John Palcewski (forioscribe) wrote,
John Palcewski

The Precisionist


They took the subway station steps two at a time, then turned toward Houston Street. “Chuck throws me curve balls all the time,” Mary said. “Always last minute.” She flipped the pages of her notebook, looking for the address. Raymond kept his hand on his camera bag to keep it from bouncing as they moved past the slower walkers.

“Who in hell is Charles Sheeler?” she asked.
“An artist of the thirties,” Raymond replied.
“Chuck sends me because I don’t know one friggin’ thing about this stuff. Why does he DO this to me? Huh?”
“Don’t worry. Just take notes. You can look up Sheeler later.”

They headed down Wooster, past Café La Femme’s empty outdoor tables, and Spazio Italia’s steamed windows. “Oh, by the way,” Mary said. “I’m sorry to hear about you and Eve splitting up.”
The sound of his soon-to-be-ex wife’s name jolted him. He’d managed not to think of her for--what? Since early that morning.
“I’ve been dumped myself,” Mary said. “So I know what that pain’s like. But you’ll get over it.”
“Right,” Raymond said.

Joyce Carol Oates stood, alone, in the corner of the gallery near a large painting of a bleak, stylized steel mill. She was tall, slight and wide-eyed behind large thick-framed glasses. The slightest breeze might blow her away.

"Hi," Mary said. “We’re with Universal News. I'd like to ask you a few questions, and maybe we could get some pictures during your lecture?”
Oates looked at the floor. “Maybe you could take the pictures now, rather than while I speak,” she said softly. “There'll be a question and answer period afterward."
"Okay," Mary said.

Raymond surveyed the room. On the walls were two or three dozen paintings of steel mills, cityscapes, and sterile industrial scenes. "How about over there, by the front window?" he said.
Oates nodded.


Her standing there and posing artificially, Raymond thought, will make a boring picture. Deadly. He’d have to get her later, after the lecture. He raised his Nikon, carefully focused the 150 mm lens on her glasses. Oates assumed a most poignant facial expression, which surprised him. He pressed the shutter release. When he paused, Oates turned her head slightly and presented a different look. Not poignant any more, but slightly amused.

He fired another sequence. Then she turned to her right, and gave him a three-quarter view. Then she faced Raymond directly, and smiled, eyes cast slightly to her right. Straight on, her face was lovely, with just a hint of seduction, mystery. In profile she was much less appealing—bird-like, harsh, old. Interesting, Raymond thought. The woman ages twenty years with a 90-degree turn of her head.

"Thank you," Raymond said.
"My pleasure," she replied.

Oates walked to the lectern and nodded once to scattered applause. She turned, motioned toward Sheeler’s paintings, and began speaking in a soft voice. “He’s one of America’s leading modernists who devised an impersonal, machine-inspired style later called Precisionism…”

She held a white ballpoint pen, tapped it on the lectern. Her fingers were slim, tapered, elegant. Her face and hands were luminous from an overhead spot. Mary scribbled in her notebook. Raymond thought of raising the Nikon. But Oates had made it clear she didn’t want pictures taken while she spoke. Most of his colleagues at Universal News wouldn’t hesitate. “Photography is show business,” Chuck often told him. “If you don’t show, you’re not in business. Get the shots; don’t worry about hurting people’s feelings.”

Oates placed her hand flat on her upper chest right below her neck, forefinger and little finger spread. She moved her hand outward, palm up with fingers slightly curled. Slow, graceful, elegant movements. Charming. Feminine.

Eve never made such delicate gestures with her hands and arms; she was more of a tomboy. Always wore baggy, paint-stained trousers, tennis shoes, and walked with her hands thrust into her pockets, head down, hair tied back with wisps flying all about, chewing her lip, thinking deeply about what had occurred on that precise day seventeen years or a hundred years earlier.

“Sheeler saw in industrial landscapes something religious. Indeed he is the iconographer for the religion of technology. His paintings avoid the organic, the living. Humans are present only to provide scale. Sheeler believed the world is in your back yard, if only you have the eyes to see it. His backyard, though, consisted of factories, mills, and cityscapes. The inorganic.”

Raymond nodded. You might say Eve was inorganic. She avoided people. Crowds made her extremely anxious. In three years of marriage, she never went to a movie with him. Their idea of a big night on the town was to go to Barnes & Noble on Lancaster Avenue and load up on books, and sit at a table under that big mural of writers. Hemingway. Raymond Joyce. Nabakov. She'd wolf down her chocolate cake, gulp her Starbucks, and then abruptly say: "Let's blow this joint." She could never stay in one place for long. She always was in a big hurry to get somewhere else. He thought with his love and nurturing care that tormented woman would finally stop running and settle down. Big mistake.

“Some interesting contrasts here—Sheeler speaks as a visual artist, I speak as a writer,” Oates said. “And as a writer, I deal primarily with characters. Virginia Woolf remarked that writing is easy once you find a voice. Which is just another way of saying that once you have talent, you can become a great painter or a musician. But then, if you can write a letter, you also can write fiction that will be interesting and publishable. Letters are very much like fiction. In them you recreate your experiences in a highly particular way, and to each person you speak in a different voice. Which is precisely what you must do when you write a story."

Raymond was familiar with the voice of Eve’s letters, at least those she had written to him, and also with the impatient, hurried voice of her journals. When she’d leave in the morning he’d stand in the bathroom, peer through the window, watch her walk the half block to the trolley stop on School Lane. Breath shallow, heart pounding. And then back into the bedroom, to sit and turn those secret pages of her spiral notebook. “He’s a wire service photojournalist, like Harry,” she’d scrawled. “What’s there not to love?”

This was a month after they’d been together. Not a direct affirmation, not exactly what he hoped to hear, but good enough. He’d take anything he could get.

Oates shifted gears. Other American artists. She compared Edward Hopper to Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth, she said, is hugely popular with the public but disdained by the critics, whereas Hopper is popular and critically accepted as well. “Even people who don't know about or like art love Hopper's work. It looks real on the surface, like a photograph. But the more you look at it the less real it becomes.”

What, indeed, was ever real in the marriage? When Raymond met Eve she claimed that she’d broken completely with Burt, a man who nearly destroyed her. It was over, she kept telling Raymond. Burt was no longer in the picture. But her apartment was full of that man’s traces. A framed poster with a musical theme she’d hung on her bedroom wall. It was a strange abstract depicting a woman with the body of a cello, playing her own strings.

Burt had seen it in a Paris bookstore, bought it on impulse.
Many other things she kept, clung to. A collection of sweat shirts with anarchist slogans in French. Books, with inscriptions on the flyleaves by Burt in Greek, or Latin. A tiny wood Trojan Horse puzzle that was easily disassembled, but impossible to put back together. She said it was over between her and Burt, but she refused to get rid of the memorabilia.

Raymond insisted. He told her, “We’re engaged for Christ’s sake! How would you react if I so desperately hung onto an ex-girlfriend's gifts? Not one or two, but dozens?”

Eve seized a terra cotta flowerpot, hurled it across the room. It exploded on the wall, and dry soil whispered across the floor. She clenched her fists, and howled. He tried to embrace her. Her body was rigid, and she trembled. She didn’t want to be held, but he was persistent. He kept his arms around her for a long time.

She said later she just could not understand how she could have been so wrong. Burt was a perfect lover for a whole year. He wrote sweet notes. He was kind, thoughtful, considerate. He was that way for a whole year, until she finally let her guard down and began to trust. And then…

"Sheeler, like many artists, explored self portraiture,” Oates said. “And why do painters often do self portraits?"

She looked around the room, but no one spoke.

"The first and most obvious answer is, why not? Of course there may be some artists here in the audience who might wish to comment on the question."

Finally a man in steel-rimmed glasses up front spoke in a low murmur, which Raymond could not make out. He looked down at his Nikon, and idly moved the f-stop ring from 8 to 11 to 16 to 22, and then back again. If he were not a photojournalist on assignment but a member of the audience he might have spoken. He might have said: A self-portrait reveals what you wish to reveal, or how you wish to be seen.

One time Raymond had put the camera on a tripod, set the self-timer, and took photos of himself that he hoped Eve would like. But everything he showed her elicited only faint praise. Or, “That’s not you. Is that how you see yourself?”

Oates fixed her gaze on Raymond—the only photographer in the room—and continued. "What is the truth of photography? Obviously a photograph can lie. An image may appear to be real and yet may be a manipulation, and therefore false. But then by means of composition or fall of light a photo might be truthful in an artistic and interpretive sense, even though it bears little resemblance to a real object or person.”

Eyes turned to him. Raymond felt a flush of embarrassment. Did Oates really expect him to respond to these seemingly rhetorical questions? Was this woman persuading him to abandon his professional role as detached photojournalist, and thus become part of the story?

“What is a photographer’s moral obligation?” Oates asked. “To show exactly what is before him? Or merely how he sees it?”

Mary scribbled rapidly in her notebook. Oates kept her eyes fixed on Raymond. Several in the audience remained turned toward him, expectantly.

He started to speak, but caught himself. And said nothing.

* * *

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