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Thursday, August 15, 2002

Book Reviews

Express Yourself!

Mrs. Tependris: The Contemporary Years (The Adventures of an Art Collector) by Konstantin Kakanias. New York, Rizzoli, 2002, 96 pages, $40.

The art world is indeed a strange place; veterans of its holy wars and gossipy alliances shake their heads and sigh about lack of true community. As always, but especially today, the sense of common ground has been replaced with the scene, populated by ever-younger, ever more-ambitious, ever-more-numerous would-be artists, who, quite rightly confused and conflicted about the numbers of people and the vagaries of a career, fill the ever-larger white spaces with ever-greater angst. The New York art world is in fact a pretty rough go; the facade of a hip decorum paints a pleasant, or not so pleasant, face on a Hobbesian scenario. The need for recognition fuels most everyone’s ambition in a melting-pot that tends to swallow sincerity whole; reputations are made only to be inevitably deflated, that is, until enough time has passed that a certain kind of retro chic is associated with what was once the cutting edge. It’s all rather silly, and would be recognized as such but for the huge amounts of money involved (I have heard somewhere that the New York art world is a $2 billion industry). The money is considerable enough that a degree of high seriousness attends the gilded but rickety enterprise; even when fun is being made of art-world pretensions, there is the awareness that a smug disregard for the power of wealth is, at a certain level, a rejection of what gives the art world its glitz. Even the academics sense that the glow of art that is highly difficult to sell – conceptual and installation art come to mind – is achieved by means of a weird reversal: because the artwork cannot be possessed in a traditional sense, it becomes that much more valuable to its audience. Hence, the extraordinary prices for work that refuses, or is inherently unable, to fit onto a wall or into a corner.

We are really purchasing an attitude, a set of values, when we buy artwork whose valuation as an object is overwritten by its worth as a nexus of beliefs. The price of belief is apparently limitless insofar as it is an abstraction, capable of infinite increase as a monetary statement simply because its meaningfulness is not necessarily attached to an object. It is both a commonplace and an absurdity that, for example, the unwieldiness of the installation and the literal ethereality of a conceptual artwork’s set of instructions can command high prices; the dematerialization of the object has caused not a decline but rather an increase in cash value. Given the gigantism of so much contemporary art, it falls to the more than affluent to bankroll the newest grand projects. Konstantin Kakanias’s book, Mrs. Tependris: The Contemporary Years, tells a tale of mostly gentle satire, in which the marvelously wealthy, inexorably self-involved character of Mrs. Tependris, the ex-wife of a Greek tycoon, decides to go on a personal odyssey after realizing, in an enlightened moment (and with help from the spirit of Andy Warhol), that contemporary art is the solution to life. Taken with the idea of repossessing the energy and form of many of the artists she loves so much, Mrs. Tependris decides to mimic their work: “In order to feel at a deeper level their artistic triumphs and (being unsuperficial) their struggles, too, she would repaint and reperform, rephotograph, and resculpt their immortal masterpieces.”

Our heroine goes on to offer her collection of Meissen porcelain, mid-eighteenth-century Spanish armchair, and gilded Italian tripod table, also from the eighteenth century, for sale at Bibie’s, the New York auctioneer; the idea is to begin anew, without materialism. She finds a perfect secretary in the mysterious Pearl, around whom rumors of transvestitism swirl; Pearl becomes her comrade-in-arms, the audience for Mrs. Tependris’s brave, insouciant excursions into the world of contemporary art. The imitations of artists allows Kakanias the freedom to mimic, in an archly funny and irreverent but not contemptuous manner, the work of contemporary painters, sculptors, and performance artists. For example, Pearl records, in the middle of the night, Mrs. Tependris, lying face down, amid scattered shards of glass, in the middle of the street; for this simulation of a Chris Burden performance, the young assistant offers the outstretched artist, exquisite in thigh-high, powder-blue boots, words of encouragement: “Oh oh oh, keep moving, you look sublime.” A couple of pages later, Mrs. Tependris is seen, in the manner of David Hockney, standing on tiles surrounding a swimming pool, with a nude Pearl swimming in the light-filled water. There is even a parody of Kara Walker’s silhouettes, without racial overtones. As Walker, Ms. Tependris pulls the hair of someone whose outline reminds the viewer of the ubiquitous Pearl, while her toy poodle PePe bites poor Pearl’s hand.

Other imitations include a Roy Lichtenstein painting, a Mike Kelley accumulation of stuffed animals, a Joseph Kosuth dictionary-definition of camp – “an affectation or appreciation of manners and taste commonly thought to be outlandish, vulgar, or banal” – and a Lari Pittman painting complete with Visa and MasterCard logos. It’s all in good fun, and the main pleasure of the book is seeing just how uncannily accurate Kakanias is with his copies of contemporary art. It is hard to do this without becoming sarcastic – the art world is made for parody – but the author is kind to those he quotes, and he illustrates Mrs. Tependris’s search for meaning without making her ridiculous, even if she possesses a preposterously long, pointed nose. At the end of the book, Ms. Tependris has a revelation: she will collect her recreations of artists in a museum, “dedicated to her.”

Immediately following this inspired piece of egotism, she decides that she is as much an artist as those she has imitated. Weeping, imploring the spirit of Andy Warhol to reveal the secret of life, Mrs. Tependris completes her journey of enlightenment with a letter to her mentor Andy, written on her private plane 50,000 feet above Los Angeles. Like everything else she does, she composes her words extravagantly: “Darling, there is more. In order to ‘feel’ all the pain and pleasure of these great works, I remade them! It is so great! I put myself in the work….I am an artist, une artiste. Nothing can stop me from expressing myself.” Indeed, nothing can. The book ends with the words, “to be continued” – evidently, the story will go on. Kakanias finishes his volume with a humorous “Select Index,” where many insider jokes are made about the artists in the book. The tall tale of Mrs. Tependris cannot be called an accurate version of the art world to the letter, but it holds fabulously true to the spirit of indulgence and misguided grandeur that marks our visual culture now.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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