so many paintings, so little time

My date with E. F.

In New Portraits at James Graham & Sons on January 21, 2010 at 4:00 am

Allan McCollum, Surrogates, installation at Museum of Modern Art, NY

There’s a fabulous private collection I’d really like to see. So I decide to contact the collector. I’m thinking maybe he’ll agree to be a subject for a portrait. I’d repaint a work from his collection and write a text that came out of our conversation while looking at it. My re-interpretation of  the historic work plus what he said sandblasted on glass and bolted over the painting could be a good angle for a portrait of an art collector.

I call a highly-placed relative who can help me get the collector’s email address, and send off my request. He’s interested! There’s another person who is commissioning a portrait near where he lives, so I write to say I’ll be back in touch soon with some dates. A week later I learn my other portrait subject will not be available for a while, so I immediately email the collector to arrange a date. Now he’s too busy, can’t meet for several months. I pull out the old French technique for getting what you want from people who don’t want to give it to you–just keep talking– and soon he consents. I make travel plans.

I pull up to the historic mansion where the collector lives, videocam in hand, and ring the bell. A woman’s voice comes over the intercom: “Someone will be with you shortly.”

Manderlay (miniature model) as seen in Alfred Hitchcock's film, Rebecca, 1940

After several minutes the door opens and the collector introduces himself. We enter a vast space filled with European objets d’art, 18th and 19th century. The whole place could be in Europe except for its spic ‘n span sparkle.

After a cursory tour of the ground floor rooms–“Apologies for the missing sculptures and decorative objects; we had to put them all away what with everyone coming for the Christmas party!”–we mount a grand staircase to get a look at the artworks lining the walls of the second floor corridors. The collector,  pointing proudly to one, announces, “There are only two by the artist in this country, and the other one is in the [famous museum].” Returning to the downstairs salon facing the ocean, we install ourselves in little upholstered armchairs facing each other, about twelve feet apart.

I begin asking questions to understand the passions that have driven this collector to amass well over a thousand works of a particular kind of fine art. A dedicated hunter of masterpieces, the collector says he isn’t interested in art history (“7% of my interest”). “Aesthetics” takes up the other 93%. When asked what he likes about, say, 18th century French art, or for that matter, what makes it “French,” he replies, “Life is happy, sin is acceptable, animals are friendly, women are sexy, men are dogs.” But then he goes on to insist that “art is not about the content. It’s actually about the form, the structure, the technique, about beautiful execution.”

I recall the diabetic President of Barton’s Bonbonniere, a candy company where I worked. After getting my MFA from Pratt Institute,

Photo from Architectural Forum August 1952. New York City. Architect, Victor Gruen. Graphics consultant Alvin Lustig.

I designed packaging for his products. Once he called me into his office to discuss wrapper ideas for a new line of candy bars. I was an artist, he felt good offering his thoughts for me to appreciate. While I sit listening and nodding, a parade of women in white uniforms passes by his desk, offering him new confections sent down from the test kitchen to taste. He picks one off the tray, swirls it around in his mouth for a while. Diabetes+sugar=bad news, so, he leans forward to a basket in front of him to spit it out, mid-sentence: “They’re for the children’s market. We need BRIGHT COLORS. I want them to say: ‘Mommy, buy me.’ ”

Why, I continue, was the collector interested in art from the period he collects? “It produced great work,” he says. Was there anything in his life history to which he could connect the art? “No,” he replies. Did he ever pull out works in storage to look at? “Yes,” he answers, “on weekends. Not for more than a few minutes–that would be like chewing on food too long.” How would he describe the difference between looking at an old master drawing and a painting? “Seeing a painting is like going to a nude revue in Las Vegas,” the collector explains. “A drawing is more like a lap dance.”

Now I really know I’m in trouble.

But I soldier on, videotape running. After two and a half hours, I call it quits. Before saying goodbye, I ask about the possibility of getting a digital file of a certain work we’ve discussed, should the need arise. “That won’t be a problem,” he assures me. He’ll have his curator take care of it. I walk out into the brisk wintry air and head back to my studio in New York.

I stall a few days before popping in the videotape. I review the footage hunting for a hook to hang my portrait on. I don’t want the portrait to reflect what I don’t like about the collector. After all, I’m hoping he will ultimately find the painting so irresistible he’ll want to own it. On the other hand, maybe I’ll decide to take what I don’t like about him–what the hell!–and use that to portray him! But then I risk bringing down upon me the wrath of the many museum curators and directors who have to suck up to him for loans and promises of donations.

I pore over the videotape to find another angle. I fail.

Maybe the inspiration of seeing a great work of art will help, I think to myself, remembering that whatever else I may think of the collector, he has the taste and refinement to surround himself with some damn good pictures. I email to ask for that digital image we had spoken of. He tells me to “look on the web for it, just too busy right now.” I’m startled by his indifference. I tell him how the only one I can find is an inch by an inch and a half, and lo-res. “[My curator] reminds me,” he says, “that the [famous museum] produced some unauthorized postcards of it–so you might find one there.” A postcard isn’t going to do it–too small, not enough information. I’m trying hard to keep this alive. “What about a scan of the image from one of the catalogues it was reproduced in? Maybe you can ask your private curator or your assistant?” I suggest.

Why is this guy making me jump through hoops? Doesn’t he know I have better things to do than chase after images of his masterpieces? Is this a test of the lengths to which I will go to make his portrait, how much I value him and his collection? I begin to loathe him. But then I remember I was the one who asked out of the blue if he would allow me to do his portrait. Repainter, relax! He’ll send you a scan.

“Can’t,” the collector emails. “Sorry.”

Huh? Now I’m a wabbit?

Next: Deadline portrait

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  1. That strategy of keeping someone talking until they agree to what you want isn’t just French. It’s a technique I often used as a reporter.

    And regarding the collector: I’ve run into interview subjects like that. The questions in such cases are: Is he actually dull and has gathered a great collection through the work of a good adviser? Or does he really respond emotionally to the works and isn’t used to putting those feelings into words? Or doesn’t have the language to put those feelings into words?

    • You can’t fool me. I know Reardon is actually a FRENCH name (changed, of course from Arrieredon!). Great questions, thanks! You have a big heart, Pat. In this case mine was perhaps reduced in size by my history, and the stresses of being an artist.

  2. But Elmer never gets the wabbit, the wabbit always gets him. Keep at it, Kenny! xx ed

  3. It’s hard to tell if he’s a coquette or a (Citizen) Kane. Either way, he’s in no way deserving of his collection. Why does good art happen to bad people?

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