Hard Lessons in Art HistoryMay 1, 2012

During my art gallery days, I once found myself lunching with an old friend. He’d been a quasi-important painter in his early days but suffered from an artistic anxiety that left a chip on his shoulder. He just could not stand critics of any variety and most of the time his anger in that regard lacked the moderation necessary to sustain a satisfactory client/painter relationship.

We had the kind of friendship where we could get nose to nose in a stimulating art discussion and later laugh it off… or so I thought: lots of inside jokes and personality talk. He was a burly man of tough fiber, and some of his opinions were disguised with a varnish of artistic authority that sometimes made me a little nervous. Nevertheless, our mutual respect came from my having been an art dealer for almost as long as he’d been a painter. I appreciated him because he’d paid his dues at the bottom of the food chain, earning only about $100 for magazine illustrations while working longer and harder than most people.
One day during a business meeting back east, an important art director alleged that my friend was a man “…with only moderate creative equipment who lacked the potential for sustainable growth in the competitive art industry.” Of course that reflection put my friend on an express track to tragedy. “You pompous, over-educated and under-talented art directors keep telling me what every little rock in the river should look like,” he said, and he pointed the blunt end of a paint brush at the director as if contemplating some offensive exploratory procedure. He was a stranger to humility in a way that rarely worked in his favor, and he soon found himself standing on a curb in the rain looking for a cab. So he packed up his wife and his brushes, put some air in the tires of his old Ford “Bullet,” and headed west, finally settling in Santa Fe.

Over time he became popular and his prices edged up into the middle five-digit range. All of the dealers called him for paintings and some even sent flowers to his wife. As the demand for his work surged he fell back into himself more and more and became self-assured that each picture he painted was the best one, since the last one, or until the next one. Even as he was enjoying his newly-found significance he still had memories of “the haughty commercial jerks” telling him what to do. And he spit those words out like they should be cast in bronze.

One day an influential lady collector cornered him at an art opening. “She wanted me to make her a large painting of prairie dogs. Of PRAIRIE DOGS!” he emphasized with obvious contempt. The look in his eyes told me that he was backing up to get a running start at something. “I don’t have to take orders anymore, and now I am painting only for myself, whatever I want, and always just for myself, no exceptions.”

That was a perfect time for me to just sit still, shut up and be my normal saccharine self. But of course I didn’t. I calmly said that he was no different from the rest of us and that his ego would not allow him to be unaffected if a few important collectors suddenly didn’t want his work anymore.  His right eye jerked a little when I said that he would paint whatever he wanted only as long as his adoring public approved. His ice cream started to melt as he slowly leaned forward in his chair. I could sense the unpadded prowling of his temper and suddenly realized that I’d said the wrong thing. His sense of propriety started losing traction fast.

I am sure that somewhere in a peaceful mountain meadow the spring daffodils are gently blooming as the morning mist settles on a tranquil lake. But let me tell you this: that’s not what was about to happen in that poor little restaurant. One little old lady in the corner tried to hide behind her coffee cup.

When I told him he was over-heated, he yelled that I was over-rated. It went on, and we found ourselves suddenly alone. I think the cute little waitress, whose tight skirt was about four inches too short to be long enough, tripped over a scrub bucket trying to get out the back door.

During a lull when he was trying to catch his breath I said, in words so soft that my mother would have been proud of me “Listen, I’ll tell you what. Let’s go out to this little deserted island I know about and I’ll give you all the brushes you want and all of the paints you want and all of the canvasses you want and…” He started to raise his hand but I raised my hand higher. I wasn’t through yet. “And every time you finish a painting I will buy that thing wet off of the easel, and run out under a palm tree and burn it. I propose that you will suddenly lose interest and never make another painting. So you’re not working just for yourself, are you?”

His annoyance did not appear to be mitigating so for the next few minutes I just sat there not daring to move a muscle in any direction. His eyes looked heavy as he carefully explained why I should buy a first class ticket to the nearest personality rehab, and he used an assortment of creative adjectives that were not in any polite dictionary. His defiance was like an Oreo to his spirit as I sat in petrified thrall.

And I sure hated paying for lunch.

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