David Cohen

Despite what my author bio says, I have been out of London since last October, so I missed the opening of the new Jubilee Line Tube stations. Rumors have been reaching me of their architectural wonder. So, this morning, off I went sightseeing, like a good tourist, and I can indeed report that Sir Norman Foster’s Stratford East at the end of the line is one of the finest pieces of modern architecture in this country. Dr. Johnson is reported to have said that the man bored of London is bored of life. Well, that certainly isn’t me. I’ll always be married to London, but I’ve been having a pretty heavy affair with New York these last few years; in fact, we recently found a love nest. This makes me acutely aware of any differences between my two cities: in relation not only to their separate pasts but to their futures, too. I must confess that London is better at tarting herself up these days than New York.

Anyhow, an infatuation with modernist architecture is one of the pulls of New York for me, the dynamism of its verticality and the audacity that marked its design heyday. But for reasons I have yet to fathom, Gotham City seems to have lost the stomach for audacious building craft. There are still whoppers going up, but they are all dressed up (or down, rather) in dowdy brown brick and worthless, unachieved decoration. I am not a dogmatic modernist: I love the wild and canonless eclecticism of the early ‘scrapers, but whether the style is severe or whimsical, it has to have style. And another thing: New York has given up on grand projects. The gap between private wealth and public squalor ever widens. It is hard to believe there isn’t the will in such a dynamic city for, say, a high-speed rail link between Grand Central and JFK, or Penn and Newark (as there now is between Paddington and Heathrow in London) with occasions for radical new designs at each end by the likes of Frank Gehry or Richard Meier to make the stations themselves destinations for tourists as Stratford was for me this morning. I’ll stop on this subject right now because—to return to that politically incorrect analogy—there’s the danger of complimenting the wife’s cooking to my new girlfriend.

I’ve got a bit of a dilemma that relates in a way to my Tale of Two Cities predicament. I’m not usually one for journalistic sleuthing, but a story has landed in my lap. It involves an American artist who is convinced that a young Brit has ripped him off. No, it is not Bruce Nauman, the pioneer conceptualist, who has suddenly woken up to Rachel Whiteread making a career out of one of his ideas. Nor is it artist and editor Walter Robinson having another go at Damien Hirst for appropriating his spiral splash paintings. This time it involves relative unknowns. In 1997, Roxy Paine exhibited a contraption he had made the previous year that he calls Paint Dipper. You could describe it as a work of art that makes art. It consists of a steel apparatus that lowers a canvas into a vat of white paint to varying predetermined depths that are computer controlled. The resulting painting is a minimalist “monochrome” with stalagmites of congealed dripping paint at its base. It is not really my kind of art because of the degree to which it relies on a gimmick and is obsessively “about” painting rather than being painting. At a certain level, it is a joke about art and creativity, but I do like the extent to which the artist has left room for actual artistry within an otherwise rather deconstructive effort. Anyway, the piece was reviewed in the New York Times and the Village Voice, and photographs of it were posted on various Internet magazines, including Zing and Artnet, where they can still be seen. Last year, a young British artist, Natasha Kidd, exhibited a piece she calls Microswitch in the prestigious curated survey “New Contemporaries,” at various public venues. It consists of a steel easel-like structure that mechanically lowers a canvas into a Perspex vat of white paint and then pulls it out again, dripping, to produce a white canvas with paint stalagmites underneath it.

“Synchronicity” was the word that American-born London-based artist Susan Hiller, a curator of “New Contemporaries,” used when Mr. Paine contacted her.

And of course it might be just that. Thing is, says Mr. Paine, he did it first, and he therefore expects Ms. Kidd quietly to withdraw her piece. On the contrary, however, she has been taken up by an upcoming dealer, Pippy Houldsworth, and is having a solo show next week, with Microswitch, turning out its monochromes before viewers’ very eyes, as its centerpiece. Roxy Paine will also be showing in London, as he is included in a group show at the Serpentine Gallery, but with a completely different kind of work. There’ll be no battle of the paint dippers, therefore—unless, perhaps, a British-born New York-visiting art critic wants to run something by a London newspaper?

It’s a droll story, though with possible sad reflections on both artists, and there are interesting issues about authorship and originality in idea-based art. So where’s the dilemma? This has to do with another subplot, of London vs. New York. Flitting between the two cities, at ease in both, do I want to cast myself as the champion of a wronged artist in Brooklyn and the challenger to a rising British star? I’ll sleep on it.