Schoellkopf’s new book is a tense, chatty, upscale New York set-piece informed by art history, color theory, acquisitiveness, drug abuse and much speculation about things spiritual and metaphysical.
In his latest, Schoellkopf (New York Measure, 2008, etc.) interleaves chapters of a fictional dysfunctional family memoir with short biographical sketches of artists Mark Rothko and Ernest Ludwig Kirchner—each notable for his highly personal use of color as well as his suicide. Happily for Peter, the sympathetic narrator-patriarch of this dynastic romance, the death toll is lower—only one of his three daughters, downtown gallerist/junkie Carol, eventually succumbs. But she just might be the lucky one, as her surviving sisters Helen and Nancy soldier on to attend yet another emotionally draining gathering in which high-stakes deals are brokered, sibling rivalry flares up and glib debates about various imponderables flow and eddy endlessly. While the novel’s timeline is willfully obscure (chic heroin use and AIDS appear to be newcomers to the New York art scene), the quest for status among the power elite is eternal. Like the lethally self-absorbed Manhattanites in Woody Allen’s Interiors or an Alex Katz painting, the ladies in question and their partners and various attendants natter on and on, never particularly making their point and never quite being persuaded by their peers, either. Is a black-and-white photograph “real art”? Are Helen’s beloved sub-Rembrandt Dutch genre paintings merely decorative? Is that zillion-dollar Rothko a status symbol or a religious experience on canvas? And what truly gives life value? All of this is open for debate, and debate they do. Only the author’s deft handling of these mostly unlovable characters and their windy discourse keeps the reader turning the pages of this surprisingly sly, Stefan Zweig-influenced novella. A dry Chablis and The 20th Century Art Book might prove useful to readers.
While the greedy, talky sisters fail to engage, Schoellkopf’s bios of the doomed Rothko and Kirchner are exquisitely bleak.