Frederic Tuten: Art Lover

The two thirtyish blondes were halfway through their salads at the next table at E.A.T. on Madison when one leaned toward my lunch companion, a tall, animated man with rude color. “You know, we were at the Frick, too,” she said.

She and he struck up a conversation, which soon included the other blonde and pens, cards, and e-mail addresses. When the women got up to go – flying back to Los Angeles – Frederic Tuten was smiling like the satyr in a Poussin drawing he had been admiring at the Frick.

“Now, that was flirtation,” he said. “It doesn’t have a goal; it’s just an exercise of the libido. You’re seeing ‘How does it feel to be a man and a woman?’ They saw us talking excitedly in front of the drawings, so naturally they wondered who we were. They were drawn and curious. It’s not seduction. Oh, no. Seduction has a goal, seduction is for keeps.”

Tuten is a novelist, and the love of art, women, and words suffuses his new book, The Green Hour, a romance about an art historian who pines for her lost lover and child. High art is the book’s theme, but a melodrama churns just below the surface, keeping the pages turning.

For many years, Tuten has been a well-kept secret, writing books and making the scene with a wide circle of friends. He talked film and politics with Susan Sontag. Steve Martin gave him manuscripts for comment. He spent endless hours in the studio of his best friend, the late Roy Lichtenstein, discussing the mysteries of art and women. He’s a fixture in the Hamptons art circle that includes David Salle, Eric Fischl, April Gornik, and Ross Bleckner.

“Frederic has always been larger than life,” says novelist Oscar Hijuelos, whom Tuten taught at City College. “When I first met him, he was this dapper, worldly fellow, a bon vivant with a question mark over his head. That was his quest for the aesthetic. He’s always been a postmodernist writer with a really romantic lyric.”

“He’s an American mandarin,” fills in his friend Larry McMurtry. “He has that mandarin, elitist, Proust-like style, and he’s very involved in the art world, almost more than the literary world. His Americanism is buried beneath a Continental manner.”

“I’m not American like Route 66,” Tuten explains. “I don’t know about America. I know Paris better, I know Rome better.”

Tuten was born in the Bronx 60-some years ago to a Sicilian mother and a father of French-Huguenot ancestry. The father left, and the boy dreamed of being a painter before ending up at City College when it was the proletarian Harvard. There, he developed an easy erudition. When Tuten talks about love – which is a lot – he also talks about Cézanne, Céline, Goya, and the Prado.

Tuten was married once, to an Italian woman who was drawn to him by the romance of his holding a book, lost in thought, on 42nd Street. The relationship burned out after ten years, but Simona had given him tone and made him feel at home in Europe.

“One night, we had dinner at Quatorze, and I became convinced that Frederic knew or knew about every important person in the world,” says the writer Walter Mosley.

Tuten met Mosley when he was his English professor at City College. Mosley gave Tuten the manuscript of Devil in a Blue Dress, and Tuten promptly gave it to his own agent with a glowing referral – “an extraordinary act of generosity,” says Mosley.

Tuten has written five novels. His work has always had an experimental flavor. The Adventures of Mao on the Long March was an olio of quotes about Mao and a completely unrelated story that drew John Updike’s praise in The New Yorker. Tintin in the New World reimagined the comic adventurer Tintin (whose creator, Hergé, was another Tuten friend) discovering sex and ideas with characters from The Magic Mountain.

The Green Hour’s story is more direct. Dominique is obsessed with a political rebel and wanderer named Rex (after Tuten’s father), who has many liaisons. His affair with a Japanese anarchist results in a child, Kenji, whom the mother abandons – and whom Dominique adopts. When he’s abducted, it tears Dominique’s heart out, but the book’s theme is her relationship to art. “Art keeps Dominique passionate without being fleshly about it,” Tuten says.

“Frederic sees writing through the lens of his romanticism and his love of art,” says Bleckner. “He’s one of the most empathetic people I know, which puts him in a unique position to get into what it is that other people are trying to do.”

Male artists, says Tuten, have always struggled to portray women. Early painters merely attached breasts to drawings of a male model’s torso. Dominique herself is something of a goddess. “She’s my ideal woman. Brilliant, beautiful, sensitive, cultural, erotic,” he says. No wonder he keeps her imperishably sexy over 30 years.

“Yes, we talk about women,” says Steve Martin. “But Frederic never talks salaciously about them. It’s always about a higher level.”

When I tested that by asking whether he was a leg man, a breast man, or an ass man, he gave me a tactful smile: “When I was with my grandmother in the Bronx, buying chickens, we always bought the whole chicken.”

Touché. We were at another of the writer’s hangouts, Bar Pitti on Sixth Avenue. Before long, Tuten was talking about romance and love: “There’s a period in which romance has its concealments, a gestation period, in which the surface activity, the gesture of the arm, the flutter of the eyes, can be captivating. It’s delightful. But both of you recognize that this can’t go on forever. There’s a moment when the beautiful gestures, the lyrical voice, it stops, like a freeze frame, and the heart says, Now let’s see who we really are. Who is living in this beautiful figure? In this wonderful voice, what’s the interior world? It’s no longer the beautiful arm or the shoulder. Is that interior as beautiful as the exterior, and can it suffer the corruption of the exterior? That is the Platonic thesis of love. It’s when the internal being is so fixed and incorruptible that when the body disintegrates, the arms wither, the tits sag, the internal beauty stays fixed forever.”

Has he been able to sustain that feeling in his own life? Tuten tilted his head ruefully.

“No. But it doesn’t mean the principle is incorrect. It means some aspect of my application, my wisdom, my immaturity, was incorrect.”

Frederic Tuten: Art Lover