James Frey Reframed

James Frey in front of an Ed Ruscha work in his Manhattan home, 2011. Photo by Jack Siegel.


Seated at a white table in Gagosian Gallery’s sleek Madison Avenue headquarters on a February afternoon, best-selling author James Frey, who is probably most famous for the televised flogging he received on “Oprah” five years ago over falsehoods in his purported memoir A Million Little Pieces, could have easily passed for one of the gallery’s marquee artists discussing the details of an upcoming show.

Frey was in fact reviewing mock-ups of the cover of his latest novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. The book’s publication by Gagosian on Apr. 22 points to Frey’s recent arrival in the art world, where he quickly became part of an exclusive clique of high-octane artists. He’s also a collector, sometime gallerist and, most recently, author turned conceptual artist. Caught up in the New York art swirl for the past five years, the author not only clinched a publication deal with the world’s most powerful art dealer, but has garnered for Final Testament some special treatment. Gagosian has agreed to present Frey’s new book as an artwork, complete with a showing in one of its galleries.

Based on the structure of the Bible, Frey’s Final Testament relates the trials of a present-day messiah in New York through the voices of his friends, family and acquaintances. In keeping with the humble origins of Christ’s followers, Frey’s cast of characters ranges from a Puerto Rican stripper to a trauma unit surgeon to a leader of a cult of felons, eking out an existence in the bowels of the subway. Frey’s messiah preaches love and kindness. He’s also bisexual, performs gay marriages and suffers repeated epileptic seizures. He dismisses the notion of an afterlife as a fairy tale and religion in general as “a beautiful con. The longest running fraud in human history.”

If Frey’s new tome pushes a few cultural hot buttons, this is hardly surprising. In the aftermath of A Million Little Pieces, which sold eight million copies (according to the Wall Street Journal), his agent dumped him, and his publisher at the time, Riverhead Books, dropped a two-book contract which included Final Testament.During two lengthy interviews with Art in America, at Gagosian and his offices on the western edge of SoHo, Frey described being harassed by photographers and reporters to such an intolerable degree that he decamped from SoHo to the south of France. He also became entangled in a flurry of legal problems, including class-action lawsuits resulting in refunds to disgruntled readers.More recently, Full Fathom Five, Frey’s so-called writing factory, launched in 2009, was slammed in New York magazine for contracts that allegedly prey on MFA writing students eager to publish. The fiction-writing machine currently employs four editors and administrators, 44 writers and has some 45 books in production, including a pulp novel. (The DreamWorks Studios film I Am Number Four released in February was based on a book written under the auspices of Full Fathom Five by James Frey and recent MFA Jobie Hughes, using the pseudonym Pittacus Lore.)

Two months prior to the publication of Final Testament, Roland Philipps, a managing director at John Murray Publishers, said in an e-mail that its London house, which is releasing Final Testament in the UK, is already receiving veiled threats. “To be the instrument to write, publish or promote such corrupting doctrine as this book evidently contains will draw out God’s answer in His own time and way,” read a letter dated Jan. 6.

In aligning himself with Gagosian, Frey has turned his back on the American publishing industry, which, he observed, “doesn’t respect my work.” He’s also restricted the number of printed books sold in the U.S. to an edition of 10,000, featuring a Gregory Crewdson cover photograph of a bloody scalpel. A pricier edition of 1,000, signed by the author, comes in a stark white slipcase, its edges spray-painted red like spattered blood. (The Crewdson edition is $50; the other version, for sale in the U.S. only at Gagosian, is $150.)

“When James approached us, he was very specific about limiting the number of books we published,” noted Alison McDonald, Gagosian’s publishing director. “Our idea was, if we print limited editions, and make them look really special, rare book collectors are going to appreciate them,” says Nicole Heck, the gallery’s senior project manager. Gagosian produces 30 to 40 catalogues a year, often in conjunction with exhibitions, but this is its first novel.

“As a writer, you dream about being able to write a book, make it what you want and release it the way you want,” said Frey, adding that, with Gagosian’s backing, he was producing the book with minimal editing by his wife, Maya, his new agent, and the Gagosian staff, and overseeing every aspect of the 400-page production. Designed to mimic a bible while retaining what Frey called “the look and feel of a contemporary art object,” Gagosian’s two limited editions will have embossed leatherette covers, and the messiah’s words will be highlighted in red ink, “like bibles read in the Bible Belt,” Frey said, adding that if he had pursued this concept with a conventional U.S. publisher or insisted that “this is a bible, and we should present it in the same way,” he would not have been taken seriously.

In connection with its release of Final Testament, Gagosian plans to hang a single unedited version of Final Testament, consisting of 229 inkjet-on-stretched-canvas panels mounted on the walls of one of its Manhattan galleries. With each panel measuring the size of a sheet of letter paper, Frey’s sprawling installation is meant to be regarded as a single artwork.

As if to give credence to Frey’s deliberate blurring of boundaries, Gagosian plans to exhibit Frey’s canvases alongside artists’ books in the form of illuminated manuscripts and other related artworks by gallery artists Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince, Richard Phillips and Dan Colen, inspired by their respective readings of Final Testament.

“In some ways, James is being even more provocative in the art world than he is in the world of literature,” says John McWhinnie of John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, based on Manhattan’s Upper East side. A rare book and art dealer, who has published art books with Elizabeth Peyton, Christopher Wool and Cindy Sherman, McWhinnie has worked with Frey on a number of projects.

Indeed, if the image Frey projected in A Million Little Pieces was of a badass but hapless former drug addict and criminal, today he prefers to cast himself as writer-artist wunderkind, with a charismatic new approach to tired business models. “There’s walls to be broken down in how books are written, produced and distributed,” he says.

A blunt and magnetic interview subject, the bearded, hazel-eyed Frey, 41, tends toward emphatic repetitions that evoke the urgent litanies of Allen Ginsberg and-apart from Frey’s steady stream of expletives-the persuasive strategies of a veteran politician. Frey’s intensity was as palpable as his platform was clear: “I have always said that art has influenced me in much more profound ways than writing has.”

As a boy growing up in Cleveland, Frey’s parents often took him to art museums, and whenever they traveled they made a point of exposing him to cutting-edge art. When Frey was 22, living in Paris and seeing art on his own, Rodin particularly impressed him. While wandering the streets of Paris, “looking at art, and figuring out how it made me feel,” he was also captivated by the writings of Henry Miller. “Tropic of Cancer was one of the books that whipped me up,” he recalled. Inspired by the radical impulses of the visual artists he most admired, Frey gravitated toward books by Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Norman Mailer. After spending time in rehab in Minneapolis-an interlude depicted in A Million Little Pieces, he moved to Chicago, and enrolled in theory and art history classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It wasn’t until he arrived in New York in 2002 that Frey began to connect to the Manhattan art world. Never a part of the literary community, Frey was ostracized after the A Million Little Pieces uproar. “I was very much thrown out. Publishers were canceling contracts. A lot of other writers spoke out against me. And I definitely moved more and more into the art world, with no thought of the book world except, ‘Fuck it.'”

Frey is an unrepentant collector. “Whenever I have an extra penny, I spend it on art,” he said. He owns drawings by Picasso, Matisse and de Kooning, as well as works by George Condo, Richard Prince, Matthew Barney, Cecily Brown and Will Cotton. After the “Oprah” episode, Frey commissioned Ruscha to make an acrylic-on-paper work painted with the words “public stoning.” The two became friends. In an art realm that is to a certain degree fueled by celebrity, brand recognition and hype, Frey found refuge.

That same summer, at the suggestion of Bill Powers, the former editor of BlackBook magazine (and more recently a judge on the reality television show “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” which aired on Bravo last summer), Frey visited the East Hampton branch of Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, where he met McWhinnie. Describing the art scene in the Hamptons as “a small community of people, a series of orbiting satellites,” McWhinnie noted that Frey, who spends his summers in Amagansett, rapidly entered the fold. In quick succession, Frey met and befriended Prince and Crewdson.

After meeting Frey in Montauk, Crewdson read A Million Little Pieces and, instead of feeling distressed by Frey’s merging of fact and fiction, saw this as “one of the things that connected us.” Crewdson added, “The lines between fiction and truth are so hopelessly blurred anyway.”

Buoyed by the support of his new art-world pals, Frey partnered with Powers and design impresario Andy Spade to open a Lower East Side gallery, cheekily named Half Gallery, in April 2008. The gallery shares a space with RxArt, a nonprofit that brings art to hospitals. “It was really about doing something unconventional,” remarked Frey. The gallery has never had an official roster. Over the three years it’s been in business, “It’s become mostly Bill’s gig,” Frey explained, but he has brought in such artists as Donald Shambroom, Stacy Wall and Damon Johnson.

The opening of Half Gallery coincided with the publication of Frey’s first novel, Bright Shiny Morning, by HarperCollins that same spring. With its cover photo by Prince, the novel led Frey to yet another art-related venture. Determined to highlight the sinister aspects of Bright Shiny Morning, McWhinnie suggested that Frey publish a separate limited edition combining three chapters from the novel-including one that had been excised—alongside artwork by Prince and Terry Richardson.

An eight-day Los Angeles escapade ensued, to capture what McWhinnie called “the seamy underbelly of L.A., the gun molls on motorcycles, and the spent cartridges.” He arranged for Richardson to shoot photos “guerrilla-style,” at a Rite Aid, and then at a gun club patronized
by gang members.

The result of this adventure, Wives, Wheels, Weapons, was published in two editions of 1,000 each, with covers from Richard Prince’s “Girlfriend” series and Richardson. Part photo book, part novella, Wives, Wheels, Weapons reflects Frey’s overall work, in that it’s “very hybrid,” says McWhinnie.

Hybrid books led to hybrid business models in 2009 when, invoking the studio model favored by such artists as Warhol, Hirst and Koons, Frey founded Full Fathom Five. Yet it wasn’t until last summer that Frey’s embrace of the mashup paved the way for his current association with Gagosian. Having just finished writing Final Testament, Frey discussed the possibility of its limited release in the U.S. with Gagosian staffer Andy Avini, a close friend and artist, who oversaw the 2009 opening of Gagosian’s limited edition and art book shop on Madison Avenue. At Avini’s suggestion, Frey sent manuscripts of Final Testament to Gagosian.

The idea of exhibiting a unique edition of Final Testament on the walls of a prestigious gallery had already occurred to Frey last June, when Sotheby’s chairman Lisa Dennison invited him to contribute an essay for a catalogue accompanying “Divine Comedy,” a show she was organizing for the auction house.

A playful spoof on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Frey’s text, Il Divino Bambino, introduces a character named Fuckface, who travels through Hell (the biggest Kmart ever built) with a homeless bum, Virgil. In the Sotheby’s catalogue, the essay appears alongside works ranging from a 1st-century Imperial Roman sculpture of a satyr wearing a mask to a triptych depicting the Last Judgment by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, to more recent works by Odilon Redon, Mike Kelley and Maurizio Cattelan. The show opened last September.

It was still on view when Frey’s manuscript was exhibited a few blocks away as 34 panels in inkjet on stretched canvas at McWhinnie’s shop on East 64th Street. McWhinnie admitted it was “quite an enormous challenge” to persuade clients that it should remain together as a single artwork. Nevertheless, it was sold to a couple, “major collectors of contemporary art,” he noted, for somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000 the day before the show’s Oct. 13 opening.

For all of Final Testament’s implicit blasphemy and bells-and-whistles packaging-and for all the fabrications of A Million Little Pieces-I found the latter more compelling. A Million Little Pieces presents an intimate, vivid and almost hallucinatory portrait of extreme duress, while Final Testament reads like a detached diatribe against society’s evils. Still, Frey is taking a bold stand on the value of literature. In exhibiting his unedited manuscript on a wall, he’s forcing an apt and perennially urgent question: What is art?

“All of the artists I have ever loved over the course of history have been people who get blasted by critics,” Frey noted. “Richard Prince is an easy example. I talk to him all the time about art and books, and we always laugh about how you get blasted because people don’t necessarily understand what you’re doing. Getting blasted, to me, is a sign I’m doing it right. The best artist of any medium—whether it’s painting, sculpture, music or books—is always pressing against convention. And if you’re doing that, there’s going to be resistance.” With Gagosian’s backing, Frey appears to be placing his personal bet on the future of book publishing by ushering conventional publishing in the direction many people feel it’s already headed-toward the rare book market.

With the vast majority of his U.S. readers forced to purchase Final Testament electronically—Frey is releasing digital versions of his book himself—he stands to recoup some of the money he probably sacrificed by limiting his U.S. hard-copy production. Meanwhile, Frey pointed out that abroad Final Testament will be published through the usual channels, because “outside the U.S. I haven’t had the same issues about how I publish, or the ambiguity of what I do.”

Reflecting on his aspirations for his latest creation, and his alliance with Gagosian, he explained, “I want the world to know that the game I play is never the same after I finish playing it, that after the greatest artists or the greatest writers are done, the world isn’t the same.”

His words had the ring of those spoken by his fictional messiah. When this was pointed out to him, Frey shook his head, and chuckled. “I don’t have a messiah complex,” he noted, tilting back in his chair. “I’m just a dude who writes books.”