Tag Archives: art world

Murder in the Abstract – Susan C. Shea

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Murder in the Abstract takes place in the museum and gallery worlds of San Francisco and Santa Fe—locations can be a good enough reason to read a book. Susan C. Shea worked in fundraising for education and arts organizations before turning her talents to writing fiction so she gets the role of development director for a museum just right. There is some product name-dropping at the start, to create bona fides for a wealthy milieu, I suppose. That is such a tired tactic that it stands out. But events and motives quickly overtake the ads and a suicide at an art museum exhibit opening moves front and center.

The suicide is really a homicide—an artist who pitched himself, or was pushed, from the fifth floor window of the museum’s development director. She is flabbergasted and freaked out—apparently the artist had a letter, signed by her and on museum stationery, inviting him to meet her in her office. OK, she didn’t send it but Dani O’Rourke has history with the splattered artist. Their brief relationship ended in a very public disagreement and now she is a suspect. She gives a first-person account of events–the voice is competently managed. And the cast is studded with artists, museum directors, collectors, gallery owners and cute cops. Hmmm.

Dani’s ex (husband, not the now-abstract boyfriend) is a charming and exceptionally wealthy playboy who can’t resist coming to her rescue, invited or not. Her best friend is an artist who is somehow endangered by events and nearly ends up dead herself. A development assistant is too flirtatious and invites suspicion. Dani’s boss, the museum director, owns a very risky secret.  A collusion to hoard and market a new kind of forgery shadows events from the background as Dani takes a break from tense doings in San Francisco and steps into a lethal mix of treacherous media in charming Santa Fe.  Museums are not sanctuaries in this mystery and galleries are perilous repositories of experimental paintings and unsentimental perps.

Murder in the Abstract is really a lot of fun. People do die—not the amusing parts—but the heroine’s voice is a kind of sophisticated Bridget Jones Diary persona and the tension is pretty low-key. The art world is ripe for cruising and the insider knowledge about nefarious collecting practices adds to the appeal. The book was a fast, light read and a reprieve from the longer daily volumes that inevitably cost me sleep. I need to look for a few more of those to vary this marathon. I’d read another book by Susan Shea, if she sticks to the volatile intersection of greed and art with all the trappings to lure an armchair voyeur.

Murder in the Abstract   Susan C. Shea | Avalon Books  2010

The Map and the Territory – Michel Houellebecq

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Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory is an oddly gripping story about an artist, Jed Martin, who allows life, love, inspiration, acclaim and skyrocketing market value to come to him. His is an unintentionally Zen existence; he remains detached from competition, much of the art world, the mundane irritations of daily living and even the day’s news.  Martin meets the love of his life, Olga, when she is working in Paris for the Michelin company. At the time, Martin is making photographs of Michelin maps and an exhibition that Olga helps to arrange puts him on the map and lands him a gallery. When Olga is transferred to Russia, Martin stays in Paris.

His mother’s suicide when he was young, his renowned architect father’s preoccupation with his work, his own ambivalence about pursuing anything—or anyone—instill in him a habit of silence and solitude that enhances his artistic reputation. Martin spends long years developing new directions for his art and then reveals a body of work when he has exhausted the medium. He progresses from photographs of industrial objects to photographs of road maps to painted portraits of people who typify professions. Subjects of the portraits that cause a sensation and boost prices for his work range from a prostitute to Martin’s father on the eve of his retirement from his successful architecture firm to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs discussing the future of technology to a reclusive famous writer—named Michel Houellebecq—whom Martin engages to write program notes for an exhibit, paints for his final portrait in the series, and attempts to befriend as a fellow seeker of truth and artistic mentor.

The real Houellebecq traces the arc of Martin’s life as fame overtakes him. The artist remains impassive, noting each time an event or a relationship comes to an end for him that this will be the last time he paints a portrait, sees a lover, speaks to his father, visits a friend. Occasionally he relapses into art making. More often he gets lost in his own thinking. One day he is enlisted by the police to help solve a gruesome and baffling crime—and this only adds to his wealth, his isolation and his mystique.

The Map and the Territory is a wonderful novel–it won the 2010 Prix Goncourt and a raft of enthusiastic reviews. I hated to put it aside when real life interfered and I was fascinated by Jed Martin and his search for meaning. The descriptions of places and people are beautifully rendered, the humor is intelligent, the skewering of society is performed by a master. This book was a pure pleasure to read in a day—I wish all of the books I encountered reached the level of Houellebecq’s and I will search out more of his work in hopes that it is all this good.

The Map and the Territory   Michel Houellebecq | Alred A. Knopf   2012