As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by other people’s shop talk. I love to listen in on a group of makers or workers telling stories in their own particular inscrutable way—using a shorthand about tools and methods; joking or explaining, in a language that encompasses a shared appreciation for knowledge of a very specific kind.
After grad school, I worked for a builder for nearly two years, starting out from a place of complete ignorance of what lies behind a sheetrock wall (or even how the sheetrock got there in the first place) and ending up with a moderate degree of competence in a few small areas of construction. With perfect, chilling clarity, I remember my first visit to a lumberyard, where I had been sent to buy materials for a job. It was like those dreams where you’re suddenly taking a test you haven’t prepared for, or you are naked in a room full of clothed people. The only thing that saved me was that it was Berkeley in 1980, and women had entered most of the trades. The salesman at the yard treated me with a wary courtesy, unsure if I was a real carpenter or just someone’s feckless girl assistant. I read my list to him, relying on my excellent posture and normal forbidding expression to get me through it.
I tried, all through that time, to seem as though I belonged in the places I found myself. I learned the words and carried the tools—whatever they were-- though never with complete confidence, being largely afraid of power saws (or most social situations), due to having much too vivid an imagination. Still, it seems worth noting that the crew I was part of during the day consisted entirely of people with master’s degrees. We were all trying to find out where we belonged. It was Berkeley. It was the eighties.
Some time later, I entered another foreign world, with as little preparation or knowledge of what lay behind the surface as I’d had when I started working for the builder. I was writing reviews of exhibitions, and that meant getting invited to the fancy dinners that took place after openings. Sometimes held at restaurants, sometimes at dealer’s homes, these events terrified me (as much as any visit to a lumberyard), clad in my one decent dress, my black leather jacket, or both. There was usually a lot of wine. The food was good. One particularly memorable event, held to celebrate the opening of a show of the work of Neo-Expressionist Markus Lupertz, took place at art dealer Rena Bransten’s house. There were dozens of people from all over the world, drinking, eating, chatting. I knew almost no one.
Holding my plate, I sat at a table. The man to my left introduced himself as “Mike Werner,” with an ironic smile and a faint accent. Somehow we started talking about the German novel Perfume, which I had recently read in translation. I relaxed slightly. Werner (that is, Michael Werner, Lupertz’s dealer and international art world figure, though I was too nervous to figure that out at the time) laughed at something I said. A moment later, Jack Lane, the director of SFMOMA, leaned across the table and fixed me with an unpleasant stare. “Why are you here? Are you some kind of expert on Neo-Expressionist painting?” he asked loudly. For a moment, it was just like those humiliating naked test-taking dreams. But I smiled-- I think-- and said, “Nope. I have no idea why I was invited. I don’t know anything.”
‘Mike’ laughed again, and conversations at the table resumed. Just then, the artist’s beautiful wife Trixi drifted by, in a short strapless dress made of burnt orange suede and matching opera-length gloves. I felt the heady thrill of being in a world I barely knew, listening to the threads of seductive shoptalk rise and fall around me, as people gossiped and bragged and complained about shows, museums, paintings, collectors; money, money, money, and—occasionally-- art. I almost felt as if I belonged, and eventually, I suppose I did. As much as I did with the carpenters, anyway.