Editor’s Note: In The Writers Series this month we feature another contemporary novel informed by the ideas and the romantic realism of Ayn Rand. Crosspoints: A Novel of Choice, is a 2004 novel by Alexandra York. Set in contemporary Greece and New York, the novel depicts a woman at a turning point who uses reason to decide her career and to choose the man she loves.
Nautical archaeologist Tara Niforous is working in Greece, diving for artifacts in the Aegean with Dimitrios Kokonas, an accomplished archaeologist that she knows well and respects. Dimitrios is in love with Tara, but Tara thinks of him as a mentor and professional partner. Tara meets the New York-based Leon Skillman, a superstar postmodernist sculptor who pursues her first to win a bet, then in earnest. Tara, who does not know about the wager, is attracted to Leon. She admires his creativity and his connection to the contemporary world of art. Now she must decide between the two men–a decision that will impact her heart, her career, and where she calls home.
In the following excerpt, Spring Flower, Tara, Leon, and Dimitrios meet Tara’s younger brother, budding artist Nicky Niforous, and romantic realist artist Dorina Swing in Dorina’s New York artist’s loft. Nicky is trying to decide whether to pursue a career as an abstract artist or a figurative artist. Leon and Dorina debate the merits of abstract art and romantic realism respectively, and Tara considers Leon’s arguments.
Leon was prepared for anything, but not for pain. It hit him immediately, with the impact of a body blow.
He fought for control, fought to keep his face expressionless. What?
He forced himself to move from painting to painting until his inner turmoil culminated into a rapidly beating pulse tormenting his temples. He was glad for that, and for the throbbing pressure behind his eyes as well. These physical symptoms kept him from breaking down emotionally.
Why? Why should this work hurt him? Yet, he couldn’t stop looking.
Nicky’s seascapes: the eternal and the temporal harmoniously juxtaposed. The compositions! The colors! The exuberance! Dorina’s mountainscapes, profound hymns to the awesomeness of the physical world, her eye sure and mature: purples hovering in a luminous mist of mystery over mountains conceived in the clarity of a sun-washed dawn. Shapes sensuous and undulating, drawing the eye farther and farther into the hidden recesses of their primordial beginnings with a rhythm pulsing from passion held in check, a passion straining to tear loose from the rhythm but held in thrilling control by the sheer brilliance of her technical skills. A complex study in aerial perspective that was perfection, her hand so subtle that although every mark mattered, one was unaware of any texture to the atmosphere at all, merely an invisible breeze that passed over the surface of the canvas, every line poetic. The lighting was so bold that it held one range of mountains in a spotlight of beauty so arresting that one knew with certainty, no, one felt with certainty, that the universe itself was harmonious and… No, Dorina’s landscapes went far beyond the magnificent tranquility of the Hudson River School because, although expansive like theirs, hers were full of movement, bursting with energy, seeming to celebrate earthly rather than spiritual grandeur. This woman was a mad romantic! Leon’s turbulent but unreleased emotional reactions raced on, but his brain felt tight, as if trapped in a vise. It was as if her mountains, rather than being passive wonders of creation, were the act of creation itself, each one rising gloriously to its summit, almost certainly a metaphor for human potential, for the challenges and joys of human achievement, of the ability to climb from one personal summit to another. Dorina was too humanistic not to have meant that metaphor.
Enough! He studied the drawings stoically, wondering how his tumultuous inner state or at least the sweat accumulating beneath his shirt could go unnoticed by the others even as he held himself so rigidly in check. Dorina’s drawings were rendered in fine, sharp pencil, requiring great judgment and control. He couldn’t look at them for long. The forms were too close to sculptural forms. Against his will, his hands—Damn his hands!—began to see them in solid form. He walked carefully back to Nicky’s work, still fighting for control. “These won’t sell, you know,” he said to Dorina, his voice as icy as the green chips that were his eyes. He stood again before the seascapes, his emotions frozen, finally, into safety. “They’re too ‘one on one.’ And they’re too beautiful for contemporary tastes. They won’t get media blitz, and you know it,” he added in accusation.
Tara thought she would faint. How could anything in life be “too beautiful”? Leon had mentioned “beauty” several times lately, but there seemed to be no consistency in what he said.
“Nicky’s work has already sold,” Dorina said quietly.
“For how much?”
Nicky, already prepared, brought up the image of his birds on his laptop. “This sold for eight hundred dollars. Of course, it’s not very big,” he added tentatively.
Now, Leon felt a different kind of shock, the automatic shock of indignation. He distracted himself by looking down at Dorina’s Oriental rug as if it just caught his interest.
Why should he feel indignant for the boy? He barely knew him! And why should being here cause so much physical pain? It was the same sort of helpless pain that had made him cry immediately after making love with Tara for the first time. Piercing and deep.
He looked up and fixed a cold eye on Dorina. “Is a life of eight-hundred-dollar sales what you want for him? Or even eight-thousand? Given the time it takes to finish one of these things, Nicky could never support himself with his art. And you know it,” he repeated.
Dorina touched the alabaster. “Is this all you want from him?”
Leon shrugged. “Look, I don’t make the rules. I just play by them. You and I both know that Realism never died out completely and it’s even had a bit of a comeback in the past many years, but most of it doesn’t sell big like the work of dead artists from past centuries because this kind of art made today just isn’t relevant in today’s worldly-worn-out world. Even when it’s well done, most of it is banal. Pretty pictures. End of story.”
Dorina kept her voice even. “Relevant to whom?”
Nicky passed cups around the room, his brain reeling. Leon hadn’t said a single concrete thing about his paintings, just that they wouldn’t sell, that they weren’t relevant. He swallowed his tea with difficulty. “What do you think is relevant, Leon?” he asked, keeping his hands clasped tight around his cup. “Besides selling, that is.”
“Fair enough!” Dorina placed a large drawing pad made of blank newsprint on her easel. “Let’s do it right.” She grabbed a piece of charcoal and poised it over the pad. “Okay, Leon. What is relevant in art today? Let’s be systematic.”
“Oh, come on,” Leon groaned to Tara.
“Do it for Nicky’s sake,” Tara whispered.
“I’ll do it for you,” he whispered back. He walked up to the easel, took the charcoal from Dorina’s hand and wrote, AESTHETICS. “That’s all that’s been relevant for a century, the process of art as art. But,” he kept his tone from turning sardonic, “even that’s not relevant or remotely radical anymore. It’s a commonplace, universally accepted and established. Anyone who doesn’t understand this is simply ignorant and out of touch with modern contemporary art. Even in representational art, most of what’s successful uses subject matter only as abstract form. And if it does have content, it’s making statements on politics or the environment or some form of social criticism or collective angst. Content art that’s relevant today is in one way or another activist art. It’s not a personal celebration of life like Nicky’s here or,” he locked eyes with Dorina, “like yours. It’s meant to change the way others view the world.”
Dimitrios wandered over to Dorina’s drawings, feeling the need to let Tara see his indifference to Leon’s “relevant” opinions. “I’m going to bow out on this subject in favor of these magnificent nudes,” he said.
Tara turned to Leon. “Wait a minute! Speaking of nudes, is the art you make today so different than when you were younger? Your nude, Spring Flower, is a lot more than just aesthetics. It’s profoundly humanistic. It expresses deep philosophical value judgments that go way beyond existential, cultural issues.”
“Spring Flower?” Dorina looked astonished. “A nude? Representational art by Leon?”
“It’s just so lovely.” Tara couldn’t help smiling at Leon. Maybe his current work had a more modern feeling, but how different could it really be? “In fact, it has a lot of the spirit of your drawings, Dorina. It’s a young female rising up out of a bed of flowers at the moment of new womanhood, as if she were one of the blossoms themselves—”
Leon cut her off. “It was very literal and immature,” he said, squelching the subject.
Dorina stared at Leon with unabashed interest. “You mean at one time you made not only representational art but idealized art?”
“I was very young.”
“How interesting,” Dorina said softly. She gave Leon a long, silent appraisal and went to the hotplate to pour more tea.
Tara fingered the alabaster piece. “How did you ever get the idea to make this in the first place, Nicky? I love the feel of it, but it’s so different from your serious work.”
“First of all,” Nicky dragged a piece of bread across some soft goat cheese and began to nibble on it, “a whole lot of people, including my other teachers, wouldn’t consider this alabaster piece non-serious. But anyway, you know how Papa whittles out of wood and has made some nice things for around the house? Well, I like their shapes and surfaces. Then some kids at school were working in alabaster, and I found I like working with it, too. Between watching Papa and watching them, I got the urge to make this piece. I want to do something in wood next.”
Dorina pulled up a stool and blew on her tea. “All right, Leon. Let’s consider your argument for Nicky’s benefit. Because the only thing ‘relevant’ to me about abstraction is that it interests Nicky. Okay. Abstract art is aesthetics. We agree on that. I’m not saying that abstract art is invalid—at its best it can be well designed and even beautiful—only that it’s not a compelling form for an artist with highly developed technical skills because the form itself is so limited. Which, of course, brings us to one of the reasons for the dominance of the abstract aesthetic and the near loss of twenty-five hundred years of Western-heritage art techniques. They’ve hardly even been taught for the last three or four generations. So many contemporary artists of all persuasions, abstract or representational, don’t really know how to draw, for example.”
Leon turned over a fresh sheet of paper on the flip chart and began to sketch rapidly. “It can be tremendously interesting to concentrate on one element at a time in order to make it stand alone,” he said. “As a sculptor I deal in shape. Form. Volume. And space. The theme of the piece is its shape and the interplay of space and light in and around that shape. So the art engages the senses and not the mind,” he glanced up at Tara and then returned to the pad as he talked. “So what?” He danced across the room and looked back, seriously regarding Tara for a long moment. Then he winked at Nicky and sat back down to draw with supreme concentration.
Dorina watched him, fascinated. “So, it would be like asking me to drive my car at one-mile-an-hour for the rest of my life, that’s what. Because fine art has the ability to please the senses, stimulate the emotions and challenge the mind. All! It can be appreciated physiologically, psychologically and philosophically as an integrated experience. By focusing only on the parts, as you advocate, what have you done to art as a whole? Even if it were of help, which I seriously doubt, to take it apart and lay it in pieces all over the place like a child does with the workings of a clock, the question now is: who is left with any ability to put the pieces back together so that the clock will serve its function again to tell time?”
Leon set the pad up on an empty easel. “There! That should refute your theory about lack of drawing ability!” His green eyes rested for a moment on the sketch he had made of Tara’s head and then they teased the room with silent laughter.
Dorina stared without amusement at the excellence of Leon’s technique and his astonishing flair. Amid her shock and disbelief that Leon Skillman could possess such ability, she remembered Tara’s description of Spring Flower. Then, overwhelmed by a great sadness, she thought to herself that among all of the treasons possible to commit in this world, Leon Skillman had committed the greatest. She couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Nicky stared at the drawing, at the arabesque of line, at the sensual rhythm and at the astounding likeness to his sister, simultaneously seeing in his mind the huge, lifeless shapes of Leon’s sculpture that squatted, dead or defiant, here and there throughout the country. He tried to think about the comparison, but he also had to concentrate on keeping his mouth shut. All he wanted to do, out of some impetus he couldn’t define, was shout “NO!” Then, coming quickly to Leon’s defense, the unspeakable-in-this-studio words “Why not? It’s his choice!” pushed out the “No.” He was left speechless.
Dimitrios stared at the drawing from a distance, wishing that what he saw didn’t exist. It
had all of the spontaneity and power he might expect in a quick sketch from a master hand, but he had never imagined in his darkest nightmare that Leon’s was a master hand. Besides, the drawing was finished in a detailed fashion he had rarely encountered in a sketch. Even worse, Leon had captured far more than a mere likeness of Tara. In those few lines, he had deftly expressed her inner spirit, her directness, her openness. The thought he couldn’t permit himself was all he was conscious of now: What if Tara had seen the inner Leon all along? Because this man, if he was the inner Leon, was a far more serious threat than he had believed.
Tara ran over to the sketch. “It looks just like me!” she marveled. Thank god! she thought, her emotions soaring in relief.
“I’m pretty rusty,” Leon grinned. He looked at Dorina with an amused smirk. She continued to regard his sketch.
The silence became awkward for everyone but Leon.
Finally, he laughed out loud. “You see, Dorina, I make the art I make because I want to.”
“Yes,” she answered slowly. “I see. What I wonder is why you want to.”
“How nice,” Dimitrios said dryly, knowing he had to change the subject. “But, speaking of drawings, Dorina, I’d like to discuss yours for a moment. Do you mind?”
Dorina pulled her stool over and sat next to him.
“But what about our discussion?” Nicky asked anxiously. “We’ve hardly begun it!”
Dorina shot a smile over her shoulder, a smile that surprising herself, included Leon. It was impossible to dislike him completely now. “Don’t worry. I imagine Leon and I will both be around to finish it with you, but Dimitrios is leaving soon, so let me be self-centered for a moment and hear what he has to say.”
“What I have to say is that I think you have brilliantly succeeded in projecting the quintessential twenty-first-century nude! These images merge the real with the ideal just as the Greeks did, but yours are completely contemporary in their awareness of their own individualism. They’re full of their own independence. Especially the females. Educated and exercised, both. So modern yet utterly timeless. Very exciting, Dorina. Have you drawings of double nudes as well?”
Dorina nodded her thanks, warm and winning, and edged her stool closer to him. “No. By putting both man and woman in the same drawing, I’d automatically introduce the issue of sexual identity into my theme. Here, I’m exploring human identity, the individual as an undivided self. It would be much better expressed in sculpture, but,” she shrugged with a quick glance at Leon, “I don’t sculpt.”
Completely at ease now, his eyes agleam with triumph, Leon stared smugly out the window as he dried the cups Nicky had washed. He knew he had won the day with his sketch.
Tara sat in front of Nicky’s paintings, her thoughts cast out to sea, wondering if she would ever see Greece again. My brother needs me. Leon says he loves me. And even though he’s such a mystery, I feel love for him. I’ve been drawn to him like a magnet from the moment I met him. I certainly love New York. The future of the world, therefore the future of art is here in America. Even Dimitrios says so. She glanced over to him and Dorina, a frown creasing her brow. It’s so bold, the way she flirts with him, she thought, unaccountably annoyed. Dimitrios seemed captivated.
“Would you permit me to purchase two of these?” Dimitrios asked, his pale eyes alive and sparkling with passion. “You’ve done an incredible thing here. I don’t want to live another day without seeing these figures in my home.”
Dorina sat very still. “Thank you, Dimitrios. Of course, you may purchase whatever you like.” I would love to be in a position to give you one or two…or more, she was thinking.
“Tara!” Dimitrios called over to her. “Come and look at these drawings! You will love these male nudes.”
Tara gestured to the female nudes instead. “I know. I realized what you were saying when I first saw them, but I couldn’t pinpoint it then. It’s the females I find more powerful, though. They’re so American. Just what you said, Dimitrios: educated and exercised both. But there’s more: It’s woman truly free in every way. Proud, intelligent and…sovereign! That’s it! Not just her physical or legal or moral sovereignty, but her human sovereignty.” She slipped an arm through Dimitrios’s and leaned her head against his shoulder. “You know, so many things about being here, including these drawings and Nicky’s situation, make me wonder if you and I are too buried in antiquity. There’s so much to the here and now.”
“There’s much in both civilizations,” Dimitrios smiled, glad of her head on his shoulder but disturbed by the words. Even though he told her he came to New York for her birthday, he was certain she expected him to go with her to the museum on Monday to deal with the exhibit. But if he did that, it would undercut the drama of his trip, taken for the sole purpose of celebrating personally with her. How he wanted to stay! Yet for his journey to be effective romantically, he would have to say goodbye today. When? How? He’d take her home, tell her along the way. They could discuss the museum problems over the phone later if she actually needed his help, and he really had come just to be with her. Then leave her wondering at her door. With or without a kiss this time? No, too much. It was settled. That’s what he’d do. Quick goodbye. No kiss. Well, maybe— No, no kiss.
Leon watched them intently. It troubled him to see Tara’s head on Dimitrios’s shoulder. Well hey! What the hell! They were close friends. And if Dimitrios hadn’t interested Tara before this, nothing was likely to happen now that Leon himself was in the picture. His first, painful reactions to the work in this room were forgotten. He had accomplished his goal. His sketch had overpowered Dorina’s polemics. Tara was on his side, he was sure of it. He took the drawing pad from the easel and handed it to Nicky. “Why don’t you hang on to this? We can finish the discussion another time, and,” he lowered his voice so only Nicky could hear, “I think if we work together, we just might be able to get your sister to stay here with us. What do you think?”
Nicky stared open-mouthed from Dimitrios and Tara, who were still discussing the drawings, to Dorina, who was putting dishes away. “I think I don’t understand anything that went on here today,” he said slowly.
Excerpted from York, Alexandra. Crosspoints: A Novel of Choice (pp. 225-235). Promethena Press, 2004. Kindle locations 3042-3191. This excerpt is reprinted with permission from the author.