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The Anxiety of Influence

During my purgatory in the limbo of the art world (or was it my limbo in the Purgatory?) I encountered a certain great artist three times. Three times I spoke to him. Three times I might have elevated my status, if only in my own mind, by sustaining a brief, pleasant conversation. And three times I came away like Sonny Liston from Cassius Clay. Oh, if only I can claim to have put my foot in my mouth—if only my words had been muffled by rubber, canvas and man-made materials. Or crushed while still in my throat by a powerful leather and kapok-covered left hook to the Adam’s apple. I’d gladly suffer such a wallop if it would in fact shut me up. It wouldn’t, though. I’d wheeze something out—something obsequiously, falsely humble. I’d roll over like a dog to his betters, proffering my vitals. I’d blow it yet again. And I’d blow it despite knowing that I’m about to blow it, over and over, crimson and clover. That is to say: I’m an optimist.

Some years back I had a show opening, and the master brain in my stomach was telling me things—rumblings, rebukes—that the slave in my cranium refused to admit. Surely nothing good could come of the whole hullabaloo, but being ever hopeful I imagined the evening could be endured with the numbing salve of warm beer, stomach be damned. In this, as the reader will learn, I was mistaken—the evening buried a knife in my sternum, and it twists there still; what I was failing to take into account was how the beer would act upon my insubordinate tongue.

I walked up a side street on the way to the gallery and paused to pop two Zantacs. I’d more or less given up on expecting my career to take off, and that removed a lot of the pressure, like lancing a blister. But still, especially as it was my opening, I’d be fair game for all those indistinct facial types born for nametags whose presence at these events—whose very being—would surprise me yet again. At this late date these hobgoblins know well enough that I will never utter their name aloud, I rationalized, not even when they call out across the room, “Gary!,” nor when they plant themselves in such a way as to make it absolutely unavoidable that I introduce them. (“Do you two know each other?”) It improved my condition to imagine such embarrassments ending for me with that accursed person’s death. I had had a certain experience with this: people whom I had offended had, in fact, popped off from time to time, and my conscience was not in the least tortured by the vanished possibility of ever making things right. Quite the reverse.

But then I remembered, with an acid reflux spasm, something far worse. Gordon Haltertop, the curator from the Gargantuan Museum, would be coming, so I’d been told. Not to see my show— and I was told this too—but because he was an old rugby mate of my dealer’s, an intimate from unforgettable afternoons of hazing at a New England preparatory academy. Haltertop was known to be traveling to Venice the next day and had stopped in New York to collect the most eminent artist in America—a titan, a monument, a lone iceberg whose cool had stayed crisp and frozen through a dozen ages of global warming and refreezing and whose dark, conceptual aplomb was about to be canonized with an unprecedented mini-retrospective including a new piece on a decommissioned aircraft carrier anchored offshore the Arsenale. (Giant Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots duking it out in a labyrinth of shipping containers on the flight deck, was the rumor.) His name itself was a provocation: Paul Death of Painting Icthyus. The name change—the story was oft repeated—had been an act of proto-punk-nihilism from his days at Yale in the early ’60s and had gone over so perfectly that he was expelled for it, and his massive career launched thereby. It was still there on his driver’s license, presumably, like a blued-over tattoo remaining from intemperate youth, and he seemed to prefer the full name be used on exhibition publicity; at least, that was the protocol—I doubt anyone would dare ask him about it. Icthyus would never travel out to Brooklyn, of course; but who was that tall, slightly hobbled man getting out of the baby-blue Mercedes up the street in front of the gallery? Surely that was Haltertop on one arm and my dealer on the other, scampering around like elves, steadying the eminence, whoever he was, as he mounted the non-ADA-compliant stoop. As they progressed through the riffraff smoking around the door, I detected the physics of celebrity, the bubbling outward and spinning inward of a crowd.

Oh, I’d seen him before at openings and events. I’d even done a shot and introduced myself at a benefit auction, and he’d offered his hand readily enough. There I was, suddenly in the divine presence with nothing to say. Nothing. Should I praise his work and risk sounding insincere? Should I have rehearsed? No, no, I’d sound like an idiot. No, the problem was, I was an idiot. Better to embrace meekness as gracefully as possible—to mumble “nice to meet ya,” smile, and slither away into the amorphous pool of kelp grazers exchanging fatalistic comforts, beneath notice even to ourselves. Which I did, but my insides were still self-immolating weeks later. After that I wrote a dozen letters to the man in my journal: challenges, collaborative proposals, questions. Schubert, upon his only meeting with Beethoven, had clammed up too, I once read with interest. But shy little Franz was dead at 31 with a superhuman catalogue of resplendent genius bequeathed to humankind, at which age I was still bumming around Aspen and failing to sequence my drug intake efficaciously. Never mind. The point was, it could happen to anybody. Now I stood watching from the obscurity of a broken streetlight as Icthyus wobbled drunkenly on the stairs to my opening (for it was him: his contorted, eagle-eyed countenance, fierce as a white-browed Blakean Jehovah, had flashed my way as he rebuffed Haltertop’s helping hand at the doorway)—and it occurred to me that the great man might not be terribly long for the world. That thought gave me warm comfort, I confess. Sooner perhaps than I’d realized, the front page of the morning paper would be gifting me with Icthyus’s obituary. And on that day a part of me I could do without would be buried forever. I waited until the commotion on the stairs had died down, then paused awhile longer in the shadows for better entrance timing.

Three or five beers later, I was sunk up to my elbows in chitchat. I needed to pee so I exercised some solo show prerogatives, extracting myself from one excruciatingly persistent sculptor who acted as if we’d known each other for ages, and for all I knew maybe we had—“Excellent dude, shoot me an email when you’re sober, I’d love to see those new pieces!”—and opened the solid walnut door (rescued from a dumpster outside a bankrupt Chelsea gallery) to the back room. Normally my dealer would be hoarding the coke in there with his newest intern but not tonight. Having Haltertop and Icthyus make your opening was a choicer drug, and it would be interesting to see how the dissolute former golden boy would rise to it. He was a gambler, and he was doubling his money every time he rolled these days, though sooner or later, I consoled myself, he’ll crap out like they all do, as they all must. His dad, a famous “investor,” had disowned him after he dropped out of the Wharton School to open a bar in a slum. But the slum had become a gold coast and the bar a gallery that had recently sold out an edition of cast titanium crucifixes made from the mold of a venerated relic that had been temporarily stolen from a pilgrimage church above Rimini. It was said to confer fertility on any couple who walked with a leg tied together up the steep hill to the chapel (like at a school barbeque, as I picture it). The original, carved from the basalt of an Etruscan cult phallus, was rubbed to a shine in suggestive places by centuries of supplicants. An impassioned controversy stormed all the way to the Italian Parliament when the missing crucifix was discovered back in the chapel one day with a note from an American artist that said, in English, “This temporary theft has been a work of art. I am not sorry for any inconvenience. Art is not convenient.” The artist was on a plane by then with his latex impression and was soon too busy casting the edition in Greenpoint to worry about attempts at extradition, a story that briefly made it onto CNN. The free publicity emboldened the artist and our mutual dealer to rejigger the pricing ladder so that the first piece went for a hundred grand and the sixth and last for six hundred. When Papa learned about the numbers in play he sent a limo with a note inviting his prodigal son for a meeting at the club in Midtown. Now my dealer could imply that he had a hedge fund behind him, that he remained in Brooklyn for strategic purposes, and that he could finance the most ambitious artists’ projects. Indeed, surprisingly well-known free agents were beginning to sign up with the gallery. And on the bad cop hand, my dealer could keep budgets in line with the threat that his father was a canny businessman, not some easily bamboozled chump of a silent partner. My dealer grew up playing touch football with Kennedys, and now he was a golden boy all over again; the proof in the pudding being, as he liked to put it, “a fucking conga line of hot young feminist pussy” begging to get into his back room. He had gotten into art in the first place because the girls were smarter, and the girls, quite clearly, had no problem with that.

He’d promised me this show two years before; originally it was supposed to have gone up during the Armory, but it was a measure of his rise in fortunes that all he offered me in the end was this summer slot, and in fact I heard through the grapevine that a 23 year-old from USC who makes weaponized G.I. Joe automatons was offered the show first. (She reportedly suffered a software bottleneck.) Yes, I jumped without shame at the hand-me-down slot in the gallery schedule, telling myself, well, you may have a better chance of getting a review from a bored junior staffer at the Times with the whole art world in Venice and Basle, the Hamptons, St. Barts. Later on I’d be able to casually mention my solo at Meltdown, and who will remember what time of year it was? That’s not to say that I was less than proud of my new video pieces, painstakingly assembled from thousands of shots of surgical procedures. I had invited five sound artist/composer types to make collaborative audio tracks, and the results were spectacular. True, all my carefully calibrated mosaics of scalpels and flesh and bone now seemed to me like so much drearily bourgeois toil. But that was because I had come to stand at last in the Warholian light: the ultraviolet fact of the matter is, people will sit fascinated through two hours of the Jersey Turnpike shot from a car window if it’s accompanied by a crunching noise groove. Yes, yes—and so much the better.

My gallerist didn’t even pretend to be interested in trying to sell my work, and that was fine too; part of the implicit bargain was that I wouldn’t bother him too much. And why should he waste his time when what was really going on was all either in the back room or entirely elsewhere? I’d heard, in fact, that he was spending a lot of time in LA, flirting with Hollywood studios on behalf of one of his new artists whose vision was to make a state of the art, computer-graphics-heavy superhero feature—big budget in every way except that the non-linear shooting script amounted to three hours of hermetically obtuse auto-mythopoeia that the artist had lovingly transcribed from a bad ecstasy trip. The goal was for it to be shown in all innocence at multiplexes. For it to make real, all-American, trickle-up money. Potentially, there’d be both boffo box office and a nifty trade in the artist-cum-director’s storyboard drawings; indeed, with film buzz added to the mix my dealer’s cagey collectors would have to contend with impulse buys by rock stars and money launderers.

There he was, hovering around Icthyus. Haltertop was not in play—an ambitious young Adonis art shipper had all of his attention (the Greeks had a word for it) over in the corner. My dealer, that well-brought up young psychopath, would have to introduce me to Icthyus, and this time it would be a clean slate. Why not? Why not give it the old college try, I thought? I’d had a few beers, I was feeling smooth (though I did truly have to piss). It was my show, even an Icthyus would have to be polite. I began to think of what to say: maybe I should skip the awkward tributes and just ask him if he’d be in a video project I’d fantasized about for years where I zoom in to his eyeball from across a football field over the course of an hour. No, I’d screw it up. If I had to rehearse I’d never spit it out right. Just walk right up to him, I told myself, and be, um, yourself. Myself—oneself—whoever! He’s just another sagging, middle-aged man—imagine him naked! Such were the rudiments of technique I’d salvaged from a manic, sleep-derived mental engineering weekend in Palmdale I’d once been abducted to by an old girlfriend (and which, to give it its due, had left me impressively mindful of every subsequent lost opportunity, every new failure of nerve).

Maybe I should piss first, I thought. No, now was the time, and I found myself indeed walking right up to him. My gallerist pretended not to notice me and turned to converse with a bemused European woman dressed in very expensive clothes which, I had to concede, made her marginally less unattractive. Icthyus was sitting in a chair. He wasn’t necessarily talking to anyone.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Gary, this is my show.”

“Good luck,” he said, pleasantly enough.

“I realize you haven’t seen the work, and in fact no one is seeing or hearing the work at the moment. So thank you.”

“You’re welcome!” he said, rather chipperly now.

“It’s very nice to meet you Mr. Icthyus. Mr. Death. Of Painting. Paul.” Now I was in it, I might as well forge ahead.

“Um, do you happen to know this Monty Python routine where a guy named Mr. SmokesTooMuch goes into an office for an interview?”

No response.

“And the office guy, an obnoxious salesman type, you know, with a fake moustache, makes a joke like, ‘SmokesTooMuch, is it? Heh, heh, well, you’d better quit then, heh heh,’ and Mr. SmokesTooMuch looks a little irritated?”

Jesus, what dark corner of my brain had disgorged this?

“And the office guy, squirming a bit, says, ‘I imagine you hear that one all the time, SmokesTooMuch, eh?—Better quit then, eh?’ And Mr. SmokesTooMuch says, very indignantly, ‘I beg your pardon, I’ve never heard that one before in my life!’

“But then after a moment Mr. SmokesTooMuch does begin to laugh—right?—more and more heartily, as if, you know, somehow he hadn’t in fact heard it before. ‘You’d better quit then. Ha ha! That’s quite funny! Very funny indeed!’

“Did you ever happen to see that one? No? For some reason, I always wanted to ask you…Mr., Mr. Death of Painting. Mr. Icthyus. I, um, just always wondered about that.”

Mr. Paul Death of Painting Icthyus stared at me for the shortest effective moment, said nothing, then swiveled around to continue a conversation with my dealer and the woman as if I’d interrupted something. My dealer now acknowledged me, saying “Gary, Gary…” but only to roll his eyes and shake his head for his friends’ benefit. Like in high school. The woman took a beat to smirk, then widened her lizardly eyes and said to Icthyus, rescuing him, “We were just saying, mio inamorato, nnng”—her Italian was pronounced with a Slavic-inflected French accent—“Venezia has always been, nnng, a place of intrigue. Are you sure you can handle it?”

“Kindergarten!” proclaimed Icthyus. And as laughter ignited all around, I simply poured away like rain off a roof, into a drainpipe. And found myself outside bumming cigarettes for the rest of the night. (I pissed against the tan stucco of the new luxury condo next door.) I accepted the accolades and compliments about my show for what they were. Stupidities. Worthless lies. I went home drunk, my head spinning upward as the pillow came to meet it. I counted it as a victory that I had stood my ground when the VIPs bustled out the door into the Mercedes. I didn’t say anything, nor they to me as they pressed by in a bunch—my gallerist just patting me on the shoulder without a word as they went to celebrate my opening without me. But I didn’t especially make way. I wasn’t going anywhere. I just smoked that cigarette.

I read about the accident a week or so later in the Post (which I buy for the refreshingly stern horoscope, but find myself scrutinizing cover to cover—every brutish, diseased, and highly informative word.)

Death of Painting Barely Alive

A Gondola dispute ended in violence with the American artist Paul Death of Painting Icthyus in serious condition. The controversial Icthyus, whose given name is Paul Fish, was in Venice for a much-anticipated exhibition of his “Anti-Everything” art at the Biennale. He was rushed by vaporetto and helicopter to a hospital in Padua with head injuries. The incident reportedly began with a drunken shouting match between Icthyus and a German artist, Maximillian Osterhaus in nearby gondolas. Osterhaus, who has not yet been charged, is said to have assaulted Icthyus with his gondolier’s paddle while singing a drinking song popular with members of the Waffen S.S., but police will not confirm any details. Osterhaus and Icthyus had crossed paths before. Icthyus, married four times, once called Osterhaus’s signature ejaculation paintings “infertile” while Osterhaus, a notoriously kinky bachelor, responded by urinating on one of Icthyus’s works when it was shown in Bremen. Icthyus subsequently launched a suit which is currently stalled in the German High Court. According to a member of the Biennale staff, Icthyus and Osterhaus are never supposed to be in the same building together but were mistakenly seated across from each other at the opening dinner. “Who knows,” said the source, “the two are sworn enemies, and this is Venice. Perhaps it was not an accident. Over the course of the evening matters just went from bad to worse.”

The forecast for Cancer that day was that an obstacle would be removed from both my career path and my love life, and I can’t deny that it was right around that time that things began to open up for me. My show, as I had hopefully foreseen, got reviewed by the Times, by the chief critic at that, who had found herself slumming in Brooklyn instead of sipping Campari—not a rave by any means but not her usual demolition job either. “Mr. Valuvian has crafted a slashing, necrophiliac parody, as some might detect, of certain long dead mannerisms of painting.” She ended by saying that much more might be expected of this promising young newcomer (forty-five, apparently, is the new twenty-five). And with the review in my pocket I finally did begin to get a little traction.

Likewise, it was at a Brooklyn loft party a week or two later that I met Kamina. The party marked the official end of Williamsburg. A beater caravan of the original homesteaders was about to lurch forward, yet again, into the unknown; up the Hudson to some sinkhole of job loss where a new paradigm of suburban survivalist hipsters was going to ooze up against white-flight ethnic rednecks. Their kids were going to be going to school in districts that didn’t necessarily believe in evolution, much less in using A People’s History of the United States as a classroom textbook.

“I know your work,” Kamina said. She was elegant, dark and magnetic—no supermodel but nicely combined, and with a sassy smile that de Kooning would have sliced out of a magazine. Ordinarily she’d have scared the rabbit pellets out of me—only I didn’t have time to hop away. She sat down next to me by the window.

“Why?” I replied. “It’s derivative and obsessional. In the diagnostic sense.”

“That’s not what Sheila Donahue said in the Times.”

“I gave her head.”

“Well, that can get you surprisingly far!” she said with, I thought, a rather charming laugh. Just a trifle embarrassed, urging me gently forward. And somehow, maybe it was the Jack Daniels-soaked weed I’d smoked earlier, I don’t know—somehow I didn’t blow it, somehow I managed to keep that ball in the air for half an hour. I had forgotten what that felt like—like butter melting on a pancake in Brooklyn in July.

“But enough about me,” I said. “What did you think of my previous show?”

“Remind me.”

“Miss Schumaker’s class, P.S. 34, Evanston.”

Just then somebody fired up a Sawzall and went at a wall. Kamina had to lean in close, placing a hand tinglingly on my arm, her lips brushing my ear. “Precociously sophomoric. It’s what made me want to become a curator.”

“Aha. Aha. And you think that’s going to get you—”

“What Sheila got. You’d be amazed what artists will stoop to.”

“Men in general.”

“Not just men.”

Kamina Reale was clearly of a type that wouldn’t have been caught dead at a party like this in its original setting, but now that it felt like a virtual diorama it had pricked the outermost feelers of her social antennae. And with explorers like Kamina came also a glitz of hangers-on, who by their hair and clothes, I surmised, would speak a language only of chefs, designers, and kitchen appliances. It was their ilk, to be sure, who would be moving into the forty-story tower approved for the site by the Board of Standards and Appeals that very morning. On the plus side, I had managed to land a claw in the “improvement” of the “derelict” Brooklyn waterfront and, thus, to be borne upward, precariously hanging onto my condo on North 10th. This asbestos-shingled, five-story walk-up, shadowed now by looming block-long cliffs of brushed aluminum and glass, might as well be a stone and turf farmhouse remaining from Dutch settlement days. Others of more vital energy had done far better for themselves, but on scrip that it would cost their souls to cash out. Barney, for example, could package his seven contiguous lots, which he’d painstakingly defended in desperate times with a fire hose, slowly bending them back to economic purpose, and sell to Donald Trump literally tomorrow, but a little village of tender artists and poets would thereby be cast to the winds. Barney could buy a thousand-acre plantation in Madagascar with what was bursting under his belt in unrealized assets, but, as he liked to put it, “This is my Paradise. For now.”

The soon-to-be luxury view of the Empire State was casting a blue and white glow like a souvenir nitelite over Kamina and me with dangerously askew water towers forming middle-ground silhouettes. It looked like a rooftop logo of the old days, only with the prospect of sex. I said, “I’m going to ask you to meet me for dinner next week, so as to take the pressure off what to do about tonight, and then we will go our separate ways.”

And she replied, “Ask me about tomorrow.”

But the following evening after margueritas in a fern bar, we skipped the dinner and went up to her place and got ripped on some silky Moroccan her half-brother had brought back by diplomatic pouch. We ended up in the bathtub and probed and prodded like greased up dolphins, until the dirty deed was done at last, and I figured I’d never see her again. She’d no doubt have a guy who she’d been seeing, sort of, well, for a while, and I—well, I’d never had much luck falling in love. Which happened within two minutes of meeting any reasonably appealing female who’d talk to me. But there was a nice brick of hash begging in that East Village two-bedroom, and a few days after I’d finished off the pinch I’d sneaked from it, I called her. Bingo, I was over that same night, and soon I’d all but moved in, my Brooklyn condo repurposing over the course of a year into a dedicated studio.

I must have struck Kamina as a coveted hood adornment, an Authentic Old School Hipster Artist, complete with a show at Meltdown, a Times review, and a rusty green pickup. I tried to inhabit the role, treating her sheltered shopaholic friends with amiable contempt. If I worried them a little I served her purpose. She had a PhD from Columbia but had chosen to rassle in the velvet trenches of 26th Street awhile. After that she made something of a name writing assured reviews for ArtFashion. Now she was honing in on her long-term target, having snagged an assistant curator’s position at the Very Model of a Modern Major Museum, and she was girding her loins for the long hard climb up its greased chutes and ladders. She’d already been headhunted twice and had stuck with the lower paying, lesser titled job on 53rd Street; she’d stayed put even with the directorship in Oneonta on the table. Sure, you could make a name for yourself in the boonies, it had been done, but such was the laser trajectory of her ambition that the uppermost pinnacle of influence smoldered in her sights, and you can’t walk over people’s backs to the top from Oneonta.

From the day I met Kamina we moved up in near-perfect symbiosis. She spoke up in staff meetings, got noticed, and reaped some project space shows that were treated, exceptionally, as exciting events by the critics, who happened to be former press pass buddies. Her gallery connections paid off with privileged access to a generous collector couple upon whose yacht she had partied in the waters off Miami one enchanted Art Fair evening. And when at benefit dinners she arranged to seat me next to up-and-coming curators from Kunsthalles or West Coast university galleries she scored points for both of us, since, now that my gallerist had begun taking more of an interest and was working his phone to pre-sell editions of my projects, I could shoot in museum quality high-def on soundstages. Proximity to my isn’t-he-the-eyeball-zoom-guy? name-placard was becoming something of a favor for Kamina to dispense.

Yes, I’d begun cranking out a series of obstinately protracted borings-into of famous artists’ retinas, supermacro-to-supermicro portraits of the sort I never did get around to discussing with Icthyus. I was making a name for myself, by inference of the who’s who of increasingly well-known artists sitting very still for a certifiable hour-long, servo-geared dolly shot (nothing so low-budget, to be technical about it, as a zoom.) The imprimatur of that celebrity time commitment transmuted my severe homage to 16-millimeter hippy formalism into its contemporary equivalent: an amusement, a luxury good. I kept plowing attainment back into the series, recalibrating whom on the next level up I might approach as the group show catalogues grew glossier, the videography and specialized lenses more expensive. I was climbing the ladder with a display of surefooted momentum that bluffed the gridlock above into parting receptively. Heavy hitters like Emma Smudge and Ivar Bob Krenk had tolerated my invasive disruption of their busy calendars, had dared to be publicly used. Given such esteemed peers’ endorsements, who knew what guarded inner sancta would now open to my knock? I was even beginning to see how I might work my way up to approaching the great man himself. Someday I’d have to try, of course—his gravitas combined with that definitive, predatory stare would totally authenticate the series—make it undeniable, make it critic proof! And what would any of my accomplishments to this point or in the future be worth if I was too chickenshit to try noodging the one artist who really mattered?

Ah, my bifurcating psyche: Was I a riverboat gambler, smooth and intimidating, with a diplomat’s lethal command of flattery—an art star in the making? Or was I, deep down, just another schlemiel, not quite smart enough to act dumb? A reckoning was coming and both question and answer would come down to Icthyus, damn him—always Icthyus. But no need to get all worked up just yet. There were still credentials to collect, channels to plug into, before I’d be plausible enough to approach the toughest cookie in the jar. Besides, Icthyus was taking rather a long time to recover from his injuries….

Well, the years passed. My career’s ascent reached cruising altitude. As I took the time to hone my craft, I continued to find that, on the whole, the more numbingly dull I made my pieces the more they exerted enthrallment as X-rays of their time. Every so often, though, one must shore up the breed with a little pedigree, and a recent installation had involved the Cirque Du Soleil as regretful collaborators. It was a three-channel piece (one per ring), and you probably heard about the bestiality with tranquilized circus animals, which had the desired effect: a newsworthy lawsuit, threats of criminal charges. Pictures of Kamina and me made it into Page Six of my favorite two-bit throne reading. Some prudes at the museum held this against Kamina, but the director tacked one of these paparazzi shots (with my part torn off) on his bulletin board. The black-and-white photo made her look especially stunning, raven-haired with that smile that could sidetrack a suicide bomber. With her at my side I was climbing to the next level, the level of infamy, outrage, and biennials, though not yet New York (almost certainly next year, was the word Kamina’d heard). As for Venice, that was another category. Oh, hundreds of international wannabes set out their wares there, but I wanted one of those really big, empty brick vaults all to myself. I wanted to inhale deeply of medieval bilge water and art magazine ink. I wanted my little toke, in other words, of what Icthyus had had (well, aside from all the unpleasantness.) I didn’t rule it out, it could happen to me. Aim high and scatter a lot of buckshot and you never knew what would drop.

Icthyus—that name, that sere, smug, disdainful face—had been lifted magically out of my purview for ten years. As denim gave way to Prada at my typical night out, I never had to steel myself in case I should run into my nemesis, a huge boon to my stomach on those queasy glass elevator rides up to those High Line penthouse dinner parties: Icthyus was out of commission. Oh, he was still making art—in fact, he was painting. It was all he was doing now. But he hadn’t been able to string two words together since the “accident” (so the altercation had finally been ruled). Oliver Sacks himself had taken him on and had written a chapter entitled Alice in Simultagnosia about the remapping of his famous patient’s parietal lobe. The artist, consequent upon the damage to his higher language centers, was never again seen about, even at his own occasional openings. For that matter, only an inner circle was quite sure what he looked like anymore, and perhaps, so it was said, the tall, shrouded figure spotted from time to time in the museums and galleries on the arm of one gorgeous olive-skinned assistant or another might in fact be him. Kamina insisted Icthyus had borne witness like an Old Testament prophet one Tuesday afternoon at a show she’d co-curated on “Comic.” Among the cartoonish paintings and the painterly cartoons, there stood the mysterious figure, grunting and drooling spittle onto the sparkling terrazzo floor of the new wing. Whoever it was, reported Kamina, he was clearly furious, raging. She had included a single example from Icthyus’s influentially misunderstood Sitcom Paintings from ’62: were these enormous abstractions of pixels (as they came to be called) deadly serious or cryogenically cynical? In begging the question, this body of work was looking more and more like the missing link between Johns and Richter—like a silver nail in the coffin of objectivity. Icthyus’s painting was hung in a side gallery, in a room labeled “Serialisms,” and, precisely there, in front of The Beaver, Red is where she had seen the apparition.

After the incident she was determined to be the one to curate his long-awaited New York retrospective, something far more comprehensive than the abortive flight deck extravaganza in Venice. (With the accident, it had struck people as a bit morbid to go on with the fully detonated Rock ‘em Sock ‘em show.) The project had stalled because the senior curator in charge simply hadn’t had been able to penetrate Icthyus’s wall of reclusion. His gallery and collectors wanted nothing better than to cooperate, of course, but key works remained in the artist’s possession, and the artist’s power of attorney, it turned out, had been granted to a tribe of Amazonian Indians as per a legal will that had been framed, occasionally exhibited, and duly filed as an act of politico-conceptual art years before. Delegations had been sent upriver, but the Indians were certain that Icthyus’s estate was worth billions and wouldn’t lend works to a show without a new two hundred-bed clinic being built in exchange. And if that were all of it the gallery and the museum might have acquiesced, but there was more, and then more again. A fleet of Pipers and a runway. A trip for the entire village to Disney World. Everyone in New York had thrown up their hands. But we took our vacation in Brazil that year, and Kamina secretly jungle-hopped to the python-infested village on a backwater of the Xingu while I got high on the beach and ogled a game of semi-nude volleyball for restorative hours at a time. She emerged, amazingly, with a signed and notarized codicil that snagged her the (former) senior curator’s view of Central Park by enabling the whole project to go forward. Every time she told the story it came out differently. A long night of power snorting crushed bark and negotiations with a jaguar. Sexual barter, perhaps. An iPod. Charm, in other words.

I was busy with my own project, a youthful dream coupled in memory with the stench of spilled bongwater on beanbag—hell, all these kids were getting away with quotational ’70s nostalgia, why not the real thing? Once upon a time I’d had an unforgettable hallucination of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner.” (The Woodstock triple album made a perfect chopping board for ‘shrooms.) He appeared to me in four solid, living dimensions, his guitar distorting into a machinegun, napalm bursting in air. And twenty-five years on, holographic dinosaur theme-park technology could make it so. Thirty feet tall. Realizing this vision, my magnum opus, would require a working title that stuck in the craw. “Project Flashback” wasn’t the cleverest thing I could think of but it helped get me meetings with technology firms whose baby boomer CEOs might be sweet-talked into abetting the resurrection of the supremely groovy pagan idol of their youth, that omniscient virtuoso devil-god, inside a transept of a Rouen cathedral for a well-funded arts festival. I was making headway with in-kind partnerships from Softimage and Paul Allen. I’d only have to secure the estate rights to the raw concert footage shot from multiple angles, and voilà: my team could motion-capture Jimi in the round. These rights now resided with an eccentric former superstar digging out from legal bills. A million bucks, I was given to understand, would make the thing happen, and with my gallerist’s global resources this was just a matter of time. Who could have imagined ten years before that I’d be verging on superstardom myself?

My plate full, I kept away from the Icthyus affair, which was the talk of the art world for months. Would the recluse make an appearance? Would his enormously restless oeuvre cohere into a sustained critique at the razor edge of every significant post-painterly zigzag? Or would the great man turn out to be a Zelig, transparent, a mere opportunist of genius? The show might settle some of this, since so much of the work had not been seen for years thanks to the poison tort gun brandished, until Kamina’s recent coup, by the Amazonian villagers’ New York attorney. Of course, I had my own reasons for avoiding the whole thing. In any case, Kamina and I had drifted somewhat apart. We did still appear in public together for A-list events. And I still called her for phone sex. (But I was beginning to wonder: had I heard more than one woman’s moans on her end of the phone the last few times? She had had a succession of Sarah Lawrence girls working for her—she taught a course there—and the current assistant, a wavy-haired beauty with horn-rim glasses and a tattoo circling her bicep, stuck to her like contact cement. I certainly wasn’t going to say anything.)

The night before the “private” VIP opening of Icthyus’s retrospective I had a dream that I had killed someone, had concealed the body somewhere, maybe in a piece of furniture; had covered my tracks and gotten away with it. In the dream I told my friends about the murder. That’s how normal the whole thing seemed, just a part of life. Then the police had begun to inquire, snooping for clues and I woke up sweating and clammy. I realized it was a dream I’d had many times before. I lay awake, paralyzed, waiting for the cold grip of anxiety to pass, but in its aftermath were shards of regret, not relief. As if I had actually killed someone, maybe in a past life. It was the flip side of a flying dream, where one finds oneself exercising a skill so natively that even upon waking one entertains the idea of levitation. The emotional mass of the dream, truer than true, survives the dissipation of its illogic. No, I didn’t kill anyone, I told myself. I didn’t bury the body, there is nothing for the police to discover or my friends to divulge, so why is this weight still pressing down on my thorax? Where is my new lease on life? And with time I dared to open my eyes, letting the technicality of my innocence wash over me. My breathing smoothed out. I turned my head to look at Kamina. Without her wig and eyelashes, centered on her pillow, she looked remarkably like the delicate death mask of Marcel Duchamp.

Kamina was a bit nervous as we dressed for the opening. “Don’t expect me to introduce you to everyone tonight, Gary, I’ve got a lot on my mind and I don’t want to forget a name.”

“That’s why you have Allesandra.”

“Thank God for her, she’s the best I’ve had.” I managed to say nothing. “But I want you to meet Paul. He’ll like you, I’m sure of it. You can tell when he likes someone, he gets an intense, gentle look in his eye—it’s really better than if anything was said, more intimate.”

“But what would I say to him?” I asked. I could feel my stomach clenching into the sort of grip a drowning man would have on a spar.

“Oh anything. Everything! Small talk, big talk, doesn’t matter. It’s just a fucking opening for God sakes.”

Sure it was.

The museum was packed with people I needed to say hello to, be seen with. After several glasses of really decent chilled burgundy served in genuine stemware (the B-list opening next night would have Chablis in plastic cups) I had forgotten all about my problem with the man of honor. I was actually doing quite well tonight, accumulating some home email addresses, and later on I’d be dining at the big table next to two museum benefactors who were said to be intrigued by my latest project—not necessarily for museum acquisition, maybe more as a private matter. But from there it was just a hop, skip and a jump into The Collection. I was feeling like creamed caviar when Kamina grabbed my arm.

“Let’s go, it’s time.”

“For what?”

“C’mon, I’ll introduce you. Don’t worry, he can’t talk, kiddo. Just ramble on about the Hendrix thing. Some people don’t think he even understands anything at this point.”

Kamina cleared some ground, and next thing I knew was face to face with…with what? My conscience? My comeuppance? No!—Here was a last golden chance to expiate my sins, to stare down my demons, to turn a still pustulating wound into a laugh over martinis. I gathered my strength. I was no schmuck, I was a big time artist, at home with board members and spreadsheets, commerce and production. The milquetoast artists I used to know, whose careers were worth less than my shoes, wouldn’t dare approach me at openings these days. They’d be afraid of getting singed by my glory. I could get any curator in the world to call me back, just about, and I could pitch them whatever desperate nonsense came into my head: I was the infamous Gary Valuvian, I was someone to reckon with. Icthyus, on the other hand—Icthyus was now as feeble as a drooling infant. That once fearsome, white-browed shark, notwithstanding the great occasion, sat hunched over in a high-tech wheel chair, incapable of speech, utterly helpless.

“Paul,” she said, “do you know Gary Valluvian? He’s a wonderful artist and deeply, deeply influenced by your work.”

“Allow me to be the four hundred and twelfth person to congratulate you Mr. Icthyus. I’m sure you don’t remember me....” Now why on earth did I say that? “Anyway, Kamina’s right, I really admire what you did with the Viennese sewer system in ’93, I mean it was—it was brilliant, and, my god, I’ve always thought your White Sox box score drawings were gorgeous. Of course, I realize they weren’t meant that way, but you know, I’ll always see them as just, well—­I’m sorry, but they’re unbelievably gorgeous! But you know what? Maybe that’s because of where I was in my own work at the time—it’s like, it’s like they taught me what not to do. Because no one could ever do it better. As a matter of fact, the piece I’m working on now is…um....”

I stopped myself and watched his wrinkly face begin to agitate.

The man who had entered the new edition of Bartlett’s with “Color is a transvestite whore” and “Judd is for grandmothers,” whose million or so copies of Pith and Revenge, the Collected Writings lay well-thumbed and paint-spattered atop the palettes and toilet tanks of, for all practical purposes, every single art studio in the world; now wanted, it seemed, to say something to me. He strained to vocalize a syllable, grunting, wheezing, nearly destabilizing his Segway with the effort. He looked at me fiercely, savagely. It seemed as if he saw me as his portal to lucidity, that if he could only chew and swallow my eyeballs a sequence of words in all their intricate logic would link up in his brain long enough to commandeer his afflicted tongue. After ten years of silence he seemed on the verge of speech, and everyone around had now stopped chatting and was watching, hardly daring to breathe.

There was a palsied eruption that I only deciphered in the echoey silence that followed as “You!”

“I remember you!” he shouted, more intelligibly now to the astonishment of the utterly frozen crowd. “SUCK MY ASSHOLE YOU BROWN-NOSED PIECE OF SHIT!”

“My God,” the museum’s director intoned at last, breaking the spell. “He spoke! Paul, Paul Painting Is Dead Icthyus—you can speak!” He had half-turned to the great man, enfolding him, without quite relinquishing the rhetorical high ground.

Now friends and protectors surged in. Paul, dear Paul, everyone was saying, and soon the death grip stare he’d held me in was blocked by bodies, but not before I noticed with exquisite clarity his eyeballs rolling up into his lids. And a titter of laughter. Which soon caught on and built up into an enormous orgasmic wave, rolls and rolls of it, the released tension of extreme social embarrassment endured and evaded by everyone in the near vicinity—except me, that is, who stood immobilized with the whole sacrificial muck of it oozing down my stunned person. People were trying not to look at me, were laughing into their hands and then doubling over and grabbing a stranger so as not to fall to the floor. Yes, even Kamina. Yes, especially Kamina, who literally turned her back on me and slipped into the inner circle before it hardened like an energized plasma field in an underground neutron accelerator with Icthyus at the core. It was the last I saw of her (except for when we divided the art collection some months later), and she was shaking her head with ecstatic schadenfreude, her arms helplessly akimbo, and screaming, “Oh my God! Oh Jesus! I can’t believe....” Oh my God!” It sounded considerably like our recent phone call.

That night, long ago, a kind person, a friendly face, took my elbow without my being aware. “Tourettes,” she said bravely. “Who knew you could suffer from aphasia and Tourettes simultaneously! Poor man.” Six months later he was dead as a doornail. I scanned every obit—there were dozens—for insights into his disease. All referred to the incident at the museum—he had never uttered another word––but my name was mercifully considered unworthy of mention. “An unfortunate mid-career artist was the object of his last utterance.” “His last words were heard by a large crowd, but they cannot be printed here and amount to a confirmation of his mental eclipse.” That sort of thing, and fair enough I suppose.

After Kamina’s and my breakup I found that the financing fell apart for the Hendrix project; bit by bit I fell apart too. On the rare occasions I ventured out in the following years I used to detect a finger pointed here or an incline of the head there and a little chuckle. I wore it like a suit of lead and even came to appreciate the insulation it provided. Indeed, I never needed to be clever or funny or especially polite afterward. And anyway, as I still console myself, every last witness of my farcical disgrace will be dead someday. Every last ignorant, self-satisfied fuck. Not forgetting Kamina. Not forgetting myself. And as the corrupted flesh putrefies in the ground, so will my shame rise and dissipate. It will atomize, turn to rare perfume. Like a certain pet shop parrot, it will simply cease to be.

I write this from deep in the fir wastes of British Columbia, alone here except for my herd of llamas. They spit at me and I spit back. I sell my watercolor variations of alien spacecraft on eBay to other stoners—and you know what? I truly believe that I have discovered, at last, what art really is. I sing. I create. I bring forth. I daily delight in contour and hue, industriously following my bliss. And in doing so, lo and behold, I find that I give shape to people’s hopes, that I make beautiful arguments they are desperate for, that I lay a colorful balm on their nightmares—at any rate, I receive freq uent tribute along those lines from andromyda7, fawngrrrl and many another fan in my increasing legion of collectors. I now own 83 hectares of scrub purchased with the sweet fruit of my labor. Surrounding is Provincial Reserve. The undifferentiated green drone of mossy forest puts me in touch with the larger wheels of time spinning on their cosmic axis. I see into the past and the future with deep-focus telephoto flatness as if time were a primordial picture plane. I endure. I reminisce. I chew over. I warn.


David Brody


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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