Four Great Books About The Artist in New York
The first in a series of themed book recommendations
By Noreen Tomassi
Reading around a theme is one of a bibliophile's great pleasures. Here's a powerful foursome on art, selected by the Center for Fiction's Executive Director
Spending by Mary Gordon (1999)
From Library Journal: “This novel is a witty and graphically sexy fantasy about money, art, modern mores, and, above all, good physical partnering. At 50, Monica Szabo, New York artist, divorced mother, and teacher, is a well-regarded painter with middling financial success. Suddenly, she acquires a patron, a muse, a lover, and an artist’s model, all in the person of a moneymaking genius. In every way, he supports her latest artistic vision of re-creating classical images of the deposed Christ as post-orgasmic rather than deceased. The commotion surrounding Monica’s Jesus paintings allows the author plenty of room for satiric barbs at contemporary aesthetic and social interest groups, mixed in with the doings of uniformly interesting major and minor characters.”
Chinese Take-Out by Arthur Nersesian (2000)
From Publisher’s Weekly: "A heartfelt, tragicomic bohemian romance with echoes of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Nersesian sends up the pretentiousness and excess of the art world, but without the jeering tone the subject matter usually provokes in satirists. He writes evocatively of the processes and products of the artistic life, and he believes the issues raised by it—realism versus abstraction; money and security versus creativity and passion; the struggle to wrest deathless art from the transience of life, even from a Chinese takeout box ("Or" is commissioned to sculpt a tombstone in that shape for a deceased restaurateur)— are worth pondering. Indeed, the novel itself is a sprawling, obsessively detailed portrait of the Lower East side demimonde during the 2000 election. Infused with the symbolism of Greek Legend, the hip squalor of this milieu takes on a mythic charge that energizes Nersesian’s lyrical celebration of an evanescent moment in the life of the city."
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (2003)
Booklist starred review: "In her third novel, Hustvedt, a sophisticated and alluring writer drawn to the psyche's most convoluted passageways, co-opts New York's competitive and faddish art world for its symbol-laden milieu. Leo Hertzberg, a thoughtful art historian, narrates a measured and mesmerizing tale of passion and tragedy that spans 20 years and involves his wife, Erica, a literary scholar; his close friendship with highly provocative painter Bill Wechsler; and his hidden infatuation with Bill's sexy muse and second wife, Violet, an expert in psychotic disorders associated with women's body images, from nineteenth-century hysterics to contemporary anorexics. The two couples become thickly entwined, and their two sons, Leo and Erica's artistically inclined Matthew, and Mark, the strangely chimerical offspring of Bill and his morbid first wife, seem like brothers. Hustvedt has Leo dwell at length on the quartet's creative pursuits, which enables her to construct a disturbing lexicon of erotic obsessions and intimations of violence as her labyrinthine tale undulates its unnerving way toward abrupt deaths, prolonged grief, and teenage Mark's increasingly inexplicable behavior. By wedding the ordinary torments of family life with the heightened sensibilities of artists and a criminal grotesqueness, Hustvedt ponders the dark side of inheritance and creativity and the crushing burdens of love.
The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment (2005)
Booklist starred review: "Ciment a fine memoirist and novelist, presents a provocative story of art and trespass. Sara, a Lower East Side shopgirl, gets involved with wealthy would-be artist Philip and proves to be a more talented painter than he. This precipitates an erotically charged power struggle interrupted by the devastation of the Depression. Abruptly destitute, they travel to the South Pacific to collect art. Ciment invents a fictional body-art-focused culture, then orchestrates bitterly ironic catastrophes that maroon Sara on the island of Ta’un’uu and force her to take up the needle in lieu of the brush and create not on canvas but on her own skin. By the time a Life reporter tracks her down 30 years later and brings her back to a nearly unrecognizable New York, she, too, has changed beyond all imagining. Ciment covers cross-cultural terrain, creating a remarkably smart and edgy tale laced with sharp insights into time and change, the nature of the self and the significance of art, folly and survival.”
Read next: Harlem Voices.