David Cohen

Enough fun, time for some work—though in this business, as a reader of this “Diary” will divine, there is no hard and fast demarcation between business and pleasure; indeed, it is socializing and gallery-going that throws up ideas and leads to commissions, whereas writing at home or research in a library can almost become self-indulgent. Anyhow, there is no sightseeing planned for this morning; instead it is off to the East End of London to meet with Jock McFadyen, the Scottish realist painter about whom I am to write the main essay for a book being published next year. Jock is about to turn 50, and this is his first full monograph, although there have been plenty of catalogs, some with hot writing by novelists Will Self and Howard Jacobson. Jock has a solid reputation in Britain, hardly a household name, but he is in the right public collections, was an “official war artist” making artist’s impressions of the Berlin Wall, and designed the last ballet by Kenneth MacMillan.

The job this morning is to ferret out a dozen canvases, representative of his career development, which we can then talk about, next week, in a taped interview. Of course, we end up choosing about three-dozen canvases, because once we get down to it there are so many that look different and interesting. I guess this is why I like his work and am happy to be writing about it: He is an artist who takes risks and moves on all the time; he knows his limitations and pushes through them. I like Jock despite his style, not because of it: He is a very gritty realist, with a northern, almost cruel humor that comes out in frankly ghoulish figuration and a delinquent fascination with squalor and disorder. His is an art that compels rather than seduces me. But he is not a plodding or pleading social realist in the least; he is actually an aesthete to his fingertips.

Originally I planned to make the main text interview-based, but during the course of the morning I pretty much decided that was a mistake. There was probably something of a defense mechanism at work when I made the suggestion, as it is easier to hide behind questions than to put one’s full weight into one’s own thoughts and verdicts. The morning has really bolstered my commitment to the project and has gotten me quite excited. We lunch at Pelluci’s, a legendary East End greasy spoon, where I feast on steak and kidney pudding, which Jock’s gritty pictures have put me in the mood for. It’s the kind of food I enjoy about once a year (at most). Jock less often. “It reminds me too much of being Scottish,” he jokes.

In the afternoon I pop into the National Portrait Gallery, really just to see one picture: Leonard McComb’s newly unveiled portrait of Doris Lessing. I know the work well already, as last summer I spent a lot of time in Len’s South London studio, sitting for my own portrait and selecting work for his solo show at the New York Studio School. This happened in January and was reviewed in the New York Times and The New Yorker, but such success only exacerbates my irritation that McComb is not to be included in a forthcoming show at the National Gallery of contemporaries inspired by the old masters (where a lot of dead wood is to be included). McComb deserves the company of his peers, people like Freud and Balthus, who are in the show. Anyhow, I wanted to see how the Lessing hung in the august institution that commissioned it. Well, the painting was still impressive—hieratic and humane in equal measure, subtle, quirky, and moving—but it looked rather forlorn in the random mix of other recent acquisitions. Lessing found herself sandwiched by deathly dull exercises in academic realism and flashy postmodern photographic or collage works (including self-portraits by the gruesome duo Gilbert and George). Admiring the work was like trying to listen to Samuel Barber with an oompah band on one side and the Spice Girls on the other. My mood changes rapidly, from the optimism of the McFadyen project—from the feeling that through my writing and influence I’ll make a solid though unspectacular reputation a little firmer—to despair at the possibility that the art I really care for can ever find the significant audience I feel it deserves.

This melancholy doesn’t last long; it’s not in my nature. I dine at the Chelsea Arts Club with Lino Mannocci, an expatriate Italian painter who for me exemplifies the epicurean life: living in the moment, avoiding pain, valuing friendship, realizing the irrelevance of celebrity. He makes exquisite, highly personal, idiosyncratic works that will never make headlines, will always find buyers appreciative of their delicacy, if nothing else about them, but will secretly amaze a few fellow epicureans with their contained poetic energy. For those of us who can’t afford the Morandi we catch a glimpse of walking home from the Chardin exhibit, a Lino Mannocci etching is enough to be getting on with.