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May 12, 2005

TT: Peanut gallery

Someone's been sending me peanuts--the styrofoam kind, to be exact. These malign little chunks of plastic and air may well be the best possible thing with which to pack a box containing a framed work of art, but they also have a sneaky way of insinuating themselves into every corner of the room in which the box in question is opened, which is what happened yesterday afternoon when I took delivery of a well-sealed carton containing the latest addition to the Teachout Museum, a lithograph by Jules Olitski. No sooner did I pry it open than whoom! The whole living room was ankle-deep in white peanuts.

Time out for a little backstory. After I delivered the first two chapters of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong to Harcourt last week, I figured I owed myself a present in return for all that hard work, so I started looking around for a new piece of art. I ran across Olitski's 1995 lithograph Forward Edge in an online auction the very next day, and fell in love at first sight.

By coincidence--or not--I'd only just become seriously interested in Olitski, who prior to that time had been little more than a name to me. To be sure, I'd been wanting for some time to acquire a piece by an important color-field painter to go with my copy of Helen Frankenthaler's Grey Fireworks, but I already had my eye on Circle I-6, a 1978 Kenneth Noland monoprint. Alas, I never did manage to track down an affordable copy (affordable by me, that is), so instead of going off half-cocked and buying something simply to be buying something, I sat tight and waited for inspiration.

Three weeks ago, Ann Freedman of Knoedler & Company sent me a copy of Jules Olitski: Six Decades, the catalogue of a small-scale retrospective in Miami curated by Karen Wilkin, one of my favorite art critics. (It's up through the end of May, should you happen to be in the vicinity.) The first paragraph caught me off guard:

Jules Olitski celebrated his eightieth birthday, in 2002, by exhibiting a series of recent paintings titled With Love and Disregard. The no-holds-barred canvases were so surprising, muscular, and energetic that the uninitiated could have been forgiven for thinking they were the work of an extravagantly gifted, fearless newcomer....Only a lifetime of making and thinking about paintings could generate work at once so obviously indifferent to ordinary notions of beauty (and that much maligned idea, taste) and so confident. Art historians call this kind of brilliant, assured inventiveness in the work of long-lived artists who continue to challenge themselves "late style."

As always, Wilkin had backed up her provocative words with a shrewd and illuminating choice of paintings, and as I flipped through the catalogue, I felt myself getting onto Olitski's wavelength for the first time. By the time I was done, I resolved to add him to the Teachout Museum at the earliest opportunity--which came, improbably enough, just two weeks later.

Even in electronic reproduction, Forward Edge took my breath away, and two years of intensive collecting have taught me to trust that kind of immediate, unhesitating response. I put in an absentee bid, then left town for a wedding. No sooner did I get back to New York than I found that Forward Edge had been knocked down to me for well under my top price.

Further proof that my decision to buy Forward Edge was in tune with the will of the universe came when I hung it yesterday afternoon. I'd planned to spend most of the evening moving things around, but I hit the sweet spot on the very first try. It was as though my living room had been waiting patiently for the arrival of something of whose existence I was hitherto unaware. (I guess it is like falling in love, isn't it?) Now I can't wait to show off the Teachout Museum to the next person who comes calling. For the moment, though, I mean to spend as much time as possible curled up on my couch, basking in the subtly altered mixture of harmonies that fills the air of my home.

Art is good. Life is good. I could do without all those damn peanuts, though.

Posted May 12, 2005 12:02 PM

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