Bill Powers, editor, writer, husband to Cynthia Rowley and owner of Half Gallery talks to us about his new book, What We Lose In Flowers. The novella follows Yul, a wealthy, aging artist in the twilight of his fame who also just happens to date a beauty in her early 20s. What?! They fell in love!
This book is a poetic and critical look at a man of a certain age who once was “it” but maybe isn’t so “it” any more. Basically Yul is that dude every New Yorker who leaves their apartment knows, or knows of, and secretly both despises and wants to be. He is that misogynistic blowhard who summers in Montauk and seemingly has everything he could want or need but his desperation to maintain relevance makes him act like a severe prick. The story details this struggle alongside the collapse of his marriage to the stunning and much younger Emily, whom he stole from his son. Cute.
How long did it take you to write the book?
Two years, unfortunately. I had almost 200 pages and then I decided I didn’t like any of the other story lines so I just published the part that I liked. Which ultimately, I think, reads better because it can be a bit fractured in places and sometimes life is like that. Like the couple is fighting in one scene and the next scene they’re just having dinner. You know, sometimes that happens!
You have access to this exclusive art world you write about. Is the book autobiographical in any way, or based on a common character that you’ve met?
It’s definitely pulling from parts of Peter Beard and Julian Schnabel’s biographies. They both have summer homes in Montauk, as do I. It’s a combination of all three.
It describes a sort of an irreverent, freewheeling lifestyle, reminiscent of Hemingway. Was that intentional?
Not at all but I appreciate it! I’d say I was probably more influenced by Don DeLillo. I think it’s in the book, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, that they talk about when Hemingway was deciding whether he liked another guy or not he’d say, “You’d like him. He’s tough.” I feel like Hemingway and Schnabel have a weird crossover — more than I do — in terms of attitude and bravado. I think you can make a connection between Schnabel and Hemingway, even though they traffic in different mediums.
From the beginning of the book death seems imminent — in the form of failing relationships, antiquated technology, Yul’s fear of Emily’s transgressions after he dies, etc. Would you say this a commentary on the art world?
I would just say that is just people in general. Do you think that’s just specific to the art world? I think memento mori or “remember you must die,” runs through so many artists’ work, whether it’s Warhol or Adam McEwen doing fake obituaries. So I think death is a pretty common theme in contemporary art. In terms of relationships, or specific to the father-and-son relationship in this book, I think that Yul being able to steal his son’s girlfriend is a way to show to the world, if not himself, that he’s still relevant. So I think that’s the thing. A lot of time people are maybe competing with history and wanting something that is going to outlive them, which you see in his case, is not happening when his paintings start to decompose. But also I think relevance is a big concern. No matter how successful you are or have been, or how much money you have, I think everyone craves to be relevant in whatever industry they’re working in. And you can be tortured by that desire, because you can never really put a hard stop on it, because it’s ongoing.
What, to you, is relevance?
That’s a hard question! I guess the ultimate magic trick, if you can create something that is timely and timeless at the same time. Is that good enough?
Yes. You seem to have a solid sense of style. What are some of your style inspirations?
Pretty much I wear Levi’s jeans every day. The glasses I wear were my grandfather’s glasses. He was a drummer and had his own orchestra in New York. He had a slight rose tint to them, so I kept his tint and got my prescription but it’s the only thing I have from my grandfather so that’s kind of nice. Apart from that I’m lucky that my wife has made a bunch of clothes for me and I like going to Melet Mercantile, run by Bob Melet. They have a lot of great vintage but it can be on the pricy side. So I’m just wearing a little thermal shell from there. And I have on my Family Business T-shirt which is the T-shirt they made for artists at Maurizio Cattelan’s pop-up gallery, open in Chelsea. In terms of inspiration I go somewhere in between Sam Shepherd and John DeLorean. I’ve never worn a suit with a turtleneck as he did, but I like his vibe.
How do you think Yul would dress?
Man, I see him getting around in a sarong somewhere. If it’s warm enough to support that.
Yeah, Yul doesn’t give a shit.
I’m sure he has some flannels in his closet too.
Let’s talk about the part where Yul would go to speak to Ivy League students to bolster his self-esteem.
You see a sort of pattern in the beginning and end where he can do a great 20-minute standup and then when he runs out of material he’s kind of just a prick. When his personal or professional life is falling apart he just goes back to his stump speech.
Do you think this is a common way of behaving among people who, with a certain amount of notoriety in the art world, find themselves becoming irrelevant or fearful that they’re irrelevant?
Not always. Someone like Ed Ruscha has managed to make pretty fantastic work throughout his career from pre-Pop Warhol until now. And when Cy Twombly died people were still feeling it. So it really depends, but yeah it’s hard to stay strong to the end. I tried to draw on the art world because that’s my area of interest. But really I wanted to speak more to just someone’s pathology, as when you get older how do you reconcile that internally and, when you can’t, how does that manifest in your behavior.
Yul is a blowhard, but he also gives the students some solid advice.
Well, that’s what a keeps a blowhard going is that some of it actually makes sense. I like when he says we’re obsessed with posting all our experiences online because we think that will tell us something about ourselves and that’s a cover for a lot of narcissism. I think narcissism is on the rise. I think technology, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or any of this social media, really promotes a lot of narcissism.
Do you avoid Facebook and Twitter?
I’m not on Facebook and I do have a Twitter account for Half Gallery but I try and keep it almost 100 per cent about art. So there won’t be any pet tweets.
What piece of advice would you give aspiring artists?
I think with any entrepreneurial creative person you have to have the right mix of persistence and naïveté, because if you knew how slim the odds were in succeeding you might not try in the first place.
Do you think you had that when you first started out?
Its really hard to self-identify that combination. Jeff Koons once told me what drives him is engagement. As we get older we can pull back from society and our families and our career, our bodies start to disengage – arthritis, Alzheimer’s. So really it’s our job and our struggle to stay engaged on every level, with your audience with your work, with the people around you. I don’t know if that’s what you need when you’re starting off, but it’s a good thing to remember wherever you are in your life.
Perhaps you’ve always had that desire to be engaged?
I guess. I’m just excited to have done a book and Richard Prince was nice enough to do the cover and Karma who published it, I think it’s the only nonartist book that they’ve done to date, so I’m pretty happy to be in that group.
How did you select the cover?
I asked Richard Prince if he’d do the cover. He enjoyed the book and was excited to do it, so it was all his doing. It was his suggestion to split the run, so half have the front image on the front and the other half have the back on the front. And then maybe people would buy both (laughs). But sometimes people prefer blondes over brunettes.
Available for purchase now:
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