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Tuesday Nights in 1980'

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Debut novel visits pivotal moment in NYC's art scene

The collision of creativity and capitalism in the art world has been ongoing for seemingly forever. Art and money have been locked into a delicate dance, lucrative for some but devastating to far more. And in the current climate, the commodification of the creative arts is definitely front and center.

Author Molly Prentiss's 'Tuesday Nights in 1980' (Gallery, $26) takes us back to a different time, one that explores an era in which the notion of instant artistic celebrity was beginning to really gain steam in the churning creative crucible that was New York City. As the 1970s transitioned into the 1980s, so too were the economic attitudes of the art world.

It is the dawning days of 1980. New York City is still at peak gritty, a vibrantly dirty place packed with big-dreaming artists who have not yet been gentrified out of the abandoned warehouses and storefronts in which they strive to ply their trades and perfect their crafts. Everywhere you turn, people are hoping for their big break.

Raul Engales is one of those people. He's an Argentinian painter who, thanks to an unexpectedly early arrival while his parents were in NYC, is also an American citizen. Not long after the death of his parents, Raul decides to head to New York to try and make it as an artist. He leaves behind his sister Franca; he disapproves of her marriage and just wants out of Argentina. She is left to deal with the realities of the oppressive government regime. He is quickly assimilated into the quirky and colorful world of art with all the good (and bad) that that entails.

James Bennett is a critic, the darling of the New York Times Arts section. It's a gig at which Bennett excels, despite having largely stumbled into it, due primarily to the fact that he is synesthetic. Essentially, his condition which causes him to make unusual and vivid sensory connections allows him to write about art in a manner both brilliant and unique. He is viewed as odd on a personal level, but his reviews are universally celebrated for their fairness as much as for their stylistic flourishes and idiosyncrasies.

When Engales is discovered by a noted gallerist, it looks as though he is poised to become the next big thing on the scene. And Bennett's reaction to Engales's work is as deep and powerful as anything he has ever encountered before. Both men are on the cusp of reaching a new level of accomplishment.

And then tragedy strikes. Each man is hit with a painful, profoundly personal loss; one lashes out in anger, the other retreats within himself. Neither is able to manifest their particular brand of brilliance any longer. It is only when they are brought together through their relationship with a small-town girl from Idaho not to mention the appearance of a young orphan boy under mysterious circumstances that these two can hope to escape their irrevocably interconnected downward spiral.

What Prentiss has done with this book is capture the foundational spirit of a moment in time. The transitional nature of that moment is a large part of what makes it so compelling; the skill with which Prentiss renders it would be impressive coming from any writer, but the fact that this is a debut novel makes it doubly so.

'Tuesday Nights in 1980' is at its best when it highlights the uneasy relationship between creation and consumption. In Raul Engales, you have the wild artistic talent, driven to create because he has no choice. The force of his personality is omnipresent, a microcosm of the struggling artist reaching for success. On the other hand, there's Bennett, a man whose life is built around his unique method of consuming art. He sees and feels what no one else does, yet it is only through criticism that he can convey that unusual perspective. It's indicative of the delicate balance inherent to the art world - one constructs and the other deconstructs, each hoping that his voice will be heard.

The run-down seediness of the setting a delightfully detailed rendition of a New York City that has largely disappeared also contributes to some of the most lovingly meticulous and stimulating prose in the book. Prentiss's NYC is crumbling at the edges, but still possessed of an inescapable energy and vivacity that evokes the vast and varied life inherent to that time and place.

'Tuesday Nights in 1980' shows art, love and everything in-between through the lens of one of the art world's most profound evolutionary leaps. Molly Prentiss's tale exquisitely illustrates the simple reality that there is indeed beauty in truth no matter how painful (or powerful) that truth might be.

Last modified on Thursday, 07 April 2016 11:32


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