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Tales from a Brave Ulysses

XXXIII. "Street Art: Part Two"

This is part two of a series of Tales columns devoted to buying art on the street. When I moved to New York I began to collect art from those artists whom make galleries of card tables and clotheslines in parks and on street corners. I love the idea of owning original art, and I've always been captivated by the way one's perspective of "art" changes with the artist-audience relationship. Art seems more affecting when there's a back story. The best art shouldn't need a back story or context, however I've never known a back story to make a piece of art less affecting. Marcel Duchamp's Fountain becomes a bit more interesting when one imagines Brian Eno urinating into it.

Memory of BasquiatTitle: "Memory of Basquiat"

Description: 20 x 30 acryllic and mixed media on stretched canvas

Artist: Alexandar Milenkovic

Price: Three hundred dollars

On weekends the southwest corner of Union Square is lined with artists. A man named Noah sells boxes and jewelry and other miscellanea made from Metrocards. There are t-shirts and posters with pictures of Native Americans holding guns: a caption reads "Fighting Terrorism Since 1850" (I think I'm wrong about the date, but you get the idea). Many different artists sell New York landmark illustrations, original art, photography, etc. It's reminiscent to a First Thursday, but every weekend. During the week you will find some stragglers, but the weekend is crowded. Saturdays especially, when the Green Market is in full swing at the north end of the square.

It was a Saturday when I'd first moved here that I went to the Green Market to look for strawberries. I'd worked on a strawberry farm called Picha Farms in Puyallup nearly every summer from elementary school to my second summer of college. Now that I was working a regular air-conditioned job, I wanted to smell strawberries and see my hands stained red. I found a booth, bought a quart of what I thought seemed to be smallish strawberries of the Hunt varietal (I had visions of being a farmer for some summers, and learned the different types of berry).

Strawberries in hand I walked south past the play areas and dog runs, down a pathway in the center of a square with broad tree leaves forming a sort of canopy under which benches were filled by the very rich and very poor alike. New York is a city of juxtapositions. You nearly always find yourself in the company of your opposite, or whom you think is your opposite.

The day previous I received my first "spending" paycheck. It was the first paycheck I received that made it possible for me to stop pulling money from savings in order to pay the rent. Upon reaching the row of artists and card tables, I thought I would celebrate my first real New York weekend ├▒ only that Monday before I had moved into my apartment, previously I'd been staying on couches with friends. I decided I'd buy some sort of print, something to hang on the wall that wasn't a poster leftover from college. I was growing up.

My first thought was of the framed 4 x 6 New Yorker covers. I'd seen them in front of museums and at different entrances to Central Park. They always caught my eye,, and now I thought it would be nice to get a couple (I'd never seen one for more than 5 dollars). However, as I strolled down the aisle of artists eating my strawberries and surveying what in essence is an enormous outdoor gallery, I spotted an extremely colorful table of cartoonish illustrations in multiple sizes, all very bright like a Mediterranean village's skyline.

The artist's name was Alex, he said. He was tall, with a Russian look about him and a slight accent. I bought two small postcard-sized pieces that came in matted frames, ten dollars apiece. Each was of a woman in profile, smoking a cigarette at a window. They reminded me of a bit of Dubuffet or Basquiat, with a bit of Picasso's blue period thrown in. When I said I'd take these two, he asked if it would be cash or charge. This was how Alex made his living, selling prints out of editions of 250 or more on the street. He lived in Brooklyn, he said, with his wife, who was selling her caligraphic portraits of dancers across the aisle. They were going to have a baby soon, he moved to the states in the early-nineties to study painting in Brooklyn. He started selling art on the street to pay for school, and did well. SO well he has a credit card machine to make it easier on the tourists. None of the other artists I saw had that. I shook his hand and left, happy with my purchase.

Around Christmas I got (what I considered to be) a huge bonus from work. I decided to use most of it on presents for family, but wanted to treat myself. I had over time aquired more of Alex's prints, and one of his wife's as well. The "Romeo and Juliet, NY" photograph that was the subject of the previous Tales… was still fresh on my wall. So I returned to Union Square on a Saturday to see what I could see.

This time it was hot apple cider instead of strawberries, and I cupped my hands round the paper cup to keep warm. During the winter there are even more people with tables out in Union Square, so many the city sets up stalls that must be rented. But Alex and the others, probably not wanting to foot whatever bill the city charges (leave that to the Soho retailers with their knitted caps and metallic purses) maintained their ground with the card table.

Being a Saturday in December and the crowd like a quilted maelstrom of shouts and erratic walking (city people, these are not) it took me some time to find Alex. Because of the holiday season he had brought some original pieces, ones I had not seen before. One of them drew me in immediately. I was writing a novel last winter which incorporated a painter character whose work is repeatedly compared to that of Jean-Michele Basquiat. This painting Alex had done, as a tribute to Basquiat ("He was one of the reasons I moved to the United States," he says) looked exactly as I pictured a piece by this character would look. I loved it immediately. I asked Alex the price, nodded, and said I would be back, I would run to the ATM so he didn't have to pay the credit card company. When I returned with a wad of fresh twenties, he was reluctant to sell, as he hadn't made prints of the piece yet, hence no series of 250 prints in 4 x 6, 8 x10, 10 x 12, etc. And he really liked the piece. He had just completed it. But, with a baby just born, his wife goaded him into selling it.

I go by often to visit Alex and see how he's doing. He's there less and less on weekends this summer, which I assume means he's doing well. I've seen his work in some Brooklyn cafes, too, all priced significantly above what I paid. In the end, the piece is one of my favorite paintings of all time. I like to think of how after I paid him for it he might have taken his family out to dinner. Now when I see him he asks where it hangs in my apartment, what art hangs near it. I belive he loves it more than I do, and that always makes me sad.

Next week: Mixed media in Union Square with Basquiat and a Russian.