In March, a few weeks after the «Hard Truths» show dosed, Arnett and his son Matt visited Dial at home. It was late afternoon by the time they reached the house, which is on a wooded hill that overlooks a horse pasture. The Arnetts found Dial at the kitchen table, wearing plaid slippers and a pressed blue shirt buttoned to the top. He had spent the day resting. Grandchildren and greatgrandchildren were coming and going. In the den, the TV was on. His daughter Mattie had her laptop open to a traffic report, a Virginia Slim burning in a metal ashtray.
Arnett noticed a tin of homemade banana pudding and dipped himself some. Dial murmured, «Mr. Arnett at home, ain’t he? You can bet that. He at home». He didn’t say much else.
Dial’s recorded thoughts on art exist almost entirely in Arnett s books. . . .
Dial looks barely different today from the way he did when he and Arnett first met: he has a long, regal face; a high, lined forehead; shrewd, narrow eyes set above prominent cheekbones; a pencil mustache like Little Richard’s. He has always been wiry but freakishly strong, «like Popeye», his son Richard says.
Dial’s art has sold through the Andrew Edlin gallery, in Chelsea; his wall hangings have sold for as much as two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. (Arnett receives a commission, but will not disclose the percentage.) Six years ago, Arnett deeded Dial the house in Bessemer; Dial shares it with some of his family. Richard, who is also an artist, told me, «Mr. Arnett».
He supports himself, and pays the small staff of Souls Grown Deep, the nonprofit, by selling off the remains of his personal collection, which, he sayʼs, he keeps separate from the art owned by the foundation. In late 2011, he hired Scott Browning, a Maine native with a background in nonprofits, to help run Souls Grown Deep. He and Browning reorganized the board, which had consisted solely of his sons, to include Richard Dial; Louisiana Bendolph, a Gee’s Bend quilter, E. T. Herman, of U.N.C., joined the board in April; he has recused himself from further decisions involving the archive. With the archive transfer, and an ongoing effort to digitize the gigantic «Souls Grown Deep» books, Arnett seemed to be preparing for a next step.
As the sun set, he and Matt left the house and went into town, to join Richard and Dan Dial at their father’s studio. The warehouse was chilly and dark, and full of large, hard objects related to the making of furniture. Arnett walked to the back and turned on a floodlight.
Seventeen of Dial’s newer pieces hung from plywood walls. One was called «Fading of Days»; another, «Everlasting Life». Dial had been using paler tones, and his work was getting smaller. These assemblages were detailed but stripped of feverish excess. If his early work erupted with exuberance, his late work suggested an artist quietly sure of his voice.
Arnett paused before a vertical assemblage titled «Two Sides of the Mountain» It featured wire mesh, fake leaves, scraps of tin and wood, and house paint in dusky white, pinks, and blues. «I’ve seen very few pieces of contemporary art that are that good», he said. «It has balance balance of color, and opposing themes that are sort of butting heads.” He stepped closer but did not touch. «You’ve got a side over here that has things «growing». This is a trick that Dial often uses, where you think you re seeing something growing but he’s actually put something on the wet canvas and then pulled it off. It’s like a monoprint. And over on this side nothing’s growing». Arnetts inventory of effects might not impress a critic at Art forum, but it was apparent that he knew Dial’s process better than anyone.
A few minutes later, he stepped out to make a phone call. Matt and Richard started talking about the late eighties, when Arnett’s sponsorship allowed Dial to make art full time.
Matt said, «Clara Mae would call my dad and say, «Bill, you gotta come over here. Buck hasn’t been inside in four days».
«He ain’t got no cut off switch», Richard said. «He don’t know when to stop. He been that way all his life. He just enjoy doing things. That’s my daddy». «He’s a lot like my dad Matt said. «My dad would rather be writing or thinking up a show than, like, going to an opening».
«I look at the twenty something years they been associated with each other», Richard said. «They don’t never get to the place where they throw bricks. Even your own family, you get to the place sometime where, as they say, your teeth and tongue fall out. If they have an argument, in thirty» minutes’ time they’ll be back to where they were. They’re too much alike. Just like twins».
Soon after Arnett returned to Adanta, the «extremely important» guests came to visit him. He still declined to identify them; for once in his life, he let nothing slip. But, the art world being what it is, people talk.
The visitors were from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new division of modern and contemporary art. Last year, the Met hired Sheena Wagstaff, the chief curator of the Tate Modem, to lead the division. There had been much commentary about what the Met would, and should, do as it prepares to transfer much of its modern and contemporary collection to 945 Madison Avenue the concrete building, designed by Marcel Breuer, that die Whitney will move out of in 2015, when it relocates to the Meatpacking District.
The museum would not say if this effort might include acquiring part of the Souls Grown Deep collection. Nor would Arnett, no doubt fearing the collapse of the biggest opportunity of his life, and of Dials.
Arnett went back to planning shows, and to writing. He has been working on a memoir. In one passage, he compares the efforts of the past quarter century to a problem, by the British mathematician John Horton Conway, involving angels, devils, and a game of cosmic chess. T don’t play chess and am too right-brained to understand the intricacies of higher mathematics», Arnett writes. «But I consider myself an expert on the visual arts of the African-American South along with the cultural politics of the region.