By Stephanie Williams
Published by McWitty Press
August 2004; 0975561804
The New York Post
WHO’S THAT MUSE?: Art tart has NYC guessing
May 22, 2010— Who’s that girl?
The entire New York art scene—make that all of New York—wants to know. Call this impassioned pretty woman the “Moan-a Lisa.” Not since Leonardo da Vinci’s mystery madam has a femme in a frame been the object of so much speculation.
The question arises at the Museum of Modern Art’s blockbuster retrospective of James Morales, the “bad boy” artist who thumbed his nose at the art establishment by entering a self-imposed exile just after shooting to fame in the late 1990’s. For years, when curious collectors asked after Morales’s work, curators told them the hard-edged Latino’s brush had dried up (and, word had it, that the bald bruiser himself had cracked up). Now we find that his magic materials were flying across the canvas the entire time. Along with Junkyard, the mixed-media painting that won Morales his first kudos at 1997’s Promettente (as always, at the Galina Woodworth Gallery), MoMA offers room after room of lush abstracts in lighter flesh tones, browns, and reds—leading, chronologically, to his final works, more straightforward paintings of what are obviously half-body nudes featuring a porcelain-skinned woman in repose. Many have compared the most triumphant, Untitled IV 2005—a deeply textured, full-body nude of a tortured and apparently scarred female form—to the work of Expressionist Egon Schiele.
But the public has other associations in mind. “I think the comparison to Mona Lisa is a valid one,” observed Gresh Martin, the self-admitted “George Plimpton of the art world,” who discovered Morales during his brief stint curating the annual Promettente (Italian for “up-and-coming”) group shows in their heyday. “The look on this woman’s face…it’s simply exquisite. It’s impossible to tell if she’s in agony or ecstasy. She could be dying—or having an orgasm!”
But the guessing game is complicated by the fact that so little is known about the personal life of Morales, who died in 2007 after an apparent overdose. And those who knew Morales, including current Oscar nominee Carly Croft, aren’t talking. Some recall having seen former model Doreen Philbrick, who dabbled at the Woodworth Gallery before her marriage to Mick Jagger, with Morales at the time of his early success.
But others say the identity of the mystery woman, along with that of the paintings’ current owners, is anybody’s guess.
“Whoever she is, I can say this about her,” Martin says, with a twinkle in his eye. “Morales owes her a great deal. But I think he’s paid her back in spades. Thanks to him, she will live forever.”
Trisha sat down to a cold cheese-and-tomato sandwich at 4:45 p.m., an hour when most girl Fridays of the world cleared their desks and waited to be told they could go. But the Galina Woodworth Gallery operated on a different schedule—and 4:45 p.m. was lunchtime.
She stared at her computer monitor and, with one hand, absently reached for a baby carrot. With the other, she typed her e-mail password: Persevere. She deleted several pieces of junk mail, which announced that she was “Winner #26310” and in need of “ Steroids! Mexican grade Anabolics!” That left two queries about the upcoming Peter Saul exhibit and—what was this?
What up, babe? Nada here. Takin it easy and trying not to get into too much trouble. Met up with Glenn last week and he asked about you. Actually he asked if you broke into the porn biz yet but you know Glenn.
To answer your question, their still threatnin to offer me that NY job but no word yet so I’m not holdin my breath.
Take it easy.
Trisha hit reply and gnawed at the carrot, confronting the blank screen. In her last e-mail, a month and a half ago, she’d told Mitch all about her prestigious new job at SoHo’s hottest gallery. Now that she’d settled in, she was far less eager to update him. What would she say—that she was working much harder, and commanding far less respect, than she ever had at the Museum of Modern Art? That she was low man on the totem pole, so low that she could sometimes taste the dirt?
And her love life was no less stunted. Her friends back at MoMA had been so sure Tom would propose on Valentine’s Day that they’d reportedly held a pool about what time of day it would happen. Even Trisha was fooled; she’d hinted about it in the last e-mail to Mitch (who, thankfully, hadn’t followed up with a congrats—the lousy bum). Maria, the office cynic, won the pot, having successfully predicted that it wouldn’t happen at all.
Trisha cleared the blank form from her screen. Better to wait a week, and then apologize to Mitch for being too busy to respond earlier. It wouldn’t hurt for her college boyfriend to think she had a life.
She overchewed her second-to-last carrot, savoring every last second of her lunch break. Rhonda—the plain-Jane assistant to notorious gadabout Gresh Martin, who managed the gallery—ducked her head into the office that Trisha shared with Doreen Philbrick and, humming a tune from The Sound of Music, dropped a memo into Doreen’s inbox. Trisha noticed, as always, the beauty that yearned to break free from Rhonda’s pudgy body, her drug-store makeup and Supercuts hair. According to what Trisha had heard, Gresh had hired Rhonda three years ago in a fit of pique with his previous assistant, a skeletal prima donna, who’d refused to answer his phone (“wet nails!”) one too many times. He’d wanted the exact opposite of the usual gallery employee and had certainly gotten it. Rhonda was strictly bridge-and-tunnel, as Manhattanites referred to those who commuted from the outer boroughs (or, heaven forbid, New Jersey).
“Don’t you look relaxed!” Rhonda chirped. “And I know you’re crazy busy. What’s your secret?” You could always count on Rhonda for a happiness injection. She was the office’s unofficial mascot, the one person at the gallery who could get away with looking cheerful without getting slapped.
“Better have your vision checked,” Trisha said. “I’m cranky as ever.” But after Rhonda walked out, humming “Edelweiss,” Trisha realized that the knots in her stomach were in fact looser than usual. And it wasn’t just because Doreen was on a smoke break. Thank god Mitch was staying in Boston. She found her college boyfriend’s innuendoes flattering in small doses whenever he visited on business trips, but the thought of running into him while jogging in Central Park was more than she could stomach.
The intercom on Trisha’s desk buzzed. “Honey,” rang a slightly accusatory, slightly baritone voice, “stop fondling yourself and get your cute little ass in here.”
“Coming,” Trisha called, and scrambled for her handheld blacklight. Halfway down the hall to the private viewing room, she slapped her forehead, imagining the chuckles her word choice had no doubt elicited down the hall. One of her duties as assistant registrar—her favorite duty—was filling out condition reports on paintings that entered the gallery or returned after going out on loan. She loved being the first person to see the works, relished coming to her own conclusions before her co-workers could overhype (or, far more likely, badmouth) them.
Corny as it sounded, Trisha had always liked to develop relationships with works of art. She felt protective of them. Since childhood, she’d considered paintings to be practically…living entities that lay dormant, unable to breathe, until they interacted with the human eye. Viewing them, then, caused a process akin to photosynthesis in plants. It was a silly concept, a child’s fancy, but one that Trisha had never particularly wanted to shake off. Just days before, when her blacklight revealed marinara spatterings covering a painting just back from a hedge-fund millionaire’s dinner party, Trisha had almost cried.
“I thought we finished the Goodman stuff this morning,” Trisha said now to Sebastian, the installer, who had positioned himself so as to frame the entrance to the viewing room like a trailing bougainvillea vine. (And he was just about that skinny.)
“We did,” he said, rolling his eyes for the benefit of a fey young man he neglected to introduce. Giving him the once-over, Trisha couldn’t help but be reminded of Dieter, Mike Myers’s over-the-top, German talk show host on Saturday Night Live.
“So what have we got? How many pieces?”
Sebastian reluctantly held up a finger—the middle one.
“When did it come in?”
Sebastian threw forward his right hand to examine his nails, having apparently seen something in his manicure he didn’t like. His sinewy shoulders bulged beneath an Armani sweater so tight that it rose as he breathed, revealing a taut abdomen. Trisha found herself wishing his stomach would bulge out to Homer Simpson size.
“So what is it? Where’d it come from?”
“I thought you knew.”
Before Trisha could ask anything else, Sebastian sashayed halfway to the front of the gallery, Prada shoes clicking on the unbearably shiny white floor as his friend obediently followed like a pet poodle.
Come, Fifi , Trisha mouthed as she gazed after them. The animosity she felt toward Sebastian was nothing personal; half the time, in fact, the waifish junior installer claimed to idolize Trisha for her delicate skin and perfect, shoulder-length, honey-colored hair. But she knew as well as he did that her pastel cashmere twin sets, her pearls and her prim Upper East Side demeanor were all far too Pollyanna for Woodworth (or for any other SoHo gallery, for that matter), and when Sebastian felt catty he let her know it. Yes, Trisha might have been far better suited to the life of a curator at, say, the Frick, among dozens of Madonnas of the Italian Renaissance, but her heart irrevocably lay with what was edgy, raw, new. That’s what made her heart race; go figure. She refused to change either her specialty or her wardrobe. This was perhaps her one rebellion.
At any rate, Sebastian was far from the moodiest of the junior staffers at Woodworth. Even back at MoMA, Trisha had found communicating with underlings to be no more personal, and no more satisfying, than interacting with computers. By design, they were capable of answering only the question at hand; they certainly couldn’t be expected to volunteer information. Acting kindly toward them was not only irrational, but also completely inadvisable; they were likely to smell her weakness and piss on her to mark her as their territory.
Obviously, this gallery was exactly the wrong environment for Trisha’s sweet—some would say saccharine—temperament. But, as Trisha reminded herself at least once a day, the proximity to the art made up for the bitchiness of some of the staff. And Trisha tolerated the support staff, reminding herself that they were just as passionate about art as she was, if not more so (if that were possible). Sometimes to their detriment. They were frustrated artists who felt the need to trash every painter in the gallery to keep their own egos intact. Making believe that so-and-so was making it because of whom so-and-so was making allowed them to keep believing that their talent stacked up to what they hung on the walls. If they were getting nowhere simply because their work wasn’t worthy, they’d have to, like, kill themselves.
Poor souls. Trisha sighed a deep breath, not for the first time thanking God and the fates for the clearly mediocre painting talent, and the perfect eye for others’ work, that she’d been granted. She entered the small room and closed the door behind her. Immediately, she crossed to raise the shade, getting a glorious peek of afternoon sunlight. Only when she sat upon the black leather settee did she raise her eyes to the painting Sebastian had placed there for her.
The painting knocked her over with its violence. She could swear it had reached out and punched her. She recovered her breath and smiled. This was something else. Over the span of five by five feet, several media—acrylic, metal, clay, bits of…something—merged and separated. In the center of the work, the paint lay flat against the surface, but at the edges it bowed out by several tenths of an inch. Something about it reminded her of an alien landscape. A post-apocalyptic alien landscape: parts of it were obliterated, and dips and craters fell where the canvas had apparently been beaten up and patched back together. It looked like a vast mistake that someone had trashed and then rescued. And yet the range of color—rusts and browns and creams and a bit of red, all within an earthy palette—was no accident. It was unsettling.
It was a mess. But a riveting one.
In the weeks since she’d joined the gallery, she could count on one hand the paintings that interested her. Galina’s tastes were too cold and intellectual, too topical, even for Trisha (who’d never met a liberal cause she didn’t like). Bill Clinton as Icarus, complete with wax and feathers? Get real. Galina, the absentee gallerist, favored gimmicky works that hit the viewer over the head.
She didn’t want to work too hard to sound like the smartest person in the room at the openings and dinner parties that were, of course, the reason she lent her name to such a time-consuming endeavor in the first place. (And if she didn’t understand it, she faked it. “It’s so relevant,” Trisha heard Galina say recently about a triptych of a cupcake, a banana and an unflushed toilet, by a flash in the pan who happened to have fought in the Persian Gulf.)
Galina picked up paintings like a kid picking out candy and left the real work to Gresh. Trisha couldn’t fathom Galina requesting this raw slab of reality unless it had been painted by, say, a former stripper—or unless the paint contained metal from ground-up bullets salvaged from the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Trisha was up on Gresh’s acquisitions—or so she thought. This had to be an unsolicited work that had inadvertently made its way to the big time, if Trisha’s once-over qualified as that. Trisha’s heart beat faster. Maybe this was fate at work. Maybe she was meant to discover this work, which would simultaneously change the artist’s life and take her a step closer to fulfilling her fantasy of having her own gallery someday. That’s why, difficult as it was, she’d left her dream job at MoMA two months ago. At least here, there weren’t a dozen peers at her heels, all wanting the same thing.
But could this painting really be it—the work worth hedging her fledgling reputation with the new bosses? (“Gresh,” she would say, “got a minute? I wanted to show you something.” Reeeeally casual.) Or was she too eager, jumping the gun?
She cut the lights, closed the window, and turned the blacklight toward it, checking for surface damage. Nothing, aside from minor cracks around the edges, suggesting that the painting was not at all recent. Odd. She flicked the light. Nice.
She was just leaving when she got the distinct impression that someone was watching her. She pulled the tortoiseshell barrette from her hair and shook her head, like a puppy ridding itself of stress.
And there it was, just off-center, falling diagonally across the canvas: a close-up. It was subtle, something that might not have been there at all, like a hint of a face that you might see inside a house or in the front of a car. As soon as she saw it, the vision disappeared.
Trisha exited just as Gresh walked by, deep in conversation with his cigarette buddy, Doreen. All day long, they rolled imported Drum tobacco into tight little cigarillos; they might have smoked them constantly would this not have required relocating their desks to the street. Doreen’s nicotine of choice had always struck Trisha as a bit contrived, but she had to hand it to Doreen: It was working for her. Doreen was hardly older than Trisha, but Gresh took her advice on what was happening, and what was worth being made to happen, in the art world.
Gresh was spelling out the implications of gallery hopping among club kids trolling for free beer; he was convinced that this would lead to future sales and future customers, which more than made up for the occasional drunken accident in the gallery. But for some reason, he stopped—without changing the subject or catching his breath—and ducked his head into the viewing room. Frowning, Doreen pivoted on one stiletto and followed.
Then Gresh did something remarkable. He stopped talking. Watching him, Trisha could hardly breathe.
“And what do we think of this?” Gresh asked.
Trisha would have answered, but Gresh had turned his body toward Doreen, who strained forward, stretching the translucent skin of her neck. Trisha took a wicked delight in imagining the eventual wrinkles. Doreen was only in her late twenties, but it was already obvious that she would not age well. Everything about her was too rigid: sheet-smooth black hair pulled back too tightly, affecting a makeshift face-lift; thin lips; and the tallest stilettos in SoHo.
Doreen took a long moment, then dismissed the work with a tiny upturn of her nose. “Moose caca,” she said in her signature staccato—a super-efficient, clipped Manhattanese that Trisha found unexpected in a girl purporting to be a Savannah blueblood. “Looks like moose caca to me.” She turned to Gresh. “Whataboutyou?”
“Refreshing!” he announced, nodding at Trisha. “Well,” he said, turning to Doreen, “I do suppose it’s back to the salt mines.” His exaggerated nod toward the women approximated an old-fashioned bow as he departed for his corner office. Trisha’s breath started at her sinuses, fell to her throat and then plummeted to her stomach. She’d been right, but a lot of good it did her. She hadn’t stated an opinion. She hadn’t said a thing.
Doreen peered down at Trisha. (A former print model, she was over six feet—closer to seven given her usual choice of footwear.) “Whatisit?” she demanded. For a moment, Trisha almost thought Doreen was asking her what was wrong. Then Doreen continued, “Galinabuythat?”
“Oh. I’m not sure,” she replied. “I can’t find the packing slip.”
“Figures,” Doreen sniffed. “WithRhondaonthejob.”
“But if Galina did buy it,” Trisha added, “good for her.”
Doreen sniffed and walked away, and only then did Trisha relax. She wondered sometimes about the stress hormones that Doreen induced in her, and what they might be doing to her body.
She rummaged through the packing slips on the shipping table and was reduced to digging through the garbage—where, on a piece of plain brown wrapping paper, she found something. It was a shocker:
Museum of Modern Art
11 W. 53 rd Street
New York, NY 10019
Someone had crossed through MoMA ’s address and forwarded the package to the gallery. Trisha’s eyes darted to the return label; it was from a “ G. Dominguez” in a marginal area of Brooklyn.
Who in the world was G. Dominguez?
Trisha found it hard to draw a breath. Just as waitresses dreamt of $100 tips, young curators fantasized about the day an artist or a patron might bequeath them a masterpiece. Granted, G. Dominguez hardly hailed from a high-rent district—but neither did Basquiat, back in his day. And hadn’t Gresh, a respected expert, expressed admiration for this very work?
Trisha flew back to her desk, dialed the MoMA operator, and asked to be connected to Marsha, the longtime shipping administrator. After the requisite pleasantries—which, for Trisha, went on far too long—Trisha questioned Marsha about the package. Ruefully, Marsha recounted that recently, the museum had discovered a stash of old mail in a back room, some of which had apparently sat there for several years—no doubt the product of some incompetent, short-lived mail guy who had no idea where to deliver the items…and had just given up.
“I hate to tell you, but I think your package, it sat there a while,” Marsha said. “It got pretty beat up.” Trisha could almost hear Marsha shaking her head through the phone lines. She knew how conscientious the older woman was about her work. “I did the best I could and just taped the note there on the back. I was going to look you up and call you to make sure you got it.” She chuckled. “A little late.”
“Did you say note?”
“Uh-huh, just on regular paper, that’s what it was—”
Trisha got off the phone as quickly as possible and bolted back to the viewing room, bypassing Dieter giving Sebastian a foot massage. She quickly felt the back of the painting until she found half a sheet of lined notebook paper.
My dearest Patricia,
I think of you quite often since our meeting, and fear we not see each other again, despite our promises.
This have a very special meaning, and I want you to have it. As I told you—
And that was it.
Defeated, Trisha stood and stared at the note for at least three or four minutes. She hardly noticed Sebastian gushing with curiosity in the background.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Trisha sighed and shook her head, but resisted spilling the story. All of a sudden, she was exhausted. “Would you mind wrapping this to go out?”
“I’d love to help you, sweetie,” Sebastian sniffed, “but it is after five. And I’m afraid I’ve got things to do.” He wriggled his eyebrows at Dieter suggestively.
Trisha was just reinforcing the masking tape when Gresh passed, carrying his Yale mug. He prided himself on fetching his own coffee.
“Ah, Miss Portman,” he sang out. “Am I to surmise that the refreshing moose caca is leaving us? So soon?” He smiled.
Trisha looked hard at him, wishing she knew him well enough to interpret the extent of his interest in the painting. A lot of good it would do her now. You couldn’t get more unprofessional than to tout your personal property.
“Yes,” she said, “but it’s not going far. Turns out I’ve got a secret admirer, if you can believe it, who sent me the painting.”
She held her breath, hoping against hope that Gresh would offer an analysis of the work, or a word of advice. Instead, he merely cocked an eyebrow.
“Intriguing!” he said. “Well, by all means, don’t let that handsome attorney friend of yours know,” he said with a wink. “Or—maybe you should. A little jealousy never killed anyone.”Copyright © 2004 Stephanie Williams
Reprinted with permission.
Trisha Portman seems to have a magical life: good looks, a dream job at a hot Soho art gallery, a handsome lawyer boyfriend, devoted friends. But she’s still waiting for her big break. One day a mysterious painting arrives at the gallery—one that just might catapult her to the top. Instead, it takes her on a disturbing odyssey.
Her search for the anonymous artist brings her back to her college days and to James Morales, who is contemptuous of her and the rest of the world. His artistic brilliance is exceeded only by the lengths he will go to make people dislike him— including, for some unfathomable reason, refusing to use his gift.
Fate had thrown this pair together in college, and now their prickly relationship resumes in New York City. Yet everything changes once Trisha takes a step into James’s tormented life. Not only does she find an unlikely soul mate, but she soon becomes more like this man she once detested—when she suffers a life-changing misfortune of her own.
Stephanie Williams, in this unforgettable first novel, explores the tyranny of the superficial, the power of friendship—and the mystery of what people choose to leave behind.(back to top)
Stephanie Williams was a journalist whose work was published in more than a dozen major magazines, including New York, Men’s Health and Glamour. She was a former writer at Self and TV Guide, senior writer at SmartMoney, and contributing editor at Teen People. In 2002, the National Headliner Awards named her runner up for Magazine Feature Writing for her narratives in SmartMoney. A native of Texas, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and made her home in Brooklyn with her dog, Gus .
Stephanie Williams was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer two months after turning 30. Determined to fulfill her dream of writing a novel, she did live long enough to see her novel published. She died during the summer of 2004.