Back Story

A friend of mine, a color field abstractionist who never made it to the big show, painted large canvases of pastels and off-whites.  He sold them to interior decorators who placed them in bank lobbies and board rooms.  He made a living, but his one show in New York flopped.

One day he invited me over to look at some new work.  I stifled a yawn as he rambled on about his “latest breakthrough”, but he rewarded my patience by pouring two tumblers of whiskey.  We lit up cigars and retired to his back porch, and he told me a nugget of art world wisdom:  “People don’t buy paintings.  They buy souvenirs of an artist’s back story.”

I didn’t know what he meant, but he explained.  (He always explained.)  “Van Gogh couldn’t draw and his early compositions and colors are crap.  But then he lops off an ear and tries to give it to a whore to prove how much he loves her.  Ends up in an asylum, shoots himself a few years later.  Folks start buying his paintings.  Wouldn’t touch them while he lived and breathed, but once the back story got out, he became a tragic genius.  Everybody wanted a piece of that.”

I asked him to name a few more examples.  “Dali shows up at a party wearing a diving suit, the ones with the weights and the bell shaped helmets.  He’s walking around with an oxygen tank on his back and nearly dies when a valve fails.  He’s sucking up all the air left inside the helmet and can’t get the damned thing off.  Great publicity.  Stole his wife away from a French poet and got kicked out of the Surrealists for making paintings about Hitler–or rather, his erotic dreams about Hitler.  He turned his life into a circus and sold off the posters.”

He went on.  (He always does.)  “Georg Grosz said that he and his buddies were like barkers at a carnival.  Come see the freak show.  And the rich ones lined up and paid admission.”

“But he paid a price, didn’t he?  Didn’t the Nazis chase him out of Germany?”

“So what?  When you put yourself on the market you have to expect some feedback from the public,” he drawled.

“You’re a real jerk,” I declared.

He sipped his whiskey, winced, and ran fingers through his thinning hair.  “And you’re naïve,” he countered.  He probed:  “So what’s your story?  Middle class background, white boy from the Cincinnati suburbs.  Married happily and had a couple kids.  Boring.  Wait a minute.  Didn’t you grow up Catholic?”

“Yeah,” I said warily.

“Any problems in the priest department?” he asked.

“Nope.  Didn’t happen to me and I never met any victims,” I said.

“Too bad.  Better start making something up.”

“What’s your deal?  I barely know anything about you,” I said.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?  I was born in Venice near St. Marks.  My mother was a part time model and a part time hooker, and my father was Titian’s fourth cousin ten times removed.  I stowed away on a tramp steamer when I was 12 and hid with the rats in the hold.  I nearly starved in New York until I fell in with the mob.  I ran numbers for them and shook down mom-and-pops when I got old enough to look dangerous. Squiggy the Mooch sent me to art school after he saw a sketch I made of a dead body.  Said I drew the puddle of blood real good.  Met Franz Kline, fought Jackson Pollock in a bar, and screwed Elaine De Kooning (everybody screwed Elaine De Kooning).   She introduced me to Peggy Guggenheim, and the rest is history.”

“Didn’t you tell me that you’re from Milwaukee?  Your dad worked in a brewery, and your mom was a seamstress.”

“Back story, boy, back story.”

He took a long drag on his cigar and let out a long stream of smoke.

Teach an Elephant to Paint

My wife Judy and I were talking this afternoon about De Kooning, the abstract expressionist painter. She sarcastically said, “What a lovely man,” and I realized that she meant Jackson Pollock.  (We watched the Ed Harris biopic several years ago, and Judy came away believing that Jackson was an egocentric, alcoholic philanderer.  She didn’t buy into the myth that he was a tortured genius.) I said, “You’re thinking of Pollock…I’m not sure what kind of guy De Kooning was, but his wife sure had some issues.”  I related the stories I had read claiming that Elaine De Kooning slept with influential critics to get good reviews for her husband’s work.

While we were talking I was reminded of my favorite De Kooning anecdote: newspaper reporters showed De Kooning photographs of paintings made by a chimp.  They looked like abstract expressionist paintings. De Kooning didn’t take offense and said, “I don’t know much about art, but that monkey is one good painter.”

I told the monkey story to Judy and also remarked that brushes, paints and canvases have been given to elephants.  The pachyderms use their trunks to handle the brushes with care and sensitivity and seem to be deeply absorbed in thought as they paint.

The walls in our house are covered with my unsold paintings, and there will never be any chance that we will have to purchase art to decorate a bare spot.  As I glanced away from Judy and looked around the living room the adage about teaching a man to fish popped into my head.  I told Judy, “You give a painting to an elephant, and it has art for a day. You teach an elephant how to paint and it has art for the rest of its life.”

We had a good laugh.