The art show
When I heard that my friend’s paintings were going to be exhibited at our local library, I was quite surprised. While Ellen’s work is very well known in the New York area, I had no idea the public libraries held shows. Which gives you a pretty good idea not just of my powers of observation, but perhaps my knowledge of art.
Ellen, a recent widow, had been very dependent on Jack’s help transporting her paintings to local shows. So I volunteered to fill the role of “art schlepper.” This would entail loading a couple of vans with dozens of her paintings, and then unloading them at the library.
A couple of mornings before the show, I arrived at Ellen’s house, and we began to fill her van. Then, another van arrived, and Vladimir stepped out to greet us. Very tall, with a long black beard and an almost imperial manner, he spoke with a thick Russian accent. We shook hands and I liked him immediately.
Vladimir was the art show curator for all of the libraries in South Brooklyn. Ellen later confided that despite his accent, he had lived in Brooklyn almost his entire life. And that he was a fine artist in his own right.
The three of us set to work loading the vans. We then drove to the library, where I had spent countless hours as a child and a teenager. Downstairs, a large room had been set aside for Ellen’s show. We began to unload the vans and soon were joined by a woman in her early twenties, whom Ellen had recently met.
After we had gotten all the paintings downstairs, Vladimir and Ellen left to find parking spaces, leaving the woman and me to keep an eye on the paintings. Without any prompting, she told me that since childhood she had been studying art in Slovenia – or maybe it was Slovakia – and had come to the United States three years ago to continue her studies. Ellen had taken her under her wing, teaching her everything from how to mix colors to painting techniques well beyond my comprehension.
She then opened a thick portfolio of her watercolors and began showing them to me. Some looked like a child’s work, and others, random colors. But in fairness, as I readily admit, I’m no expert.
Suddenly she stopped, looked directly at me, and I realized how pretty she was. And just as quickly, it occurred to me that I was surely older than her parents. Giving me a very sad look, she said that the immigration service had warned her that, according to the provisions of her visa, if her work did not appear in an art show, she would soon be deported.
I didn’t know what to say. Then she told me that her parents, who had little money themselves, had been supporting her. And that they would be devastated if, after all their efforts, their daughter was deported.
When Ellen and Vladimir returned, the four of us went to work hanging the paintings. There would be an opening party in two days, and the show would go on for a month. As we hung the paintings, Vladimir told anecdotes of other shows he had curated, and the artists he had dealt with. He assured us that none was as talented or so modest as Ellen.
When we finished hanging, Ellen went outside to make a phone call, and the three of us sat down around a table. The young woman started telling Vladimir that she too, was an artist. Vladimir smiled, but said nothing. He must have known what was coming next.
When she opened her portfolio, I cringed. Vladimir continued to smile. As she showed him each painting, he would motion for her to move on to the next one, and then the next. Soon these motions were accompanied by what seemed like grunts. As the show continued, the grunts grew louder, and the waves of dismissal more emphatic.
Tears began to stream down her cheeks. But still she pressed on. Her shoulders began to shudder, but it was hard to tell if Vladimir even noticed. Her whole body was beginning to shake, and I grew afraid that at any moment she would burst into sobs. I had to get out of there before I followed suit. I slipped away from the table and rushed upstairs and outside. I waited until Ellen had finished her call. Then I told her what was happening.
On our way downstairs, she told me that a lot of good artists want to have shows at the library, and that Vladimir has to say no to nearly all of them. “I truly love the man,” she said, “but he is utterly rigid. He proclaims that standards are standards – whether at The Hermitage, The Louvre, The Metropolitan Museum, or the Brooklyn Public Library. Then she quoted, “Great art is great art! And garbage is garbage!”
Ellen said that she would try to console her friend. But when we entered the room, we heard him saying, “Look, I don’t want you to get your hopes up. It will not be a regular show. There will be no opening party. And it’s for just one week.”
She nodded, while wiping her cheeks.
Vladimir stood. Without a word he strode by us, just shaking his head again and again from side-to-side. The young woman, busy putting her paintings back in her portfolio, never looked up.
As he left the room, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a bunch of tissues just as the door swung closed behind him.
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living
writing math and economics books.