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Modern Art: A Novel by Evelyn Toynton (excerpt)

Modern Art: A Novel by Evelyn Toynton (excerpt)

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Published by OpenRoadMedia
Belle Prokoff is the last of a famous generation of painters for whom art was a secular religion—worth any amount of struggle and sacrifice for its promise of redemption. She is also the widow of Clay Madden, who revolutionized American art, became a near-mythic figure, and died in a drunken car crash. Blunt, fierce, and scornful of the world’s hypocrisy, Belle has passionately protected her husband’s memory in the three decades since his death. She has also persevered with her painting while the fashionable art scene fawns over her, not for her own work but for the valuable Madden canvases she clings to as the last relic of her tormented marriage.

Inspired by the lives of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, this elegiac, impassioned novel creates a fictional universe full of vivid characters and intense confrontations. It is a tale of betrayal and longing, renunciation and self-discovery: the age-old conflicts of love and art.
Belle Prokoff is the last of a famous generation of painters for whom art was a secular religion—worth any amount of struggle and sacrifice for its promise of redemption. She is also the widow of Clay Madden, who revolutionized American art, became a near-mythic figure, and died in a drunken car crash. Blunt, fierce, and scornful of the world’s hypocrisy, Belle has passionately protected her husband’s memory in the three decades since his death. She has also persevered with her painting while the fashionable art scene fawns over her, not for her own work but for the valuable Madden canvases she clings to as the last relic of her tormented marriage.

Inspired by the lives of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, this elegiac, impassioned novel creates a fictional universe full of vivid characters and intense confrontations. It is a tale of betrayal and longing, renunciation and self-discovery: the age-old conflicts of love and art.

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Published by: OpenRoadMedia on Jun 11, 2012
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09/29/2013

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 Modern Art 
 
By Evelyn Toynton
 
“MISS PROKOFF,” THEY SAY, careful to use the name that appears on her  paintings, “Miss Prokoff, can you tell us how … can you tell us when …?” And she doesit, she tells them, although she has answered these questions a hundred times before. For two hours, on this April afternoon, she has been scrupulous about dates, materials,techniques, even the brand of house paint he used in the works of his middle period. Theyhave transcribed her words solemnly into their blue spiral notebooks with the Columbiacrest.Twenty years ago, they would have been wearing fuzzy angora sweaters. Nowthey are dressed like torturers’ apprentices, in multiple earrings and studded leather  jackets, but with the same blond cleanliness, that air of shining mental hygiene produced by a certain kind of affluent childhood. Being an old hand at this, Belle knows that theyare girding themselves to ask her another sort of question, something personal,speculative, whose answer they can tell to their friends.“It must feel so amazing to paint in his studio,” the more enterprising one says,leaning towards her. Belle ignores this remark, as though she might be slightly deaf.“Or it could be intimidating,” the other one says helpfully. Belle turns to look ather, admiring her pink-and-white skin. Nobody in Brooklyn ever had skin like that;maybe it was the starchy food, or the soot from the factories. She remembers years of oatmeal masks, the little tubs of fatty cream she bought in secret from an old woman whomade it in her kitchen — all that trouble and worry, in hopes of some transformation thatnever came. The one good thing about getting old is that it’s finally all right to be ugly.The first one tries again. “Didn’t you sometimes feel intimidated by him? I mean… overwhelmed?”“No.” As they look at her wide-eyed, she moves her hands stealthily in her lap, toease the pain.
 
 “But wasn’t it hard, both of you being painters? Do you think he ever felt youwere competing with him?”“No.”The girl gives a rueful laugh. “I wish I knew the right questions, Miss Prokoff, toget you to talk to us.”“If I’d felt threatened by him I wouldn’t have married him. If I’d been competingwith him he wouldn’t have married me. We wouldn’t have stayed together.”“But the art world was such a patriarchy then, everyone says so. No one took women artists seriously, did they?”“He took me seriously,” she says. It isn’t true, of course; he wanted her for ananny, a helpmeet, just as they suspect, but she has maintained this lie too long to startconfiding in graduate students. Nor can she explain that it wasn’t the patriarchal artworld, it wasn’t female diffidence that blighted her life, but the makers of Budweiser.Though stories of his drunkenness are legion, part of the mythology surrounding him,nobody has ever come right out and asked her, “What was it like to live with a drunk?”“What do you know about the Federal Arts Project?” she says. The Arts Projectshould satisfy their craving for injustice — so many purges, investigations, the avant-gardists forced to do figurative work, the women assigned to gesso the walls for the men.They bow their heads again, frowning in concentration, and take copious notes for another half hour. Finally she tells them about the first time she saw his paintings, andthen announces that it is time to leave.Like obedient children, they shut their notebooks at once. In payment for thisinterview, they are driving her to the opening of a show she is having, in a small galleryhere on the Island. The bolder of the two girls is a niece of Monica, the gallery owner; itwas Monica who arranged for them to come and speak to Belle about their master’stheses.They get to their feet, looking expectant. “You’re going to have to help me up,”she says gruffly. “I’ve got very bad arthritis, I can’t do it myself.”“My mother has it too,” says Monica’s niece, putting down her tote bag.

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