Life turned around for Frederick Dorn in 1983. Tides shifted; planets realigned. His rich old friend, Preston Saxby, appeared at Dorn’s lowest ebb to offer a Manhattan gallery in the heart of SoHo, near the recently opened New Museum of Art. The Broadway location as perfect as Dorn’s United Hallucinations Gallery had been on Haight Street long ago. But real money was at stake now. In the eighties speculative art market, a piece of paper, an installation, some shit–literally–glued to a canvas, or even the wall, could sell from tens of thousands to whatever price you could get away with.
The only compromise, the gallery’s name: Dorn-Saxby. It seemed acceptable since Saxby invested heavily and would not be involved in day-to-day operations.
“Saxby,” Dorn said over the phone, “I need one more advance…”
“What for?” Saxby asked. “Make it quick. I’m in a meeting.”
“A famous pop art piece to lure people off the street and inside our space.”
“100 K.” When no reply came, beyond the dull murmur of disembodied corporate voices, Dorn continued. “If that doesn’t work, I can re-sell it in a year and pay you back, plus ten percent.”
“Jesus.” Saxby sighed. “I’ll draw up a loan contract for you to sign. And Dorn, no more favors.”
Dorn supervised the workmen installing paintings on the gallery’s walls. First, they hung five grotesque expressionistic nudes by Hans Bettendorf–a Francis Bacon devotee. The bodies resembled flayed sides of beef hanging in a butcher shop. Next, they lined up three large canvases showing splotches of greens, browns, and yellows, with thatches of hair and tissue paper stuck to their surfaces. Part of Russian artist Ash Goykin’s “Stomach Acids” series. Finding the best placement for a 10 by 10 wood panel featuring spray-painted toilet seats from around the world glued to it took Dorn the longest.
Saxby arrived at one. “Let’s get this damn photo shoot over with.”
Both men went outside and unfurled the Dorn-Saxby Gallery flag, then hoisted it high above Broadway. Banya, a photographer from Art in America, snapped shots of them under the billowing purple flag with their names emblazoned in bright gold.
“When’s your opening?” Banya peered at the ongoing work inside.
Dorn handed him an invite. “Two weeks from Friday.”
After Banya left, Saxby gave Dorn a check and watched him sign their agreement. “Rehabilitating your reputation hasn’t been easy, or cheap.” Saxby glanced at his Rolex then signaled to his driver in the idling town car. “Go buy your fancy art piece.”
Dorn retreated to his office at the rear of the space. The walls had been freshly painted, but he needed framed photos with the glitterati of art world and New York society celebrities. Starfucking, that’s what it was all about. He rolled around in his leather swivel chair and called a West Hollywood acquaintance who formerly worked at Gagosian Galley.
“The Rauschenberg looks fantastic,” Saxby told Dorn a week later.
The nine by eight canvas hung near the picture window facing out onto Broadway. A riot of electric blue, bright reds and yellows, the combine painting had assorted objects and photos affixed to it. As Dorn predicted, the additions of the pop art masterpiece and Britta–the perfect blonde wearing black leotard-like clothing at her front desk–caused many passersby to wander inside. Cards got exchanged, invites to the first show proffered, and Dorn felt a cautious optimism regarding their opening the following week.
Of course he flirted innocently with Britta, but her boyfriend worked on the stock exchange floor, while Dorn dated Karen Vanderhouf, recent widow of a German Count. So why complicate things?
On Friday, Dorn-Saxby gallery filled up rapidly. Dorn hired an extra assistant for the show, Ariella or something, as well as two bartenders to keep the wine flowing.
The thrum of intoxicated conversation and high-pitched laughter echoed off hard walls, youthful club kids looking for a classy launch to their depraved evening, to trade phone numbers, see a party girl’s inviting smile, the promise of coke or ecstasy. Just greet them briefly, Dorn. Important as placeholders to fill the room with sexiness, but don’t waste precious time schmoozing or selling to them. They’re not buying. However, the sixty-year-old lady in a red leather motorcycle jacket sporting dyed jet black hair most certainly is. You have a two-hour selling window at best. Hug the tanned gay man with sparse blond hair and don’t, whatever you do, ask him how he manages to winter in the Caribbean. Have you met my ladyfriend, Karen? Yes, it’s tragic about her late husband Helmut falling from the parapet of his castle. A flash, a shock of white. Andy Warhol? Too shy to come in. He doesn’t know you yet, Dorn. On his way to Studio, wanted to see what the Klieg lights outside were about. The dark-haired woman with pursed lips and thick eyebrows shakes your hand and says, “Welcome to the neighborhood, I wish you luck,” and as she folds into the swell, the roiling waves of guests pressing this way and that, you realize, she was Mary Boone.
A flank of emigres—Bieters, Vasily, Dagmar, and Adolfo—retreats and you spot the red dots placed by the canvases. Deals are being made, transfers from bank accounts in progress, old wealth, new wealth, stolen wealth. Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched Eurotrash drug money and all your sins shall be absolved—at least for tonight.
Hunch over, stoop down, Dorn. You’re a bit tall, and too thin–even for this downtown crowd. Saxby dances with Britta in a corner to Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” while Ariella or Areola holds a clipboard to take buyers’ names. Besides the Rauschenberg, obscenely-priced, the show’s sold out. Did they ask too little? Too much? What’s art worth anyway? Whatever you want it to be. Love my way, indeed.
“I’m a painter, but not as good as these guys,” says a gaunt black man, dreadlocks cresting the collar of his weathered pinstripe suit.
“There are only two kinds of artists in New York,” you reply, wine glass empty, lips purpled. “The famous ones, and the rest.”
Saxby is laughing, no regrets over the huge loan. And there standing in the center are both Bettendorf and Goykin, smiling and posing together for photos with wild-haired party girls lured by the flashes, even though the artists despise each other’s work and howled a royal tragedy over their wall placement to you, Dorn, are now silenced by the little red stickers, by the checks in the office, and by the promises of those known for keeping their promises that they are indeed on the rise, and no longer sweaty, ugly things to lurk in corners and stare at the golden, back-lit glorious ones with envy. But now it’s almost nine and the crowd is already thinning out—which is natural–to the Mudd Club, before it closes for good, or Limelight, or CBGB, or Studio 54.
The Italian woman with the quality facial work who pressed her card down your pants will have to wait, as the bartenders must be paid, the checks and deposits tallied, spilled wine mopped from the hardwood floor, and then let’s do this again next month and the next month after, until forever. Please come back soon, I love you, go fuck yourself, I hope the check clears or my man with a baseball bat will break your knees for breakfast. Don’t be silly, Karen, my assistant’s not interested in me, because I cherish you, and I’ll meet you right after we’re done cleaning up, so please get us a table at Odeon with Saxby. The limo is waiting just outside.
And Britta, oh Britta, as the gallery lights go dark and we’re alone in my office, I wouldn’t think of asking you to cheat on your boring Wall Street boyfriend, even though I secretly love only you, so please let me rub-off against your exquisite pale ass while you snort this Bolivian coke, because we’re going to be rich from tonight until tomorrow until… Let it stay forever now.
Dorn stared at waves crashing against the beach–his beach–in the Hamptons. The Atlantic Ocean a gray-green, churning and roiling, the smell of life and death cast out on the shoreline. Summer crowds had dwindled after Labor Day, leaving only sounds of the detonating surf and seagull shrieks. Dorn reclined in a Terrycloth bathrobe on his deck chair taking it all in. No mountains or prominent hills on Long Island, so the perfect blue sky canopied with scalloped clouds stretched out to forever.
When they went house shopping two years ago, his then wife Karen said, “Not South Hampton. They swap wives there. Anything goes with those blue blood perverts.”
East Hampton didn’t work either. The damn Maidstone Club wouldn’t accept Dorn and Karen as members. Their lineage or pedigree was wrong. Inbred WASP fucks with their holier than thou, my old money is better than your new money bullshit. Instead, Dorn bought a beach house in Amagansett. That’s where the rock stars, Wall Street crooks, Hollywood actors, and famous tennis players lived in splendor.
“I think my lawyer has a good solution,” Karen said a month ago.
A good solution for who? Dorn wondered. Karen would get the house in the divorce settlement but little in alimony. Dorn was still rich and could buy another place eventually, but he wondered, who forgets their first love, their first beach house in the Hamptons? David Geffen had sat right next to him in July at the height of the summer season, admiring the view.
Dorn’s outdoor mobile phone rang.
“Frederick, are we ready for the opening?” Saxby remained convinced the sky would fall at any moment.
“Relax, Saxby. There’s a huge buzz on Vasily Porkanov. Don’t you read Art in America? ‘The Polish Picasso of Neo Expressionism.’ Most of his new pieces have already sold.”
“How will you keep someone from stealing him, like with Ash Goykin?”
Dorn waved away a seagull swooping close to the Barefoot Contessa croissant resting on the wide flat arm of his Adirondack chair. “The highest bidder will end up stuck with Goykin.”
The artist now a junkie, reduced to repeating variations of his popular paintings. A factory of minimum wage workers creating watered-down versions of Goykin’s past triumphs.
“Saxby,” Dorn said, “I am not getting reamed by the SoHo art mafia again.”
“So you think we have a future?”
“Definitely.” Dorn scratched his balls then bit into the croissant. Seagulls stood poised on the sand, heads jerking sideways, watching, waiting.
Unbeknownst to Saxby, the fall show would be their last together. When the gallery began in 1983, Saxby insisted on a contract clause where he could sell out his partnership to Dorn—in case the whole thing tanked. Dorn agreed, if another clause gave him the right to buy Saxby’s share.
“As if you’ll ever have the money,” Saxby had told him.
It had been a mad gamble, but would pay off next month. Dorn was tired of his partner taking credit for their success, like some Hollywood producer who forks over a measly million for a film and struts around bragging about his creative input.
“This year will end well,” Dorn said as a goodbye to Saxby. After tamping down the antennae on the walkie talkie of a phone, he took a dip in the ocean, diving under waves, and body surfing atop them. The late September water had turned colder, but damn it, Dorn needed to get his last swims in before he lost the house in October. He felt a sharp pain in his chest and swam ashore. Doctor Hong had warned: Don’t over-exert yourself. Avoid stress. Avoid stimulants.
The cleaning lady Alamar met him holding a plush white towel and dried off Dorn’s shivering form. He left a wet sand footprint trail across the wood slats of the deck. Alamar was not attractive to him, but Dorn led her into the master bedroom anyway. Because he could, and because he had no one else to share the last days of his beach house in the Hamptons with.
Their October show was Dorn-Saxby’s best. Fitting. Split on a high note.
Andy Warhol arrived with his entourage and commandeered a corner. “Uh, this stuff is great,” he said to Dorn. “It’s simple, and well, nice lines. Can I have one?” Warhol half-gestured toward a Porkanov canvas.
“Really? You want to buy it?”
“Oh, well, yeah, I’d trade something.” His shiny, waxen face looked earnest. “Uh, I have a napkin Basquiat drew on. It’s going to be worth a lot. Um, well, I think it will be.”
“We’ll talk later, Andy.” Dorn noticed a beautiful East Indian woman. The bindi on the center of her forehead mirrored the red dots by his paintings. Sales. She brought good luck.
“I’ve never seen you in here before.”
“I’m clairvoyant.” The woman smirked. “I see vultures.” She gestured upward.
“What?” The art world was littered with nut-jobs and Dorn served as their freak magnet.
“Vultures descending in your future, tearing you and all this apart. Make amends. Now.”
Dorn spotted a familiar rock star. “Would you excuse me?” He rushed away.
“Eric? Or should I call you Derek?” Dorn laughed and the guitarist’s mouth tightened. “In the sixties, at the Fillmore, everyone was like Cream, Cream, Cream, but to me, your recent stuff is much better.” Dorn felt the coke, the Leoville wine, and Quaalude all blend into one perfect buzz. “I’m no expert, but I think today’s music is maybe the best music ever. I mean, Howard Jones, Mike and the Mechanics, Starship, and you of course.”
Clapton’s grin became a grimace. He nodded and wandered toward Downtown Julie Brown, who stood waving from the bar.
Saxby darted over. “Eric fucking Clapton,” he whispered in Dorn’s ear. “He has a hard-on for contemporary German artists. His people told me Eric needs a hundred square feet of Bettendorf’s art for his bungalow in LA.” Saxby appeared panicked. “What do we do? Everything sold.”
“Calm down. Bettendorf will create a piece just for him.”
“Frederick?” his first ex-wife Ali said. “Nice turnout.” She shouted to be heard over the piped-in Robert Palmer music throbbing like a migraine.
“Didn’t expect you.” Tensions had mellowed six years after their divorce.
“I told you I’d make it some day.” She smiled. “And tonight is someday.” Ali gazed up, studying Dorn’s face with concern.
“What is it?”
“Remember when we first met in San Francisco?”
“Sure. Nineteen years ago.”
“You were so annoyed that I said you resembled John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas.”
Dorn laughed air through his nostrils.
“Well, you don’t anymore. But you look way too thin.”
Dorn reflexively ran a hand through his coarse, wiry hair, now graying. Of course he wanted to resemble the John Phillips of 1967. No one looked like that anymore, not even John himself. Dorn wiped his nostrils with a tissue.
“Freddie, there’s that place upstate. You could go for a month and try to stop–”
“Thanks for coming, Ali. Enjoy yourself.”
Dorn veered toward his office for a pick-me-up line. Oh, Jesus Christ. The silver-haired man in the cowboy hat must be Karen’s lawyer, keeping tabs on the money flow, and the preppy young guy by the bar, wasn’t he that novelist? Minimalism or something. Who had time to read? Thump-thump-jump-thump. Just arrhythmia. Doctor Hong claimed millions of Americans lived with it.
Dorn’s progress got blocked by a young woman in heavy makeup standing by a cameraman. “Frederick Dorn? Heather Roberts from ABC,” she said. “Can you describe your involvement with Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No program?” The white caps on her teeth blinding. “It’s ironic you began as a poster gallery owner in the legendary Haight-Ashbury of the late sixties. Weren’t you part of the drug culture that you now are against?” She jabbed a microphone up toward his chin.
Dorn looked for an escape route. “I was involved then in what you call the ‘drug culture’. Just youthful experimentation. I deeply regret that era.” Dorn blew his nose. “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘It’s morning in America,’ and we all have a duty to help the children, who are the future, uh, and the future is now, and now is the present.”
“So children are present?” Heather’s face appeared strained by thought.
“No, children are presents, gifts to us all.”
Saxby swooped in, sensing a discordant vibration in their universe. “Heather, we will donate one percent of tonight’s proceeds to the Just Say No campaign.”
Fake smiles gleamed everywhere.
Dorn fled to scan the gallery from video monitors inside his office. Was that Julian Schnabel by the door? Two men in suits looked like the IRS agents who visited last month. Damn, the Village Voice journalist had come, the one who claimed Porkanov’s art was misogynistic. Michael Musto stood at his side, all black-rim glasses and sneer.
Dorn lifted his coke spoon then snorted. When he placed a tissue to his nostrils, blood spotted it. I need a cigarette. Both featured artists chatted with Heather, their pale Eastern European faces even ghostlier in the news camera glare. Dorn hallucinated a searchlight at the Berlin Wall.
His current assistant Gitte tapped over on heels. “Say hi to David Geffen before he leaves. And he’s about to leave.” She held the art waiting list on a clipboard. “Frederick, are you okay?”
Dorn squinted. “Who’s that woman pressing her face against our window outside?”
“Your stalker, Deanna. You dated her once and never called her back.”
“Congratulations on your show, Frederick.” Ali swooped in to kiss his cheek goodbye. “How lucky you are. All this success, your glamorous wife Karen, and that spectacular beach house in the Hamptons.”
“Yes. How lucky…” Dorn stared at something indeterminate. The gallery began to empty. He slumped against a wall and watched Ali and her Warner Brothers boyfriend flag a cab out on Broadway. How did I ever let her get away? Dorn lit a Dunhill. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
“Open the champagne.” Saxby met Dorn by the doorway to his office. “A toast.” Clink! “To all tomorrow’s parties.” Saxby’s grin was that of a man sated on a grand meal, lazy with contentment. “Should we get a bite at Fanelli’s? No, Florent. Obviously.”
“Step inside, Saxby.” Dorn stubbed out his cigarette. “We need to talk.”
Max DeVoe Talley is the author of the novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, published in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Two Cities Review, Del Sol Review, The Opiate, Gold Man Review, and Chantwood Magazine, and is forthcoming in the Freakshow anthology from Copper Pen Press. Talley received a best fiction award at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2007. He was born in New York City and lives in Southern California, where he paints, teaches music, and is a contributing editor to Luna Review. www.maxdevoetalley.com
5 Questions with Max DeVoe Talley:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
MDT: I recently finished my novel, Dear Mr. Fantasy, which has interconnected short stories about five characters progressing from the late 1960s to the 21st century. “Gallery Opening” is a central chapter about the excesses of the 1980s Manhattan SoHo art scene. I wanted it to be absurd and outlandish, but also true to that era. Although it is fiction, I meticulously researched the story details so that if the gallery I created did exist, those would be the actual people in attendance. I tried to insure the music and art styles, as well as the clubs and restaurants mentioned were all consistent with the moment.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
MDT: I don’t have one overriding writing influence. Denis Johnson, Aimee Bender, and Cormac McCarthy are current favorites. Dylan Thomas, Don DeLillo, and Hunter S. Thompson will always be influential.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
MDT: I write at a utilitarian desk with two laptops surrounding a printer. Boring as hell, but it works. My favorite place was by a window in a cabin that I rented in Big Sur, CA ten years ago. It had a stunning forty-mile view down the jagged coastline. However, I rarely got any writing done.
TD: Favorite word?
MDT: Regarding writing? Fearless.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
MDT: I try to read thirty minutes to an hour a day. When I can do that on a bench at a local park, I am very happy.