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WSJ: “A Divine Intervention”

from The Wall Street Journal

A Divine Intervention


It made sense that Sotheby’s asked writer James Frey to walk me through “Divine Comedy,” a sale of artworks open to the public through Oct. 19, with the auction house operating more like an art gallery. The show’s three rooms, inspired by Dante’s epic poem, are divided into Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, with works ranging from African masks to those of Rodin, Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, loosely reflecting the themes of damnation, suffering and ecstasy.

GARDNER.danteThough only 41 years old, Mr. Frey, who updated Dante’s masterpiece for the show’s catalog, has already visited all three realms during his eventful career. For those familiar with the name but who can’t quite recall its cultural significance, Mr. Frey is the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” the best-selling memoir that turned out to be part fiction, and that Oprah Winfrey, who’d championed it, invited Mr. Frey on her show to apologize. Back in Dante’s time, the price of bad behavior was getting sucked into hell. These days it’s to bow prostrate before a national TV audience and beg for forgiveness, as Mr. Frey did, submitting to his punishment with no more protest than one of Michelangelo’s doomed Sistine Chapel souls.

But since coming out as a hopeless sinner, the author has traveled the fast lane to redemption; there’s no better proof than that Sotheby’s, which is in the science of minimizing rather than encouraging risk, asked the author to contribute his reinvention of the Divine Comedy, entitled “Il Divino Bambino,” and starring an expletive-named protagonist. Since the “Million Little Pieces” debacle, Mr. Frey has written a couple of other bestsellers, is working on a pilot for HBO about the porn industry and can afford to indulge his passion for art. He told me he owns works by several of the contemporary artists, who he also counts as personal friends, featured in the show. If that’s suffering, I want to sign up.

“Art influences me much more than writing does,” he explained. “I can imagine Warhol sitting there,” he continued, of “Repent and Sin No More,” a 1985 silkscreen of just those words against a black canvas (and one more example of Warhol’s genius escaping me) “and having a conversation with somebody, and talking about sex and drugs, and somebody says, “Repent and sin no more.’ ”

” ‘Should I repent and sin no more?’ ” Mr. Frey went on. “My answer is no. I’m very pro sin.”

While I am too—finding virtue, or what masquerades under its name these days, greatly overrated—I can’t say we bonded until we arrived in front of Richard Prince’s “School Nurse,” who looks nothing like my school nurse. Mr. Frey said he has a Prince nurse in his own collection, and while he resisted describing the subject matter on the record, he said the Sotheby’s piece, of a vixen with blood streaming from her operating mask, is tame by comparison.

“That has to stay in my office at home,” he reported. “We have a 5-year-old daughter who sees it all the time and asks what is it. ‘It’s art. It’s like paintings of beautiful women that are 500 years old.’ ” I doubt she bought the explanation. Neither did my daughters when I told them that the Pop Art painting over our mantelpiece of a love goddess—whose face is obscured by a black cloud, but whose breasts are rendered with great elan—was a color-field painting. Like Mr. Frey, my wife informed me when we moved into our new apartment that it was going to reside in my home office. Twenty years later, it still has pride of place in our living room. A member of the family.

I’m not an art critic (which should be obvious by now) but I’ve always enjoyed exhibitions such as “Divine Comedy,” which juxtapose artists from different centuries, since that rarely happens in a museum setting. Seeing your fourth Corot landscape in a row, or even a roomful of Cézannes, has a way of deadening the eye and putting the brain on autopilot. But to have the opportunity to compare Bouguereau’s “L’Amour Vainqueur,” a virtuosic 1886 painting of Cupid and Psyche in flight, sitting side by side with Jeff Koons’s “Cherubs,” a couple of kitschy putti that ought to kill the market in porcelain collectibles for good, flatters both works.

The show also helped me finally to develop an appreciation for Damien Hirst. His “Summer in Siam,” of butterflies fluttering against pale blue sky, suggests that one may as easily encounter paradise on Earth as in heaven. And Will Cotton’s 2010 “Beatrice” proves that goddesses abound in downtown bars where Mr. Frey, who collects Cotton’s work and counts him a friend, explained the artist sometimes finds his models. This one is perched on pink cotton candy and white meringue clouds, a simultaneous tribute to both dessert and female beauty.

Mr. Frey, who was asked to contribute “Il Divino Bambino” by Lisa Dennison, the former director of the Guggenheim Museum, now at Sotheby’s, said he wasn’t paid. “I never charge people to write about art.”

Instead he had the Microsoft word document of “Il Divino Bambino” transferred to canvas, the resulting artworks for sale at John McWhinnie @ Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, a rare-book shop on East 64th Street, starting next week.

If Mr. Frey basted in hell for a while, he seems currently to be basking in the cooling breezes of a more habitable climate. “I asked for the Francken,” he said he joked when Ms. Dennison insisted on some sort of compensation. He was referring to Frans Francken the Younger’s 1635 “Mankind’s Eternal Dilemma— the Choice between Vice and Virtue,” with vice looking far more fun. “They said no.”

[ click to read at The Wall Street Journal ]

Posted on October 8, 2010 by Editor

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