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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

Skewering the Boom of the '80s Art World

WHEN THE SONS OF HEAVEN MEET THE DAUGHTERS OF THE EARTH by Fernanda Eberstadt; Alfred A. Knopf; $25, 404 pages

June 23, 1997|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearly a century after the triumph of modern art, public support for it remains like the Missouri River: a mile wide, an inch deep and decidedly muddy. Knowing what the experts say we ought to like isn't the same thing as liking it. What the average American likes in the way of painting can be summed up in two words: Norman Rockwell. In 1975, Tom Wolfe wrote a book, "The Painted Word," that purported to expose Abstract Expressionism as a scam concocted by a few New York critics. Wolfe was shouted down, but the suspicions he played on are still alive and virulent.

Fernanda Eberstadt's third novel is set in the late 1980s, when there was much more at stake in judging works of art than simply one's status as a connoisseur or a rube. Unprecedentedly big money was on the line. In this crucible, the public's skepticism fused with the experts' own rampant insecurity. Plunking down millions of dollars for a Rembrandt was one thing, but what about the doodles of a senile Willem de Kooning? Art was worth what the market said it was worth--and the market was going crazy.

"When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth" is a knowing satire of the New York art world just before the boom ended. It's also a love story, a portrait of a young artist named Isaac Hooker (who appeared in Eberstadt's last novel, "Isaac and His Devils"), and an unconvincingly hopeful announcement that the worst excesses of 20th century American culture may, thank God, be over.

This novel opens, like "Anna Karenina," with a faithless husband awakening to a hangover. He is Alfred Gebler, a poor Brooklyn boy who has risen on little more than charm and taste to be co-head of the Aurora Foundation, which dispenses chunks of his wife Dolly's inherited pharmaceutical fortune to deserving artists. The foundation's offices are "40,000 square feet of crystalline purity" in a "burnt-out flatland of tenements, bodegas, drug dealers on the Lower East Side." The premise of Aurora was simple: to choose a few men and women of genius and bank them for life. Give them enough rope to hang the world.

Dolly takes this mission seriously, but her husband takes it less so. Alfred thinks of himself as a "good Joe"; he pub crawls all night and gets to the office, if he's lucky, by noon. He reflects on a typical Aurora grant to a young artist-promoter, Casey Hanrahan, for an exhibit of urban-themed works: "Basically, what they had done was give Casey $100,000 to ask his friends over for a party."

It occurs to Isaac, too, that if Alfred "really hired Casey he's a clown, because no one serious would fall for Casey's jive." But Isaac is in no position to quibble. He has dropped out of Harvard and spent a year on the streets before discovering that what he really wants to do is paint. The big, teddy-bearish New Hampshire visionary is grateful for Casey's help in landing a job at Aurora, where Alfred welcomes him as a "Fresh-Air Kid" and Dolly comes to consider him just the kind of genius she's been looking for.

Genius or not, Isaac is the real thing. Eberstadt lets us know this in several ways. She contrasts Isaac's genuine poverty with the Bohemian posturing of Aurora's other clients. She lets us see vivid colors and patterns through his eyes. She makes him--shrewd move--a figurative painter, who draws his inspiration, like the Old Masters, from classical mythology and the Bible. Even Rockwell fans can cotton to a guy like that.

Isaac falls in love with the Geblers--with Alfred's amiability, with Dolly's seriousness, with their three teenage children, each winningly portrayed; with their whole buzzing, blooming lifestyle. And Dolly, neglected by her husband, falls in love with Isaac. She encourages him to paint a series of pictures called "When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth," a reference to human-divine dalliance before the Flood. Dolly, indeed, sees something godlike in Isaac, a socially maladroit truth-teller who dares, at the confluence of art and high society, to see naked emperors everywhere.

Eberstadt is at her best simply setting her people in motion and relishing the scene. Her satire is affectionate; her character drawing, generous and nuanced. Her love of New York City is palpable. But this novel also contains much talk of the Op-Ed variety, which adds up to an insistent, somewhat reactionary message: Art is a vocation, not a career. Any organized attempt to foster art--whether by the National Endowment for the Arts, Soviet commissars or private do-gooders like Dolly Gebler--will be at best irrelevant and probably harmful, because subsidy implies control.

Many of us saw the 1980s as a repudiation of '60s idealism. Eberstadt has a contrary view. She sees them as Bohemia's glitzy, druggy last hurrah, and has an old art dealer comment: "The art boom . . . has not corresponded to any boom in creativity or genius. . . . It has been instead simply because we have bred a generation of artists careerist enough to play the big-business game."

Eberstadt finally has Isaac put temptation (and Dolly) behind him and go off to paint in noble obscurity. If his stuff is good, it will make its own way, she implies like any good free-marketer and NEA-basher. It's a vision so austere that it makes us miss Bohemia, for all its silliness, and sympathize with Alfred, the superfluous, unserious man, who can only appreciate and consume, not create. What good is it to be the life of the party when the party is over?

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