A French sculptor who has moved to the United States immerses himself in the New York art world. Before long he acquires a network of fellow artists, a loft in what was then a desolate neighborhood below Canal Street, and a respected gallery to exhibit and, with luck, sell his work. It is the 1970s, so expectations of financial success are modest, but there is a strong sense of community among the artists he encounters and befriends, a shared passionate belief in the adventure of art that more than makes up for the sparsity of resources and the social marginality which is the life of most artists at the time. Having worshipped afar at the altar of Abstract Expressionism he is thrilled that the windows of his loft look onto the building where Barnett Newman had his last studio.
In his new home he leaves behind not only the daily pleasures of Parisian life for the harsher tenor of New York but also the brand of Conceptual art he has been pursuing. Against prevailing trends, he begins to work in modelled plaster and forged steel, seeking to reconnect with what he sees as the most vital legacy of modern sculpture. At first all goes well, but as the 1970s give way to the 1980s, he senses a change in the world around him: there’s more money (not necessarily a bad thing) but also more attention paid to fame and celebrity, more careerism, and, worst of all, more of what looks to him like bad and banal art that earns not scorn but widespread approval. He also begins to feel weighed down by the puritanical aspects of American society, its relentless work ethic, its uneasiness with eroticism. As the years go by, he feels increasingly alienated from the Downtown art milieu.
Happily, one zone of New York culture seems immune from such developments: the free-jazz scene. In lofts and clubs he rediscovers the excitement and purity and sense of mission largely missing from the realm of contemporary art. Gradually, almost without realizing it, he withdraws from the official artworld, preferring to attend jazz concerts rather than gallery openings, hang out with musicians instead of museum curators, draw his inspiration from two-hour-long piano improvisations rather than from postmodernist installations. He turns his own loft into an informal performance space where the city’s most experimental saxophonists, trumpeters, drummers, bass players and vocalists gather to perform amid his recent sculptures, sometimes turning them into unlikely percussion instruments. His unbounded enthusiasm for avant-garde jazz and trans-medium collaborations wins him the friendship of countless musicians, from young players to veteran innovators, many of whom frequent his loft and happily perform for a handful of people or, on some occasions, none at all. At these moments he feels like he is in the presence of creators as historically significant as his early heroes: Pollock, de Kooning, David Smith. These musicians, he declares, are the “New Irascibles.” Along the way, he comes to recognize that New York is a “black city,” something easy to overlook within the nearly all-white artworld of the time.
Wondering, one day, about the source of his intense attraction to jazz, he remembers his first encounter with the music. It happened during his childhood, on an evening when his parents impulsively invited Sidney Bechet, then living in exile in France, to their Paris apartment after attending one of his concerts. At some point during the night the great New Orleans saxophonist began to blow his horn in the family’s kitchen, awakening the sleeping boy to a glorious sound he would never forget.