Tuesday, March 3, 2015

An Inventory of My Night

According to the artist, if there's not wine, he's not interested.

So I knew that I'd find an abundance of grape at the Anderson Gallery for Myron Helfgott's talk about his retrospective, "An Inventory of My Thoughts."

The audience was a who's who of Richmond's art scene of the past 40 years along with all of us Johnny-come-latelys who'd met Myron since the turn of the last century.

As if to prove the point, gallerist Ashley began by announcing that although it's not usually the Anderson's policy to allow wine in the downstairs galleries, "This is Myron Helfgott!"

'Nuff said.

Myron began the talk by saying that his daughter had called, not to check on what he'd be saying at the talk, but to question what he was wearing. When he told her, she asked if those were the pants that were too short and if so, to wear matching socks. He had.

Are there any straight men alive who can dress themselves properly?

"I rarely go to gallery talks," Myron went on, "Because they're so damn boring. So if you decide to leave in the middle of my talk, feel good about it. If there's nothing you can steal from my lecture, see you later!"

That's his charm. It may sound like humor but Myron really means it.

From there, he went on in his typical irascible way to say that people use the word "beauty" when they mean pretty and "form" only to refer to three dimensional objects. And don't get him started on "composition" in art.

"I don't care if it looks like crap. I want it to be powerful!" That led into an analogy about New Yorker theater critic John Lahr (son of Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr) and his book "Astonish Me" about going to the theater expecting to be dazzled.

Myron saw a parallel. "We ought to demand to be astonished at art shows," he insisted. "Unless there's free wine." He was kidding, of course. Sort of.

"You, the viewer, should have to work to make art whole. You should learn something from the piece."

His tangent about Cezanne was brilliant, explaining how the master's works were meant to reveal themselves  slowly over a lifetime, not immediately. He likened it to his own process. If he likes a piece the minute he finishes it, he destroys it. If he doesn't then but still likes it 3 weeks later, it may be a keeper.

Citing his influences as literature and music, he name-checked Nabokov' "The Gift" (I thought I'd read all of Nabokov's work, but apparently not) as his favorite because criticism of the book is woven into the body of the work.

Myron had tried to accomplish this once, providing his own criticism of his work for a friend's wife to read as part of the work. She refused because the wording was so unkind.

No one is harder on himself than Myron is on his work and that's the way he likes it.

Listening to his talk was really no different than having a conversation with him - something I've done many times - except that he was dressed better and had on a microphone.

His strong intellect, self-deprecating humor and crotchety personality were the perfect addition to a gallery full of his work, including three busts on a pedestal behind him silently keeping watch over him.

Because he's Myron, he finished with a Jessie Ventura quote ("Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat") and dismissed us all to go downstairs and drink wine with him.

Had he even noticed that no one had walked out on his talk despite his permission to do so? Probably not.

I've been in the Anderson plenty of times but always playing by the rules, so it was different to be sipping in the gallery as people mingled and admired the work.

There were lots of familiar faces - the glamorous artist who's about to celebrate her one year elope-aversary, the painter who recently friended me on Facebook 15 years after we met, the photographer who'd had a beer in the car on the way over, the dean who was smiling from the gallery's wall in a photograph of Myron's, the globe-trotting musician who'd been at my house yesterday - milling about and, yes, sipping wine in his honor.

The man himself sat at a table signing copies of the exhibition's catalog, his cup of red wine within easy reach. When I handed him my copy of the gorgeous book, he threatened to sign it, "From one old codger to another," but thought better of it.

I told him all I wanted was for him to astonish me. He did and I bade him and his short pants farewell.

Of all the unlikely places for me to head next, I was going to a dinner party in the condo directly underneath Myron's studio/condo in Carver. Complete coincidence.

While not as large as his unit, the condo was spectacular, with 11-foot carved wooden doors, a record collection display rack and the same impressively deep windows.

Hosted by a musician who used to run track, the party was small enough that I could remember the other guests' names from the first introduction.

The delicious smell emanating from the oven was courtesy of the host's Puerto Rican mother's recipe, a classic we were told Mom had always served for Thanksgiving.

Just as inviting was the music, starting with "Somethin' Else," a seminal Blue Note album of Cannonball Adderley's featuring Miles Davis as a sideman. In the high-ceilinged condo, the warm sound of jazz on vinyl set the party tone in a way that no digital recording could ever do.

Wine was poured as people got to know each other, eventually even talking about things they were working on. I admit to being fascinated to hear about one involving collecting oral histories, much the way the WPA did during FDR's tenure, in this case about school integration in Chesterfield County.

Two of us who try to do as little cooking as possible bonded over how we'd both unexpectedly made pots of stew and chili during last week's snow.

While we were all chatting and munching on guacamole scooped up with Red Hot Blues, our host slipped out to run across the street to Kroger for a forgotten herb, back before we'd even finished our first glasses of vino.

Shortly thereafter, a voice from the kitchen called out, polling us all, asking, "Internal temperature for chicken, 170, right?" which launched a discussion of meat thermometers, something only the host and I had ever bothered to use. Everyone else admitted to being afraid of them or at least too unsure to know what to do with them.

Half a dozen candles adorned the table when we sat down to dinner about 9:30, everyone pleasantly lubricated and far more comfortable with (and knowledgeable about) the others than when we'd arrived.

Only the host and I coveted the dark meat (fine with me, more for us), but everyone loved the herbed vegetables that had been cooked along with the yard bird: carrots, parsnips, onions, turnips, you know, all the usual Puerto Rican suspects to sauce up the fowl and rice.

The dark bread for tonight's meal had come from Sub Rosa and our host explained that it was the house custom to truly "break bread," that is, not to cut it into slices, but to tear off hunks and the bread lover in me appreciated the primal nature of this method.

While we devoured multiple plates of food, the high school teacher regaled us with stories of prom-planning ("There's an all-night after-party to keep them from drinking and fornicating") and student Halloween costumes (her favorite was the fuzzy bunny from "Donny Darko").

Everyone except me was a rabid podcast listener (Mr. Fine Wine is my sole podcast and that's just music), with raves for "Love and Radio" and thumbs down for a bro-centric edition of "StarTalk" with Seth Meyers.

Dessert was twofold: flourless dark chocolate bourbon brownies were homemade and the other treat came in a white bag from Williamsburg's Black Bird Bakery. Dubbed "toffee cinder blocks," two bricks of honeycomb-like toffee were covered in a thick coat of the darkest chocolate, stuck one on top of the other at an angle.

It came close to astonishing me.

We immediately discerned that there was no good way to cut into this without shattering the toffee, so the Williamsburger began breaking off pieces with her bare hands, Sub Rosa-style. It was completely unique, sort of a giant piece of candy being shared as dessert.

One of the guests who'd learned enough about me to know a little, said, "At least you got to taste something new to you tonight."

Lingering over bits of chocolate and wine, we realized that hours had passed and for some people, it was a school night.

Even the lure of more wine didn't win them over. All I can say is, they're no Myron. But then, who is?

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