sea; check, Plants; good, a lot of hidden drama there. Very nice. You do nice work. So, let’s see your people.”




“What do you mean you don’t do people?”


     “What are we talking about here!? It’s not ethical!? It messes up a perfect system!? What!? What’s the issue!?”


“I see. They’re not part of your idiom.”

“Ok, ok, well look, it’s been a pleasure. If anything comes up we’ll give you a call.”



Melissa Stern’s people have the disconcerting quality of looking on the outside, the way people are on the inside. Conflicted, misunderstood, innocent. 

Stern has put together a collaborative, interactive exhibit. She asked some writers to choose a sculpture and write a monologue from the sculpture’s perspective. Reckless on her part; like inviting another deity into your universe on a per diem basis but admirable nevertheless. An act of faith. I am fortunate because I am her friend and because she allowed me to choose the piece about the death of her father, Bernie.

The monologues were recorded and each sculpture has been tagged with a QR Code so a smart phone can play the reading while you look at the work. Viewers can also add their own comments that are then available for playback.

I wrote the monologue from the perspective of the Willy Loman character schlepping across the girls head.


She was Juliet. I was not Romeo.


More like Odin the wanderer.


I was no hero but to her. 


At dawn, I would perform my morning ritual and then … disappear. She thought it was magic. I thought it was my job. I didn’t know what else to do. Then, at dusk, I would reappear to rescue her from the night.




She was beautiful. Not like scary beautiful. More like beautiful girl who liked me, beautiful. I couldn’t stop looking at her. She was an innocent. And for a time, we had each other. “Forever!” she would say.


We had hopes. Like everybody else. Special and mundane. I hoped she would be happy; she hoped for the moon. We lived in tenements and apartments all over this town. We cooked and did laundry; and went to see movies and theater and music. Moving. Restless. Together under all those different roofs.


The magic was between us. She thought that would be enough. I knew it wasn’t. I was the grown-up. I could never bring myself to tell her. I didn’t want to break her heart. I knew it would break, in its own time, of its own fragility. And when it broke, I knew that I would be one of the pieces; brittle and sharp.


A fragment is made new by its incompleteness. A shard is not an urn. It is a new memento of something old. Once broken it can never be called broken again. I preferred it that way.


Of course I had to leave. It was the only way. The only way I knew. So many years getting up. So many years washing my face; like an act of purification. Dressing, collecting my .. self, walking out the door. Out. Ever out.


I had to leave. It was the only way I knew.



For the reading by Michael Samuel Kaplan follow the link below