About halfway through “The American Painter Emma Dial” the title character makes the obligatory pilgrimage to West 24th Street in Chelsea, to attend an art opening. Emma Dial is an appealing woman of 31, talented but not excessively driven, who earns her living as an assistant to a celebrated male painter. When she arrives at the gallery, the room is jammed with people she recognizes, and she thinks, with only minimum exaggeration, that all of them fall into one of two categories: “Anyone who was not famous was someone’s assistant.”
New York is crawling with a hidden underclass of people who are essential to the perpetuation of creative achievement. Lately, it seems, they have generated a genre of fiction all their own: the assist-and-tell novel, which typically recounts the indignities of an entry-level job at a fashion magazine, a film studio or some other fabled precinct of the culture industry. Such novels tend to pit an unsung innocent against an acclaimed if creatively depleted elder and bemoan the injustice of a world in which assistants supply the imaginative vitality for dictator types who garner the credit and rewards.
In her witty and impressively observed debut novel Samantha Peale has given us what is probably the first novel narrated by a studio assistant in New York in the 21st century. When the novel opens, Emma Dial is about to begin her seventh year as a full-time factotum to Michael Freiburg, a pompous and self-satisfied painter in his 50s. He works in a palatial loft on Christie Street, on the Lower East Side, and owns a dog (a Great Dane) that is similarly oversized. He paints moody landscapes, scenes of gnarled tree branches and green tornadoes that sell for properly inflated sums of money.
If Michael Freiburg’s pictures have a defining feature, it is probably the alarming circumstances of their creation: someone else paints them. Most every day Emma Dial can be found in his studio, listening to NPR and diligently applying paint to canvas under his direction.
There is, of course, a long and mostly reputable tradition of young painters assisting older ones. Masters from Rembrandt on down employed apprentices to stretch their canvases, mix their pigments and fill in around the edges; the goal was to maximize production and lend a workshop the hum of efficiency. Nonetheless Michael Freiburg is a unique figure, if only in the depth of his laziness. As Emma notes with predictable annoyance: “He did not spend any time painting. Any time at all. He told me he did not miss it either.”
If Michael depends on Emma to furnish his work with whatever visual richness it has, he poaches on her sexual vitality as well. She lives within walking distance of his studio, and Michael, who is married, frequently stops by unannounced. Their lovemaking is markedly downtown in spirit, with all that implies about unconventional locales and the pungent scent of oil paint and turpentine. As Emma recounts, “Our first sexual foray took place at the studio, leaning against the wall between canvases, and was harshly overlit.”
The author worked for four years as a studio assistant to the sculptor Jeff Koons, which can tempt one to read the novel as a roman à clef offering insight into the workings of the florid Koonsian brain. But this would be pointless. For one thing, Michael Freiburg is not a sculptor, and Ms. Peale situates him in a studio stocked with sable brushes, colors chosen “from the Pantone catalog” and other staples of the painter’s craft.
On the other hand, the novel does have a based-on-experience directness about it, so much so that in weaker moments it strays from sharp-eyed observation into the mush of unfiltered whining. “Maybe he had to look down on me, patronize me, think of me as inferior to him so that he could compete to be the best,” Emma notes, in a tone reminiscent of self-help books.
In reveries enhanced by the soothing effects of cigarettes and nail biting, she sadly concludes that the rewards of her job — the steady paycheck, the proximity to fame — have led her astray from her childhood ambition. She wants to be a painter in her own right, and her growing despair over the uncommitted, unexpressed part of herself finally forces her to act.
Emma Dial, in the end, is a stirring reminder of the countless young artists stuck in captivity as assistants, hoping their gifts will extricate them. By her own account she has an uncommon talent for rendering objects with verisimilitude; she can draw anything, in any style. But that alone does not get her far. Truth be told, success as an artist is the sum of many variables that can include luck, good timing, exceptional energy and a ruthless willingness to trample your grandmother in the quest for painterly glory. Of course it’s a plus if you have a few ideas, or what used to be known as a vision.
What does it take to be a great artist? This novel supplies a new and not implausible definition: An artist is someone who refuses to work as anyone’s assistant.