The New York art world is a far-reaching network of secrets and sham, buying and selling, and of course, schmoozing. As a New York artist who schmoozes once in awhile on a small scale, I decided it was time for me to schmooze at the high end of the art world and attend an American Art auction at the world-famous Sotheby’s. I was escorted on first visit by a very informed collector of American Art.
Located on the Upper East Side, the 490,000-square-foot Sotheby’s has a good looking, but not overly grand facade. Walking through the revolving doors and into the large foyer, a guard greets you warmly. The space is clean and minimal and feels elegant. There is a sleek and polished Ferrari, regally displayed on a round pedestal (for an international Ferrari auction to be held soon.) Sotheby’s Wine store is also in the lobby. It has the look of a walk in wine cellar, its neat rows of wine are displayed elegantly. According to Decanter magazine (seems like a reliable source) Sotheby’s full-service store offers “a range of fine wines at competitive prices, from $13.95 to $40,000 per bottle.” Yikes.
Potential art collectors are offered “the resources of Sotheby’s Financial Services” because, frankly, you’ll have to refinance your house to pay for this art. It’s fair to guess that when bidding starts at $80,000 it’s not coming home with me. But I didn’t come to bid. I came to behold. We had prepared by stopping by the day before to check out the collection for today’s auction. This morning, we arrived a half hour before the start of the auction and even got a bid number. We headed up to the seventh floor, where a pretty diverse, but sparse group was seated in the auction room. Apparently, I thought, there’s not a lot of interest in American Art right now. But then I learned that you can decide which art you want to bid on and come later, so you don’t have to sit through the whole thing. We picked up some free coffee and a scone from the food cart outside the auction hall. Seated next to some new friends we had met the day before, we browsed the catalog. There must be a lot of people with money to burn. Earlier this year, a Basquiat painting sold here at auction for 110 MILLION DOLLARS.
I had wondered earlier if I should dress up. Heels? Maybe nylons? (except I didn’t have any.) This is Sotheby’s. It’s the Upper East Side. Deciding that anything I picked wouldn’t measure up, anyway, I dismissed the idea in favor of my usual ‘Arty’ Look – black jeans (because that’s all I really own.) It ended up being a good call, as this crowd was definitely casual. Except for a couple guys in suits, it could have been a movie theater crowd. A few baseball caps, a construction worker type guy, a row of neatly dressed Korean students with notepads and pens, and a guy who I was pretty sure I had seen outside earlier asking for spare change. People you wouldn’t suspect may have deep pockets – or the ability to re-finance. The hall was not particularly large. On either side of the podium were phone banks, like the Jerry Lewis Telethon. The phones were landlines with curly cords. People were already on the phones, preparing, ready to place bids for their customers on the other end. Exciting!
The auction began precisely at 10 a.m. The young auctioneer (in a suit and bow tie) took his place behind the podium. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” A painting was displayed on screens above and to his left. The less expensive watercolors went first, taking up an hour or so, before moving on to the more desirable oils. The good stuff comes out. “Lot number 108. Bidding will start at $80,000,” he announces casually. Now the phone bank begins to heat up, all in communication with their buyers. “Bid!” says one, raising her hand. She was outbid, raises her hand again. An internet bidder from who-knows-where was outbidding her. Taking a cue from her buyer, she demurs from further bidding. $95,000… $125,000… $155,000. At this point, the bidding begins to slow down. The auctioneer surveys the room. “I can sell at one hundred and fifty-five thousand.” He says dragging the words out slowly, firmly, looking from one side of the room to the other. “Last chance.” Glancing toward one of the telephone bidders from whom he senses interest, he asks gently, “Terry, can we make it a round number?” Terry smiles, curly cord phone to her ear and her hand covering the mouthpiece, listening intently. Then she raises her hand, pointing upwards. “160,000!” he says with delight. “Do I hear $165? $165……fair warning…” and with aplomb, he raises his arm, gavel in hand, and with the distinctive crack of the wood he pronounces it “SOLD for $160,000! Thank you, Terry. Our next item for bid..”
The year my dad moved out, my mom gave me one pair of wool pants for Christmas. Of course, being a kid, I was utterly disappointed, but I figured we didn’t have much money. I didn’t want to be ungrateful. We lived in a small, old house on a block with other old houses. There were only a couple other kids who lived in the neighborhood and since I was too shy to join their games, I played by myself. I had my own bedroom and the bathroom was in the basement, which always seemed very chilly. It had a little square shower. I found it too creepy though, because I saw centipedes there once.
Being an only child was unusual in the small catholic school I had to attend. I was pretty sure the nuns hated me because I came from a single parent home. Divorce was a sin and my mother the sinner. Thus, I was also. I admired kids who had two parents. Mary lived on the other side of the tracks, where the professors at the university rented big, beautiful homes. She was one of 7 children and her dad was a successful owner of a foundry. He seemed to be home a lot, reading his paper and actually laughing and conversing with his kids. There were cookies and milk in the kitchen after school and her mom wore one of those crispy aprons with bright red apple designs on it. She was like June Cleever. I loved going over after school, even though it meant a couple mile walk back home. My mom wasn’t waiting with cookies when I got home. She left for work at 6 in the morning and got back around 4 and was very tired. I was alone most of the time. I would pretend I had lots of brothers. We all watched tv and talked and laughed.
Some people avoid being alone, but I’m used to my own company. I play well with others but I’ve convinced myself that I like being alone just fine, thanks. The art of aloneness is well played here in New York and is normal. Some days, though, I’m convinced everyone in the city is paired up. I saw two rats meandering down the F train rails together yesterday…even the rats here have significant others. A great irony about living in New York is feeling so distant when there are six million people all around you, like a Hopper painting where lonely, isolated souls seem to search for a sense of connection. Earlier this summer I was walking through Washington Square Park, an urban oasis with street musicians, jugglers, mimes, people spray painted to look like statues. A saxaphone player and a guy with a small set of drums set up on the edge of a wide sidewalk and started playing. Heads turned. People stopped. Some sat on one of the many benches that line the walk, some talked with each other, with strangers. For a brief time, none of us was alone, we had a community and a connection. After awhile, people wandered off for some other places, new people drawn to the music became a part of the little tribe.
New York has many monikers: Big Apple, The City That Never Sleeps, The City So Nice They Named It Twice. It’s also been called The Lonely City. It can be. But it can also challenge you to look for and accept the many possibilities for connecting with strangers. I’ve been doing this alone thing for a long time. I’ve discovered this is the perfect city for it.
Washington Square Park usually has some kind of music. These guys set up on the path one summer day and played a long set.
The news is making me crazy lately. Apparently it’s affecting other people too, because lately I see a lot of women dressed as clowns. At least I think they’re clowns, I can’t be sure. They seem self assured and they don’t have clown hair, but there’s something about them…it’s a fashion thing.
I remember in the 60’s, our bell bottom pants were so long they’d get caught underneath our platform shoes, causing some nasty headers (not that I would know.) The new clown lady bell bottoms are very, very – extremely – wide, and they’re short. It’s rude to stare, which is why I always wear sunglasses on the train. I saw one of the clowns yesterday. She was standing, as the train was crowded, which gave me a perfect vantage point. Even the most delicate and beautiful ankle appears scrawny and pale in these short, billowy trousers. And insult to injury, they’re always paired with ankle boots or even dress pumps. If these pants could talk they’d scream, “This is just wrong!” Do I sound old and crotchety?
There are so many, um..unusual ways of dressing here in New York. That’s a great thing about this city. Seventh Avenue (Fashion Ave) is right here. I see hundreds of people every day, and I do appreciate self expression through personal attire, tho I mumble snarky stuff (to myself) like, ‘geez, what the hell is that?!’ which old people have been saying forever. I bet Aristotle muttered about kids and the provocative drape of their garments. Every year, new, totally unaffordable and unwearable fashions are paraded out and we (and by we I mean women) toss last year’s Salmon Bisque Pink for this year’s Kelp Green because someone on 7th Avenue said so. And being the age I am, I’ve seen a lot of fashion comings and goings: shoulder pads, leg warmers, fanny packs, Qiana. They all come back again. (Tho I’m skeptical about a return of Qiana.)
No one would mistake me for a fashion icon. I wear stuff I had in high school – and I’m old. I was afraid of the New York fashion scene when I arrived here a couple years ago. I thought the whole city would be totally tricked out, but that’s not the case. You can find everything here, but you don’t have to dress up and most people don’t. As long as it’s black, you’ll fit in. Due to my fortunate love of black and the fact that everything in my closet is black, I’m a real New Yorker.
I’d suggest this mumbling is probably because I don’t dress fun anymore and I really wish I could. I think when you’re over a certain age, you just look kind of nuts when you wear kooky clothes. Trends wax and wane, I will continue to stare and mumble, wearing my skinny black jeans when those in the know advise me to wear clown pants.
“You gotta come!” my son-in-law pleaded, referring to the big women’s march down Fifth Avenue to Trump Tower. Frankly, I was planning to be in solidarity with my sisters from the comfort of my cozy apartment. I was not really interested in standing in the cold. And, even as a child of the ’60s, I am not convinced these protests can effect real change.
But I agreed to make a sign as my contribution to the cause. We sat on the fluffy rug in their living room creating our signs from unfolded cardboard boxes. My son-in-law suggested Bad Comb Over and decided that since I’m an artist, I ought to make it. So I wrote Bad Comb Over in black marker with some straggly blonde hairs draped over the O. My work was done, no need to actually march or anything.
Son-in-law had been busy texting, assembling a small, resolute group to convene on 47th and Third Avenue. I was starting to feel a slight pressure to go. A convergence of extraordinarily different people from all over, marching together in fellowship down Fifth Avenue! Geez… I decided I would need to go. I mean, it’s history. I’d stay home and wonder all day long how it was going and why I wasn’t there. Plus, as a mother, I needed to go to keep my daughter from getting crushed in the stampede, like when those nightclubs get crowded and people go crazy. If I was sitting at home and there was a stampede, I would feel really terrible.
The train was overflowing, people carrying signs and men and women wearing pink hats. We got off at Grand Central and walked east toward the march, amid great crowds, tho we were still several blocks from the planned route. We stood on the corner of 45th and Third waiting for our group to arrive and ate a traditional New York breakfast sandwich- The BEC – from a little diner on our corner. It was chilly. Clearly I wasn’t dressed well. We all expected 50 degrees but it was considerably colder than that, and cloudy. But the atmosphere was warm, jubliant. Friends arrived and we headed uptown (meaning we turned to face uptown, but no one was actually moving.) Anyone who dared venture out in their car was going nowhere. Might as well get out and leave it on the street, there was nowhere to go. Streets were closing all over the place, the crowd was on the sidewalks and curb to curb. A great clatter of laughter and chanting and talking filled the streets. We were a giant colorful carpet of bodies, moving inch by inch, well, mostly standing still, but happily chanting, “Hands Too Small! Can’t Build a Wall!” and raising our signs. So many families, dads carrying kids on their shoulders, old people, babies…amazing. A sea of signs waved back and forth, mostly written on cardboard, some looking pretty professional: “Melania: Blink Twice If You Want Us To Save You,” “Super Callous Fascist Racist Extra Braggadocious,” and a 20-something guy, smiling and carrying one that read, “Men Are Overrated.”
The day got long (5+ hours of very slow walking) but it was exhilarating. I’m happy I had a small role in it and got to spend the whole day with my daughter and son-in-law. I’ve never been a part of anything as large and momentous. To me it’s doubtful to have an impact on the people in charge, but as son-in-law stated, “you have to do something!” So we did. And there were no stampedes.