On Petals and Fruits: ‘What We Lose in Flowers’

It’s no wonder that Bill Powers’s second book, titled What We Lose in Flowers, dissects the ego of a self-absorbed genius on an endless quest to satisfy his need for unconditional adulation. After all, Powers, Half Gallery owner and judge on Work of Art (as well as the former editor-in-chief of BlackBook), is surrounded by artists of all sorts. “The art world is my area of interest and, though some might disagree, expertise,” explained Powers. “I think that in many cases, artists are the philosophers of our day, embedding thought and feeling in material so it’s an extremely rich world to pull from.”

Powers’s novella, available through karmakarma.org, opens with an epigraph from John Currin that reads, “Culture is for old people. When you’re young you have your body, and that’s all you need.”

The protagonist is Yul Franco, a famed aging artist whose antics are an amalgam of those of Peter Beard and Julian Schnabel. He possesses too healthy of a sense of self, brewing in a world that, in his opinion, is layered in ingratitude and irreverence. Yul “always insisted on that youth was like the spring, an overly hyped season, beguiling when it was characterized by blossoming flowers, but more often than not remembered for its unexpected chill. To Yul, autumn was the fairer season, and what we lose in petals, we gain in fruit.” While these metaphoric conclusions foreshadow some acceptance of his weaning star power, they do not however extend to his romantic partners. Spring chickens reign supreme in Franco’s kingdom still driven by a vigorous libido so much so that he weds Emily, his son’s girlfriend. Terrified of becoming irrelevant Yul proves his virility, and in Freudian parlance, fends off the morbid and inevitable “aim of life.”

But reducing this tale and its protagonist to a pajama-wearing, skirt-chasing anecdotal fluff would be of disservice to the subtext Powers so eloquently weaves in-between the lines. The paradox of rise and fall, reverence and contempt, art and consumerism all play part in giving texture to Yul’s universe. The promise of his meteoric rise as a young artist has been replaced by a stabled routine of an ageing showman marked by sporadic art shows, surfing in Montauk, and patron visits to fix plates that have come undone from one of his million dollar paintings. When Emily is no longer amused by the stories of his great romps in Kenya, he bewilders the coked up, quasi-intellectuals at nightclubs about Darwinian realities and politics of sentimentality. His final act during a "Yul log", an "edu-taining" presentation to Yale’s MFA students, unveils the theme that has defined his work on and off the canvas. It’s “our fear of death and its many faces. How we run from our mortality, rejecting it at every turn. This denial is the engine driving so many of our social ills.”

The novella’s ending is heavy, ridden with supercilious strive to provide answers not only to Yul ‘s shortcomings but that of the art world itself, at times too consumed with finding the next big thing and plagued with personalities overshadowing the craft. Presumably it’s that self-professed expertise that has put Powers in the role of an ultimate voyeur, curious enough to unearth the deeper meaning behind it all.

This is not Powers’ first time at the publishing rodeo.Tall Island, his first book, was, in the words of Jerry Stahl of Permanent Midnight fame, “a complex, true-to-the-point-of-painful satire of all that New Yorkers strive to be.” While it may have gone mostly unnoticed by the larger audience, the integrity of its intent could not be denied. “Definitely a flawed novel,” Powers admitted. “But there are still some passages I’m quite proud of.”

This time the cards are stacking up in Powers’ favor. Brendan Dugan, the go-to designer for galleries like Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth and owner of Karma, a small shop that houses his own catalog of gritty pop-minimalist art books, was a catalyst for Powers’ latest endeavor. “Thanks to Dugan I realized I could publish my novella more as an artist book as Bjarne Melgaard recently did with same imprint,” the writer explained. Adding major oomph to the project is the cover designed by Richard Prince, who was introduced to Powers by the recently deceased John McWhinnie, rare book dealer, publisher and a downtown fixture. The novella is dedicated to McWhinnie.