Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Art Memories Inspired by Reading Molly Prentiss's "Tuesday Nights in 1980," a Wonderful Novel Out Today.

When I was living in New York in the 1980s, my friend Michael introduced me to the Gallery Girls, two of his friends that were part of the city's art scene. It was hard not be part of it, even for someone who still secretly felt shamed by the "Bridge and Tunnel" label given to someone who grew up in an outer borough like Queens. Working at a publishing house and still being connected to friends from college, you'd get invited to various openings, and our work ID got into a lot of museums, like MOMA, which were otherwise quite expensive for a publicity assistant.

I could only imagine what life was like as an artist. I took a painting class in summer school where my greatest work was a portrait of Wilma Flintstone, with Fred looking on from a distance. There's a slot for that sort of thing nowadays but at the time it was just seen as immature, and it's true that I really, really, really liked the Flintstones. I looked for the painting, which I had stored in my parent's basement, but alas, my dad had tossed it some years before.

And then in college, I took one studio art class from Professor Boghosian, sort of a last desperate attempt at being visually creative. I remember one project where we colored in maps to hone our design sense. Instead of complimenting my work, he would instead quiz me about Joseph Cornell, and whether I had lived near his home studio on Utopia Parkway. It turned out that the answer was no, but he was pretty close to my pediatrician, who, due to a years-long regimen of allergy shots, was a regular visit. But that class did not reveal any innate talents that lay dormant. Hey,  my professor has a Wikipedia entry!

But I do like reading about art. Last year we had a good run on The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World, which is now in paperback. It's a survey of the art world by Roger White, which was not necessarily only because one chapter was set in the Milwaukee DIY art scene, though it certainly got me to read it. It was a pleasant surprise that I knew one of the dealers who featured in the story, another fellow from college who dated a friend of mine. I think we also took a class together, but as has come up in the past (when I hosted an author who was my classmate in freshman Russian), my memories get a little blurry. But I remembered Nick and it was nice to read that he'd done well.

So there I was at the BEA (Book Expo) convention last spring, piling up books to read, excited about what is to come. I had already had that HarperCollins visit where I was shown The Nest, and now I was meeting my friend at Simon and Schuster, Wendy, for breakfast. Wendy is a former bookseller, and in fact, the first time I met her was just after she learned her bookstore was closing. I later went though that transition myself and now we are in a good place - she tells me what to read and when I can, I read it. It was on that morning that I discovered that New York was obsessed with avocado toast. Until then, I was oblivious.

She handed me a bound manuscript, knowing that it's still pretty impossible to get me to read electronic galleys. The book was Tuesday Nights in 1980, a first novel by Molly Prentiss. As you'll read in my writeup (yes, this is a long introduction, as sometimes I like to ramble on a theme), the book is about an artist, a critic, and a muse, and while at that point, I was getting into galleys, I was certainly wandering the neighborhood, shopping for strangely colored carpenter pants at Canal Jeans, the emporium that is now Bloomingdale's southern outpost and once had a lot of galleries, but have now moved to another neighborhood where there were meat packers and rather raunchy gay bars. I swear, Am I sounding like an elderly crank? Good.

I didn't even know at the time that this is the 40th anniversary of Argentina's Dirty War, which factors into the story. All I remembered was that I was reminded a bit of Nathan Englander's (only) novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, which I'm happy to say we have in stock right now, so I'm linking to it. I would love for someone to read it, as would Conrad, who is a big fan. You can put it on hold through our website, and you don't even have to register to do this.

So that said, I should probably include my recommendation of Molly Prentiss's Tuesday Nights in 1980. Here it is: "An art critic whose reputation for creative insight is built on his own synesthesia. An Argentine artist hoping to make it as a painter, having fled not just the country’s Dirty War but a bad family situation is on the cusp of discovery. A young high-school grad escapes rural Idaho, and like the others, finds herself in the center of the downtown New York art scene and becomes the third point in a very complicated triangle. Prentiss captures that moment in time when New York’s downtown art scene was about to explode from social experiment to big business. Her fictional characters vie with the real artists sprinkled through the story for how larger than life a person can be. She also does a deft job balancing internal musings with some rollercoaster plot twists, and the Big Apple details have a Technicolor intensity. I’m not sure I agreed with a few of the structural tics, but on the other hand, how can you have a novel about an art scene without some stylizing? It’s a compelling and passionate read, perfect for anyone who enjoyed The Flamethrowers or Ten Thousand Saints." (Daniel Goldin)

When I read the book, which feels like a long time ago, a copy editor wrote that Idaho was in the Midwest, which I'm sure was long since corrected. Being that in yesterday's newsletter, we spelled Pegi Christiansen's name wrong, and listed the Barbara Rinella Services lunch as benefitting something other than Ozaukee Family Services, I am completely forgiving. Here's another shout out for the brunch, featuring Barbara Rinella as Beryl Markham on May 11.

While Carly is now archiving elsewhere, I am including her review of Tuesday Nights in 1980 as well, which she wrote as a Boswellian. "Gallery shows and creative gatherings mark Tuesday nights in New York City in the year 1980, where artists, critics, observers, and loyal fans join up and celebrate art in the midst of unrelenting gentrification and urban transformation. James Bennett, an oddball art critic with overwhelming synesthesia, and Raul Engales, a young Argentinian exile whose paintings are on the cusp of being discovered, abruptly cross paths when they realize they share a muse, a beautiful girl from Idaho named Lucy who is struggling to make ends meet in the big city. Layered with detailed backstories and cultural references that truly set the 1980s scene, Tuesday Nights in 1980 is an inventive debut that will appeal to art lovers, urban spelunkers, and postmodern readers." (Carly Lenz wrote the review. That's Molly Prentiss's author photo at left - photo credit Elizabeth Leitzell.)

Tuesday Nights in 1980 is officially out today, as is a veritable truckload of new titles. It's Boswell's Best for at least the next two weeks. And since I read the book so long ago, I will just note that it has stayed with me a long time, and you know something? I liked it so much that I wouldn't mind reading it again.

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