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The Great Man

A friend lent me a book saying she kept thinking of me while she read it. My first impression of the book was it was lightweight, easily written, not much depth. But as I continued to read, I understood what she meant. It’s about the artworld, many aspects of it. From the point of view of several women over sixty, each one having had some kind of intense relationship with “the great man”, a well-known figurative painter, who had recently died. In the process of being interviewed for two biographies of the great men, these women reveal not only personal, intimate details information about themselves but also interesting views of the current art market.

A few quotes from Maxine, the great man’s older sister, in her early eighties, also a painter, but an abstract painter. Although Maxine is not the single central character of the novel, nor the most appealing person (she is portrayed as an angry and bitter, lonely and exhausted woman) she has some interesting comments on art.

“Oh, painters are like a big Irish family in the potato famine: There’s never enough of anting to go around–collectors, galleries, grants, prizes. . . . But I’m so old now, I’ve got nothing to lose.“

Maxine at the dinner party with Paula, the conceptual artist:

”I have done my best to avoid becoming familiar with conceptual art. It seems like a lot of clever, cold hoo-ha to me. As for so -called dialoguing–if that is really a verb–I have no idea what that means. I paint out of direct experience, and I’m not talking to anyone when I work, least of all to myself. I have to get everyone out of my head, including my own voice, in order to be able to paint. Please excuse me if the answer is obvious and the question is retarded, but what the hell ever happened to truth and beauty?“ ”So is it really art?“ said Saul Unger softly in Maxine’s ear. ”That’s the question. It should be called something else, because it is something else.“

There was also several passages portraying Maxine at work painting:

Maxine hated to be interrupted when she was working. Being dragged from the world of painting back into the world of life was as difficult as forcing herself from the world of life back into the world of painting. A thick but permeable membrane separated them. Going from one to another required a shape shifting in the brain. She was never entirely safely ensconced in either world; the demands of the other one could be heard, muffled from whichever one you were in, so no matter where you were, you felt a tug of anxiety that something might go wrong in the other one in your absence, something you’d failed to account for before you left.

Personally, I always feel safely in the world of painting. Even when I am not in my studio. Although I would prefer to spend more time in my studio, it is a physically exhausting practice and I need time away to refresh my body, especially my eyes. Even in a museum, I find I can spend only limited time.

But as you get older and death is more a reality, not just a thought, then time is very important. In the course of the novel, there are thoughts and conversations about death from several characters.

The thing Maxine had always most feared when she imagined dying was the moment following her last breath–lying there air-less, empty-lunged, finished with inhaling forever; the emptiness after that last gasp, the whiteness, the freedom from need. That particular terror and literal breathlessness was what she had been trying to get into her painting this morning.

For me, there is also excitement in the the thought of ”the freedom from need”, less holding on, more need now to just do it, take chances, jump off that bridge of the unknown.


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