Theda en Extremis
Fourteen hours after I exited the Broken Frame, I was again walking on the very same and very wet Brannan Street. Only this time, I was moving toward school rather than away from it, stepping at a brisk clip in response to a summons from Theda. Upon arriving home the previous evening, I discovered an ominous phone message waiting for me. “Hello, this is Theda Vohn der Patter calling for Jason Fowler. It’s about 8:30 on Tuesday night. I’m sorry that this evening’s meeting got cut short, but I was hoping that we could talk sometime tomorrow. Please come to my office at eleven. No need to confirm, Toby has already cleared my schedule. Congratulations on being nominated to the Board. See you tomorrow. Bye.” The word “nominated” snagged my attention—at that moment, I was under the impression that my board status was already a done deal. I was also annoyed over the fact that I had been called in at short notice on one of my non-teaching days. But I reckoned that I had better get used to the fact that, in the foreseeable future, my free time was going to be much less my own.
My usual habit was to enter the school via a shortcut leading through the roll-up door near the parking lot, but remembering Theda’s remark about the refurbished lobby, I decided to walk the extra half-block to enter the school’s front entrance opening onto the Embarcadero. NCSAD was operating in a seven-story building that had once been the headquarters of the Hort-Dispatch, which is to say, it was originally designed as a combined editorial office, printing shop and distribution center for one of the West Coast’s oldest newspapers. During the booming 1960s, the paper’s burgeoning circulation put it in need of a larger and more modern base of operations, so it moved to several interconnected properties a few blocks to the west. The building was refurbished at great expense to be a dealership for luxury automobiles, which proved to be a masterpiece of bad timing when the 1973 oil embargo sparked a recession and a diminished enthusiasm for single-digit-miles-per-gallon transportation. The car dealership folded, and at that point, the school was only too happy to lease and occupy the building on remarkably agreeable terms. It required little in the way of further refurbishment and re-zoning application to be transformed into an efficiently designed academic facility that would be subjected to routine abuse by its unruly inhabitants.
The building’s newly transformed lobby was a sight to behold. It had double-high ceilings, bespeaking an earlier function as a showroom for large motor vehicles. Where dirty linoleum once was, a clean gray carpet now lay, upon which were placed half a dozen ficus trees in grey containers, all interspersed between comfortable couches and coffee tables. Scruffy looking students were conversing in small groups on the couches, while a few others checked email on computer stations affixed to the north wall. As I was ten minutes early, and as one of the stations close to the door became vacant, I decided to see if I could send out a quick email to Kathy Penngrove, alerting her to my agreement that she be my TA, and instructing her to meet with me at her earliest convenience. Gaining access to the school’s intranet proved easy, and the first of many electronic exchanges between email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org was quickly consummated.
At first, I didn’t even notice the glass walls of the new art gallery. This was because they were covered with large sheets of white butcher paper masking whatever was going on behind them. Then I realized that over a third of the spacious room’s floor space was given over to the gallery structure, which looked like a giant aquarium made of plate glass and burnished aluminum. An equal amount of floor space was also made available for whatever it was that lived on the mezzanine above the gallery, access made possible by steep stairs located at the end of the room furthest from the front door.
I ascended those stairs to find a small reception area appointed with another ficus tree, more gray carpet of a much thicker pile, comfortable Barcelona-style chairs and a low table covered with several thick issues of Global Arts International. As I checked the time, a black pantsuit clad Toby Michelson walked in and extended a limp hand of official salutation, asking if I was Jason Fowler. With my well-practiced diffidence, I responded by saying, “Yes—nice to officially meet you.”
“Theda is on the phone, but you can go on in. She won’t be but another minute.”
This seemed to be some kind of sign. I was expecting to be told to wait as a reward for being punctual, in keeping with the sadomasochistic rules that governed such meetings. These were always much less about exchanging information than they were about demonstrating the ownership of the sacred bureaucratic grail called the upper hand, and I was prepared to play along. But the fact that I was immediately ushered into the inner sanctum meant that something else was afoot. I went to full alert status.
As Toby guided me toward Theda’s office, I passed through an anteroom containing four desks set in tightly partitioned cubicles. Three were vacant, but one was not. It was occupied by Rhoda Roby, whose attention
was firmly fixed on a computer screen positioned only a few inches from her nose. The Terry Gross interview show, Fresh Air on NPR, had just started, and Rhoda had it playing on a small radio positioned behind her computer monitor. Of course, there was yet another ficus tree in plain view, this one a hazard to the navigation required of anyone who would want to walk back toward Theda’s office, a most awkward piece of interior design.
Upon entering the windowless office, I saw Theda, who pointed at a seat upon which I was bidden to sit. She was perched inside of the dark cavity of an egg-shaped chair made of burnished aluminum, dangling from chrome chains affixed to a low ceiling that also supported six lamps made of the same shiny material, each emitting an eerie halogen illumination. She was wearing what appeared to be the sleek uniform of a flight attendant-of-the-future, consisting of a dark gray double-breasted pantsuit made from a strange synthetic fabric, trimmed out with unobtrusive epaulets and sporting two rows of dark blue buttons. She swiveled her egg chair away from me, but I could still hear her part of the conversation, and she seemed to not care.
“Why not use the corporate jet, that’s really what its for, right?……No, we had a meeting right before the first of the year, so the next quarterly meeting isn’t until the end of March….no, we don’t need the full Board for that, we can run it through the executive committee…no, not yet, but the by-laws haven’t been amended in over a decade…mostly MOUs, too many if you asked me…let’s keep the POA circle pretty tight…of course they’re expensive, but I think we’ll get our money’s worth… no in the short run, too…Yes, the money has already been wired to the holding company, but that was only the first installment…the enrollment numbers look good, so we are on track…Anita says that she can work with the budget only if everyone understands that we are no longer doing publications, so there needs to be some additional fundraising….No, publications are very important because they represent the program beyond the space-and-time frames of the immediate, and once the Varney-Tepes people see that we are reaching in that direction, they will want to support more of the same…Sure, that’s OK, I have to take a meeting now anyway—let’s talk soon—let me know when you get back into town. Ciao-Ciao.”
She held up the cell phone to examine something, and then she turned to her laptop to check a recent piece of email, scribbling something that looked like a phone number onto a post-it affixed to her computer screen. Then she looked up at me, smiled, and spoke: “So Jason Fowler, your reputation precedes you.”
I wondered: a reputation for what? I silently congratulated myself for not taking the bait by refraining from asking her that question.
After a short moment of awkward silence, Theda continued. “Kudos on your nomination to the Board. I think that we are all excited to be working with you. Anyway, I want you to know that I am having these one-on-one meetings with everybody on the faculty, partly to get to know everybody individually and also to get up to speed on what’s going on. This will help me get a perspective on the problems and opportunities that we are facing. I see here that you are in the art history department, and that you also coordinate the summer art criticism conference—that sounds great. You are also a writer?”
In response, I said, “Well, yes. Mostly of exhibition and book reviews—American Art Review mostly, also some southern California publications. My most recent book was an edited anthology called Critical Interrogations.” I declined to mention that it was also my only book, with no others on the horizon.
Suddenly, her cell phone rang again. Theda said, “excuse me, I have to take this one.” Again, she swiveled away from me, but this time not so far that I couldn’t see her hands and face. Her snake-like fingers were tipped by fingernails that were exceedingly long and obviously artificial, painted with a blue polish that was a perfect match for the buttons on her Buck Rogers pantsuit. She wore burnished metal rings on two of her slender fingers, these matching an Egyptian-looking broach affixed to her collar as if it were some kind of military badge signifying rank or accomplishment. She wore lipstick that had a blue-violet cast to it, matching her understated eye make-up. Her shoulder cut honey-blond hair was as impeccably coifed as it was the previous afternoon, but I found myself wondering what she would look like if she were suddenly stripped of cosmetic artifice. Her face was preternaturally elongated and, despite a dark blue silk scarf wrapped around her neck, I could see that her Adam’s apple was much more prominent than is usually the case with women. There was something odd about her body language, which was simultaneously over-theatrical and mechanically graceless.
While she spoke, her gaze suddenly became fixed on an imaginary point on a horizon far from the windowless room in which we sat. She seemed deeply relieved to take this particular phone call. “Hi Hobie, ….Yes, I ran it by the executive committee…Agnes said it made sense…No, I think that we need to wait a few weeks…. OK, maybe ten days, but at least ten days…. at the least….”
While she spoke, I looked about the room. There was a colorful quilt on one of the walls behind the egg chair, with green and yellow squares sporting silhouette shapes of shoes and chickens cut from yellow and green fabric. There was also a very expensive looking clock on her desk, with a sleek looking file cabinet sitting next to it. But the egg chair was odd. It was at least five feet long from top to bottom, and the interior was tricked out in black, tuck-and-roll leather that looked expensively real. With Theda sitting inside, with the chains suspending it reaching up to the ceiling, and with fiberoptic computer cable dangling to the floor, it looked like some kind of robotic cephalopod waiting for a meal. A meal like me.
While Theda talked, I studied her face. Her glassy eyes tended to roll back into her head while she listened, and there was something odd about the movements of her mouth, almost as if her upper lip was partially paralyzed. This conveyed the effect of a sneer, which was enhanced by the fact that her jaw tended to jut forward when she started a sentence. There was something vaguely familiar about the egg chair and its occupant, and I searched my mind for what that might be. Then it hit me: Francis Bacon, the 1966 Portrait
of Isabel Rawsthorne that was on the cover of a catalog put out by the Tate Modern, a painting famous for its frightening portrayal of the contorted grimace of its sitter. Then I noticed something else. When Theda’s eyes blinked, her eyelids came up from the bottom of her eye like some kind of exotic Amazonian tree lizard. My skin started to crawl.
Theda finished her conversation and again turned her attention back toward me. “I don’t know how much you know about Pilar Iragay’s situation, but she is not coming to work this semester. She has a major medical issue that needs to be addressed right away, and we are trying to get her classes covered. Would you be interested in covering her graduate seminar until we can find a replacement?”
I remembered not seeing Pilar at the Senate meeting and was curious about her situation. “Can I assume that Tammy and Dean Alfred are in the loop on this? If so, I would say yes.” I was already thinking of the credit cards I would pay off with the extra money, which from my point of view, would be of the easily gained variety because the seminar would not require much preparation. All I would have to do is lead extemporaneous discussions about the students’ recent work, a pedagogical can of corn if ever there was one.
“It was Tammy’s idea, and I think it’s a good one. Now tell me about your presentation at next month’s University Art Association conference. I’m glad that we have one of our faculty on the program, especially since it is taking place in San Jose.”
It was time to carefully parse my words. “Well, the session is titled 21st Century Critical Perspectives, chaired by Sharon Hertz. Dave Hinckley and Burton Donaldson are also on the panel, as are Yervant Juba, Kenworth Bascomb and Orphelia Kraut. I am doing an extract from my next book titled The Artworld as an Economy of Narcissistic Reward. Our panel will be on the second day, Friday afternoon, near the end of the conference.”
While I pondered the blatant dishonesty of my “next book” remark, I noticed that, rather suddenly, Theda’s body grew tall and rigid. Her eyes flashed red with pupils contracting into tight diamond-shaped slivers. Her nostrils flared wide, revealing interiors that looked like cat’s ears turned inside out. For a brief moment, it seemed like her mouth opened extraordinarily wide, as if her jaw had become unhinged from the rest of her face. Then, her subtle crotalid sneer transformed itself into a frightening, asymmetrical snarl as she lurched forward from her egg chair. In a rising voice boiling with urgent emotion, she demanded answers: “Why are you talking about that? What’s that got to do with Contemporary Art? ” She was close to gasping, making it was clear that I had hit a very raw nerve.
Keeping cool was crucial. With my most measured and annoyingly calm voice, I extended my lie with smug disdain. “Well, the book that I am working on is about emerging models of patronage for the next century. I think that patronage study is the great overlooked topic in contemporary art criticism, and in fact, is sorely neglected in relation to the entirety of 20th-century art studies. It’s actually quite fascinating once you get into things like tax policies and the subtleties of non-profit accounting. My working assumption is that it can yield some useful academic fruit and provide some fresh perspective, especially now that government funding has become so politicized. Economies of narcissistic reward are a hot new topic in the world of organizational sociology, responding to a vast corporate interest in figuring out ways to motivate employees without paying them more money. Usually, this involves things like commemorative T-shirts and honor badges, but lately, the whole thing has become much more sophisticated, with the idea of soft power being so central to recent geopolitical strategy. So I am just doing a bit of grifting, uh, I mean grafting from normal organizational sociology theories and applying them to the art world, but then, to my surprise, I discovered that those theories were actually taken from the art world. I was as surprised as anybody could be, but the evidence is all there.” My grift/graft slip was of the intentional non-Freudian variety. Faux Freudian? Perhaps. I was glad that I didn’t have to give a more detailed explanation of how, in my imaginary economy of narcissistic reward, regulating access to underserved self-esteem could be systematically and cynically manipulated to accrue benefits to the manipulator, in effect turning undeserved self-esteem into a kind of currency that operates according to the rules of a manipulated market, and beyond those rules as well. Another time, another place. Soon enough, but not too soon. Maybe.
My forthright explanation seemed to have the desired effect, and it was clear that Theda was taken aback by my invocation of the all-powerful gods of corporate sociology. Her rigid body language started to deflate, and she seemed to recognize that she had just protested in embarrassing excess. After I refused to take the bait she had tossed toward me, she took the bait that I had nonchalantly tossed back in her direction, giving me the position of momentary advantage. While her composure slowly recovered, she spoke with slurred and halted speech, saying, “Well, I’m sure it will be interesting. Remember, you will be sharing the podium with some major players, so don’t embarrass us.” This little reminder of the fact that I was a token seat filler sharing a stage with internationally-recognized luminaries was the best that she could do to regain the upper hand, and even though she was right, she was wrong to presume that her little jab mattered.
Confident that I had prevailed in the testy exchange, I said, “I’ll try not too.” I knew that all I had to do would be to not overshoot my mark while conceding the limelight to the bigger egos. I was in the position of having nothing to lose and everything to gain simply by being on the panel, so there was no need to seek additional advantage from the occasion unless a clear opportunity presented itself.
Theda seemed to grow increasingly weary and a bit confused, as if her momentary loss of self-control had a psychically draining after-effect. Her voice trembled a bit as she changed the subject by asking, “Will we see you at the opening of Propositions in Space? I’m sure that you will enjoy meeting Anita, and some of the other prospective Board members will also be there. All of the current Board members are planning to attend.” Clearly, much more than art would be on display at the opening of the new gallery.
Marshaling the holy spirit of mock enthusiasm, I answered, “I wouldn’t miss it.” Then, I decided to double-down by channeling the Eddie Haskell character from the old Leave it to Beaver television show. “I must say, the gallery looks impressive from the outside. I can’t wait to see what it looks like on the inside!” My remark was not exactly an olive branch, but certainly, it was a good-sized olive twig. I gave in to the feeling of self-satisfaction, even though I should have known that my easy success in this preliminary joust meant nothing beyond the fact that I was being sized-up for a more harrowing confrontation brewing on the horizon. In fact, it was far too easy, and from that I should have drawn some more far-reaching and ominous conclusions. But at that moment, the only question was whether I was being vetted as a potential ally, a potential adversary, or something else that was still too disturbing to be imagined.
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Illustrations: Mark Van Proyen except where noted.