When in London I make a point of going to the Courtauld. Which is a grand way of referring to a sleep-deprived nightmare in cattle class on the way to see your extended family for two or three more visits before you die. The Courtauld is a palace along the Thames embankment and you can take it in in an hour or two. It's the legacy of a fabulously wealthy industrialist who enriched his life with the very best. One day Mssr. Courtauld's agent informed him that Gauguin's finest work had become available and he should have it. It's Te Raireoa (The Dream), and I go to stand in front of it and weep like you're supposed to do in front of a Rothko. Nothing else of his (Gauguin or Courtauld) quite does that and especially not Rothko who you can see elsewhere augmented by dimensions, lighting and lavish elbow room in prestigious space; none of which are enough (for me) to wet a tie-dyed hanky; mine or Mark's.
On those odd occasions we proles get to see the best there is but sometimes it isn't. Wyeth's 'Christina's World' at the Museum of Modern Art in New York looks like a $10 Wal-Mart print in harvest tones. Somehow it falls disappointingly short on the glowing pink dress that makes it happen in the reproductions. It might be lighting, the flatness of egg tempera, persistence of memory or the genius of uncelebrated printers or fraudsters who know exactly how to make the tiny corrections that a major 'Water Lilies' or an extra 'Irises' require to really make them sing. Well, painting is a bitch. Even if you can recognise a masterpiece it doesn't mean you can paint one. It's not as forgiving as the monkeys with the typewriters doing Webster's Dictionary in the life of the universe: once you are committed you can't go back to repair the composition or the colour harmonies even if you could divine what it needs during those standing - back appraisals towards the end.
During the pre-olympic millenial boom I was working on construction on the Sydney high rises, spending weekends organizing an exhibition, and circulating around the art market and world to schmooze and learn whatever I could. And in consequence I acquired an agent; Stephen Hersh. He was a little Jewish guy in his eighties, secular, irreverent, energetic; a five foot two or four Hollywood cliché of wise cracks and panache who would go around the galleries with his portfolios making a nuisance of himself on our behalf. He liked me and my style; and worked like a drover's dog representing 20 artists for a stinking 3% commission. He must have been living on his pension and savings because our sales wouldn't have paid the rent on his parking space. But then he hit the relative jackpot. Macquarie University art maven Di Yerbury discovered Peter Griffin who was taken on by Wagner Galleries. Peter's work was Kandinskyish, reliably modern, repetitive and the flip side required for serious collections; always identifiable as his own. Of course the first thing that happened was either Wagner's or Peter decided Stephen should be cut out.
Some time later I was half of a two man exhibition in Sydney he had organized and lived at the gallery on the north shore for the duration. One night I attended one of Jane Bennett's openings with my patron of the moment and Jane informed me that Stephen (and by extension his stable including me) had been blacklisted across the local art world. It seems my poor old agent was a very bad man, a liar and fraud who was billing himself as an ex-trustee of the Art Gallery of N.S.W. when he had actually been only a tour guide.
'The horror, the horror!' as Joseph Conrad once wrote and it worked in darkest Africa but fell flat somehow in 'Apocalypse Now' and more so in Sydney 2003. But then I was born in America where everyone is still a relic of the Great Depression, locked in a dreamworld myth about 'making good'. Stephen's brother Morris did arrive and became a patron of the arts, immortalized in a modernist portrait hanging in the Ian Potter Gallery at Federation Square.
Either Stephen's purported fraud or simple anti-semitism explained the Wagner Gallery affair. Arts in the big city was uglier yet far more righteous than I had imagined; a kind of greyhound racing with aplomb- where sociopaths and scumballs transition to 'colourful identities' after which they get away with almost anything. It's the Gucci effect where being shamelessly and publicly fleeced and seen to enjoy it is a big part of social bluff for the nouveaus. There's a wink and nod to these takers but not to you or I or a little Jewish immigrant who escaped the ovens, trying to claw his way up from the bottom, unbroken, still knocking on doors unto the end of life with all the heart in the world. His breach was imaginative and I was impressed – being allowed on a premises to do volunteer work implies trust even if they don't let you take a flutter on the dogs.
But my old agent is here because he had a story. He probably invited himself, but he went to see Arthur Boyd at Bundanon, and Arthur showed him around the studio where he had a slew of similar canvases lined up like some kind of assembly line. “This is for the dealers,” he said. And in another room he had something else going; “and this is for me.”
I believe it now because a friend who was leaving to try and reconcile with his wife and family in Melbourne gave me a heavy box; many years worth of auction house catalogues, beautiful thick glossy art books and I thought I had hit the jackpot. But going through them was embarrassing; each one across so many sellers and years and auctioneers was almost identical. Always a burning Tim Storrier rope or hay bale on a dark ocean beach, a white Arthur Boyd 'Bride' floating over a sullen aboriginal, a dark and banal rat-faced Dickerson charcoal portrait of no-one in particular and so on. I gave all the books to the polytechnic; they could be distributed around the art class and everyone could have it all, just like in Point Piper and Rose Bay. So the spirit of Henry Ford lives on in the most unexpected places, and this is why you should always stop at MONA whenever you are in Hobart; because Boyd's 'Melbourne Burning' is always there whatever else pot luck might offer. He painted it for himself and you'll never see it or anything better of his again although it has lost elbow room recently and consequently something more.
There must be quite a number of unknown masterpieces out there that should belong to the world and everyone who stays with it long enough may well produce one in their lifetime if only by accident. Sometimes it is enough to make a reputation, but without a providential name or agent and another confirming triumph it probably disappears in the market or gets worked or painted over or ends up hanging anonymously on some suburban wall. If it remains unsold it must eventually get hauled out with the other trash at the behest of some distraught or relieved widow. Widowers are more sentimental, more often patron than victim they resignedly and affectionately stack her crap on ceiling joists in the garage.
I had seen another masterpiece; just made for MONA and not long ago I phoned the artist, Colin Suggett, curious to find out where it was. He lives south of Melbourne, retired like me and at some stage you start considering posterity.
“What's going to happen to your children?” I asked.
Colin is a very literal man. “I don't have any kids.”
Of course I meant his flawless constructions in mixed glass, wood, metal, plastic, fibreglass and electronics– super imaginative though often (to me) a bit light on and amusing but there was one piece especially. It is deceptively simple; a plate glass (Belgian bronze) box like a fish tank; in the middle of a dark, empty room. The bottom consists of a diorama of a new and unsold building block in Werribee. In near darkness, it is newly fenced, curbed and guttered. There is a small do-it-yourself galvanised iron toolshed by the driveway and a realtor's sign fixed to the fence. It is lit by a single streetlight on a tapered, curving standard with a shaded diode at the top. The attention to detail is incredible; even to an airbrushed fluorescing fuzzball of light centred directly beneath the streetlight; diminishing perfectly as it illuminates more distant parts of the street, verge, gutter and fence with a ghastly yellowish- green glow. It is the coldest and emptiest thing ever. Edward Hopper was a comparative Piker and in all directions you see an infinite regression; hundreds, thousands of identical empty blocks marching off into the horizon. It's all there; tomorrow's 'Jobs and Growth', financially doomed young families sucked into the Australian dream of forever capital gains on the housing ladder with super low- interest mortgages, the bustle of trucks and tradies and then nothing; just an extended scrag end of town with few amenities, bored desperate housewives and their kids experimenting with sex and drugs and alcohol; unemployment and a clamour for compensating exponentially-increasing new projects; ever more suburbs or coal mines from the Latrobe Valley to central Queensland.
“Latrobe Regional Gallery has the lot and are housing and looking after it all,” he explained.
“Oh. I have a son who says he wants it all, so my stuff is going back to him in Canada, which also gives me a trouble-and- humiliation -free pension. If they don't give a s** about it here while I am alive and need the money they can f** themselves when I am dead,” I answered. He must be a man of huge social conscience on top of his many talents because it fell on a flat silence.
Stephen Hersh once called me something in yiddish meaning a loser who busts his backside working for other people. That's not an accolade in Brooklyn's Williamstown or Tel Aviv or anywhere but it ought to be. The fact is, that's life for most people. It isn't stupid outside the 'making good' dreamworld; the statistics on small businesses are abysmal and the visual arts must be at the bottom. (Writers are even further down). Stephen should have learned something from his own long struggle; that wages are always better than uncertain enterprises, most especially indentured unpaid labour for a gallery. Of course you die in the end regardless and there's nothing to lose bequeathing your work to posterity, but that would make sense only if you respect the taste and good will of your fellow man AND there might still be some of those in the world in another century, maybe even with time on their hands for aesthetic interests.
I thought I had a masterpiece once and put up $100 for the entry fee and a roll of Kodachrome 2 to enter the City of Hobart Art Prize (Sculpture). It didn't make selection which was unremarkable except they flew some 'name' in at great expense from London to humiliate the city and everyone involved; the winning entry from an impressive offering was a mismatched pair of piano trolleys; two little rectangles of carpet-covered plywood on casters. Four years later when they had worked through the media and came back around to sculpture, Hobart did it again. The winning entry was a board purporting to be from Scott's hut with dog kibble glued to it. Perhaps it was a circuitous reference to the deaths of Scott and Oates by vitamin poisoning because they ate their dogs' livers when they should have eaten the dogs' rations instead. And so little Tasmania's jewel in the crown struts proudly in the modernist vanguard along with so many other great cities of the world, but if the judges/selectors had done that to Courtauld he would have had them strangled.
Incomprehensible is popularly conflated with depth by non-practitioners; necessarily because everything is poisoned by comfortably- paid functionaries' brazen contempt for the bourgeois concept of merit and their pursuit of the 'controversial' adjective for their own CV's. They too are aiming for the moon. You could laugh –but it doesn't do much to attract public appreciation and support for the arts in general. Most people don't care much anyway, like an under-unemployed dozer operator who has actually seen real crushed fingers and endless vistas of Cradle Mountain as he smashed his way towards it 40 hours a week and formless black puddles when he changed the oil. But it's also destroying those talented and serious wide-eyed kids loading themselves with debt to get on the ladder; imagining there is nothing to it. It begins in grade 7; socially and academically challenged left- handers enamored of cute pussycats or horses they could knock out from ten years old; encouraged by parents and teachers towards an apparently attractive option. But the numbers say nearly everyone must fall by the wayside, the earlier the better so they can get real jobs. And it reaches all the way to the dux of the class too. A friend of my son's came up with an untouched shtick; bundles of bent and otherwise damaged aluminium irrigation pipes with holes blown through all over with an oxy torch.
“If I'm not famous before I'm 25, I'll just take over running the farm,” he said.
No prizes for the million dollar question. Maybe he had or hadn't heard of Clement Meadmore (Australian) who started designing Ikea type modern furniture and during the dreamtime of my son's farming friend had brought a collection of perfectly rendered umbrella stand to monument- sized soggy bronze french fries (sticking out of a plinth in vertical bundles) back to Sydney before he died. They were all over this gallery garden; starting at $30 thousand; US currency only thank you and touted to be almost exactly like a piece one of the actual Rockefellers has down along his own garden path somewhere in the Hamptons and you too......