Art Imitates Art

Before they can be described as anything else, even as art, the photographs of Nan Goldin must be called personal. She does not take pictures of strangers. She doesn’t cozy up to people and put them at ease. She shoots her friends. Herself. Her life. Her work, Goldin wrote in the introduction to her collection, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is “the diary I let people read.”

She explained, “We are not bonded by blood or place, but by a similar morality, the need to live fully and for the moment, a disbelief in the future, a similar respect for honesty, a need to push limits. . . . The photographs do not sentimentalize this creed: they are suffused with longing, frustration, and pain.”

A young Polish painter named Jacek Siudzinski is not a part of this group. He has never met Nan Goldin. He doesn’t know her friends. He lives, we are told, in the Polish countryside, with his mother and grandmother, abhorring cities, shunning other artists. His only contact with Nan Goldin was some pictures of hers he ran across in the German magazine Stern.

But he reacted to these images in a way familiar to anyone who was ever stunned by art: he wanted to consume them; he wanted to make them his.

Earlier this summer, Catherine Edelman, whose gallery represents Nan Goldin in Chicago, received a press release announcing a one-man show by Jacek Siudzinski at the Walter Bischoff Gallery. The announcement contained a small reproduction of one of Siudzinski’s paintings, a picture of two women in a car that he called Taxi I. Edelman looked at it in astonishment. The image came straight from a Nan Goldin photograph; all he’d done was transliterate it.

Full of curiosity, Edelman attended the opening. She counted four of them, four paintings lifted from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Siudzinski was there. He stood amid the throng, looking as though he felt miserably out of place in Chicago and fearful of his first American public. Edelman didn’t spoil his evening. She left in silence, and she called Nan Goldin.

Goldin told Edelman she wanted those four paintings destroyed.

“If I’d be Nan Goldin, I’d take it more as a compliment,” says Oskar Friedl, the director of the Walter Bischoff Gallery.

“I feel raped by this, not flattered,” Goldin told us by phone (she lives in New York). “I feel very violated, very ripped off.” She wasn’t being dramatic; one of the images the Pole chose to make his own was a photograph of a man who had been her lover. Another was Greer and Robert on the Bed, an astonishing encapsulation of the paradox that drives Goldin’s work: lovers who are “irrevocably strangers.” Siudzinski’s painting from that “is the most offensive to me,” Goldin said. “These are two of my best friends. That’s intensely personal.”

At issue here is the morality, not the quality of Siudzinski’s work. His American debut was a triumph. Five paintings sold. “I like his paintings, by the way,” says Goldin for the record. “I don’t like the ones taken from my work. They just look trivialized.”

After talking to Goldin, Catherine Edelman returned to the Walter Bischoff Gallery and made three demands. One: sales of the catalog must stop. Friedl agreed. Two: the four paintings must come down at once. Again, Friedl agreed. And three; the paintings must never be shown again. There was only one way to guarantee that, and Edelman thought she and Friedl had reached an understanding: Goldin would come to Chicago in a few weeks’ time and the paintings would be slashed in front of both women.

But Friedl had no intention of allowing such a thing. “This is not our way to deal with it,” he told us. To begin with, the paintings weren’t his to destroy. When the show closed at the end of July, every one of the unsold works was shipped back to Walter Bischoff in Munich, Germany.

Whether or not Friedl was straightforward with Edelman, he has not treated the matter lightly. “He was totally ready to strangle Jacek,” says Chicago artist Jeff Abell. “He did this thing with his hands to show what he wanted to do with him.”

Friedl called the artist, who by now was in New York and on his way back to Poland, and asked him what in the hell was going on. He wanted to know if the rest of his paintings could be trusted. Yes, said Siudzinski. Apparently, Siudzinski didn’t make much of a case for himself. He said something about having opened Stern and discovered a soulmate. So Friedl, speaking patiently about the matter and with great delicacy, tries to explain it away by describing his painter as some sort of rural naif.

“He doesn’t care about the business aspect at all,” Friedl says. “He’s a very idealistic person. He’s a painter and that’s all he cares about and that’s why we decided to work with him. We think he’s an incredible talent . . .

“I lectured him. I tried to tell him that this is something that is just not possible. But he was probably not aware. . . . He was not aware this market has its rules and laws.”

Jeff Abell got involved when Friedl asked him to write a brief introduction to the catalog for Siudzinski’s show. Abell had never heard of Siudzinski, and all he had to work with was an essay published in West Germany and five slides. So he went on about the “unique synthesis of the personal and the political, the historical and the current.” He wrote that according to the artist, the major influences on him were old masters, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velazquez–and that you could see Francis Bacon in there too.

Abell told us, “I’m enough of a writer that I can squeeze out 150 words based on five photographs. So I did. I arrived for the show, started looking around at some of the work on the wall, and said ‘God! That looks like a direct rip-off of Nan Goldin.’ I was not overly familiar with Nan’s work, but the one image was such a well-known image, of a woman on a couch and a man looking away [Greer and Robert . . . ]. I thought, it’s a shame I didn’t see that painting before. I’d have mentioned Nan as well.” Then he discovered to his astonishment that this was one debt Siudzinski did not acknowledge.

“It was a very embarrassing situation all the way down the line,” said Abell.

Unfortunately, the Walter Bischoff Gallery will not have a chance to show it can do better. After four worthy years presenting contemporary German artists, Bischoff’s American gallery is being consolidated by its German owner with the studio he runs in San Jose, California. On this embarrassed note the Chicago gallery went out of business.

Do you really want to slash them? we asked Nan Goldin. (One painting too many already has been slashed in Chicago, we thought.) “She has to recognize she’s dealing with powerful images and it’s those images that he was attracted to,” Abell told us. “Nan’s maybe more upset than she ought to be. I think it would be more sensible to say ‘I don’t want them shown publicly again.’ It would make sense to change the title to, say, After Nan Goldin . . . or something, and get the pieces out of general circulation as fast as possible.”

They don’t have to be slashed, Nan Goldin conceded.

She said, “There are less violent ways to destroy them.”

The Last Restaurant Concept

One of the best things we’ve read in weeks was the article by Jane and Michael Stern in the August 1 New Yorker on cafeterias. “While food writers have romanticized diners, drive-ins, and barbecue pits in recent years, cafeterias have received little attention; they aren’t as offbeat or as deliciously vulgar.” But, continued the Sterns, “in communities where they thrive, the ritual of eating in them has become an authentically American culinary experience.”

The last frontier, we mused, and got Rich Melman on the phone. He hadn’t seen the article. We read him the passage in which cafeterias are called “utterly square.” Here is the ultimate challenge, we said.

“I don’t need it right now, but I may fool you someday,” said Melman. “I like any place that puts desserts up first. I’m a big sucker for desserts.”

He told us, “Someone could do a hip cafeteria. I’ve actually thought of doing it a couple of times. I’ve thought about it with a health restaurant, with a delicatessen. . . . We do run a sort of a cafeteria at One Financial Place. It’s called the Savoy Bar & Grill. It’s sort of an upscale cafeteria line.

“There used to be a place in San Francisco called Mommies,” Melman went on. “It was sort of a cafeteria, but not exactly. All the food was displayed and you’d sort of order and they’d cook it for you.”

You’ve done that, we told him. How’s that? he said.

Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba on Halsted, we said.

“You’re right,” Melman said. “I’d forgotten all about that.”