Art and Madness: A Summer Reading Roundup

Jim Carroll


In the galleries, summer is a time for filler group shows. But in the world of books, monographs are always on hand—and so are novels, biographies and the like. A number of recent and forthcoming titles feature artists as characters, and several of them treat that evergreen theme, the nexus of art and madness. In hopes of helping you bring the right ones with you to your summer hideaway, A.i.A. offers a few observations on selected books.

The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll (New York: Viking, 2010; paperback forthcoming November 2011)

When he died in 2009, poet and musician Jim Carroll was finishing a first novel, The Petting Zoo, whose central character is fictive ’80s New York art star Billy Wolfram. While preparing a show, Wolfram encounters the paintings of Velázquez and, struck by their “spirituality and haunting arrogance,” suffers a crisis that apparently leads to a psychotic episode—after which he concludes that his own work lacks comparable depth. Unfortunately, the essential terms of Carroll’s tale—spirituality and arrogance—are never sufficiently defined, leaving a void at the book’s very center.

The author of numerous volumes of poetry as well as his teenage journals published as a book, The Basketball Diaries (1978), Carroll imagined for The Petting Zoo a character in some ways his opposite. Where Diaries described Carroll’s sexual and narcotic adventures in glorious and lurid detail, Wolfram is a virgin to both vices. Early on, we learn the reason for his asexuality: his first experience with masturbation traumatically ended with his mother bursting into the bathroom to report the assassination of JFK.

In this and other absurd passages, Carroll’s characters sometimes strain against the book’s serious, dramatic tone. Wolfram’s crisis lands him in a mental hospital. On the way home, a Hindu cab driver is treated by the author as some cringe-worthy “magical Negro” who divines that Wolfram’s problem stems from past trauma. A guide shows up during his psychotic episode, in the form of an immortal talking raven—none other than he of Noah’s ark—and convinces the artist that his problem is spiritual. In our highly secular world—and resolutely secular art world—it’s a credit to Carroll’s bravery that he would even introduce such a theme. Instead of spiritual advice, the raven directs the painter, vaguely, to search his past for clues. The spirituality theme, while repeatedly raised, is never satisfyingly developed.

Wolfram retreats into “reclusion,” to take stock of his life. Through flashbacks, we learn of the artist’s “meteoric rise,” his respectively storybook and mistrustful relationships with two successive dealers, and the sufferings of his childhood. But in the end, nothing convincingly adds up about the character; the childhood traumas he describes don’t seem plausible as background for his current troubles, and his spiritual quest is little more than melodrama.

The book is littered with head-scratching word choices. We learn, for instance, that “Blake’s paintings always left [Wolfram] with an abstrusely pure joy.” Carroll repeatedly substitutes “notoriety” for “fame,” and once asserts that Wolfram is “literally” connected to the canvas. Poetic license aside, the editors did the author no favors by not addressing his imprecise diction.

Carroll also reveals himself to be a master of stilted, implausible dialogue. For example, on his deathbed, Max Beerbaum, Wolfram’s first dealer, recommends a successor, Tippy Shernoval, whom the artist mistrusts. Beerbaum says, “I have also heard about this fellow’s improprieties and I’ve scrutinized every facet of him and his background. I will get to that in a minute, and hopefully assuage your fears.” Interviewed in the mental ward, Wolfram tells the doctor, “I’m sorry I keep going off on a tangent, Doctor, but don’t take that as being anything aberrant because of the immediate circumstances. I’ve always done that. I start with a terse response on a subject during an interview, for example, and before I know it, it’s circumlocution in nine directions.”

The night of the opening of the show the painter was preparing at the book’s outset ought to be a climax, but when Wolfram gives an impromptu speech, one winces at the clichés: “It’s the journey that matters, not reaching some obscure destination”; “a painter can’t worry about what anybody viewing his work thinks, and that includes the critics.” Can these less-than-Hallmark-worthy sentiments really constitute Carroll’s dying message?

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (New York: Ecco, August 2011)

With The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson, author of the acclaimed 2009 short-story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Harper Perennial), has accomplished a highly engaging and imaginative first novel. It introduces performance-artist couple Caleb and Camille Fang, who live in a small Southern town. In their view, whatever happens in a gallery or museum is dead on arrival since viewers can’t be surprised there. To shake up the public’s consciousness, they stage guerrilla-theater-style public performances. At one point, Caleb figures out a way to one-up Chris Burden’s Shot. Impressively, Wilson even-handedly treats a pair of characters who use performance art as a cover for antisocial tendencies.

Caleb’s art-school mentor always taught him that “kids kill art.” Hoping to escape this fate when they have children, the Fangs force their children Annie and Buster to participate in their performances, which frequently invite the attention of the police and reduce participants and observers to tears. The artists, narcissists or perhaps even sociopaths, care nothing for the psychic consequences for their children. As it turns out, this art kills kids, or at least leaves them deeply damaged.

Chapter by chapter, the book skillfully alternates between accounts of performance pieces from Annie and Buster’s childhood and the Fangs’ young adult lives. The emotionally stunted Annie and Buster have become an actress and a struggling freelance writer, respectively.

When we meet Annie, she is on the set of an indie film where the slimy director easily manipulates her into abandoning her scruples about appearing topless, an incident that introduces themes of power and manipulation which run through the novel. Buster, for his part, is broke and described as so unlucky in love that “He could count on one hand the number of times he’d had sex and still have enough fingers left over to make complicated shadow puppets.”

Wilson has a gift for characterization and dialogue; when Annie offers to help the hard-up Buster, she amusingly takes stock of her finances: “She had money, she realized. A ton of money, she realized. A ridiculous amount of money, she realized.” When she fails to get a part in a movie and is told, “It sucks. I know,” she snappily replies, “Does it suck? Do you know?”

When, halfway through the book, Caleb and Camille seemingly embark on a project grander and more cruel than any they’ve conceived before, Annie and Buster are forced to come to terms with their relationship with their parents, with each other, and with their pasts. And Caleb and Camille Fang, sick as they are, will impress you with their devotion to their art.

Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace (New York: Spiegel & Grau, April 2011)

In Leaving Van Gogh, Carol Wallace imagines the final months in the life of the artist through the eyes of Dr. Paul Gachet. The physician and art collector was painted by the artist in a portrait that sold at auction in 1990 for $82.5 million, then the highest price paid at auction for a work of art.

Wallace has written a score of books, mostly lighter fare (she coauthored The Official Preppy Handbook), and this is her first historical novel; it grew from her work toward her master’s degree in art history at Columbia University. Her research has paid off in a novel that convincingly presents the articulate, magnetically attractive but tortured and isolated painter. Partly based on van Gogh’s abundant letters to his brother, the art dealer Theo, Wallace’s story brings the artist to life as a man tragically aware in his lucid moments of the untreatable nature of his illness.

In the spring of 1890, two years after van Gogh infamously sliced off part of an ear, Theo approached Gachet, asking him to observe his brother and diagnose his malady. Vincent later moved to an inn near Gachet’s suburban home in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he lived out his last months before shooting himself in the chest, resulting in his death.

While living in Auvers, van Gogh painted local landscapes and architecture as well as portraits, including those of Gachet and his daughter. Wallace imagines the interactions of her characters, including the sessions in which Gachet and his daughter Marguerite sat for the painter.

Throughout, Wallace tamps down the drama that might appeal to a lesser writer. When Gachet first encounters van Gogh’s paintings, for example, Wallace doesn’t overplay the moment, but in a few simple sentences conveys the doctor’s surprise and respect: “His paint lived. It seemed to flicker or dance on the canvas—yet the image held together.”

Powerlessness over illnesses physical and mental is a leitmotif. Gachet’s eagerness to help van Gogh is colored by his inability to save his own wife, who had died several years earlier from tuberculosis. Even while conveying Gachet’s grief, Wallace captures his restraint: “Then Blanche died. It was a terrible time.”

Wallace’s rendition of Gachet, an esthete and amateur painter but not a great appreciator of new styles, is measured and sympathetic. Doctor to numerous artists, Gachet also amassed a large collection of Impressionist art, including many works left to him by van Gogh. Wallace carefully outlines Gachet’s mixed motives, indicating his slightly selfish thrill at an opportunity to study Vincent’s illness at close quarters. As for the eternal question about inspiration and insanity, the doctor simply asks, “Would Vincent have been a genius if he had not been mad? Was his madness the price of his talent? I don’t believe that it was. And yet the doubt lingers.”