Tag Archives: art dealers

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

“For years, I worked so hard to hold my tongue, I nearly swallowed it. For years, I had slid around the dining room table in various costumes of the bright, eccentric variety, opposite the Klee, directing traffic with deft signals and smiling, always smiling.”

The Blazing World, and it’s no coincidence that the title is the same as a largely forgotten work from 17 th century female author Margaret Cavendish, is a complex look at Perception, Identity, and Gender politics in the art world. In this challenging intelligent novel, author Siri Hustvedt presents a fragmented, troubled portrait of a now deceased woman, artist Harriet Burden. Harriet, or Harry, as she was known, was at one time a young artist in New York with a few shows to her credit in the 70s and 80s. Then she met and married the phenomenally wealthy art dealer, Felix Lord, and for years lived in the background as his wife, a mother to two children and as a “chic” hostess to various, critics, dealers, and artists involved in the art scene. In her fifties and widowed Harriet is a deeply unhappy woman, a rejected daughter, a forgotten artist and once the wife of a prominent wealthy man. But these were all unsatisfactory roles for Harriet who is left, after the death of Felix, with a lingering feeling that life has passed her by and that the overwhelming bias of the art world ignored her talents.

The blazing worldHarriet devises a master plan, Maskings–an “experiment that took her five years to complete,” that was “meant to not only expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover complex workings of human perception.” Maskings was a series of three arts shows, The History of Western Art, The Suffocation Rooms and Beneath in which she masked her female identity by exhibiting her art under the names of male artists who colluded with her ‘experiment.’ According to Harriet, this project Maskings, would not only reveal the bias and hypocrisy of the art world but also yield a sort of gender and personal triumph.

The Blazing World appears to be a non-fiction book in which Harriet’s story unfolds through multiple narratives pieced together through Harriet’s labyrinth layers of deceit by an editor, a professor, who takes extracts from Harriet’s many cryptic journals as well as interviews with various people including her two children, filmmaker Maisie and writer Ethan, the artist Phineas Q. Eldridge, a friend, art critics, one of those “New Age fruitcakes,” and a final lover. A complex fragmented portrait of Harriet emerges, and as we see though her journals, she’s an angry woman intent on revenge. But revenge against whom? Against what?

After a meltdown, Harriet sought therapy which according to her daughter “unleashed a Harriet Burden none of us had ever seen before, as well as a number of other characters or personas she had been sitting on for quite some time. … protean artist selves that needed bodies.” Seeking to renter the art world using a succession of male names, Harriet selected three male artists as three successive beards or “masks,” who “acted as fronts for her own creative work.” While Harriet created the art for display and sale under the names of the three male artists, Harriet argued that an intriguing transaction occurred in each masking. She “insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the kind of art she produced: each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a hermaphroditic self which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to a mingled reality created between the two of them.”

The three male artists Harriet chooses are all very different types; the first man, young, naïve Anton Tish, is a blank slate whose interactions with Harriet destroy his already fragile persona. The second artist (and one of my favorite voices) whose professional name is Phineas Q Eldridge, a black gay man who defends Harriet’s arguments of sex bias and who has already struggled with identity, is perhaps the most savvy and understanding of the voices when it comes to his relationship with Harriet. The third artist is Rune, a cultural icon, a virile blond, blue-eyed hunk of an artist who knew what it meant to be a celebrity. Rune’s show The Banality of Glamour which ensured his place as a rockstar in the art world included film footage of “facial morphing technology,” and “plastic surgery patients under the knife.” Rune offers various versions of his own elusive life, constructing fable upon fable, but according to one source, that’s just Rune:

Those stories he told to journalists were part of his shtick, a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-promotion, making a mystery of himself.

It’s with Rune that things really begin to go wrong. Rune’s dealer cannot answer whether Rune’s show Beneath was out of context for Rune and he admits that he “could tell you what was in or out of character for Rune,” a man who continually re-invented himself, using “maskings” of his own and whose previous great triumph of Art was vinyl crosses–a yellow cross, sold for 3 million dollars because “he had only made one.”

Of course, there’s a paradox to Harriet’s theory. If the art world is indeed hypocritical and disinterested in the work of an overweight, unattractive middle-aged woman, yet ready to worship the work of three male artists–no matter how moronic (Tish) or slick (Rune) they are, why would those who hold the reins of power–the critics and the dealers–care or even believe her when she reveals how she duped them all? Will they believe she was the “virago mastermind” behind the three art shows or will they see her as just another bitter, deranged, disappointed and talentless woman? Through the voices of the critics, in which fame and perception are locked together, we see absolute, blind adulation directed to the famous artists whose work fetches millions. According to one critic, Harriet’s early work was not ignored when she first appeared on the art scene; she simply opted out to be a wife and mother, yet another critic who profoundly disliked Harriet, insists that she  was “so obscure she wasn’t even a has-been.”

One of the interesting aspects of the book is its structure. It’s written as though ‘edited’ by a professor of aesthetics who is trying to reach the ‘true’ story about Harriet Burden, now dead, so we get multiple perspectives about Harriet and her actions. I was intrigued by the author’s approach. How much easier to have written a straight fiction book–let’s say, for example, a book that was written chronologically starting with Harriet married to wealthy art dealer Felix Lord and watching any hopes of her career crumble away as she recedes into the roles of betrayed wife and ignored hostess to various luminaries in the art world.  Instead this fictional work is presented as a faux non-fiction book. This construct is more complex and also takes a much more scholarly tone with many footnotes referencing the very real people mentioned throughout. While this approach doesn’t make an easier read (the footnotes can be distracting at times–I launched off on a whole tangent concerning James Tiptree Jr. at one point), Siri Hustvedt certainly creates a much more intriguing, in-depth and complex read by her bold approach to the topic. While this is the story of Harriet, her rage at a “phallocentric world,” and her attempt to unmask the hypocrisy of the art scene, this story is just one layer on the deeper questions: who decides what is great Art? Why is something Art while something else is trash? How much are critics and then by the trickle-down effect the audience swayed by image and celebrity? These questions are addressed in the multiple narratives within the novel–in particular through the voice of Case, an acidic art critic, one of the influential gatekeepers of the art scene, a man who decides what is great art and what is tired and boring. Throughout the book, the image of Harriet remains with some disturbing questions–how greatly was she tainted and damaged by her early perceptions of herself? How much was self-sabotage, lack of confidence, or simple life choices?

Thanks to both Caroline and Emma for pointing me to this author.

Review copy

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The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford

“All through life we protect ourselves from countless hurtful truths by being a little blind here–by ignoring the something trying to flag our attention on the outer edges of our peripheral vision, by being a little shortsighted there–by being a trifle too quick to accept the easiest answer, and by squinting our eyes against the bright, incoming light all of the time. Emerson wrote once that even a corpse is beautiful if you shine enough light on it.”

I first came across cult author Charles Willeford through the bizarre film, The Woman Chaser. The film was so odd, I knew I had to read the novel the film was based on, and I was delighted to find that the book was every bit as bizarre as the film. I was hooked. Then I moved onto other Willeford novels: Wild Wives and The Burnt Orange Heresy.

Willeford is considered a crime/noir writer, and he’s perhaps best remembered as the creator of Miami detective Hoke Moseley. Miami Blues is the film version of one of Moseley’s tales, and if you haven’t seen it, then do yourself a favour and find a copy. Do yourself an even bigger favour and hunt down a copy of The Woman Chaser while you are it. But it’s bizarre, so be prepared.

burnt orange heresyThe Burnt Orange Heresy is a change of pace for Willeford. The story is told by Jacques “James” Figueras, a Puerto-Rican American, who’s an ambitious art critic. Every aspect of James’s life is geared towards becoming “the greatest art critic in America–and perhaps the world.” At age 34, it’s been a long hard haul for James. He’s made enormous financial sacrifices during the course of his career, and has sacrificed short-term gain for the long-term goal. A graduate of Columbia, he was a teacher of art history, but managed to morph into a full time writer of art criticism, thanks to  a  $400 a month stipend from a premier art magazine,  and this “wedge” into the upper echelons of the art world gives James the clout to write freelance for other magazines.

It’s a precarious lifestyle, and James sacrifices to maintain his independence. There’s no long-term girlfriend in his life, no messy relationships with women, no vices, no expensive habits, and he lives in a modest, tiny apartment.

James travels to Florida to “cover the Gold Coast for the season,” and here he finds himself in a relationship with Berenice, a teacher from Ohio. What started out as a holiday fling has become an annoyance, and although James enjoys sex with Berenice, she’s moved into his apartment and won’t go away. Berenice is easy on the eyes, but annoying and messy as a permanent fixture. “[A]s stealthy as a 140-pound mouse,” Berenice’s clinginess rattles James’s nerves, and he finally resorts to nastiness to shake her loose:

“Later I asked her to leave in a harsh and nasty way. She wouldn’t fight with me, but she wouldn’t leave. On these occasions she wouldn’t even talk back….she was destroying me. I would leave the apartment, forever, and come back a few hours later for a reconciliation replay and a wild hour in the sack.”

But since “a woman is only a woman,” James finally gives Berenice the heave-ho. Thinking he’s got rid of her, he attends a party at the Florida penthouse apartment of New York Lawyer and art collector, Joseph Cassidy. Taking James aside, Cassidy reveals a strange story. He’s managing the affairs of a reclusive, elderly French painter named Debierue. Debierue, considered the originator of the minor, brief Nihilistic Surrealism movement, only ever had one exhibit at his Paris framing shop decades before, and his later works have been viewed only by a handful of world-class art critics. Cassidy reveals to James that Debierue is now living in Florida, and he strikes a deal with James.

In return for giving James Debierue’s address in order to gain access for a coveted interview, Cassidy wants James to steal a painting for his private collection. To James, the opportunity to interview Debierue and assess his work is the chance of a lifetime, and an article featuring Debierue’s art would seal James’s career in the art world. James doesn’t hesitate, and he agrees to Cassidy’s deal.

James plunges headlong into Cassidy’s scheme, and never once quibbling about the morality of the situation, he’s led by his ambition into a morass of complicated choices.

Willeford always surprises me, and The Burnt Orange Heresy is no exception. This  is a marvellous story and it’s considered by many Willeford fans to be his best work.  The tale is told through the eyes of James, a strangely emotionless man who admits his conscience is ‘invented.’ He burns with a frighteningly intense ambition to be the world’s greatest art critic, and just how far he’s prepared to go is the substance of this book. But the tale is much, much more than a crime novel, and as the story unfolds, it explores the “uneasy symbiotic relationship” between the artist and the critic and ultimately questions the nature of art itself.

Willeford was a strange character, and at one time in his checkered career, he enrolled in the graduate Art programme at a university in Lima, Peru, but was thrown out when it was discovered that he didn’t possess an undergraduate degree. Several of Willeford’s book are out-of-print, and some of the rarer titles are available at extortionate prices. Well I’ve read three Willeford novels so far–all different and all excellent. If you like noir novels at the edge of twisted, then Willeford comes highly recommended

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