Don DeLillo’s most recent novel, Point Omega, begins with a description of the Museum of Modern Art that feels more like a funeral precession:
People entered in twos and threes and they stood in the dark and looked at the screen and then they left. Sometimes they hardly moved past the doorway, larger groups wandering in, tourists in a daze, and they looked and shifted their weight and then they left … There were other galleries, entire floors, no point lingering in a secluded room in which whatever was happening took forever to happen.
He never states it outright, but “forever” in this instance is Douglas Gordon’s artwork 24-Hour Psycho—Hitchcock’s masterpiece slowed down to two frames per second so that a projection of it lasts a full 24 hours—which appeared at MoMA in 2006. The New York Times said of the piece, “Though relatively few have seen it, and hardly anyone has sat through the whole thing, Douglas Gordon’s ‘24 Hour Psycho’ has become one of those mythic monuments … that embody the dreams, anxieties and aspirations of a generation.”
It takes time, however, to penetrate what is happening in Mr. DeLillo’s scene. Not for nothing does the chapter bear the title “Anonymity.” Anthony Perkins is there, slowly reaching for a car door and turning his head for a number of minutes. Minutes or, in other words, pages: Mr. DeLillo’s writing here replicates Mr. Gordon’s own long-winded form, “like bricks in a wall,” Mr. DeLillo says, “clearly countable … but not like or unlike anything.” One must spend time with it for it to make any sense. It is unclear what Mr. DeLillo is describing until he comes right out and tells us:
Everybody remembers the killer’s name, Norman Bates, but nobody remembers the victim’s name. Anthony Perkins is Norman Bates, Janet Leigh is Janet Leigh. The victim is required to share the name of the actress who plays her. It is Janet Leigh who enters the remote motel owned by Norman Bates.
As with many accounts of visual art in his fiction, Mr. DeLillo writes from the point of view of a person both obsessed with and terrified of what he is looking at. The terror is partly because of the obsession, and that fixation is often inexplicable to the person experiencing it. Of 24-Hour Psycho, we learn the narrator has been watching the film for hours and that this is the fifth straight day he has attended; he takes it personally when people leave the gallery. “Leave if you have to,” Mr. DeLillo writes. “But once out, you do not re-enter. Make it a personal test of endurance and forbearance, a kind of punishment. But punishment for what?”
That final bit of doubt is crucial. When a character ponders art in DeLillo, it is a Romantic gesture in a Postmodern world: that character is pushed to the limits of thought, but thought ultimately fails him. The centerpiece of Mr. DeLillo’s new collection of short fiction, The Angel Esmeralda, is “Baader-Meinhof,” one of the author’s best late-career pieces of writing. There is an oddly specific premise, despite his typically elusive prose: two people staring at a series of Gerhard Richter paintings at MoMA. Mr. DeLillo has been exploring the visual arts in his writing for most of his career. He is a skeptical art critic, but he is also more interested in the people looking than in what’s being looked at. That interest in the viewer has made his assessment of art a nearly subliminal component in his work, but one that reveals DeLillo at his most playful and perceptive.
The early novel Running Dog, for instance, recasts New York’s downtown art world as the site of the mere peddling of pornography. It stars Lightborne, a Leo Castelli-esque figure, who owns a gallery in Soho on the fourth floor of an industrial loft (he also lives inside of it), specializing in erotic objects. The book was published in 1978, one year after both Mary Boone Gallery and Dean & Deluca opened up shop in Soho, as the neighborhood was transitioning from an urban artist residency of squatters and junkies into a consumerist destination. Running Dog is both a critique of the art world—it’s all a bunch of pimps and whores, Mr. DeLillo suggests—and an embarrassingly accurate portrayal of the commercial landscape of New York’s galleries as the contemporary art bubble was beginning to expand. The story is told by a journalist, Moll Robbins. When Lightborne introduces her to a collector at a gathering in his loft, “sex” and “art” are interchangeable throughout their exchange:
“What got you interested?”
“What gets anyone interested in sex?”
“We don’t all collect,” [Moll] said.
“Just a pastime. Line, grace, symmetry. Beauty of the human body. So on, so forth.”
“Do you spend a lot of money, collecting?”
“You must know quite a bit about art.”
“I took a course once.”
Art collecting in Running Dog—like a lot of collecting in any inflated market—is as thoughtless as a one-night stand.