This is a novel, centered around the 75-day performance piece titled The Artist is Present by Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, with fictional protagonists and others drawn to and affected by that extraordinary exhibition.
At the fictional and emotional center of the story here is Arky Levin, whose wife Lydia has a stroke and decides to recover from it, or not, in a nursing home in East Hampton rather than burden him with her care. Arky is a composer and pianist, whose career has had highs and lows and may be petering out; Lydia is an even more accomplished architect. They’ve just sold their walkup in Manhattan and bought their dream home—a New York apartment overlooking Washington Square—and Lydia has arranged the move down to the last labeled box and a squadron of movers. When she’s stricken at the airport on returning from work on a distant project, Arky is left to babysit the move-in.
The central conflict in their story is whether Arky is a schmuck for going along with Lydia’s expressed desire that he stay away from the nursing home and attend to his own work. Readers struggle with this question, just as Arky and his adult daughter do. He thinks this an unfair request, but he succumbs to it because Lydia is a formidable being . . . and, probably, because he has work to do on a project that could reinvigorate his career, and a life to live though he likes it a whole lot less than before Lydia’s stroke. We get a lot more about how all this feels to Arky than to Lydia, because Lydia is essentially incapacitated. Whatever messages they send to each other are carried by their adult daughter, who urges her father to overrule her mother’s wishes and get as involved at the nursing home as she is.
An almost-equally central storyline in the novel is the exhibition going on at the Modern. In a several-story atrium, Abramović sits in one of two facing straight-chairs for hours on end. She doesn’t get up to pee, she doesn’t look away, she just stares into the eyes of members of the public who line up in the wee hours of every morning to get a good seat, either in the chair facing Abramović—where it is first-come-first-serve-and-stay-as-long-as-you-don’t-look-away—or in the spectator seats surrounding all this in the atrium. Arky goes nearly every day to watch, befriending others who are doing the same, some of whom have sat and maybe will again, some of whom—like Arky—think they will at some point but aren’t quite sure.
The most interesting part of the story of the exhibition, for me, was learning about Abramović’s performance art and career. We’re given all this backstory because in a floor above the sitting exhibition is a retrospective of Abramović’s career doing crazy things, like walking from one end of the Great Wall of China toward the center, where she will meet her long-time partner and paramour before they separate for good. Or an exhibition where the two of them stood naked facing each other in a doorway, and attending the exhibition entailed passing through the door; it’s recreated upstairs with others performing. Arky, and the many people he meets and befriends, have all gone upstairs sooner or later and been educated about performance art and Abramović’s oeuvre. It’s an amazing thing, this performance art. Reading these passages reminded me of the research I’ve done into Abstract Expressionism (for Strays and another novel in the works) into Abstract Expressionism. Talk about “abstract”—nothing could be more abstract than Abramović’s brand of performance art. “What does it mean?” has no more purchase in a conversation about The Artist is Present than it had at a Rothko exhibition on 57th Street in the Forties.
An equally compelling aspect of the novel is its depiction of what goes on inside the head of a composer and pianist. Arky loves his work, is born to it you might say, and the passages where we’re brought inside his head—as the music moves through his whole being—are wonderfully rendered.
I will say that New York itself seemed underdone a bit, at least to me. We do get a feel for the lovely apartment overlooking Washington Square Park. But there’s so much more to New York than that park, the sidewalk outside MoMA and its central space in which The Artist is Present was staged.
What can I say here (without spoilers) about the ending to the Levins’ story?
Well, that it makes no sense at all . . . and all the sense in the world. No fairy tale ending, this. A sober, clear-eyed manifesto is more like it. Bravo.
(Note: A 2012 documentary about The Artist is Present is widely available on cable television.)