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"Where are the male Muses?" painter Monica Szabo asks a Provincetown gallery audience. "Right here," B answers and they're off to dinner, dancing, sex, and one of those offers you can't refuse - two years' salary, a new apartment, a maid, whatever she needs to do the best work of her life. "The first important thing he said to me was this: 'You work too hard.'" Now there's a good line. Need a trip to Milan for research? No problem. B's a commodities trader. First class tickets coming up. Want to fuck? So you're fifty. He far prefers you to any twenty-year-old. Talk about a euphoric plot.

One night B says he is "completely spent" and falls asleep "with a towel draped over his crotch, his arms on the arms of the chair, his head leaning against the back . . ." The pose reminds Szabo of Jesus in Carpaccio's Meditation on the Passion. What if all the dead Christs in the history of painting were post-orgasmic?, she wonders. And bingo, she produces a series of paintings that make her reputation and bring tears to B's eyes: Spent Men, After the Masters.

If you think you have the idea, basically, you're right. The tables turn a degree or two before the book comes to its happy ending, but that's where its clever premise is clearly going and in all good time it gets there.

Gordon knows that a feminist romance, even one with a lot of sex in it, has to have something resembling content. In the past, she has relied on her intimate familiarity with Catholic doctrine and culture to add weight to her novels. Here, religion is more shtick than substance. For ideas, for intellectual and moral suspense, Spending draws on feminism's discourses regarding money and sex, subjectivity and objectivity, and last but not least portentous, the female gaze. Linda Nochlin's classic essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" is an obvious underlying text. But Gordon doesn't understand feminism the way she does Catholicism and the book is thinnest at its most serious. When Szabo frets over the propriety of accepting money from a man she's sleeping with, for example, her questions verge on the sophomoric: Am I a whore if I want it, too? Am I a whore if I'm using my benefactor as male artists have used their muses for centuries? Who cares? is one obvious answer, but Gordon and her heroine are still too good, too Catholic, to seriously contemplate that one.

Gordon also works over The Rules of using a muse. "Every time I thought about the time and attention he'd lavished on who I was and what I did, I began to get aroused. And a little grateful. But I wasn't going to let myself be grateful. If I did, I'd feel guilty, or I'd worry that I wasn't nicer to him. And if I worried about being nice to him, the whole thing wouldn't work. It had to be about not being nice. Who would worry about being nice to the Muse?" Then Szabo turns around and takes care of B when he's sick, gives him a million dollars, and sucks him off. (Don't these good girls just drive you crazy?)

It's all a bit of a mess, this aspect of Gordon's narrative gloss on Nochlin. For instance, Szabo's muse is also a patron. Haven't artists traditionally made rather an effort to be nice to their patrons? And aren't fathers, in Nochlin's analysis, critical to the evolution of genius? In this light, it seems particularly odd that in this of all books, daddy - Gordon's perennial true love, the obsession of virtually all her work - never comes up. Sure, B is a sugar daddy, a dream of paternalism, but Gordon's previous heroines were so in love with their first fathers, the fathers of childhood, that they could barely respond to anyone who wasn't in some way a mirror image. Even then their hottest memories were of the times they spent with daddy himself. Perhaps Gordon resolved her father fixation when she nailed her father as an anti-Semite and a bad writer in her last book, the memoir The Shadow Man. Or perhaps it's just that this heroine is old enough to be a father figure, which makes her father figure a peer and turns tragedy into comedy - not the worst thing that could have happened, come to think of it.

Although Spending is a romantic comedy, it's serious about painting. Szabo's notion is to substitute a post-orgasmic B for Christ in a series of old masters' depositions in which Christ appears more sexually exhausted than literally dead - Mantegna's Dead Chest, for example, Carpaccio's Meditation on the Passion, Sodoma's Pieta. She begins by revisiting the masters. For weeks, she pages through art books and sits in galleries, apprehending details and techniques that she can, quite literally, draw on. Maybe this doesn't sound like fascinating narrative material, but it is. Gordon's a very good narrative writer and that enables her to convey the suspense and absorption involved in the process of looking in order to create.

Eventually, Szabo has to decide where she will enter the work. She's interested in "the weight and repose of the male body" and the way we see the present through the veil of the past. "A ghost vision overlaying our own." But she can't find a means to convey these interests, which is also to say she hasn't really found her connection to the material, to her own idea. That search is the heart of the book, and the only real romance. It's something Gordon knows a lot about, if not as a painter, as a writer. It is her connection to this material and it makes absorbing reading.

In the end, Szabo finds a solution good enough to get a rave review from Michael Kimmelman, sell out all the paintings in her show, and make me wish I could head for a gallery to see the paintings Gordon describes. Jesus as a lounge lizard. Jesus in pink running shorts instead of a loincloth. Jesus on the nod with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Masterpieces? Hard to say when all you have is the catalogue. But it's a wonderful catalogue, a dose of pleasure for feminists, for women artists, and for anyone else who likes a touch of escapism now and then. I was lucky enough to lap this book up over the Christmas holidays. You can treat yourself for the Crucifixion. Perfect timing.

Sharon Thompson is the author of Going All the Way: Teenage Girls' Tales of Sex, Romance, and Pregnancy.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.
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Author:Thompson, Sharon
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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