San Francisco, Day 3

Another foggy day in San Francisco. By the end of it I will have spent an hour misleading an art gallery. First though, I decide to head to Alcatraz. I feel that the weather should perfectly suit the mood of the setting. I am excited about visiting the Rock. The concierge at the Hilton dashes my hopes though. “Sir, they are fully booked until Friday”. Damn. Other than the potential of seeing the seals again, I see no reason to go back to the wharf today, so I am pleased that I checked the Alcatraz situation before going to pier 41.

What to do instead? I decide to check out the art galleries. My wife is a artist, and she has taught me well in the ways of the art critic.

At the first gallery I get a frosty reception. This does not bother me particularly, as I am there only to browse. Buying original art works is not something I am likely to be able to afford for many years. The Picasso and Rembrant etchings before me are more than just a little out of my league. When the staff of the second gallery ignore me in exactly the same way as the first I become a little worried about it. My paranoia grows and I believe that they are quietly mocking me by pretending I don’t exist. I narrow it down to my age (22) and my appearance (trousers and shirt are not scruffy but not obviously screaming “art collector” either). When I enter the third gallery and a very friendly Californian guy greets me happily my spirits soar. Perhaps I am capable of pulling this off after all. So, by accident rather than by plan, I gradually begin to slide into a simple but total deception of this smiling man.

It begins with an icebreaker. He greets me with more effervescence than I’m used to, even in California, the most bubbly of states. I, after returning his salutation and assuring him that I’m doing very well today thank you, inform him that Californian galleries seem more friendly than those of Paris or London. This has two obvious effects.

  1. It demonstrates that I am English and not a local. Furthermore, if he is one of the seven Americans in the world capable of differentiating between a London accent and a Liverpudlian, that I am from the south of England with an accent which we would call home counties. This is not a deception. I don’t need to put on a posh accent. For some reason I speak like a toff all the time. Sometimes I am aware of it but rarely do I try to disguise it.
  2. It implies that I am familiar with European art galleries. Not, perhaps, a total lie but I get the feeling that the total lies are not far down the track.

His attention sufficiently captured, he asks what I think of the rather striking Andreas Nottebohm painting I was admiring as he greeted me. I tell him I am not familiar with the artist but I am fascinated by the technique. Is it acrylic paint applied directly to aluminium? David (for such is the Californian’s name) seems pleased I spotted that and wants to show me more of the Nottebohm works they have. I am genuinely keen to see more. This artist is new to me, and I really love the three pieces I’ve seen so far. We merrily chat about the style and the kind of lighting required to bring out the textures ground into the aluminium sheets which give the paintings their unique (as far as I’m aware) look. By this point we have gone up some stairs (past some Picasso etchings and, I note with joy, Salvador DalĂ­ paintings) to a larger collection of Nottebohm paintings. They vary in size and shape (some are huge concave dishes) but all would make great book covers. They seem to depict the unseen depths of space. Some are strewn with intricately drilled and detailed markings – like an alien map or instruction manual. These pieces could, the viewer could easily imagine, be artefacts. Beautiful objet trouvĂ© rather than man-made art. Others look more like intense space-scapes. Light plays across them revealing new aspects with every move of the head. The textures in the underlying aluminium are as important as the mind-bending shapes and colours the paint which covers it.

I realise that I am gushing a bit about these paintings but I want to emphasize that I am not pulling this guys chain. I have a very real admiration and respect for this work. It appeals to the sci-fi reader in me.

Now the crunch point. So far I could walk out the shop without having said an untrue word. The fulcrum is a question which David who has been subtly probing about where I am staying (the Hilton) and what work I do (computer geek) comes out with the biggie. “So, what do you collect?”.

I am pleasantly surprised. His incorrect assumption that I own art pleases me greatly. I also presents me with a dilemma. If I were totally honest I would laugh lightly and say “I wish” or something similarly self-deprecating. I am here to browse, thanks for showing me this stuff and do feel free to get back to your paying customers. Something in me doesn’t want to be so honest though. He has spent quite a while with me already, and I don’t want to let him down. Plus, my ego was dented earlier by being ignored and David has just enlarged it quite enormously. I’m also interested to see how far I can take this. Do I lie and name some obscure painter, or even make one up? This is risky. I may be expected to know what the works that I own are called, their style, where I purchased them and so on. I am not a bad liar but this is too complex for me to get into. The happy medium is to admit that I currently have no collection but also imply that I might be here to investigate the beginning of one.

This minor hurdle out of the way, David moves on to the next stage. Prices. This gallery (I won’t name it for David’s sake) is not so coarse as to display prices next to the art. Now that he believes I am for real (something my self-confidence is still floating over) he guides me through the prices of the works. He does not even, as I was more-than-half expect him to, concentrate on the cheaper works. Instead he concentrates on the ones I admired the most and goes from there. Essentially, though, I can spend from 2-3 thousand dollars, for a 4 x 3 inch work, to 50 or 60 thousand for the larger pieces. In order to maintain some sanity I indicate that the more affordable paintings are very interesting to me. I don’t say ‘affordable’ though I say ‘accessible’, thinking it’s a more respectful word when handling money. Looking back on it, ‘accessibile’ to an art dealer probably equates to ‘understandable’, but I’m sure he knew what I meant.

At this point he suggests that I might want to come to a Nottebohm exhibition in one month. We have passed the point of no return now. My brain too well fluffed to do anything other than say “I would love to! I don’t see why I shouldn’t come back for that”. A total lie. The reason I won’t be there is because I am really here on business and couldn’t really afford the flight let along the paintings I’m pretending to be weighing up. David doesn’t know this though, so I am taken to a small back room. A dozen or so of the smaller pieces are brought out from storage. David wears white cotton gloves. The small pieces are known by the artist as ‘Universes’ and I go through a frankly unbelievable process of selecting the ones I particularly like. I even, internally laughing at how far this has gone, pick out 3 that look good together as a triptych.

This goes on for perhaps half an hour. I have wasted an hour of David’s time now. Gentle guilt rests on my stomach. Before I can leave though I am shown catalogues. We exchange email addresses and I dutifully take a small Nottebohm brochure and agree that arriving 2 or 3 days before the show to get an early look at the new pieces will be wise. David also offers to email me some jpegs of other Nottebohm paintings which might be there. (I am really looking forward to this). He also takes my home address, which I give so that he can send an official invitation to the show. In return I agree to email him once I know when I will be arriving and where I will be staying in San Francisco. The one thing I demur on is my home phone number. Emails and letters I can cope with. Real-time communication would embarrass the hell out of me though.

In the evening I have chinese with some new friends at a great restaurant called the House of Manking. This we washed down with drinks at a variety of bars. I go to bed with a slightly guilty conscience. Poor David. He was so nice as well.