The Life of Art: On Frederic Tuten’s “The Bar at Twilight”

THE TALES COLLECTED in Frederic Tuten’s The Bar at Twilight Make me think of the sculptor Alexander Calder creating and playing with the elements of his circus, performing it in Paris for contemporaries and friends such as Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, and Joan Miró. Later video documentation shows the artist taking his responsibilities as homo ludens very seriously as he demonstrates the possible range of kinetic combinations of elements he began creating in the late 1920s.

Although Tuten was not yet born when Calder began making his circus figures of wire and wood, his work shares the same sense of thoughtful playfulness, the imaginative reconfiguration of “stock” elements in different scenarios, and the pleasure in having in his audience a cadre of artistic peers. Many of those peers, in Tuten’s case, have stories in The Bar at Twilight dedicated to them. They hail from the worlds of music, theater, literature, and the visual arts, and the stories’ dedications often indicate both friendship and an aesthetic correspondence. Moreover, the association with the visual arts — particularly, painting — is germane to the way Tuten uses the medium of language.

In his 2019 memoir, My Young Life, and elsewhere, Tuten has recounted the story of his childhood longing to become an artist, and how that longing was thwarted by a dismissive teacher at the Art Students League. His artistic ambitions, fueled by romanticized versions of the painter’s life in print and film, were mired in fantasy. As he matured, so did his understanding of — and aesthetic investment in — the world of visual art. That investment flourished, however, in the realm of literature, drawing fertile inspiration from the art world’s postmodernist proclivity to mix so-called high and low art, to blend genres, materials, and sources: think of the prototypical Rauschenberg “combines” or David Salle’s superimposed fragments that feel, at times, like cinematic montage.

Tuten’s recurrent “objects” include the titular tavern of his new collection, with bars and cafés appearing in various guises in the stories. These are places for communal and even clannish gatherings — in “The Snow on Tompkins Square Park,” a man has entered a horse bar, and the bartender, a blue horse, tells him flatly, “We serve horses here, and people who look horsey. You aren’t and you don’t” — but they are also cave-like places of origin and safety and final rest, locales where artistic and philosophical traditions gained footing, “sea-caves” of gestation, havens from the outside world — and the shadowless abyss of death.

Some other repeated elements in Tuten’s stories are main characters named “Marie” and “Louis.” A man in a blue suit makes appearances, as does a physician/father figure. Women leave and return with shopping bags — miniature curations of the outside world. Men debate leaving their lives abruptly behind. Hats, as apparel and emblem, figure often. Mythical beings and sentient animals mingle with human actors. Oceans and rivers are gateways to the unknown. Snow, as cocoon or menace, figures in many of the stories.

Habitués of the bar in “The Bar at Twilight,” who include “Marie,” “Louis,” a centaur, and an old seadog named Harry, are snowed in. There are musings about love, death, the relative benefits and defects of minimalism, and the institution’s past as a horse bar. Discussion of the snowstorm outside prompts Louis to recount a story about “a young man I knew of, a German lad en route to an engineering career [who]on discovering he had tuberculosis […] went to be cured in a clinic high in the Swiss Alps,” where “one late afternoon […] [he]found himself caught in a sudden blizzard.” It’s not the first time Tuten has integrated narrative material from The Magic Mountain into his writing. In his book Tintin in the New World (1993), Tuten created an overlay of the Belgian illustrator Hergé’s eponymous comic-book hero Tintin with characters from Mann’s novel, crafting a tale wherein a hybrid Tintin/Hans Castorp attains adulthood, has romantic adventures, and writes his memoirs. The Bar at Twilight draws from the chapter of The Magic Mountain titled “Snow,” with its detailed descriptions of snow and its effects. It’s interesting, too, to recall that Mann integrated information from an encyclopedia article on typhus into Buddenbrookspublished in 1901, an act he described, in a 1945 letter to Theodor Adorno, as “eine Art von höherem Abschreiben” — a kind of higher cribbing.

The last story in The Bar at Twilight, “L’Odyssée,” is dedicated to Jeff Koons, another artist who, in drawing from popular art and everyday objects, also indulges in “higher cribbing” from “lower” sources. “L’Odyssée” was first included in an exhibition catalog of Koons’s Popeye Series, shown at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2009. Tuten’s text from this catalog, and from others, is not included as art criticism or an ekphrastic description but as an independent creation in with the artist. In this, it has something in common with Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures (2015), in which the Swiss novelist uses an image (often seen in reproduction) as a jumping-off point for his discrete inventions. Tuten and Koons each approach Popeye in distinctive ways.

Even without visuals, Tuten’s Popeye is immediately identifiable as the Depression-era icon, due to the use of one aspect of his idiolect: the cartoon character’s substitution, in the inaugural sentence, of “me” for the first-person possessive. The story begins in medias res: “Then I made me way into the house itself and found it all in shambles.” The voice is otherwise Tuten’s; his aim is not to create a realistic character but to use the minimum markers of syntax that will identify a speaker. At the house, the protagonist finds his long-unseen love, who, although also unnamed at first, is just as clearly Olive Oyl, “her old skinny self with a few new appealing curves, her tongue still as sharp as her pointy elbows. ” Tuten has entwined Popeye’s narrative with that of Odysseus, and this hybrid’s homecoming is met by a gathering of suitors, assembled in his absence to woo Olive/Penelope, that rumbles ominously outside. Popeye has forgotten his original tongue after years spent not at war but shanghaied and kept captive as the geek in the circus L’Odyssée. According, in response to Olive Oyl’s request that he prove his identity by saying “it” to her, he can at first only come up with an unconvincing “Je suis ce que je suis” before recalling the catchphrase “I yam what I yam. ” When the two kiss, little moons spin around their heads, in time-honored comic-strip tradition, and Popeye, fortified by his requisite ration of spinach and assisted by the animals he freed when he escaped from the circus, then “sallie[s] forth with me naked arm to set the world to right.”

Though there are discussions concerning art and literature in these stories, some are more definitively essay hybrids, with the disquisitions on art and literature voiced by their protagonists providing a main focus. “The Tower” intersperses biographical details about Montaigne with fictional narrative. “In the Borghese Gardens” begins in the manner of a piece of nonfiction about Hawthorne, specifically about his last novel, The Marble Faun. Hawthorne, living in Italy, was “less fascinated with persons and more with paintings”; he “was tired of telling the same old story of the dark human heart threatening always to shake order and reason, the minister’s stiff dick in the forest, the reformer’s vanity bulging under his rectitude.” There is then a sudden shift from these reflections to a scene wherein the narrator’s love affair is coming to an end; the couple goes together to a park where he, having brought his copy of The Marble Faun, describes the novel’s faults to his lover: the characters are shells for Hawthorne’s old ideas and themes; his descriptions of paintings are dry; and, in fact, everything about the story is “tired.” Nonetheless, it isn’t his first rereading of it; There is something compelling in its imperfection. After a dream-like encounter, followed by an aside in which the narrator admits “how odd a story this is,” he wonders at his preoccupation with Hawthorne’s flawed book. Among the several reasons he posits is that he recognizes “in this incomplete story the elements of my exhaustion and my longing for childhood, however incapable I was then — as now — of adding up.” At the story’s end, he directly addresses Hawthorne, who turns to him and nods.”[f]or me to continue, I thought.” It’s in the gaps, the stammers, the missteps and anachronisms of art and literature where great possibility resides.

Tuten’s language is supple, elegant, and wonderfully descriptive. He is also very funny: without casting specific aspersions, he simply observes, of a man and his companion in “Delacroix in Love” (dedicated to Steve Martin), that “[t]he man was wearing green pants and red tasseled moccasins and a plaid shirt open at his suntanned, gray-haired chest; the woman with him had the face of a grilled wallet.” Enough said. “The Garden Party” recounts a compounding disaster reminiscent of the escalation in Donald Barthelme’s 1976 story “The School”: a couple readies for a garden party while around them a conflagration threatens to engulf the entire neighborhood. They are blasé about the rising flames, discussing them in aesthetic terms: “It’s a crisp and orderly fire,” says one neighbor, to which another responds, “Yes, it’s a fire with precision, which I prefer to the chaos of the fireplace .” This story was printed in an exhibition catalog of Martin Mull’s paintings (at Hirschl & Adler in 2015) that similarly juxtapose images of a willing adherence to normalcy with sometimes literal fire.

Tuten’s writing is dense with a lifetime of associations across multiple disciplines, and it is ultimately unprofitable to try and tease out all his references. These days, he is both writing and painting, with a show of his work, titled In the Fullness of Life at Harper’s Apartment in New York’s Upper East Side, overlapping the publication of The Bar at Twilight. In the past, Tuten’s books have featured covers with artwork by friends such as Roy Lichtenstein, David Salle, and Eric Fischl. For the cover of The Bar at TwilightTuten has provided a painting by his own hand.

Hearkening back to the yearning possibilities of youth, the collection’s first story, “Winter, 1965,” recalls, with a tender solicitude, a life lived in a perennially conditional mood, with a seemingly endless litany of “maybes” dangling a tantalizing future just beyond reach. That time of life is recalled not with nostalgia but with a still-keen feeling for the ache of waiting for the right moment to ignite one’s life. “It takes time to find your soil,” the narrator of “Lives of the Artists” tells his young wife, an artist just beginning her career. It will not be giving too much away if I tell you that, with The Bar at TwilightFrederic Tuten demonstrates once again that he has found his.

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Carrie Cooperider is a writer and visual artist who lives and works in New York City. Her work has appeared in such publications as New York Tyrant, The Antioch Review, The Southampton Review, Cabinet Magazineand Artishock.

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