Journalist Bianca Bosker’s 2017 debut, Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me To Live for Taste, was acclaimed as one of the most entertaining alcohol-related books in years. Though this could have been a hard act to follow, it now seems she’s outdone herself. Get the Picture: A Mind-Bending Journey Among the Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Me How To See (Viking, Feb. 6) offers a similar roller-coaster ride through the art world, described by our reviewer as “immersive reporting along the lines of George Plimpton or Barbara Ehrenreich, with her own blend of relentless curiosity, bottomless energy, and a gift for clever formulations that puts her in the bloodline of Oscar Wilde.” How did she do it? We recently asked Bosker this on a video call; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
After you did the wine book, were you like, OK, now I’ll do the same thing with art?
Not really, no. I was busy living this hyperoptimized life with no time for frivolous things like art or even bathroom breaks. I did a lot of texting from the toilet while listening to podcasts on 2X speed. If I did go to a gallery or museum, I would leave feeling I was a couple of master’s degrees and tattoos away from knowing what was going on, and I figured art wasn’t for me. Then one day I was rummaging through my mom’s basement and came across this artwork by my grandmother, inspired by her experience as a Holocaust survivor.
The dancing carrots!
Yes, a watercolor of three frisky carrots. They had graceful orange bodies, delicate little black feet, and green, whirling dervish stems. In that hazy period after the war, she had found herself in a displaced persons camp in Austria, where, despite being a trained economist with no children, my grandmother started teaching art classes to the kids. She scrimped together materials to make costumes for a dance performance—something cheerful but politically innocuous. Carrots it was!
When she finally started making art herself in her 80s, one of the first things she did was paint that memory. To her it symbolized the fact that art isn’t optional, but a necessity—what we turn to when life turns itself inside out. By the time I thought to ask why, my grandmother was no longer around to answer. So I explored the question another way.
Your first attempts to infiltrate the art world met with difficulty, though.
Right. I’ve done a lot of reporting in China, which is not an easy place to be a foreign journalist. Yet I had an easier time sniffing out answers in China than in Chelsea. Partly, the art world wields strategic snobbery to create mystique in a way that I think is unnecessary. We don’t need the velvet ropes and the artspeak to appreciate the magic and power of art. But at the same time, there are a lot of things that go on that might pass for absurd, unethical, criminal, or just preposterous to people who aren’t in the art world. If you haven’t taken a Mafia-like vow of silence, you’re a risk.
Tell us about the people you call Eyes and Heads.
As I began to poke around the art world, people very quickly started warning me that I lacked “visual literacy.” So I became obsessed with this idea of developing my Eye—a painstakingly cultivated outlook that allows you to see lots of things that don’t immediately meet the eye—like who will be the next Picasso or what’s transcendent about a sculpture of rotten vegetables on a dirty mattress. The people who have it, the Eyes, behave as if they’ve accessed a trapdoor in their brains, as if they are experiencing a different, more expansive world than we are.
To see if I could do that, I handed my life over to the Heads. Whether they are artists, gallerists, curators, or collectors, the Heads are people who’ve signed their souls over to art. They occupy the nerve center of the so-called fine art world. They play an outsize role in determining the fate of artworks and how they go from the germ of an idea in an artist’s studio to a masterpiece in a museum.
You say in the book, “a normie philistine can’t just show up at an art gallery and demand a job—especially not in New York City.” But that’s what you did with Jack Barrett, right?
Jack Barrett is an incredibly savvy gallerist who seemed to genuinely share my concern that I was an ignorant rube. He took me on as a lump of clay to be shaped, and gave me a crash course in not only art but also the rites and rituals of the art world.
The art world fashions itself as this band of nonconformist iconoclasts. But in fact you have to abide by a certain code of conduct to show that you’re “one of us.” For me, that involved getting some tough love from Jack about problems with the way I spoke, with the way I dressed—my uncoolness, basically.
You also spent a lot of time with the painter Julie Curtiss. You seem to have fallen in love with her.
Julie changed my life. She taught me that the act of looking can be an adventure, how that spark of surprise that we find in an artwork can exist anywhere. It can happen on a street corner. It can happen when we’re looking at a sewage treatment plant. If you lift the filter of expectations that normally helps us compress and interpret what we’re seeing, that beautiful disorienting glitch you get from a painting can happen anywhere.
Also, Julie was an antidote to the code of exclusivity and secrecy. The typical mood in the art world is like, OK, close the door, there’s enough people here already, thank you. Whereas Julie was always, The more the merrier. She constantly lifts people up.
There are so many wonderful episodes in this book, from taking a job as a museum guard at the Guggenheim to going shopping with some collectors from North Dakota you call the Icy Gays. What was the highlight?
There are two that come to mind. One was when I worked the fairs with a Manhattan gallery during Art Basel Miami Beach. The experience of selling a photograph that cost thousands of dollars from the back of an Escalade while people snorted up lines of cocaine around me—that was the moment where I felt like I had, you know, “made it” as an art dealer.
And the other was getting to help paint one of Julie’s pieces. In that moment of putting black paint on her canvas, I felt like I was seeing art with less artifice yet more mystery than I ever had before—what Ihad embarked on this whole journey to find.
Marion Winik hosts the NPR podcast The Weekly Reader.