The Colors of Hilaire Hiler (Part 2)
It’s now 1973. Don Gifford and I were almost finished with the Notes for Joyce: An Annotation of Ulysses.1 I was skimming one of the last books on Joyce then available, one of Magalaner’s and Kain’s Joyce Miscellanies. And there was recollection by Robert McAlmon, a word-for-word rendition of their afternoon audience with Joyce, the ubiquitous fine white wine, and the moment when James Joyce handed back one of Hilaire’s sketches and asked my friend to go back over it. Why? Because Joyce, with his deteriorating eyesight, could not see the outline of his own face. Was this episode my last chance? Could I redeem what I’d originally messed up by letting Hilaire’s drawings go? Hold on, it gets worse.
One afternoon in the mid-1970s I was walking down 5th Avenue and as I passed Dauber and Pine, a (mostly) used bookstore between 12th and 13th Streets, where Parsons is now, I noticed a book in the window. The store had two handsome old-style plate glass windows, one on each side of the central door, with eye-catching beveled glass above them. In the right window was a large hardback titled A New Conception of Form/Color by Hilaire Hiler. I zipped in, greeted the thin, leathery Mr. Dauber and asked the book’s price. He said, “$27.50.” I checked my pocket and found a total of $17.87. “Can I give you $17.85 in cash and the rest in a check?” “Cash only.” “Can I put down a deposit and you’ll hold A New Conception for me? It was written by a good friend.” “Cash only.” “Okay. Do me one favor. Please hold the book for me. I’ll be back before you close. At. . .?”
Dauber tersely replied, “6.”
I headed toward our Bleecker Street apartment in the West Village, fully intending to turn around and grab Hiler that afternoon. But when I got upstairs I felt bone-tired. I lay down and didn’t wake up until 6:30. I pledged to go back to the bookstore the next day, but forgot. Three days later I stopped in front of Dauber and Pine and checked the right window. No Hilaire. The left, no Hilaire either. I entered to the tinkling of an annoying bell and before me stood the scrappy little Mr. Dauber, stiff-necked as ever. I said, “I walked in the other day and wanted to buy a book. It was called Conception of Form/Color by Hilaire Hiler.” Mr. Dauber looked me in the eye and said, “I never had that book.” I replied, “It was in the window. I came in, you said it was $27.50, I had $17.85 in cash, I offered you a check.” He persisted. “I never had the book.” “Come on. I didn’t make this up, Mr. Dauber.” “I never had the book,” he said definitively. I started yelling at him. Not that I wanted to. Not that I thought it would help. But I was so totally weirded out by the situation that I wasn’t rational. Meanwhile, my overriding sense was that I’d blown another shot —Strike Two, Bob. The little man kept insisting I was wrong or a lunatic, and I kept up my pointless, disconcerted yapping that the book had existed in the place where I knew I saw it. What reason would I have for making up the story? Finally he demanded I leave. I complied. Early in 2008, I ordered one of Hilaire’s books from Amazon, Why Abstract? I wonder what, if any, surprises lay in store for me next? Or will I be a victim of Strike Three?
Bob Seidman describes here how he missed his second golden opportunity to own a reference to the deceased French American artist Hilaire Hiler. (1898-1966). For "Strike One" please click here. As mentioned in the first article, works by Hiler are in the collection of the Museum of New Mexico, National Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art of New York, Santa Barbara Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Luxembourg Museum in Paris, San Francisco Museum of Art, Harvard University, Oakland Museum and the California Palace of Legion of Honor.
On 14 February Steven Heller, the important New York based designer and critic, recently reviewed Seidman's new history novel: Moments Captured on his blog for The Atlantic. You can purchase the novel in harcover on Amazon and directly from the publisher, Overlook Press.
Cover Image: "Hilaire Hiler, Cowrie Shells" © Kristine McAllister, courtesy the artist.