The art world's egos and inspirations

May 05, 1994|By Daniel Grant | Daniel Grant,Special to The Sun

There are a number of reasons Barbaralee Diamondstein is able to entice so many big-name artists and art dealers, as well as museum curators and directors, to talk candidly on the record. She has the needed clout to command everyone's attention. A trustee at both the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington and the New York Historical Society, chairwoman of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Foundation, well-connected in the federal government, she is someone everyone wants to know.

There's another reason that 36 art world movers and shakers -- such as artists Chuck Close, Jenny Holzer, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, dealers Larry Gagosian, Arnold Glimcher and Holly Solomon, museum directors J. Carter Brown, Thomas Krens, Phillippe de Montebello and Earl Powell -- talk so freely with her: pure flattery.

"You have been known for your charm, for your generosity with artists and with friends," she begins one question to New York City art dealer Leo Castelli. To J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, she asks: "What influenced your decision to shift the museum in this new and noteworthy direction?"

Whether it is the buttering-up questions or something else, Ms. Diamondstein clearly puts these big shots at ease, which is evident in the relaxed tone and candor of their answers. Ms. Holzer notes that she transferred from Duke University to the University of Chicago in the belief that there were fewer liberal arts requirements at Chicago (she was mistaken), "and a guy I was in love with was leaving Duke. Those were [among] my reasons. Some of them were bad."

Mr. de Montebellos, director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, seems to puff out his chest when he announces: "I am quite decisive and I do not shirk confrontation -- I rather like confrontation, in fact -- and I can make very tough decisions, and many decisions at once, which a museum director must be able to do."

Artists Jeff Koons and Barbara Kruger both noted an indebtedness to the singer Patti Smith -- for glamorizing the New York City club scene, for Mr. Koons (which drew him to the city and away from Chicago); and for the poetry of her lyrics in Ms. Kruger's case -- in giving shape to their careers. While discussing what it means to be an artist in moment of self-examination, Ms. Kruger states: "Most people who have the luck to call themselves artists in this culture are people who have the time and ability to objectify their experience of the world, and most of those people have been privileged white people, you know."

It is interesting that, on the whole, the artists interviewed tend to be much more humble, and willing to reveal personal foibles and professional wrong-turns, than the dealers and museum professionals. Who can imagine Philippe de Montebello talking like Ms. Kruger about privileged white men?

When asked about his first years in the United States working for his father-in-law in the textile industry, Leo Castelli responds quickly, "Oh, well, let's forget about that," adding that "I gave up trying to understand what it was all about, being much more involved all along with the art world."

"Inside the Art World," which is Ms. Diamondstein's 18th book, doesn't do certain things. Artists don't end up explaining their art, for readers who might be baffled, and dealers and museum heads don't reveal how they make sales, achieve notoriety or rise to the top of their professions. Instead, they reveal themselves as individuals, all of whom found something in art that intrigued them, pursuing that interest as a career. It is of interest to read how many seriously contemplated other careers.

The question-and-answer format does become tiring after a while, and the Barbara Walters-like question -- "Are these the best years of your life?" -- that is posed to most of the artists never elicits a particularly interesting answer from anyone.

One might like an essay by Ms. Diamondstein that interprets or sums up what she heard or what might be said about the art world. That is to say, this is all very insiderish without being terribly informative. Yet, the book is comforting and enjoyable, without the jargon that makes so many people's eyes glaze over, and in a conversational tone that humanizes both the art and the art institutions.

Mr. Grant writes frequently about the arts. He lives in Amherst, Mass.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Inside the Art World: Conversations With Barbaralee Diamondstein -- Artists, Directors, Curators, Collectors, Dealers"

Author: Barbaralee Diamondstein

Publisher: Rizzoli

Length, price: 277 pages, $39.95

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