The story of just how fucked up the New York City art scene can be. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the not-so-innocent…
by: Alice Kaltman
The bell rang twenty minutes earlier than expected. I took one last look around the studio, then raced through the apartment towards the door. I hadn’t brushed my teeth yet. My mouth was coated in a fermenting residue of coffee and bacon. At least it’s grass-fed bacon from the farmer’s market, I told myself, as if the provenance of my breakfast would make any difference to the odor of my breath.
I opened the door, inhaling as I said, “Hi Anita! So great to see you again.”
It had been almost fifteen years since I’d seen Anita Mego in person. Still tiny height-wise, she was now round and squat, cloaked in a red cape with beaded fringe, her forehead in line with my boobs. Anita’s hair, formerly brown and Brillo pad-ish was platinum blonde and cut in a stick-straight bob. Red-tinted glasses perched on her chubby cheeks like the headlights on a Toon Town car. No, it wasn’t great to see her again. It was disturbing.
She squinted at me. “How do we know each other again?”
“Um, I think Donald told you about me.”
“Oh yeah,” she smiled. “Donald. I love Donald. Don’t you just love Donald?”
Donald, my well-connected culturati second cousin was successful enough to be friends with Anita, and nice enough to call in a favor for the less successful me. Anita was an art star in a sub-section of the New York City Art World I aspired to be part of. She was the big cheese planted in the center of the platter. I’d been sitting at the edge of the platter for over ten years, a shriveled grape no one wanted to eat. Included in a few group shows at crummy galleries and not-for-profit spaces, a handful of sales to friends of my parents, mentioned once on an obscure culture website, and reviewed once by my former college roommate. This was my pathetic resume of meager success.
Pathologically shy as a child, and to this day socially inept, I’d been to my fair share of art openings and tried my best to schmooze. But all I’d end up with were countless headaches after too many truncated conversations and plastic cups of cheap white wine. The artists I knew personally who had made it big had done so by overcoming their insecurities and basic insanity by constantly networking with awe-inspiring relentlessness. But Anita Mego seemed different. At least to me, she was the real deal. I thought her work was pure and unpretentious. She was an artist’s artist, rarely seen at openings or pounding the Chelsea pavements on a Saturday afternoon. So while I didn’t exactly love cousin Donald, I liked him well enough, more so now that he’d recommended me to Anita who was known to foster the careers of younger female sculptors. Women she considered her creative offspring. God how I longed to be adopted.
“Sure. I, ah, love Donald,” I said. “But actually you and I met fifteen years ago. At RISD,” Please remember, I thought. I was an eager, starry-eyed twenty-one year old artiste and you were a thirty-something sprite, ninety pounds of white heat with a punk hairdo. You were, inspiring, urgent, insistent. You spoke about ‘the feminist imperative to reclaim the three dimensions’. You told me my work was ‘cool’.
“RISD?” Anita squinted again. “It’s a bitch to keep track of all those school visits. What the hell did I do there?”
“You gave a lecture on your work. Afterwards you did crits on senior thesis projects.” She had stood in front of my cubicle squinting – not unlike the way she was squinting now – at my ‘body’ of work; semi-realistic, but lopsided and lazy figures in groups of three to five. Each ‘family’ had one shared attribute; purple wormlike arms, uneven breasts, no ears. One group was blessed with cloven hooves. It was pretentious, as student work usually is, and arguably, should be. If nothing else, it did a good job hiding my weakness at proportional rendering.
How well I remembered when Anita had said, “Now this. Yeah this. This is some cool stuff,” before she pranced over to Adam Schechtner’s adjacent cubicle, where she grunted hostilely at his Judd-ian cubes and said nothing. At 7 pm she was ushered away by the head of the department for a dinner with selected faculty. As the double metal doors closed behind her and her academic entourage, Adam snarked, “She’s full of shit. She’s not even that great an artist.”
I nodded in agreement. But secretly I prayed Anita was a seer and a saint.
Now, fifteen years later, Anita Mego stood in my grown-up vestibule peering at me as if I were an indecipherable set of directions to a place she didn’t want to go to. “I’m sorry, Doll,” she shrugged. “No recuerdo. You’ll have to bear with me. This menopause stuff is for the birds. I can’t even remember if I took a dump this morning or not.”
“That’s okay,” I shrugged. “I mean, that you don’t remember me. Not that you’re going through menopause. That sucks.”
“Just you wait.” She examined me over the rim of her glasses, tipping her head down, her double chin bulging out like a bullfrog’s. “Before you know it, hot flashes, crankiness, dementia, insomnia.”
“No libido. Dry everything, actually. Hair, skin, the works.”
“Oh, really,” I nodded sympathetically.
“Totally answers the ‘B’ question. You have any?”
“Any what?” I asked.
It would’ve been an innocuous question, if asked by someone else. But from childless, successful Anita Mego to younger, wannabe me, it was a loaded inquiry. Motherhood was viewed by many artists of her generation as the kiss of death to any ‘serious’ career’. Not that my own generation was any clearer on the issue. At thirty-six, I was still clinging to my last few biological clock years, swimming in a gobbledy-gook of imagination, ambition, creative drive, and inertia.
“No,” I finally answered.
“Oh,” she said sprightly, lightened up.
“Oh,” she darkened.
“We haven’t really decided if we want to. My husband and I, that is.”
That was a lie. Milo had wanted to start a family for years, having happily shed his artistic mantle immediately after graduation. “Enough of that,” he had said as we rattled our way south on I-95 in our crappy Toyota truck, away from art school and bound for the first in a series of roach-infested far, far East Village walk-ups. “You can carry the torch for both of us.”
Milo wasn’t simple, but he had simple needs. He was the lucky one, free from the burden of creative aspirations, happy with his well-paying job as head systems administrator for a hot shit, everybody wanted to work there, web-based corporation. I was the unlucky complicator, dragging my ambivalent parenting heels, waiting for a sign from the procreation gods.
Anita snorted. “It’s your life.”
Was it? I wondered. “So, um, please come in.”
“I hope it’s okay that I brought my baby girl,” she said, beaming suddenly.
Holy shit. I had totally misread her. She wasn’t anti-baby. She had a baby. A baby! What did this mean? Should I have answered the ‘B’ question differently? But where was the baby? Maybe she had it hidden under the folds of her poncho?
“Of course it’s okay,” I said. “Where is she? I can’t wait to meet her.”
Anita turned back towards the hallway and called, “Scarlett, come, come girl…thaaat’s it, come to Mama.”
A tiny rat-like dog skittered from around the corner, where it had been doing god knows what in front of my neighbor’s door.
“Oh. A dog,” I said.
Anita grunted as she stooped to scoop Scarlett up, then stood triumphantly, holding the mongrel under her arm like a football. “Is that a problem?”
I thought of my sculptures, fragile little beasts themselves, covering my studio floor.
“No,” I smiled. “Not a problem. Come on in.”
Anita pushed past me into the living room, scrutinizing my belongings as if she were an estate assessor. She picked up a vase, brushed her hand across a lamp shade. She stared up at the chandelier I’d inherited from my grandmother. She examined the collection of tiny clay pots lining the mantle, then repositioned them in a different configuration. She might as well have been plucking out my fingernails.
“Is that an Ethan Argus?” she finally spoke, pointing with her free hand to a carved colorful wall piece, that was, in fact an Ethan Argus.
“Yes,” I said proudly. “My husband bought it for me for my 35th birthday last year. I’m a big fan.”
She shrugged. “Ethan’s always good. But I liked his earlier work better.” Scarlett started wiggling and barking.
“Do you mind if I put her down?” Anita asked.
“I guess, but….“
Anita didn’t wait for my response. She plopped Scarlett down on the shag rug, professionally cleaned two days earlier for the first time in ten years. Scarlett went gaga, rolling around as if the wool fibers were covered in dog pheromones. She twisted and rubbed her bristly little back, spread eagle and panting. Next she flipped over and burrowed her snout so deep in the pile all that remained visible were two pointy, devilish ears.
“She really digs your rug,” Anita giggled.
All I could think of was doggie dandruff and drool.
“Could be because I don’t have any rugs in my loft,” Anita gazed around at my tchotchke-filled home. “Actually. I don’t have much of anything. I’m a minimalist when it comes to home decor. I find it gets in the way of my creative drive.”
I forced a smile. “Shall we go into the studio?”
Anita shrugged. “I’m easy.”
I looked down at Scarlett, who’d resumed back-humping. “Would you mind holding Scarlett while we’re in there? My work is all over the floor.”
“Whatever,” Anita sighed.
“Great! Thanks!” I chirped, hyper-cheerleader, hoping to turn this game around. Anita crouched again. “Come on Scarala. Come to Mama.” Scarlett scurried towards her executing an impressive doggie leap into waiting arms. “That’s my girl. My wooshy, mooshy girl.” Anita closed her eyes and let Scarlett go to town, licking her fleshy cheeks, her chin, her nose, and her loose, rubbery neck.
Blech, I thought as I walked towards my studio. Blech, blech, blech. I expected Anita would get up off her haunches and follow me. She did, eventually, but I had to wait by the studio door for a few awkward minutes while she finished her lovefest and finally rose from the floor.
Earlier that morning, hours before the premature arrival of Anita Mego, while the coffeemaker gurgled and Milo listened to the radio, I headed towards my studio, a spare room at the rear of our apartment. I opened the door slowly, pretending I was about to see my work for the first time. This was one of my pre-studio visit rituals, a mind game that rarely ended well. I don’t know why I kept up with this stupid charade. It was masochistic. Whenever I tried to look at my work with ‘fresh’ eyes, I felt a wash of disappointment.
The door swung open and I gazed at my sculptures. I made tiny figures, each one could fit in the palm of a hand. They were delicate little beings, constructed of glass, feathers, and thin wire. There were hundreds of them arranged like a battalion of toy soldiers on my studio floor.
During her lecture at RISD Anita had said, “Art that is diminutive in scale can have the resonance and power of a nuclear bomb”. It became my mantra. I tore out the page I’d written it on and tacked it to every studio wall I’d had in the intervening years. I planned to show it to Anita later that day. She would be blown away by my loyalty to the cause, fifteen years hence.
“They’re your embryos,” Milo exclaimed. He’d abandoned Morning Edition to join me, slurping his coffee as he looked over my shoulder and down at the floor. “Ours, maybe.”
“Well?” I said.
“Do you think Anita will like my work?”
“Gimme a break,” he groaned and started back towards the kitchen.
“Wait for what?” Milo stopped, but didn’t turn around. “Are you ever going to be ready?”
“Ready for Anita?” I could see the hints of a bald spot. Pink scalp skin, newly naked at the back of Milo’s skull.
His shoulders sagged. “I could give a flying fuck about Anita Mego.” Milo finally faced me, looking tired even though I knew he’d just gotten a solid eight hours of sleep. “I’m talking about babies, Stella. Not art.”
“Your little sculpture dudes are brilliant,” he smiled weakly. “Just holler when you want to make a flesh and blood one.”
I was about to say, ‘Sure, I’ll holler. Soon…Maybe. But Milo had already turned, leaving me knotted, off to start his straight-forward day.
Anita stood in one spot, looked down at my precious battalion and said absolutely nothing. Not a word, good, bad, or indifferent about my sculptures, or anything else, until Scarlett started to squirm in her arms.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Scarlett. What I got, without apology, was, “I could put her out in the apartment while we’re in here.”
Wow, I thought. Anita wants to stay in my studio alone. “Sure,” I said, right back in cheerleader mode. My rug would pay the price, but I was willing to let Scarlett run amok with her odd little doggie urges, while I hopefully got something, anything, from Anita.
Anita put Scarlett down next to one of my favorite figures. The dog sniffed it and immediately knocked it over.
“No, no Scarlett,” Anita said calmly. “We don’t play with the art. You know better than that.”
Better than what? I wanted to yell. She’s just a fucking dog doing what dogs do naturally; sniffing, rubbing, licking. Wreaking havoc.
Anita herded Scarlett towards the door. “Now scoot. Go on. Play out there. Mommy will be done soon.”
Scarlett raced through the apartment, tiny claws click-clicking like castanets on the wood floor.
Anita smiled at me. “Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.”
“She’s adorable,” I lied. She knows exactly where she’s going, I thought. Creepy little alien beast.
“She is, isn’t she? Oy. I need to plotz.” Anita walked to the far end of the studio and collapsed in to my studio chair. She pulled out her iPhone and held it face up in her hand. “I may be getting an important call from Germany. My dealer over there is giving me major agita. Wants me to accept a huge discount on a sale to some Baron Somebody-Somebody. Don’t you hate it when dealers start to pull rank?”
I’d never had a dealer of any nationality. I was a free agent, better known as a nobody. I had nothing to say. I was all out of pep rally enthusiasm, which didn’t matter because Anita was now doing all the talking. She leaned back in the chair letting off bursts of hot air like a slowly deflating Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon. She bitched about the German. She moaned about her lagging overseas sales. She criticized a well-respected female artist of her generation. She trashed a contemporary of mine.
For half an hour she went on and on with no mention of my work, no acknowledgment of the tiny labors of love strewn at her feet. All I got was her wide ass plotzing on my favorite chair, ironically, a chair I’d had in my cubicle studio at RISD at our only other encounter, the encounter Anita had totally forgotten. It was an authentic Saarinen Womb chair I’d bought my sophomore year. A wealthy Brown student was going abroad, hastily divesting of all her worldly goods and so the chair became mine for a song. I’d accumulated other cool stuff over the years, but none of it was ever as good, or worldly, as my beloved chair. The chair that Anita abruptly rose from when she was done venting, pontificating, and blatantly bragging.
“Jesus,” She said looking at the old fashioned alarm clock I kept on a shelf. “Is it really eleven already? I’ve gotta split. Scarlett’s going to the vet. She needs her shots for China. Did I tell you about the retrospective I’m having in Shanghai?”
“No,” I sighed. “You didn’t mention that one.”
Anita almost stepped on one of my pieces as she left the studio. I told myself that if she had, I would’ve raised bloody hell, and not continued in woozy suck-up mode. But she didn’t step on one. And to be honest, I probably would’ve sucked it up anyhow. My desperate art outsider nose was still that ridiculously brown, even after this lame excuse for a studio visit.
“Scarlett,” she called as we approached the living room. “Come to Mama!”
Scarlett poked her head up from behind a sofa cushion. I noticed tufts of white batting attached to her whiskers. We locked eyes, Scarlett’s gaze all guilty teenage shoplifter. You fucking rodent, I screamed inside. You’ve eaten my couch.
Scarlett broke eye contact and bee-lined for Mama. They had another slobbery lovefest, fifth wheeling me to the ozone. I felt like pelting them both with the sea glass I kept in a bowl on my coffee table.
Finally the licking and panting ended. “I gotta pee like a racehorse,” said Anita. “Another menopause affliction. The whole inner apparatus down there shifts in some cockamamy way and puts pressure on your bladder. I’m up at least three times a night. And don’t get me started on what happens if I drink more than one cup of coffee. Where’s your bathroom?”
“It’s in there,” I hiked an unenthusiastic thumb.
Anita thrust Scarlett in my direction. “She has this thing about flushing toilets. They scare her to death, poor little sweetie.”
Scarlett snarled. I could see bits of couch thread stuck between her tiny, shark-like teeth. Anita chuckled. “Maybe I’ll just put her on the floor again.”
“Good idea.” I said through clenched teeth.
Scarlett ran back to the rug as soon as the bathroom door shut. I walked up behind her. She was deep into nose-burrowing, a goddamn shag addict unaware that I was towering over her, eyeing her tiny rump. I inched closer. Scarlett snuffled obliviously, obsessively, undeterred. I waited until I heard the toilet flush and the sink water run. It was something between a kick and a lift. Scarlett flew through the air, like a punted hacky sack. She yelped mid-flight, then landed on her belly with a dull thud. Motionless, her eyes blank, her little doggie legs splayed unnaturally wide like a miniature bear rug.
Honestly? My first thought was; there goes any chance you ever had of being one of Anita’s chosen few. Instead you’ll be the sculptor who killed her Chihuahua. That will be your one and only Art World claim to fame.
But wouldn’t you know it, just as I began feeling overwhelmed with guilt and remorse, Scarlett righted herself. No broken doggie bones, no obvious signs of injury. She stared at me, shivering like she was on an ice floe in Antarctica.
I bared my teeth and growled. Scarlett scrambled under the couch whimpering until Anita returned.
It was a pathetic victory, but one I held onto firmly as I ushered them both out the door and watched as they kerplumbled down the steep steps of my building’s stoop, Scarlett trailing behind Anita at the umbilical end of a lime green leash.
Afterwards, I went back into the studio and sat in my chair, reclaiming my throne. My Anita quote was still tacked to the wall by my window on yellowing paper. Meanwhile, my tiny army stood at attention, awaiting orders. I felt restless, ready to fight, but this wasn’t the battle.
Then I called Milo.
“I’m hollering,” I whispered into the phone. “I’m ready. Can you hear me?”