Art at the Bar of Mechanical Reproduction

The blond painter was wearing a tan jacket. “Honestly,” he said, “everyone making art right now is fucking derivative.”

A man standing at the bar started yelling at the painter. “What happened to realism? What happened to figurative painting?”

“Fuck figurative painting! Fuck realism!” the painter shouted back. “I’m talking about Abstract Expressionism, that’s where art should go.”

“That’s where art’s been.”

“All the art that I see coming out right now is fucking, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, dead sharks in tanks, a cow in a tank of formaldehyde.’ Oh, shit! It’s fucking Damien Hirst! Oh, he’s so wonderful, he made a skull made out of platinum and diamonds and shit. They cost so much money, but that’s not fucking art, that’s just fucking stupid-ass business. Art is about making a beautiful image, and nobody does that anymore. You know, what’s his name? The motherfucker that paints with brooms? That guy. That guy should get a handshake from everyone in the fucking world, man, because he’s doing something real—but you know who else is doing something real? My ass, man. I’m fucking killing it.”

We were not sure who the guy who paints with brooms was. We were not sure how we had gotten where we were. We were at the Wooly, on Sunday night. It was the after-party for the opening of a show by Brendan Fowler at Untitled, on the Lower East Side. A set of gallerists, fans and fellow painters had come to pogo around in a scrum of hair and limbs to disco and Detroit techno. You could jump on the couches or carom off the ledges. The DJ was playing vinyl only beneath walls adorned with old portraits, taxidermy, muted honky-tonk pianos, swirly Oriental rugs and a bicycle.

As long as everyone was acting childishly, we had settled on pursuing one of those questions Socrates might have asked a slave boy: How do you feel about art? That’s what triggered the blond painter’s rant.

 

The Wooly is a drawing room and parlor in the basement of the Woolworth Building, across from City Hall. It’s stocked with clichéd knickknacks, curlicue kids’ toys littered on tables and the floor, mismatched arcana from undefined eras—it could be a Woolworth storage compartment that was consistently fed detritus from the ’30s until the ’70s. The whole place was a good argument that the 20th century was the century of junk, and here it was full of drunken artists. 

Old men in beards tapped and whacked at the red-lit Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling. A triangular silver piñata teetered down from the ceiling like a chandelier, chrome confetti slivers wilting off of it. A defunct and empty pull-cord cigarette machine went unnoticed.

“How do you feel about art?” The Observer asked another man at the far side of the room.

“Art’s a really good friend of mine,” he said. “We went to high school together, we went to college. Art was pretty cool but he lost his mind. He got over-pretentious. He made a lot of money. He got crazy. He got into Zen Buddhism. Art’s out of his mind.”

“How do you feel about art?” The Observer asked a man in glasses sitting in a tiny red chair. The upholstery was worn and rubbed down.

“That is such an insane question that I fucking cannot answer that question,” said the man in the red chair. “That’s like, ‘What do you think about physics? I’d be like, ‘Physics in general is a good thing.’ Physics makes things work. In general, art makes humans do things they wouldn’t normally do.”

“That’s a really lame question,” a woman standing over the red chair said. “Um, art’s fucking the best. It’s better than every other thing in the fucking world. It’s harder to define than anything else. It’s more mysterious than anything else.”

One last time before we left the Wooly: an older woman standing near a liquor cabinet and a couch for ladies who faint.

“Art is … essential. … Art is … everything? I make it. I mean, I’m a painter myself. What do you mean how do I feel about art? What is this?”

nfreeman [at] observer.com | @nfreeman1234 Art at the Bar of Mechanical Reproduction