Giving Up the Catalogs by Lisa Silver

About two years ago, I canceled our subscription to Sotheby’s fine art auction catalogs. I canceled our subscriptions with Christie’s and Phillips too. During auction season, which is roughly twice a year in New York, the catalogs would come fast and furious, hand-delivered by a bicycle messenger, sometimes twice or three times a day, a battered delivery log for me to sign, a creamy white “With our compliments” card tucked into the package. 

For a while I liked having the catalogs around. They were printed on thick, glossy paper, one artwork per page, the color reproductions expensive and gorgeous. When the boys were young, we cut up pages from the catalogs and made collages and Christmas cards out of them. We made paper snowflakes and taped them to our dining room window. We once pressed fallen leaves between a catalog’s pages then laminated them with a machine we had bought at Staples. Sometimes, before dinner, I would use a stack of five or six catalogs to press the water out of a block of tofu. 

Some of the particularly interesting catalogs — one on kinetic art that seemed obscure and unfamiliar — or ones that featured photos of my husband’s father, the art dealer Leo Castelli, I would save and place on the shelves downstairs with our other art books. But mainly I would let the catalogs accumulate on the kitchen counter, unread, in increasingly teetering towers, until I had the time and inclination to flip through them. 

Eventually I would place them in a neat stack in the pantry near the recycling bin or down in the basement, just in case one of us wanted to look at them again. My husband would sometimes transfer a catalog from the basement back onto the kitchen counter: “Hey, you’re not throwing this away, are you?” he’d ask. It would then stay on the counter for quite a while, the base for another stack of catalogs. 

Some of the catalogs wound up in Montauk, but I don’t remember how. Some I gave to artist friends. Twice I hauled a box of the catalogs across town to the boys’ school and gave them to Liz, the art teacher. I don’t know if she ever used them. 

As the boys grew older, I would try to interest them in some of the catalogs’ images. They liked the work of Lucio Fontana, the idea of a knife-slashed canvas being particularly compelling to grade-school boys. They liked Salvatore Scarpitta and his racecars. They liked a print by Bruce Nauman that read “EAT SHIT AND DIE.” But, for the most part, they’d rather look at something else. 

And, frankly, after a while, so did I. The problem, of course, was the prices. All those zeros! No matter how lovely the Mark Grotjahn painting or smart the Cindy Sherman photo or riotous the Rauschenberg combine, one could not ignore the 8-point type marching across the bottom of the page: $16 million . . . $6.7 million . . . $12 million. . . . And in case one didn’t have a calculator handy, prices were given in pound sterling and euros as well. Chinese renminbi, too. 

In the city, we live down the street from the painter Lois Dodd, who is 90 years old and still painting. One day an artist friend took me along to visit her. We brought sandwiches and berries and walked five flights up to the apartment/studio where Dodd has lived and worked for over 50 years. She welcomed us warmly, dressed in jeans and a cotton button-down, a no-nonsense digital watch on her wrist. Inside, there was a small kitchen, a wooden table and chairs, a mirror. But mainly there was art: In racks, in boxes, on shelves, on tables, on easels, on the floor. She had been painting for over 70 years. Seventy years! She had founded a gallery, taught, applied for fellowships, raised a son, found larger studio space in Maine, sold paintings when she could, but mainly she painted and painted and painted. 

After the sandwiches and berries, Dodd showed us some of her work. She yanked the canvases out of the racks, dusted them off with a flick of her hand, propped them up without ceremony on a chair. A barn. A tangle of flowers. White windows against a blue-black sky. “I don’t know about this orange,” she laughed at one painting, as if it were alive, as if it were some zany relative. She pulled out another and shrugged: “This one is good.” And another: “No one seems to like my tunnel paintings, but I do.” 

The room turned golden as the afternoon drifted into evening; the air, cool and still. We drank tea. We looked at art.

Shortly after that visit, I gathered all of our auction catalogs, bundled them up with twine, and set them out on the curb for recycling to pick up. “They are a horrible way to look at art,” I told my husband. The next morning, on my way to Whole Foods, I noticed a man selling books on the sidewalk. Lined up neatly on a red blanket were the auction catalogs I had just tried to get rid of. 

“Ten dollars each,” the man told me when I stopped to look. “But for you, I’ll take 5.”


Lisa Silver is a freelance writer who has been spending summers in Montauk for the past 16 years.