Robert Cumming: "The Clutter of Happenstance" at the Museum of Modern Art

Blarney and Counter Culture Take a Holiday

 St. Patrick's Day, 1998 NYC

"Galligan! How're you doing? I haven't seen you since Christmas!"

 Fred Escher beelines his way through the crowd, gathered around the wine table in the lobby just outside the photography galleries here in the museum. 

"Good Fred, how about you? Don't forget, I wouldn't be here, if it wasn't for you getting us on the guest list for this opening. Though when we checked in at the reception desk and told them we were on the list, the receptionist couldn't find my name." 

G-A-L-L-I-G-A-N, I spelled it out for her. Meanwhile, she looked for Callahan, Culligan, Gilligan, Gillian, Gallagher, Galivan.

 "Who put your name on the list?", she asked.

 "Robert", I answered.

 "Oh!", she said, "by all means, we can't keep you waiting!"

 Smiling, she hands Lillian and I two blank i.d. passes from the pile next to her guest list and points us towards the guard sitting beside the roped off entrance to the escalator leading up to the photography galleries.

 "Enjoy the show!"

 "Thanks." I reply, "By the way, we're expecting a friend to join us shortly, would you put his name on the list please?"

 "Certainly. What is it?"

 "Robert, Sietsema, S-I-E-T-S-E-M-A."

 "Very good." she says.

 "So," says Fred, "Robert's coming too?"

 "Sure," I say. "I figured Cumming wouldn't mind another addition to the list. Besides, I think they remember each other."

 "Well," says Fred, "any friend of Robert is a friend of Robert. Besides, neither of us would be here if it wasn't for Cumming. He's the one who introduced us, remember? You and he were doing all of that correspondance-art stuff and he told you to write to me in Janesville and me to you in Madison."

 "That's true," I reply.

"Jan Gallagher! I haven't seen you in ages! You're looking as young as ever! Who's that lovely woman you're with?"

 I spin around and see the Mayor of Dublin coming towards me, accompanied by a tall, wispy strikingly beautiful blonde-haired woman. Not the blowsey-flamboyant-blonde type, but a fair-haired wistful-damsel type. The Mayor is wearing a bowler-derby, black suit, white shirt, patent-leather shoes, a green carnation, and an irridencent green necktie, which, when I look closely, has a pattern of little black dots. In his breast-pocket is a matching purple cravat. A dashing portrait of Irish finerey, a little portly, but freshly scrubbed and shaved, and full of gusto. Only, it's not really the Mayor of Dublin. It's the Mighty Mogul of the Artworld, himself, Willoughby Sharp.

 "Lillian, I'd like you to meet Willoughby Sharp. Willoughby, this is Lillian, Mulero, M-U-L-E-R-O."

 Willoughby leans in to listen, and to get a closer look.

 "Muralo. Your family in the paint business? Very pleased to meet you! This is my wife, Chesire. C-H-E-S-H-I-R-E. It's Gaelic. Actually that's the anglecized verison. It's originally C-H-A E-S-I-R-E, but she changed it. She's from Dublin and she's 100-percent Irish, though she's not actually my wife now. We're getting divorced, so we're not living together. We were. For eight years. On Roosevelt Island. But now, she's found a new place, and I'm looking for one too, maybe back in Soho, though Chelsea seems like the place to be at the moment. 

God, there all these people here from the seventies. I'm reopening my gallery as soon as I get settled and find a place. In fact I was in my lawyer's office earlier today, working on the divorce and he told me he has a line on a small place near Metro Pictures that could work out just fine. I'm curating a show at the moment that opens in early April at the Lubelski Gallery on Broadway. It's called 'Acts of Faith' and has quite a few artists in it. Vito Acconci, Lawerence Weiner, he's flying in from Berlin for the opening, Mike Bidlo, Charlemagne Palestine, he's coming from Dusseldorf, Kiki Smith, she'll be coming over in her limo, Dennis Oppenheim, Robin Winters and a number of other artists.

 Actually (looking directly at Lillian) we're representing women strongly, 37-percent women in this exhibition. I'm a grand-father you know. My daughter Saskia just had a baby, in Rotterdam, I'm flying over to see her sometime soon. Things are good. I'm selling art, dealers are paying attention to me, I have some buyers and collectors, the list is growing."

 "So, Gallahan, what have you been up to?"

 "Actually, on the way here, driving down from Albany, we stopped for gas on the Thruway, and as I was getting out of the car, I saw a card on the ground which had a drawing of a hand, palm-up and it immediately reminded me of the drawing Charlie Ahearn made of my hand when he and his brother John were telling fortunes in Stephen Eins storefront next-door to your offices for Avalance magazine in Soho.

 I picked up the card and looked closely and I saw that the hand was marked with life, love, fate, health, heart, and head lines, and the fingers were divided into regions like optimism, sport, cunning, success, vanity, ambition and so on. On the back side it gave a fortune. Here, let me read it to you:

A phone call from a stranger brings a happy turn of
events. Those who have tried to interfere with your
happiness will soon find that they have no influence
over you at all. Your calm spirit will see you through
emergencies. The elephant is your special animal and
your lucky stone is an emerald.
Lucky numbers: 3, 11, 14, 22, 37, 48."
"So what did you do?" says Willoughby.

 "I played the LOTTO, of course! I played the numbers on the card. But you get two sets of numbers for your dollar, so I played quick-pick for the second set. The computer picks the numbers. The only common number for the two sets was 14. I have to match three or more of the numbers to win, but if I do, it pays out in 26 annual payments. Hey! You never know?

 Just last week I was at the Bat-mitzvah of a friend;s daughter and during the service I was reading the annotated Torah which I found in the pew-rack in front of me. I came across a reference to lots. The annotation described them in some detail as being stones with numbers and markings which were used for fortune-telling and divination. Lots, lotto, lottery. The die is cast."

 Just then Willoughby turns around.

 "Sietsamer, Robert Sietsamer! How're you doing? You're writing for the Village Voice, right? I read you all the time, great stuff! I was a recluse for six years you know. Living on Roosevelt Island. Being supported by my wife. Cheshire, this is Robert. Robert Sietsamer. The writer. Food critic for the Village Voice, you know him? Cheap places to eat, all over town and out into the far-reaches of the Boroughs."

 "Pleased to meet you." says Robert.

 "As I was saying," continues Willoughby, "I was a recluse in my apartment and I watched cooking shows on t.v. all day, so I got really good at it!"

 "It's true," says Cheshire. "He's really a gourmet cook now."

 "Well, I put on quite a little weight during that time, but now I'm slimming down." he says, patting his ample belly. "It's true," she says.

 "So, Robert, I read your column just this morning, the one about the new Dai resturant here in town. Dai, Thai, Chai, it was so confusing. Do you really eat all that stuff you write about. I mean guinea pigs, fish-heads, cow's knees and all that? You should come to my opening in a few weeks. I'm curating a show with a number of good artists. I'm planning to stage a photo before the opening. All of the artists together in one shot. Timothy Greenfield's doing it. It'll be like that famousphoto from the fifties. I told Laurie Anderson that if she brings Lou Reed with her, he can't be in the photo. 'Sorry Lou, not this time. Step over here please.' We're having a big party at LIFE after the opening. Everyone's going to be there, and you should be too. We had another great party at LIFE recently right after the White Columns opening for the FOOD show. Great opening that one, but the party, terrific food. 

You know how I met my wife? Let me tell you. Nine years ago, I'm at an opening at Duggal, the photo-computer production house. I'm standing around, a little bored, I look across the room and see this woman, beautiful, blonde, a little shy, wistful. There's a salsa band playing the party, but they're taking a break. I think, 'I've got to meet this woman.' I catch her eye. She looks back. I know. This is it. I walk over to her. It's a long walk. You know Duggal. The places is nearly three city blocks long. I walk up to her. I only said two sentences to her. You know what they were? Robert? Gallagher? Lillian? Fred? 

I said, 'I love you. I want to marry you.'

 She said, 'This is my husband.'"

 "It's true," says Cheshire.

 "Well, to make a long story short," says Willoughby, "I got someone else to dance with her husband, then we danced, got married, spent eight years together on Roosevelt Island, and now in a few weeks, we're getting divorced, but I love her like I've always loved her, and she feels the same about me, right?"

 "It's true," she says.

 "Has anyone seen Robert Cumming?" asks Robert Sietsema.

 "He must be around here, somewhere." Fred replies.

 "So, Robert," I say, "where do you think we should go to eat?"


Copyright 1998

Jan Galligan
All Rights Reserved
Last modified Aug. 8, 1998