TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1987

A CANVAS OF EPISODES

A Romance in Ten Parts, Chapter 7: Scapegoat

IT WOULD BE NATURAL TO think that after seeing Alma’s show—a weak mirror of his own work—Rex suffered. In fact, he did. A double suffering. For in one shot he had had his ideas stolen from him and he had lost all faith in the famous woman, his lover, who had committed the theft.

If Rex had lived in the 19th century, and this were a 19th-century tale, we might have said that his soul had been stolen (his two souls, to be exact) and that in its place sadness filled the vacancy, and our hearts would have gone out to him. Yet the reader of today, who is quite rightly sickened by archetypes in the arts (sparked by noxious ideas abroad in the world) that describe powerful women as evil, or as draining men’s power (The Blue Angel, Carmen, The Magic Mountain, Jude the Obscure. . . ), might not rush so quickly for the hankie and might choose another angle from which to view Rex’s situation. We might see him instead not as the victim of either esthetic or spiritual vampirism but as the dupe of his own innocence. For is it not true that the person negligent of his or her heart is in some measure responsible for its theft? After a healthy dose of self-pity, Rex was willing to swallow this idea.

His dealer, Mario Marcus, with the down-to-earthness of an inspector of subbasements (which, as you may remember,1 in addition to being a gallery proprietor, he is) and with the historical, social, and economic perspective of a calendar without dates, usually worried little about such ideas, caring essentially about one and a half matters, Rex’s feelings (the half) which in turn affected Rex’s work (the whole). On the half he had gathered nothing, for Rex had allowed no one entry to his feelings, just as he had for weeks permitted no one access to his studio. But once Mario was invited to set foot through Rex’s door, on the other matter he found himself facing a problem so deep he didn’t know how to swim in it. On the walls were the paintings Rex was proposing for his show, the very paintings that Alma had seen, and that had resurfaced in a fervorless version on her canvases’ surfaces, and that had won her praise in every quarter. Bewildered, Mario looked at Rex. “It is the quality of the painting that matters,” Rex said. The thought of a person of such integrity stirred Mario as deeply as when he fell in love with a painting, and, putting aside his misgivings, he set a date for Rex’s show.

How strong the death wish, and of all our wishes how easy to fulfill—its chief advantage being exactly the readiness of the world to accommodate the wisher. Or so Mario thought as he read the first two published newspaper reviews. Snips from these dailies:

Appropriation art, the tired idea of the ’80s, rises limply in this echoing of Alma You-Know-Who's most recent show. The line between theft and appropriation being thinner than a laser beam, one prefers, in the case of an artist so young and so newly arrived, to believe that this show is an example of the misguided appropriation esthetic rather than an act of larceny.

Next:

Brassy and facile, these paintings prove that swallows do not a spring make. Last season's promise turns out, as with most young artists of this decade, just that. The paintings in this show, by the way, have the look of work this reviewer has seen elsewhere this season. . .

During the next days, Mario’s apartment/gallery filled itself like a balloon of dark atoms, their negative charges careening off the walls and raining like sneering soot on paintings and human spirit alike. Mario saw himself immolated on heaps of flaming mail bags and art magazines and Rex clubbed to death beneath the pyre, a crowd of art-world spectators shrieking with joy as the flames rose higher and higher. Then another review appeared. (Often the impulse of curiosity is stronger than self-preservation, and Rex and Mario continued to read their notices.)

The work of art lies in the sublime tension between the original artifact and its egoless replication, in the realization at all art is re-creation of itself. Here we have an appropriation artist whose genius is etched on the dialectical horizon.

This last review must have fueled the event that soon followed, a front-page headline—

THE DAILY PLANET

COLLECTORS TO BANDIT ARTIST: SEE YOU IN COURT

—which poor Mario spied across the aisle on the subway. It seemed that a Mr. and Mrs. Ledgekeep, frightened at the prospect of the devaluation of their “original” Almas through the attention given to Rex’s “copies,” had brought a copyright-infringement suit against the Marcus gallery and were having Rex’s paintings confiscated and held for trial.

Frederic Tuten is a writer of fiction. He is a professor and the director of the graduate program in English and creative writing at the City College of New York. This serial appears regularly in Artforum.

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NOTES

1. See “A Canvas of Episodes,” chapter 5 (“Recognitions”), January 1987.