T H E A R T I S T
We grew up in Texas but had never seen a lake ice over. We were with our aunt, my father’s sister, the last sister still alive. She walked Debbie and I out to Lake Michigan, which wasn’t far from her front door. A long cold walk in the frozen center of America, is what my sister called that day––after she’d read Dante in high school. Shelly, our aunt, told us the whole walk about her dead sisters, about how they died, and only then about their secret problems and ways of making my father into an angry and quiet person––into a cocoon of a boy that we, all three of us, shivered against in the full knowledge of him as a man. He terrified us, me most of all, and now I think that Shelly brought him up in order to make us happy to be outside in such a wind. It worked, I guess. Still works, in a way.
So we came to the lake and stood on the freezing sand for awhile, awed at the frozen shore. The waves had stopped up as chunky glyphs, very dignified and terrible. Debbie grabbed my arm and held on. Shelly had stopped talking. It wasn’t until I read Antigone––to address a peculiar sort of dare that Deb and I often traded––that I found a word for that ice: deinos. Root of dinosaur. Wonderful and terrible. Ancient. We weren’t trembling at the ice, but we were shaking before it, and I’ve wondered at the difference ever since.
I came back to the lake, in winter, when Deb died, and long after Shelly with her guilt and tales had gone. I had them both on my skin in portraits, making them visible in the way I thought most practical for me. The tattoos didn’t quite cover me, not yet, and even now I don’t know why I’ve left my face blank. But I was at the water, standing with my bare feet inches away from the ice, thinking about Deb––and I felt in my mind, held there both perfectly at once, a lucid memory of Deb’s face just the day before she died, and an indescribable desire to disappear. For some reason, this desire presented itself, in tandem with my memory of Debbie’s face, as a squat black crystal, this crystal resting on a long white table in a well-lit but empty room. I laugh now because it sounds pretentious, just recalling that little thought. But if I were able to take one of your hands into my hand, and then to squeeze that hand with the intense pressure of that desire––not to die, but to purely and utterly disappear, without consequences, without grief––then I think you’d buy it, that force by which my mind was commanded.
If you feel up to it, keep this story in mind during the next twenty-three hours. The frozen lake, a sister’s face, the desire to go: together as a crystal on a table in a room.
In Venice, for the Biennale, the gallery that represents me and sells my work––this gallery––had put me up in a nice tired old hotel, a place at a comical proximity to the water. The second night I was in town, before I got sober, I spent a few hours––right around a sherbet orange, milky sundown––sitting and drinking in the bar. And don’t worry: other than booze crumbling to pieces everything good or whole in my life, I was––and still am––severely bored with drunk tales, with druggy tales––so I won’t fixate on details and recap every bent of another night’s dumb drunk––but I was at the bar when I was approached by an elder gentleman, maybe seventy.
He was stately––gray, pinstriped, manicured but not precious. Skin the color of an acorn. Rough hands, but not arthritic, that lit a cigarette with a small pewter lighter. He sat next to me. He asked for my name, and I mean just that: he said, May I have your name? We spoke for a few minutes then about I don’t know what, yet I noticed that we both drank at a pace belying our desperation––like we wanted to die, but didn’t want to broadcast that fact within a place of such civility. The plain way of saying this is that our hands were shaking. After awhile, the gentleman turned to me and said: I want to destroy something beautiful in Venice. Will you help me?
When he said this, I thought of Taxi Driver, of Scorsese confessing––or trying to convince himself––that he was going to shoot his wife and the black man she was sleeping with. That crazed vulgarity of wanting to fire a gun into your wife’s vagina. Looking at this man in the bar, I was trying to suss out any psychotic violence. Sniffing, best I could through the new drunk, any want to kill. I knew I had to ask him questions. So we talked for awhile, hours maybe. He slowly revealed his desire to mar a piece of culture––some art––like a man slowly opening his right hand to reveal an injured baby bird, the man’s face proud and protective and also curious about the consequences of crushing it. I indulged him––we ragged on Bernini, on Bosch. Not critically, but in a homicidal admiration. The gentleman asked: do all artists want to rid themselves of their predecessors? I finished my drink and placed my flat palm over the glass and said: one way or another. We traded good questions and bullshit answers for another hour. Then, the pledge: I would help the gentleman destroy something beautiful in Venice, and it would be an inhuman thing––the thing destroyed––and the destruction would be public. No apologies would be issued, no pardons requested upon the event of arrest––no pleas against the original power of the act. He said within a year, it must be done within a year; I told him five.
This brings me to the thing destroyed: Celebration, pen on paper, twelve years. I started drawing the piece in 1990. I wanted to work on something, one thing, for a long time, to see primarily if I had stamina for repetition and redundancy. I told myself that I would draw chandeliers, hundreds of thousands of chandeliers, if possible. The first twelve by sixteen piece of paper that I filled with chandeliers became the centerpiece of the whole collection of sixteen thousand, eight hundred and seventy-five pieces of paper, all others arranged in a random grid around the first piece of paper, the whole piece occupying twenty-two thousand, five hundred square feet. Filled the first page at a desk in an apartment in Detroit, day-drinking and reading James Baldwin, trying to not sleep. The last page, which took me two months to fill, I worked on in my aunt’s old apartment, in a hot Michigan summer, coming to and from the lake at dawn and dusk. Our family’s money was all gone at that point––or at least all of the fortune that I could get ahold of––and so I kept up a pace of three small paintings per month, on top of my work on Celebration pages, in order to pay others what was owed and buy paper, pens, and soup. The prior three years, representatives of this gallery tried convincing me of the use of selling off Celebration piecemeal, both for cash and hype. With the Venetian gentleman’s promise in mind, I refused, staying cheap and low.
It might be that novelists are excused for––or expected to––sacrifice precision for beauty, and philosophers beauty for precision. If that’s true, artists should be expected to sacrifice neither. We’ve got no excuse, is what I’m saying. The freedom and power––in other words, the money given to artists who have been granted access to a club that peddles in a certain grandeur, or scale––I’m thinking of Walker’s sugar sculpture, the hanging rock in Los Angeles, Koons and his Play-doh, or Turrell’s holy sanctuary in the goddamned crater of a dormant volcano, like some ascetic Dr. Doom––this money allows you into this club, and as much as this club is capable of anesthetizing artists to their responsibilities and skills, it also allows you to do whatever you want. In my case, secrecy about Celebration was its necessary pressure, and the art market’s necessary gimmick. My bait. But I wanted to make sure that the piece did two things with my newish access to scale: draw attention to it, this access and pattern for grandeur in contemporary art, and do so with beauty and precision. This is why I worked on the piece for twelve years. This is why I did everything––drew it all myself. No unpaid, minimally paid, never credited assistants; no pyramid economics with a blank white face. This is why I told only Deb, Matthew, and Isaiah, and only showed Deb. The only eyes that had seen Celebration before it came and went in Venice were Deb’s and she died with those eyes. It’s strange to me that the only person who saw the piece––pieces of the whole, at least––took that impression underground, diffusing the sight somehow. Maybe the dirt is a more honest audience member––the Eumenides testifies to that. I don’t know. Deb died, I promised a gentleman some destruction, hence Venice, 2003.
For those who don’t know what I’m assholishly alluding to, I had Celebration exhibited in its entirety––all sixteen thousand plus pieces creating a huge rectangle––displayed on the floor of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, for the 2003 Biennale. What I kept private, though, until the seventh hour of the piece’s exhibition, was its planned destruction. Nobody knew, so that’s why there’s only one video of the helicopter drifting forty or fifty feet above the square. This silly Zapruder film caught me pouring bucket after bucket of red and white paint onto Celebration, caught a few diligent security guards running out over the field of chandeliers in order to plead at first to the helicopter pilot and then to me––none of the guards with their navy arms raised knew my face; presumably none knew the Biennale bought a hefty insurance policy because I had strategically refused to allow the papers to be laminated or laid over with plexiglass, and had also strategically refused to sell any of the piece, which stung only for a minute after the piece got valued, in an arbitrary and psychotic flurry, at over five million bucks, a number the pure product of fairyland art market logic, through which scale is confused for beauty then begets pride, which then, as always, affirms itself with cash––so the tan Italian men shouted up to us in urgent imperatives as I kept spilling paint, trying to avoid splattering the guards as the helicopter banked, tilted, its blades kicking up winds which licked the corners of each page. With each emptied bucket, the act of defacing this thing, this thing that I had worked on for twelve years, covering much of that work with simple and scattered colors: this never felt like a joke. I never felt sly or even triumphant, nor relieved. I was sober. I was fulfilling a promise from a drunk to a drunk. I was destroying the thing I had labored to make beautiful and precise, ruining it from above. This wasn’t war; this simple act wasn’t even violent. My destruction of Celebration was merely a necessity of responsibility. A pledge without mystery.
There’s a line in Montaigne’s essay on prayer: “He was wretched enough to be taken literally.”
I flew back to Michigan the same day. Friends wrote letters about what friends said, simple critics. We wrote back and forth about banal stuff. Gradually, I slowed. Walking six, seven hours per day. Speaking a handful of times, mostly to checkout people at the grocery store, postal workers. Beyond those simple habits, my mind became mush. I got boring without being bored; I sank into middle America like a rock tossed by a kid, sinking into mud.
A couple gray months and I started walking less and reading more. Montaigne and Mandelbrot. Both made me laugh and look at things harder; I began to itch. I soon started drawing again, and then my gluttony for filled pages, completed work, kicked in. My old stubborn stamina returned––I was sketching and painting twelve hours per day. Lunch: bread soaked in olive oil, tangerines, green tea. Dinner: rice and fish. Once I was settling into this new period of work, I felt capable of not being a disappeared prick, again ready to help friends. I mailed a letter to Celia, a friend who worked at Bomb Magazine, and asked for a short column every month. She approved, so I ordered the internet again. Spent two hours a night trawling blogs and portfolios, staying away from gallery websites. Eventually, I rounded up ten names and ten pieces. One thousand words per article. I promised Celia an eleventh post, too: an essay on the destruction of Celebration. With the ten essays on the work of young artists, I thought to keep those artists from starving, assuming the art game functioned as it had for years––the articles by the artists and critics fed the gallery owners and curators, who pitched the rich with the language from the articles. Sometimes just handing over the articles themselves, preying on the dumb potency of paper. I reread Orwell and avoided art speak the best I could.
One of the paintings I wrote about, titled Four Objects in White, was made by a gentleman named Antonio M. Noralez. A strange surname, as if the regular M had been factored out, shifting the alphabet to the left by one character, his last name already a denial. His work was great, mostly acrylics on paper, but Four Objects in White was incredible––the painting consisted of a large sheet of paper filled with what looked like three thick layers of about six shades of white paint, arranged such that certain shades served as plateaus on certain portions of the page. The photograph of the painting, taken with natural light coming from an unseen source behind the left shoulder––or at about seven o’clock from the orientation of the camera facing the painting––zooming into the photo reveals soft discoloring shadows created by the different geological thicknesses of paint on the paper. The four objects named in the title of the painting were four vaguely geometrical shapes, maybe solids, that had been painted and carved out with minute strokes of a scalpel in a way that made the objects appear to move into and throughout themselves. The painting was new, beautiful, and worth looking at for a very long time.
I had questions about the painting, and questions about Antonio––his website was as bare of information as it could be. He was born in 1989, lived in Mexico, and titled the six pieces of art on the site––all photographed, none scanned––in simple, mechanical English. Surprisingly, he included his email address. I sent him a brief introduction and asked if he would be willing to respond to a few questions.
He responded eight days later. He said yes, thank you, and that he would answer five.
I thought better than to ask him more than one question about his life. His timidity was obvious; I felt that he could be pretty easily scared off. But I also wanted as much information about his work as I could get, greedily hoping to learn from him, and to get his new methods into my aging hands. That was tactical. Though my strategy in only asking one question about Antonio’s private life was to present him as a mystery. I knew that, if I could do my job as a critic, if I could adequately describe his painting’s novelty and importance without flattening his identity or explaining it away, then I would get him gallery representation and attention, and ultimately, get him paid and fed and able to make more work.
He answered my first four questions quickly and precisely. I got the impression he had struggled to learn English, and now wrote with a hard won grammatical fidelity. Checking the time signatures of our emails, he responded to the first four questions about Four Objects in White and his other work all within forty minutes of me sending them. So I learned we both kept late hours. For Four Objects in White, he copped to the painting’s obvious laboriousness––hundreds of hours of work with the scalpel, putty, paint. He said that Four Objects in White was the only painting of his that felt “adequate.” This little phrase revealed his pain, which I instinctively bought. His obsessiveness couldn’t have sweated an ounce of affectation––faking care would’ve been an unbearable waste of time.
The fifth and last question I asked him went like this: do you feel capable of describing in detail your desire to make art?
His response, which I’ve now since memorized: Yes. My desire to paint and to draw feels like a convoluted itch. This itch causes me much complication. If I am to be honest, scratching this itch requires me to host a sadness. This sadness is that which I could never solve. I am sorry to answer in such mournful terms. When I am painting or drawing, though, I feel myself to be making quiet things capable of life.
Six weeks later, Bomb published the piece on Antonio. Eighteen days later, his body was discovered in a park six miles from his childhood home. Antonio had travelled to southern Mexico, near Oaxaca, by bus, and then had killed himself with morphine and a scalpel around midnight. In his apartment in Mexico City, he had gathered together his life’s work––around six hundred drawings and forty paintings––and had destroyed them. He shredded most of his drawings with scissors and a scalpel, likely the same scalpel he used to kill himself, and burned his paintings, carefully diverting the smoke out his small kitchen window. His apartment was otherwise immaculate.
I’ve looked harder at Antonio’s death than I’ve looked at anything. But I won’t let my looking, and trying to understand, make me into the kind of obscenity that connects events to one another with colorless straight lines. I have plenty of facts about Antonio, his life and his death––I do now. His suicide eclipses those facts.
Two weeks ago, I returned to the lake in order to work on the circumstances of this piece. Needing to ask myself again and again if it was, or would be, a performance. Asking again: why make this? Why invite other people, strangers, to witness it, or inevitably to listen to it, read it? Down at the shore in the evening, a strand of small black rocks sat just inches away from the pull of the tide. They were placed in a way that assured me of the hands that had set them down, carefully out of reach of the cold foam. I looked around, hoping to see a little girl, or some other child. Hoping for some benevolent kid to come around some corner that I hadn’t yet noticed. Carrying one or two more little dark stones.