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And the Girl in the Arbat

ITS SEPTEMBER. Moscow is filling up. People are back from the country and abroad. The crowds are thick as I ride the green line. Sokol Station is vast. The metros buried so far underground, youre riding the escalator skyward forever. On the opposite side of the marble-faced cavern, you see young lovers burying themselves against the handrails. I find Konstantin, a journalist I wrote from New York, waiting for me on Leningradsky Street. Hes 27, roguishly handsome, with a full beard that makes him look wolfish in the dark. His eyes glitter as they take me in. Robert? he asks. Ztras, Kostya. *** Were in a svelte black Nissan now, shooting through Petrovsky, past spike-haired dudes on motorcycles, in the direction of Red Square. The Stones are belting out Gimme Shelter on the stereo. Kostyas pal Sergey drives. His black hair is tied back, his eyes mesmerizing. You think of tales of Dostoyevsky and Babel, of times when it was good to be bad. So, Robert, says Sergey, switching to perfect English, Kostya tells me you are a journalist. Once in a while, I go. Hes a screenwriter, adds Kostya, from the backseat, in Russian. A screenwriter? Sergey asks again, fixing me with his narcotic stare. Me too. Im writing a script that opens in Saint Petersburg, I go. But Ive never been to the city before. Im writing a script set in America, laughs Sergey. And Ive never set foot in the place. You two have a lot in common, goes Kostya. The Stones segue into Amakye Dede as we speed past Rozhdestvensky Monastery, whose walls repelled the invasions of the Golden Horde. What are the magazine stories about? asks Sergey. Ones photo-reportage, I go. Like portraits of Russian artists, the high and the low. The literary one Ill figure out as I go along. The muse hasnt hit you yet? asks Sergey. Im waiting patiently. Ill find you one, Robert, grins Sergey. *** In the posh lounge of the Ritz-Carlton several hours later Im having my way with the caviar and a river of 50-year-old whiskey flowing from the labradorite-veneered table. Kostyas friend, a young Russian businessman and art collector named X, is answering my question about why I cant find much killer Russian art in New York. Luxuriating on a saffron-striped sofa, X speaks perfect English, svengali-like in his intensity. The Russian art you see in America depends on your own holdings, says X. And since a third of every auction in New York is returned to Russia, soon youll see nothing. Except hacks like Alvazovsky, says Xs fashionably long-haired associate, Dimitry, sitting nearby. Dimitry is serenely stacking thick bundles of rubles inside an open briefcase. Plus there are no equivalent reserves here since all significant paintings are owned by the Russian Federation, goes X. The New York art world thinks its the shit, I go. But think of the stuff Kimmelmans never laid eyes on. All the Constructivists, the Suprematists, buried deep in the crypts of the Hermitage. Painters like Surikov, Repin... The fathers of Social Realism, says X, growing tired. The only way you might see them is if our state museums are lured by billions in hard currency. Thatll never happen, says Dimitry, this time in Russian. The dollars too precarious. Across the lounge, my gaze fixes on three drop-dead Russian beauties migrating from a group of middle-aged Turkmenistani businessmen to join Sergey and Kostya at the bar. Sergeys beckoning me. Who will you be meeting while youre here? asks X finally. Vitaly Komar... Hes interesting, says X. Alexander Sokurovs partner, the film producer Andrey Sigle... I saw Alexandra in Cannes, Dimitri says. Zurab Tsereteli...




The most politically powerful artist in all of Russia, states X. Bar none. And a girl I met teaching art at the 92nd Street YMCA. The 92nd Street YMCA? asks X, arching an eyebrow. Over at the bar, Sergey presents me with one of the miraculous women whove sidled up against the marble counter. She has shoulder-length auburn hair, violet lipstick, and vaguely sullen eyes. Her smile suggests a serene knowledge of sex. Ta-da, goes Sergey, Luccia is nice Russian muse to inspire you. Coochie-coochie-coo, goes Luccia. *** A couple days later, between the Krasny Oktyabr chocolate factory and the Moskva River, Zurab Tseretelis monumental sculpture of Peter the Great shoots into the sky with bebop energy. What was the reaction of Moscuvites? I ask Sergey, contemplating the riff of Peters head. Many panties in major uproar, goes Sergey. Somebody tried to blow it up. God, how I love him. I pray for a tour guide and I receive a legitimate holy man. Read Loney Planet Guide, says Sergey, holding up my copy. Too gaudy, too ostentatious, too much, he quotes. What do they know? I shrug. I love it. Sergey grins. You know what Norman Mailer said? You know Norman Mailer? asks Sergey. When he was at Harvard, Norman and my old Uncle George used to pick up girls on the Boston subway. I love the The Naked and the Dead. Mailer said Zurabs Peter is a fundamental contradiction. Its playful. And, its huge. Yeah? He looked at it for seven consecutive days from his window at the President Hotel. He said Peter never failed to cheer him up. Many people in Moscow see things with old eyes. The sky is gloriously blue and its warm. A group of schoolgirls walks past, laughing wildly. How much did the big guy cost? I go. Seventeen million in dollars or so. Cheap. Barely enough to buy a dud Raphael, goes Sergey, oozing pure, primal badness. My Tchaikovsky ring tone goes off: Its a text message from Viktoriya. *** A couple years back, at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York, Viktoriya was teaching painting for a summer. Thats where I met her, and this evening, when I emerge from the Plochad Revolutski metro near the art school, Im reminded how beautiful she is. She has a perfectly straight nose and full lips, and her dark brown eyes, smudged with fatigue, are bottomless.

Wazzup, Viktoriya? Hi, Rob, she goes, suppressing a smile. As we walk past Tanganskaya metro in the dark, Moscow suddenly assumes a deep benevolence. Viktoriya laughs when I confess how bad my Russian actually is. Id once impressed her in New York by reciting the Russian alphabet in under eight seconds. As we cruise the corridors of the Surikov Institutes dorms, it doesnt exactly feel like an art school. You dont hear Tegan and Sara booming out of the rooms, see tickle fights in the hallways, or pot-smoking prodigies delivering scathing objections to the last show they witnessed in Chelsea. Its more sedate. In a studio that feels like a big repository of paintings, Viktoriyas trying to yank a canvas from a massive bundle against a wall. My gaze is still locked on one of her selfportraits: Her and a black cat on a bed. Its on her CouchSurfing page, she tells me, since her real photograph attracts too many amorous inquiries from far-off places like Turkmenistan. How long have you been studying here? I go. Six years, she says. I have one more to go, but I cant afford it. That sucks. You have to be rich to live in Moscow. Will you still get a diploma? I ask. Youve put a lot of time in. No, says Viktoriya, Unfortunately not. She finally frees the canvas shes been wrestling with. Im looking at a man seated inside a constellation of hallucinatory Andalusian images. Its dedicated to Federico Garcia Lorcas Somnambulist Romance, she goes. Your teachers must adore your work. They say its pornography, she laughs. Thats why I have to hide them. *** The cerebral Vitaly Komar stands smack in front of Lenins Tomb, in Red Square, where many of the most hallowed events of Russian history have unfolded. Im photographing him. Vitalys dressed in black, save for his red-framed glasses, the long red scarf. Have you ever been here? asks Vitaly, puckishly. First time, I go. I wanted to run a Dow Jones-style electronic band across the top, he goes, pointing to the tombs upper faade. After thumbing his nose at Soviet cultural tsars back in the 1970s, Vitaly turned his satirical eye to the American art establishment's obsession with commodifying culture. He knows the camera, too. As I burn film, each expression is distinctive and finely calibrated. I silently imagine him playing the tragic hero in my thriller Nude Descending with Guns and Money. What was the national poll you commissioned? I ask. The one where the Boston firm asked Americans what kind of art they like? You know, red art or yellow art? Big



art or little art? The Peoples Choice, goes Vitaly. The paintings Americas Most Wanted and Americas Most Unwanted resulted from that poll. I like art that entertains and poses questions. Its been hugely successful for you. Its not a bad idea. Young artists thinking about money. Whos their muse? Ben Franklin on a c-note? Muses are fictional, Vitaly chuckles. Not inspirational. You think? Have you seen Stalin and the Muses? he goes. Hes referring to one of his famous paintings from the 1980s. Sure, I go, suddenly engulfed by a wave of elfin Japanese tourists on their way to view Lenin under glass. Muses are visual icons that political or cultural regimes co-opt, says Vitaly, fiddling with his cool red glasses. Theyre like painting itself. A myth. *** The blue sky deepens into evening as I walk the Arbat, past house No. 53 where the young Pushkin used to invite Denis Davydov and Pavel Nashchokin over for stag nights. I see buskers selling toys, musicians reconciling melody with discord, street artists crouched over charcoals. *** Viktoriyas finishing a portrait of a self-conscious man who looks like hes holding his breath. She draws with quick, confident strokes. She doesnt see me. In the darkness, her beauty is shadowy and elusive. I think of my high school art teacher looking over my shoulder, yelling, Dont fill in the space with objects! Youre not making out a shopping list! Later, Viktoriya asks me if Id like to visit her friend Katya in her communal Stalinist flat. Yes, I go. Id love to. Id follow her anywhere. *** You may think of the gloomy Cold War days when scientists implanted electrodes in the brains of dogs before shooting them to outer space, but Katyas flat feels more like the things you love in Rudyard Kiplings tales. Katya pours tea from a samovar, and her august Communist boyfriend shows me Massim art from New Guinea. When I begin writing my feelings on a napkin, Viktoriya smiles patiently, saying Moscow isnt as seductive and sensual as I think. I was lucky to meet people who inspired me here, she goes. But now its overpopulated and commercial, and it processes human lives just like New York. People make art. But its always about making money. Viktoriyas resting against an ancient map of the world. Its a portrait of noble isolation. If you dont want to make commercial art, she goes. If you dont want to spend your time selling yourself. You want to find a place that is calm and cheap. A place that will inspire you. At least for a time. Her voice is tender.

Wheres this place? I go helplessly. Mexico. Mexico? For me. I can paint there. I can live without money. Im still staring at her. Its a simple life, she says quietly. I remember thinking of a magical place like this one when I was young, but as the years recede, I sometimes lose sight of it. Tonight, with this beautiful girl in the Arbat, it materializes incandescently out of the stillness of the room. Nothing is more desirable. What about teaching? Katya asks. It would help. Even in Mexico. I wont get my diploma, Viktoriya says without dismay. Viktoriya, I finally go. Im meeting Zurab Tsereteli tomorrow. Zurab Tsereteli? she asks uncertainly. Hes powerful. Maybe he can help with your diploma and get you to Mexico. You think? Zurab knows there are spiritual treasures in life, too. *** Were walking from the Kropotkinskaya Metro, along dazzling Prechistenka Street. Im loading my Leica. The blue sky is drained and pure. The walls of the generations-old houses are pastels in wheat, turquoise, and plum. Where did Zurab grow up? I ask Viktoriya. In Georgia, she says. His father was a well-known Georgian painter. Later, he attended the Academy of Art in Tbilisi. He studied with Marc Chagall in Paris, too. Paris, I think. Thats where I feel I am now. We arrive at the Tsereteli Gallery. Its a gargantuan 18th





century mansion, with a courtyard to one side. Viktoriya makes a call to Zurabs press attach, Irene, to announce our arrival. Its Monday and the gallery is closed. Viktoriya tugs a long strand of hair nervously. Remember, I tell Viktoriya, as she puts away her phone. Be strong. Tell Zurab how hard it is to live in Moscow without money. How the diploma will help you teach and survive as a painter in Mexico. He may be the richest artist in Russia, but hes a consecrated one, and true hardship wont be some startling discovery. I sound like some high school guidance counselor on Parents Day. How will you introduce me? asks Viktoriya, tentatively. Jesus, Ill say youre my friend. Friend? goes Viktoriya, frowning. He might get the wrong idea. Okay, I say, figuring I better give my muse more ample space. Ill tell Zurab you were my goddamn art teacher at the 92nd Street Y. Viktoriya suppresses another grin. Who also happens to be my translator, I add glumly. Someone opens the door. Irene stands before us, smiling radiantly. An hour later, the worldly, 73-year-old Zurab Tsereteli leads the way through the topographical maze of his gallery, from one gilded room to the next, each ablaze with fiery creation, each one larger and more decked out than the one preceding it. Im always having a dialogue with the past, Zurab confides to me, as Viktoriya translates effortlessly from Russian to English and then back again. I enjoy informing age-old techniques with new technologies. Like everyone else, Zurabs extensive entourage of lieutenants and assistants is having a difficult time keeping up with him. Theyre stylish men who make me feel like a townie. Wherever Zurab turns, they magically part.

What about color? I go. Were talking about cloissone enamels. The color comes from repeated burnings at high temperatures, says Zurab. The repetitions mean you achieve minutely successive transformations of the pigments. And then you cool it? asks Viktoriya, before the question even forms in my mind. The cooling process is complicated, nods Zurab deferentially, pleased to take the lovely girl in. Passing through another of the enormous archways, the vista opens up so dramatically that you feel like youre floating inside a vast, sun-drenched pantheon populated by heroes and gods or an awesome, Siberian-sized version of Disneyland I couldnt tell which. Robert, commands Zurab, Id like a photograph. Separating himself from the mass of followers, Zurab walks alone across the expanse of the showroom, where he positions himself beneath a colossal sculpture of Alexander II. For an instant I consider the disproportion between the tiny figure of the sculptor alongside the transcendent bronze giant, contemplating whether anything was commensurate to Zurabs capacity for wonder. Then I hit the shutter. *** Hours later, making my way out of the gallery, I look back over my shoulder. Zurab and Viktoriya are walking arm-in-arm, speaking in hushed tones, paying no attention to the people surrounding them. Afterwards, in a noisy caf off Gogolevsky Boulevard, students bust each others chops while a couple of honeymooners make goo-goo faces at one another, and a group of Communist-era babushkas sip tea. Joseph Arthurs singing Honey and the Moon over the tinny stereo, and Viktoriya talks excitedly about Zurabs magical promise, the diploma, and Mexico. She looks strong and invincible. If I were young shed be a girl Id love and keep, but Im not young, so I dont tell her what Im thinking. Its simply enough that she is happy. *** The next evening Im sitting on the roof of Viktor Tikhomirovs atelier in Saint Petersburg, where Viktor talks about his archetypal illustrations of wolves, Russian folk tales, and the theories of his Mitki group of artists. Two models have climbed the roof with us, to watch the stars rise behind the golden domes of the Church on Spilled Blood. One of them, named Inna, notices when I begin surrendering to the silence and softness of night. Are you wishing you were young again? asks Inna, for no particular reason, snuggling next to me. Mais, non, I go. Cheri, Inna purrs, resting her head on my shoulder. What are you thinking about? A muse, I go. Oh la la, she intones. Tu penses? C O N T I N U E D O N PA G E 15 4 Biensur.




Why? It ends in tears. Sometimes, worse. Worse? Ashes, whispers Inna. *** Two days later, the Grand Hotel Europe on Mayakovskaya is my destination, where Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon, where George Bernard Shaw dined with Gorky, and where at 10 a.m., Im scheduled to meet Zurab. Shortly afterwards, Zurab and his unwieldy entourage navigate the mammoth and unmappable spaces of his art factories. The Stalinist-era buildings are filled with the din of hammers, metal sanders, and diamond-tipped drills. A small army of artisans wails away on countless works-inprogress, both titan and frail. At each turn, Zurab stops to measure, assess, and weigh. I return to Manlios flat that evening, tucked away on Moskohvaya near the Fontanka. Manlios my friend from Venice, who abruptly abandoned the Italian Soccer league and moved to Saint Petersburg, to study Russian literature and fend off girls. I find him meditating on Notes From the Underground, as Radio Hermitage belts out tunes like Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend. Im unprepared, however, for the email on my battered iBook.
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Hi Rob, Thanks, you are very nice. :) They told me no. They said that its forbidden, never showed the letter Zurab asked me to send. Now its impossible for me to see him, by now he probably cannot remember who I am. On top of this the dean is pissed off at me for trying. Are you still in St Petersburg? How is your time there? Did you see Nadia? I miss you as well :) Viktoriya *** I wonder what I do, I go. Manlio and I walk along Moyka, rich as jade. The silence consumes us. Its my last night in Saint Petersburg. When you see Zurab again in New York, says Manlio, you say theres something you need help with after all. You give him Viktoriyas letter. A lone saxophonist plays in Dvortsovaya Plaza. Across the concrete expanse, the famous museum glows pink in the blackness of the nighttime sky. A muse is like a gift from heaven, says Manlio. He sounds like a young Marcello Mastroianni. She gives you the encouragement to be who you are. A meditative silence ensues. Although Viktoriya doesn't produce your art, continues Manlio, it comes into existence because of her. A week later, in New York, the allure of Donald Trump and an American Dream exert a stronger hold on the sculptors feverish imagination than a rendezvous with a wayward screenwriter worrying about his muse. When I materialize

at his Madison Avenue address, after being held hostage by cops for speeding, Zurab is nowhere in sight. Standing alone and holding Viktoriyas letter, all my hopes suddenly collapse. I wonder if the experience that moved me so deeply in the Arbat has somehow been surpassed. I think about lifes chanciness, and all the things that might never happen. *** Viktoriya emails me a few days later. She tells me its grey and gloomy, and that Moscow has had its first snow. That shes doing more paintings based on the poems of Lorca. Which ones? I quickly email back. Sonetos Del Amor Oscuro, Poeta en Nueva York, and Divan del Tamarit, she goes. The next day, I start laboring on Nude Descending with Guns and Money again. I begin writing things I want to write, too. Not for money or because I have these cool ideas I want to show the world. But simply because I hope I can write something that people might love or remember. After that, I lay out a map of Mexico on the living room floor. My friend Maria, a young Mexican who once stole across the Arizona border by night, lies down alongside the dog to describe the towns of El Chilar, Buenavista and Solo Dios. Solo Dios? I ask her. That a cool place? To start an artist colony? Maria laughs, trying to imagine the possibility. Why not? Mucho dinero? A hacienda? A casually dilapidated one, I go. Near the beach. A studio where the mules usually go. Well find one, Roberto. Maria raises her tea. To the Russian muse, she toasts. *** Sounds like magic? Perhaps. But before the visions and passions of muses and artists were converted to rubles and dollars, this remained their intoxicating realm for over 20,000 years. Robert Goethals Compadre, quiero cambiar mi caballo por su casa, mi montura por su espejo, mi cuchillo por su manta. Compadre, vengo sangrando, desde los puertos de Cabra. Federico Garcia Lorca

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Instead of using traditional constructions, these songs are impressionistic, focusing on creating a dreamy trance. Angular hooks and motifs, unexpected meter changes, and songs without precision endings develop into an odd somnambulant feel that lingers as the album proceeds. Perhaps some fans will consider this a cleaner, more polished Antics; or will longingly interpret it as a signal that they plan to return to the format of Turn on the Bright Lights. They may be correct: yet to me,


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