The Art Fair

Susan Shapiro reviews "The Art Fair" by David Lipsky.

Published May 22, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Writing well is the best revenge. Just ask David Lipsky, whose divorced mother Pat Lipsky is a well-known Manhattan abstract painter. "The Art Fair," Lipsky's eloquent coming-of-age-in-Soho saga, is about Richard Freeley, whose divorced mother Joan Freeley is a well-known Manhattan abstract painter. Yet this engaging autobiographical first novel is anything but abstract. With subtle strokes and sudden blasts of color, "The Art Fair" brilliantly sends up the New York art scene.

The story chronicles the lives of Richard and Joan, as they navigate the treacherous and back-stabbing art world. Critics, dealers and artists first proclaim Joan a genius, then eject her from favor. Richard becomes his depressed mother's confidant, advisor and escort to art openings. He has a wonderful gift for cool observation: "Brie was packed into my veins, my muscles, my brain," he says. "For three years, it seemed I lived on Brie, and even now, when I eat the cool, slimy food, I look around for fear that I am being judged ungenerously."

Art world insiders will have a field day matching fiction with fact. The character Celia Kapplestein, for instance, suspiciously resembles artist Helen Frankenthaler. Artist Neil Hollender is Ken Nolland's twin and the snobbish art critic Ernest Steinman, the scotch-drinking, Camel-smoking elder statesman of art criticism, is a shoe-in for Clement Greenberg. The Freddy Beaumont gallery is the Bob Miller gallery and the Gregor Krumlich gallery appears to be the Emmerich gallery on 57th Street.

Aside from spilling art world secrets, Lipsky is also sophisticated enough to toss in deft allusions to John Updike, whose first novel was "The Poorhouse Fair." Updike's "Too Far to Go" told of the Maples -- a couple named Richard and Joan -- just like the mother and father in Lipsky's current fiction. The thirty-year-old Lipsky, also the author of a short story collection ("Three Thousand Dollars") and a work of nonfiction ("Late Bloomers"), closes his poignant novel at a weekend art fair upstate, where his mother triumphs. Yet, says Richard, "it had never occurred to me that this would be the result of success -- that she would need me no longer and I would have to find a place somewhere else." Lipsky has clearly found his own canvas -- on the page.

By Susan Shapiro

Writing professor Susan Shapiro is the bestselling author/coauthor of “Unhooked,” “Lighting Up,” and most recently "American Shield." She’s working on a new essay collection about sex, love and addiction.

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