Carmen Firan

 (USA)

Concession

Like most sculptors, he could have tried his hand at so-called decorative art: busts, statues, fake columns, flower baskets, little angels – or, reaping an even better profit, garden sculpture: giant cast-iron frogs, fountains, stone-tableau of deer, scary lions, or dramatic birds, little boys peeing or reading a bronze book on a cast iron bench – to please the taste of the rich Americans who pay big bucks to decorate their homes and backyards.  Sasha, however, continued to sculpt what he pleased only for himself and for the joy of his friends.

 

Viewing the work was a ritual, just like in Russia. It was, in fact, a Russia transported to New York, since you had the impression that everyone had escaped back here, with their customs and everything. You could hear their accent all over the place.

 

His friends, most of them immigrant artists themselves, showed up at his studio, ate eggplant salad, marinated mushrooms, and herring with onion and boiled potatoes, and drank vodka.  They talked late into the night, nostalgically recalling how horrible life had been under communism and at the same time how great it had been, a paradox only Eastern European immigrants could understand, and this only when they were honest with themselves.


Here, as it had been in Russia, their art was in a kind of underground. If over there you had to resist political censorship, to stay far away from the mutilation of art during the socialist realist period, here you had to battle the ignorance that results from freedom of expression, culminating in kitsch and commercially driven taste. The monumentality of Stalinism, so despised in the East, found many disciples here. Being easily confused with grandeur, it satisfied the needs of this world of gigantic dimensions, its majesty and triumph.


Sasha was content with what he was doing. He went through powerful blue periods, with melancholy moments of sadness and sentimentality when recalling the vast Russian taiga. He had a reddish beard and blue eyes, big hands and even bigger appetite for life. He managed to survive somehow from his small studio in Brooklyn, without sorrow for the past or plans for the future. 

 

His wife complained a lot about his failure to promote his work, his lack of interest in making himself understood and inability to lure American buyers. “You have to accept, to make some concessions, learn to compromise, for God’s sake, what’s so wrong with that? We need to live, all things considered!” Eventually, she left him for a successful businessman who liked big bronze frogs – he ordered three to decorate his large garden.

 

You don’t have to be an immigrant, an artist without a public, or a divorced man to experience on a rainy Sunday afternoon moments of uncertainty and dread, to feel loneliness crushing in on you, to lie in bed, the phone on your chest, waiting for it to ring; to open your address book, leafing aimlessly from letter to letter in search of someone you might call at that impossible hour, someone who would also be interesting and intelligent, who could tell the difference between a bad case of the flu and a mere common cold.

 

So he called Victor, an essayist with a talent for writing who couldn’t get a publisher yet. Usually on Sunday afternoons he read or translated from the Russian romantics, and only after dusk was he drunk enough to compose his surrealistic poetry.

 

This time he was watching a Fellini movie. Sasha began to complain about this and that, saving his pet peeve for the end; it was really bugging him: his age crisis, his inability to sell… Victor heard him out patiently, then offered him just enough sympathy to dry up some of the dramatic complains pouring out of him, then gently led him to neutral territory, and fell into clichés.

 

 “Do you know how many people are on Prozac in this country? Do you see how many talk to themselves on the street? The alienation in big cities is not just the title of a soap opera. Well, you’re in the most powerful city of all. You need time to attune yourself to its madness, its magic. But you’re in the right place.”

 

Sasha grumbled. He had heard this speech about New York over and over. Victor sensed his disappointment and changed his tone.

 

 “After all, it’s just a rainy Sunday. They’re the same everywhere.”

 

He was clearly eager to return to Fellini.

 

 “We, the exiled ones, are built like nomads, we dream in atrophied languages, and, naturally, sometimes we’re overwhelmed by a sort of uselessness, a kind of fatigue. The search is never over, especially when you think that you’ve found what you’re looking for. Stop thinking. Even this exile can be simplified somehow. Some are meant to leave, just as others are meant to stay. And the one who leaves is not necessarily the one who’s having a hard time in his native land, and the one who stays is not necessarily the privileged one. We’re wanderers. But something might come out of our drifting after all…”

 

Sasha wasn’t following him anymore. He was sick of theories. Out the window he watched Bedford Avenue completely deserted that Sunday afternoon. The rain had cleaned everything, the pavement sparkled, and the people had disappeared. Only a few cabs drove by, and, occasionally, the siren of an ambulance made soothing sounds for him, obscuring Victor’s voice. A Korean arranged flowers in vases in the small corner deli. A gray, violet light reflected off the glass of the Thai restaurant across the street. An old homeless person pushed a supermarket cart filled with empty plastic bottles. A sort of languor overcame him.

He heard Victor telling him imperatively:

 

 “Go out, wrap some works and show them to a Gallery. I’m serious. Did you ever try? There are dozens in uptown Manhattan. Start with these. You’ll see, you’ll feel better. What have you to loose? They might be interested, you never know.” 

 

After living in New York for a while, Victor had moved a few years ago to a college in California, where he taught art history. From time to time he would come back east to give a lecture or to attend a translators’ seminar, and then he and Sasha would talk for hours, chain-smoking and reminiscing about the old country, where no one gave a hoot about the ozone layer, cholesterol, jogging, fitness, body-building, or anything of the sort. No pressing concern there to have one’s annual check-up. Back then life was a long, satisfying conversation over glasses of vodka or any cheap – but strong – alcohol, and overflowing ashtrays.

 

“Listen to me, why don’t you go right now? Go and show them some real work, man!”

Like a robot, Sasha shoved his portfolio under his arm, wrapped three sculptures in blankets, and went to the subway. He went uptown to the galleries that Victor insisted he knew were interested in contemporary art.

 

The first place he saw made a good impression. Both rooms had works by Chagall, Matisse, and Picasso, while in the center were some small sculptures by Diego Giacometti and Henry Moore. Perfect, thought Sasha; and after strolling leisurely through the rooms, he took advantage of the fact that he was the only visitor and approached the elderly lady behind the beautiful rosewood desk who seemed to be in charge.


« Sir? », the lady said to him before Sasha had time to open his mouth.


« It’s a very beautiful gallery, » began Sasha awkwardly

.
« It’s British! » she apostrophized, as though British were a synonym for « very beautiful. »


« Of course, British, I realize that », Sasha stuttered, smiling in order to break the ice.


« Sir, I have work to do, » she replied, barely moving her thin lips.

 

“If there’s nothing else I can do to help you, then please excuse me… »


« I’m an artist as well » Sasha jumped in.


The lady’s face grew icy.


« Sculptor. »


« So?”


She looked bored as she picked up a cup of antique English porcelain and sipped her tea. Sasha unwrapped two of the statues and placed them on the British Desk.

« As a matter of fact, I’d like to show you some work. »


« Why? »


« You might be interested. »


« I’m only interested in the dead. Certainly you must have noticed that we only exhibit the dead here. »


« Don’t you think you’re limiting your public? »


« Public? »


« The buyers, I mean. »


« We’re not interested in what you call buyers. We have our clientsThey
prefer the dead. They are the only secure investment. »


« And you don’t want to discover new artists, still in the prime of their power, or at the height of their artistic potential? Perhaps they too would one day be a profitable investment, don’t you think? »


« That day you’re referring to comes only after they’ve passed into the
next world. »


« Ma’am, it’s not like that. There are plenty of famous artists who are still
alive, very highly valued, and whose pieces are bought by agents and collected by galleries. »


« Perhaps, but I’m not aware of any. Our gallery isn’t interested in them. »


« Please forgive my insisting, but you can’t base your entire collection on the dead ».


« That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for forty years, sir. »


« Well, then since I’m alive, what do you expect me to do ? »


« That’s your problem, sir. I’m sorry I can’t help you. »


Sasha returned her strange look, wrapped up his pieces, which the lady hadn’t even bothered to politely look at, thanked her, and left. The cool spring wind filled his massive chest, billowed his long hair and reddish beard. He lit a cigarette and felt powerful and healthy. He loved New York in the spring, despite the withered ladies hidden in British galleries of the Upper West Side, who took an interest in you only if you were dead. And he had no desire to commit suicide. Not today.


He went into another gallery, which was surely American after the look of the woman behind the window. The young lady inside smiled incessantly and had a square plastic water bottle next to the catalogues on her desk. She wore comfortable, practical shoes that allowed her to spend the day on her feet, sauntering from one room to the next, handing out information, engaging visitors in conversations, acting distractedly amiable. When you spoke to her she looked at you but wasn’t there. She smiled at you but didn’t understand exactly what you were asking. She stared through you into the void with an exaggeratedly amiable manner.


« Hi! Can I help you? »


Sasha unwrapped his pieces and set them on the desk one by one. The woman smiled encouragingly.


« I am an artist. Sculptor. I was thinking you might be interested in my work. »


« O great, great! Where are you from? »


 » Russia. »


« Wonderful. Fabulous. »


« Would you like to take a look at my portfolio? These are some of the pieces I‘ve made in the last three years. »


« Certainly. Oh, they’re fabulous. Great. »


« I have others like them in bronze. »


« Hmm, hmm. Cool. »


« What do you think? »


« They’re really…interesting, » she said, even before she had time to look. « I like this wolf,  » she continued, running her hand over one of the pieces Sasha had set next to her square plastic water bottle.

 

« It’s a wolf, right? »


« Yes, a wolf », said Sasha, happily.


He also liked this piece very much. He turned it to face the woman, who continued to study it thoughtfully. Sasha was excited. Something was about to happen.


« Bronze? »


« Certainly, bronze. »


« Well, you know, I might just have a buyer for it. »


« Great. It would be great… » Sasha’s eyes sparkled.


« There’s just one a little problem, I hope it won’t bother you too much…
Can I make a suggestion? »


« Certainly, certainly », Sasha encouraged her, feeling like he would promise her anything.


« Could you add a little girl? »


« A little girl? »


« You know, like in Little Red Riding Hood. I wanted to say it, but I thought it might shock you. Could you sculpt a Little Red Riding Hood next to the wolf? »


« Ma’am, miss, I don’t understand…”


« I know it seems weird to ask. And I don’t mean in any way to offend you as an artist. But if it’s not too much trouble to ask, I’ve got a great buyer for you. For over twenty years he’s been collecting Little Red Riding Hoods. He’s a reliable client. I’ve already sold him fourteen pieces. He’s got an impressive collection. He’d buy your piece right away, at a price, believe me, that you’d never get anywhere else. All you have to do is to add a Little Red Riding Hood. Wolves alone don’t interest him.


Sasha’s ears were turning red. He stared at the wolf, which he’d worked on for several months, and tender affection filled his body. He wasn’t angry or insulted; he simply loved his piece more than ever.


« Well, what do you think? »


« Miss, I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t do Little Red Riding Hoods. »


« I know, I know, but try to understand what I’m asking. A little, how can I put it, concession, I wouldn’t call it a compromise, just a little concession. How can it hurt you, just to add a Little Red Riding Hood next to this wolf? It wouldn’t cost you anything, and the return would be phenomenal. Besides, you may come up with a Little Red Riding Hood that you’d love yourself. Don’t you think there could be Little Red Riding Hoods that are masterpieces? Think about it.”


« I’ve thought about it for a long time. For twenty years I’ve been thinking about it. Certainly, what you’re asking is no big thing. A little while ago someone suggested that I need to be dead before my work can be taken into consideration. You only want a Little Red Riding Hood. Maybe I can do it…”


« Fabulous. Great. »


« I would do it if I had a few lives ahead of me. I would spend one of them sculpting only Little Red Riding Hoods.”

 

The woman withdrew a few steps, continuing to smile nervously.


« I hope you didn’t take this the wrong way. I honestly wanted to help you. »


« Are you interested in any other of my pieces? »


« I’m afraid not. Though they’re fabulous. Absolutely fabulous, » she said nervously.


« I thank you very much. »


« Much luck. Have a great day. »


As he was about to walk out of the gallery, Sasha’s eyes fell on the inscription hanging above the door: « True artists speak about themselves as if they were dead. »


« Can you tell me who said this? » he asked the lady while a shiver ran down his spine.


« I don’t remember his name. British, I think, » she answered.

 

The billboard smile still on her face, growing.

 

« British, certainly. »

 

Sasha crossed the street, more alive than ever. He held his heavy pieces to his chest, protectively, possessively. Through his clothes he felt the cold metal that had taken the shape his hands gave it.

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