David Cohen

It’s Saturday Night, Air India Flight 102, JFK to London, and I can’t decide between two worthy tomes: Ruthless Hedonism, by John O’Brian, an account of the reception of Matisse in America, and Eye Witness: Reports From an Artworld in Crisis, by Jed Perl. Truth be told, neither is quite ‘plane reading (which ought by “elemental” right—air vs. sand—to be lighter even than beach reading), and after leafing through The New Yorker, mostly looking at the cartoons (and trying to work out which of the unsigned critical art blurbs are by Alexi Worth and which by Andrea Scott, both friends I’ll want to pick quarrels with about their verdicts), I drift into a restive post-curry doze. I’m off to London, my native city, for a variety of work-related reasons. I want to see two major museum shows (Chardin and Ruskin); I’m starting work with a leading Scottish painter, Jock McFadyen, on a book project; and there’s a slightly tabloid art story I might chase (more later).

Actually, both books are fascinating. I was supposed to review the Matisse by the beginning of the month for a scholarly journal, the Art Bulletin; it looks at how the French painter epitomized both the decadence and purity of modern art to several generations of American opinion. The deadline is beginning to weigh on my conscience, and I don’t want to relegate it just because it is hard work and unpaid. Most reviewers for this journal are real academics, not schizophrenics like myself who yo-yo between gutter journalism and effete scholarship and all points in between. The other neglected Air India read is the latest collection from Jed Perl, critic for the New Republic and one of the more distinctive voices in current American art writing. It’s prep for a live interview I’m doing with him next month at the New York Studio School, part of a series of dialogues I do there called “The Craft of Criticism.” It isn’t heavy reading at all; I’ll get through most of it this week on the Tube.

I was fairly knackered, on the plane, after an overfull day. It was a gorgeous early spring day in New York, and I wanted to catch some shows that won’t be around on my return, rather than just pack or fiddle around at my desk. I met up with Amy Steiner, the photographer, with whom I often do the rounds. It’s good sometimes to pair up with someone of contrastive art temperament, to force oneself to look more intelligently at media that otherwise might elude one’s concentration and to justify one’s own fondness for stuff that could bewilder others. Not that I want to give the impression that Amy is narrow-minded: She has the kind of generous eye we all need in this business, art makers and consumers alike.

She has to drop off some images that will appear in her next show at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in Chelsea. I decide to hold back from any kind of response until I see them in their intended format and scale.

We dash uptown to see some shows on 57th Street: a stunning display of Raphael Soyer, the mid-century American realist, at the Forum Gallery; a sculptor, Timothy Woodman, at Tibor de Nagy: exquisitely crafted, painted “cut out” metal-wall constructions that look to various American forebears (Eli Nadelman, Alex Katz) and treat subjects such as a flock of cyclists or the backs of a woman with an umbrella and her child. My fear with them is that they work too nicely. My aesthetics may sound addled, but I feel the more subtle and observed and tender and humane a work is—and these abound in all these qualities—the less interesting, ultimately, it is as art. A couple of painting shows by artists in very different quarters of the art world strike me as oddly akin: Janet Fish, a doyenne of realists, who paints gaudy, excessive 1960s glassware and party paraphernalia, at DC Moore (a fairly traditionalist gallery); and Will Cotton, who paints obscenely, ridiculously excessive still lifes of fantastical arrangements of melting candy and ice cream. He is showing at the ever-trendy Mary Boone. The kinship between these artists of markedly different aesthetic attitudes would require a review, not a diary entry, to deal with, but as I don’t see it fitting into my schedule, somehow, I’ll just leave it dangling here, in nebulous diaristic shorthand.

The reader is, I hope, going to get a fairly diverse, touristically overloaded week of critical activity, but untypically—and luckily for the narrative—it is a week without deadlines—not counting the Slate “Diary” itself or poor Chris Wood at Yale who entrusted Ruthless Hedonism to my care. I’ll definitely be encountering great art and good people, even if, for the moment, all I can bring to these privileged experiences are barely mediated jet-lagged jottings.