Short Fuse: The Unmerited Power of Art

In his latest novel, Michael Cunningham writes about Manhattan’s art world with canny insight and sympathy. But he goes beyond that, anchoring his story not only in beauty, as it is constantly reconceived and imagined, but in considerations of love, sex, morality, and mortality.

by-nightfallBy Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $25.

Reviewed by Harvey Blume

To my mind Michael Cunningham’s novel By Nightfall has one significant flaw, namely that the New York City he cares and writes so passionately about ends at the borders of Manhattan. He describes Battery Park, for example, where Manhattan abuts New York harbor, as, “the city’s only point of contact with something bigger and more potent than itself.” Has he never heard of or visited Coney Island, that somewhat storied strand along the Atlantic Ocean?

Of course, that point of contact between the city and something bigger involves going to Brooklyn, which, like the other boroughs, is for Cunningham and his characters only vaguely and remotely New York City. Cunningham’s not even sure those places are certifiably American.

When Peter, the Manhattan art gallery owner who is the book’s main character, does set foot in Bushwick, Brooklyn to visit an artist’s studio, he can think of nothing but an “Eastern European city” to compare it to. How odd, since whatever relationship Brooklyn may bear to Warsaw, say, or Budapest, it, and the city’s other boroughs, are precisely aspects and foundations of New York City itself.

Harvey BlumeThat’s one quibble. Now the other caveat. Together the two help map the intellectual/geographical territory the book intensely and intelligently inhabits. Rebecca, Peter’s wife, says of a career path her troubled brother Ethan (nicknamed Mizzy) has proposed: “Computer Graphics. Don’t ask me what that is, exactly. In terms of how it could actually be a job.”

Rebecca and Peter are a married team in the thick of New York culture, she in publishing, a field not exactly exempt from the digital revolution. In a novel published this year and au courant in so many ways, for Rebecca to be clueless about how computer graphics might just imply a career path is even more jarring a false note than for Peter to act as if there were no New York beaches.

That said, within the confines of Manhattan’s art world, its true locus, By Nightfall comes alive in ways that more than compensate for its border problems.

Cunningham knows how to put his readers in front of contemporary art works, affording them opportunity to see, mull over, doubt, and perhaps, in the end, despite all doubts, succumb. Early on in the book Peter and Bette, an older, more established gallery owner, pay a visit to the Metropolitan Museum. Peter notes how quickly they march past the art of Rodin whose works are, “part of history, but new artists don’t revere him, no one makes a pilgrimage, you learn about him in school, you pass his sculptures and maquettes on your way to see the Damien Hirst exhibit.” And it is in fact Damien Hirst’s 13 foot pickled shark they visit.

Michael Cunningham knows his art.  Photo: David Shankbone

Michael Cunningham knows the Manhattan art world. Photo: David Shankbone

“And there it is, the shark,” Cunningham writes, “suspended in its pale blue, strangely lovely formaldehyde . . . the lethal perfection of its shape . . . its maw, jagged, big as a barrelhead.” Bette chooses this visit to confide to Peter that she has cancer, perhaps more advanced than she cares to admit. She intends to give up her gallery and would like to bequeath to Peter one of her most promising young artists. This confession, however, much as it affects Peter, does not bring their contemplation of the shark to an end. Bette adds: “You let yourself think, oh, it’s a gesture, it’s just a dead shark, every natural history museum is full of them, but then you stand in a gallery with it, and, well . . . ”

This interchange exemplifies themes that Cunningham deftly summons up and balances throughout the book. Peter is alert to how, when it comes to art, setting is far from neutral: it not only frames but comes disturbingly close to calling art into being. Consider, as Bette does, the difference between seeing a shark as a zoological specimen and coming on it just steps away from acclaimed statues by Rodin. Later, Peter muses:

“Although gallery people don’t like to talk about it, even among themselves, this is one of the problems that can arise—the simple fact that in a hushed white room with polished concrete floors, almost anything looks like art.”

For Peter, the unmerited power of these hushed, white rooms can only be fully neutralized by works of such genius that they defy setting and transcend framing. His hunt for art on that order leads Uta, his gallery assistant, to reflect that Peter too easily forgets that “he is unambiguously in the art business.” Silently she upbraids him: “Do you understand, crazy old Peter Harris, do you understand that genius is rare?”

Some of the fantastically wealthy collectors Peter deals with—some connected to and eager to impress even more wealthy Chinese multi-billionaires—like to test-run artworks out on their estates. If a piece does not burnish this room or that expansive garden, if it does not add to a particular outdoor view of Long Island Sound, it is returned. This is the way business is done, and Peter cannot challenge it. But in his heart, he believes that:

“A real work of art should rule the room, and the clients should call up not to complain about the art but to say that the art has helped them understand how the room is all a horrible mistake.”

Peter’s problems arise when he finds in Mizzy, Rebecca’s brother, who has recently, in his vagabond way, turned up on their doorstep, someone with the power to make him conceive of his life so far—including heterosexuality, marriage, and parenting—as a horrible mistake. Cunningham writes that: “Mizzy is becoming . . . [Peter’s] favorite work of art, a performance piece if you will, and Peter wants to collect him . . . to curate Mizzy.”

Whether Peter does choose wayward and alluring Mizzy with his “sorrowful eyes” and “impossible grandeur” over Rebecca, who suspects nothing of what’s begun to happen between her husband and her brother, must to be left to the reader to discover. I will only note that the book concludes with a surprising force that drives away any preciosity or superficiality left over from hushed, white rooms.

Cunningham’s writes about Manhattan’s art world with canny insight and sympathy. By Nightfall discusses the sorts of shows that have since been mounted, at times amid controversy. Cunningham won’t get you to the beach but he’s splendid to be with in the museums and the galleries. What makes the book more than a finely-tuned, insider’s art guide is that that Cunningham anchors his story not only in beauty, as it is constantly reconceived and imagined, but in considerations of love, sex, morality, and mortality. The novel is an impressive accomplishment and a pleasure to read.

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