In Samantha Peale’s debut novel, The American Painter Emma Dial: A Novel, the narrator is the studio assistant for fictitious NYC painter Michael Freiburg. NY Times reviewer Deborah Solomon reports that the novel has a based-on-experience directness that tends to stray from sharp-eyed observation into the mush of unfiltered whining. Not surprisingly, Peale herself spent four years as a studio assistant to uber-artist Jeff Koons.
“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.” Solomon writes. “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….
“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.”