|Jan/Feb 2015 Fiction|
Curious thing, the art world.
I woke beside the artist on a king-size bed with the odd sensation that I was drifting upward toward a round hole in the high ceiling, a bright blue sky beyond, a couple of fluffy white clouds. There was a balustrade around the hole and four people were leaning over it, looking down on me, smiling.
"Who the hell are they?"
"Who're who?" Felicia moaned, half asleep.
"Up there, laughing at me."
"Oh, them." Her face was buried in the pillow. "You know Mantegna?"
"Maybe." I did a quick mental flip through my art history file. "Botticelli's pal? Fourteen hundred something. Forced perspective. Trompe d'oeil." She rolled over, putting a hand on my chest and warm lips by my ear.
"That's Daddy's homage to il maestro. Illusion of depth painted on a flat surface."
"All right, but who are they?"
"Aren't they sweet?"
"I don't think they approve of me."
"Who would? Horny young guy doing deliciously illicit things to their progeny. They're my gramps." With that revelation, she pressed her incredible self against me.
"Then it's damn sure they don't approve." I lay there staring back at them as the light crept in and warmed the oculus. They were like ghosts, too young and happy to be grandparents. And looking so damn intimate. Fé knew the painting by heart and didn't even look up.
"See the one on the left with the curly hair and terrific tan? That's Jacopo. Wanted to be a sculptor but never made it past mining marble at Carrara. Helen, the one wrapped around him like a vine, was herself just a dabbler in the arts." Fé ran the sole of her foot down the inside of my leg very slowly and gently. "But she knew a true rock when she saw one, pulled him out of the quarries and set him up in her daddy's art gallery. Everyone adored Jacopo. You just knew he would take care of you."
"Your dad's side?"
"The Bonatti." She hung it out like a flag.
"Then there's this lady playing with her string of pearls, next to a guy with an ascot and a panama perched on his head?"
"Manuela y Francisco Phillips de Sandoval."
"There's a moniker."
"The pride of Santiago, Chile," she said. I studied Manuela running the pearls lightly through her fingers. Like a rosary. Or an abacus.
"I bet they brought some serious bread to the table."
"Don't knock it, Charlie. Mi Abuelo Francisco set Daddy up in importing, which helps pay for all the little things in life, like the bed you're lying on."
"Knock it? Was I knocking?"
I felt like an imposter stuck in a role beyond his talents and I was sure everyone in New York had figured it out by now. At the candle-lit restaurant, in the cab down Fifth, under the canopied entrance to her parents' building, up the elevator to their penthouse. You always know when the doorman is on to you. Even with my jeans pressed, a clean white shirt and Armani blazer, even with Fé on my arm looking like the feature in Vogue, I was obviously not in their league.
Fé's parents were off to Europe, searching out Fauves, Blue Riders and other Belle Epoch art to dress a multi-million lady's flat at Sutton Place. The lady had this long, wide corridor leading down to a spacious living room, and she wanted these particular works to prepare her guests for the crowning portrait that Fé's father, Arnaldo Bonatti, was going to paint of her—a willowy but sensual nude with flowing auburn locks emerging from a stunning golden mosaic—signed Gustav Klimt. And in her parents' long absence, Fé insisted I stay in their penthouse with her.
It was a lofty concept overlooking Central Park, with a lot of glass for the view, Persians on the floor and a spiral staircase to the roof, where you could sit in a garden under the sun or stare up at the moon with a fresh breeze blowing. But more than anything, it was the showcase for the game Fé called "Bonatti Badinage," and you couldn't turn a corner without running into an example. The artist showed he could be more than adept at a fresco by creating what you were sure was Giotto's "Kiss of Judas" on the dining-room wall, complete with every member of the toga-draped mob, wielding torches. He had aged the fresco so well, you could have sworn it was lifted right off the wall in Padua, but if you looked closer, you saw he had dropped the halos, and—what the hell—it was John Gotti kissing Paul Castellano. I just hoped for Arnaldo's sake the Dapper Don didn't get wind of it.
In the corridor on the way to one of the bedrooms, Toulouse-Lautrec's poster of Jane Avril had morphed into Annie Lennox. Over an antique Florentine tub in a bathroom, Fonteyn and Nureyev danced for Degas. And on it went, whether you wanted your seaside house and garden painted by Monet or your little girl immortalized by Renoir.
"He's just showing off for clients," Fé assured me. "The money's really in Sargents and Whistlers, portraits that speak position and power. Those are the ones everybody wants. The game's in the confusion. The anachronism. The double take. They admire the portrait, take note of the signature, then turn and look closely at their hostess. 'Did John Singer Sargent really do your grandmother, Alice?' they ask. 'My God, she looks so much like you.'"
As I considered the father's game, I thought of Fé's. And I wondered what the old man had thought of his daughter's relationship with the graffiti artist, Colón.
Her body ran like a river through silk sheets, a vision I could never get tired of. Reaching over, I ran an appreciative finger lightly down the line of her spine.
"Lovely," she sighed.
"Just what I was thinking."
"Whatever you're doing, don't stop. Don't you dare stop."
It was then I noticed the mark at the small of her back, where her trim waist swelled into an exquisite roundness. It surprised me, since I was sure I had explored every inch of her. Somehow I had missed this very discreet tattoo, what I now recognized as a Maya hieroglyph, an arch under two waves. I studied it a moment, trying to remember what it might mean.
“What's this?" I kissed the spot.
"Just above your butt?”
The pillow muffled her answer, what sounded like "boots."
"B'utz'," she sighed impatiently. I left it there. She had a right to her privacy, after all. And besides, I could make my own educated guess where it had come from and who it was for. "Didn't I tell you not to stop?" she moaned. "Never stop." She arched her back for me and I, of course, obeyed.
The daughter, like the father, was an artist on many levels.
I woke to the same dream several mornings in a row. Dark and claustrophobic. Something pressing in on me. Perhaps seeing the glyph had set it off. I was in a tunnel, edging along the tracks. It was so black I could barely make out a slight glint off the rails. I sensed the danger, but I couldn't tell if it lay in front of me or behind. There was a distant light down the tracks, so I moved toward it. When I was closer, I saw that a space opened out behind a line of concrete pillars, lit from above. I entered and looked through a grate at daylight streaming down. I wanted to be a part of the world up there, where people walked along the sidewalk across the grate, but I was trapped below. It was then I felt most vulnerable, and jerked awake, my heart racing.
By the third morning I had figured a way to manipulate the dream. After all, I told myself, I had chased along those tracks before in my imagination, following the ghost of Colón. Colón of the hieroglyphs, who had lured Fé into the netherworld of New York to leave small jewels of graffiti in unreachable places. So on the third morning, when I sensed the danger, I called out to my phantom subway guide, Donny Massa.
"Where to, Donny? I'm lost."
"I got the shot," Massa said, camera in hand, into his own thing. I don't know why, but that made me feel better. A train came rumbling through, shooting sparks off the track. "Let's run it down," he yelled. "There's a pull-over up ahead." Massa was a photographer, determined to create the definitive opus on subway graffiti, what he called "underground art." He knew all the best artists down there. And he had taken photos of some of Colón's work.
"You seen him?" I asked in my dream.
"Colón's a ghost," he whispered. "He can't hurt you."
When I woke, Fé was looking down at me, her brow wrinkled with concern. Soft green eyes, pouting mouth.
"Who's Donny?" she asked. Her bleached hair fit her head like the feathers of an exotic bird.
"You said it in your sleep. Donny. Several times."
"Some guy who's been pestering me at work."
Donny Massa was, in fact, your quintessential New Yorker out of Queens. He knew every stop on the BMT, the IND and the IRT. Knew the quickest way to get from the Bronx to Flatbush, or the Battery to Jamaica. Even knew most of the bus lines by heart. Went around in black jeans, black T-shirt, motorcycle boots, a nylon Mets jacket and a load of photographic equipment strapped to his shoulder.
He was not what you would call a great photographer, but he had found his theme and he was persistent, hard to shake off. He called me every few months, because I was in publishing. I had been out at Shea with him that spring, riding out on the Number Seven straight from work in my shirtsleeves for what turned out to be a frigid April night game. He treated me to the ticket, so I treated him to the Bud. I guess he thought of this as a perk for a potential client, but our seats were way the hell out in right field, and so high I felt like a pigeon. He watched the game through his telephoto lens, but I could barely tell who was up.
"Look, I edit mysteries," I tried to explain to him. "Paperbacks. Noir, murder. Not what you're peddling. What you've got is a coffee table book. Big spreads. I don't have any say in that. And besides, I'm not that high on the totem pole."
"Maybe you could just drop a word. Tell them Massa's got great pics, shots like nobody else. Real underground art."
"Speaking of which, you hear anything more about Colón?"
"My guys were always spooked by him, specially after they heard he was dead."
"Where'd they hear that?"
"They see the papers, you know. They read. Word got out fast. Trouble is, it's been a few years and they're still running into his stuff down there. Some even claim they seen him."
Fé's art had blossomed since her time with Colón. Using her connections, she had taken slides of her new work to a select group of New York galleries, quickly forming a tight relationship with an ambitious young dealer named Carston Brinker III. She had already taken him to her studio in Connecticut. And on their second trip to look over her paintings, she asked me along. She wanted my opinion of him, she said.
"He's got really good credentials," she told me. "Yale, RISD, London, Germany. He's young, but he's been all over. I first met him at a show in Kassel." And now, at her studio on the third floor of an abandoned factory, he was staring up at her huge dark canvasses, totally transfixed.
"My God, Felicia," he boomed into the concrete depths. "We're going to knock New York on its ass." His legs were spread like a yachtsman at the helm, taking command. "Monumental is the word. They dominate." Brink, as they called him in Soho, was a charmer, almost as tall as me, but slim and elegant in his zippered Italian sweater, trim flannel slacks and Gucci loafers. The kind of boy you might find at the New York Racquet Club, toweling off after an hour of squash. He retained that hint of prep school in his voice that set him just above the rest of us.
"OK," Fé answered, wanting to hear just how he would sell her work. She studied him, using her smart green eyes to cut through the hype. I thought about the impact her paintings had had on me when I first saw them. She called them her "moveable murals," a term she had picked up from Diego Rivera. The panels were huge, dark and stony, like the walls of a cave.
"They're powerful now, even in this light," I cut in. "But confront them at night when it's pitch in here, when each mural is lit suddenly by a hot spot." Fé squeezed my arm, her way of asking me to cool it.
"I can imagine," he said. "Just viewing the slides, I could imagine. It's like being in Lascaux with a torch, searching for the next great animal god painted by primitive man. Only here the gods are gone. All that's left is the trace of their movement across the stone." He ran his hand in an arc through the air. "Pure energy." Very smooth, I was thinking, and so well prepped.
"Brink has some interesting ideas," Fé said.
"Of course, the safe thing would have been for Felicia to sign with Leo Castelli or Mary Boone," he said, lowering his voice to a more confidential tone. I watched it play across her features. "I offer something different. The new kid in town—like Felicia. Ready to make our names." We had been by his gallery on West Broadway, just down from Castelli and Boone. Some post-modern prints, a few pop silkscreens, op etchings, a Kenny Scharf, a couple of Harings. Nice stuff, but nothing too earth-shaking or pricey. It was a gallery waiting for its first big event. "With me she won't be playing second fiddle to Jasper Johns or Julian Schnabel. She'll be the star attraction."
"Isn't your gallery a little small for these?" I asked, watching a very faint smile brighten Fé's eyes.
"That's just it, Charles," Brink said. "What is a gallery, after all? A location? A storefront? No, sir, it's the name—Castelli, Boone … Brinker. A name you can move anywhere to suit the artist and the event." His face opened up as if he was staring out into the future, and it was grand. "Man was not made to color between the lines." Such assurance, I was thinking. Was it real?
"I'm leasing the entire second floor of an old factory down on Greene. It's immense. Renting it just for this show. We'll make the place fit Felicia's powerful art. And they'll come, believe me, they'll come." He took her hand.
Fé, who was usually quiet with her emotions, was beaming like a bride at the altar. And I felt a queer rush of jealousy. She was definitely aroused by him and what he was offering.
Later, she asked me what I thought.
"He's polished all right," I answered. "Quick and slick as they come."
Why was I not surprised to receive a call at my office from Brinker the very next day? There was a conspiratorial edge to his voice, like he had a deep secret to let me in on—just me. He wanted to do lunch at Four Seasons, but I begged off, lying that I was booked solid with staff meetings. Right then, I didn't feel like owing Brink, not even for lunch.
"How about The White Horse around six?" I countered. "It's down your way."
"West Village?" He made it sound like poor man's fare.
"On Hudson. You know, where Dylan used to hang out."
"No, the pre-Bob."
By 6:30, when I met him in front of the tavern, the evening chill made sitting outside uncomfortable, and they were already stacked up three deep at the bar, so we grabbed the last booth in the back room. I nursed a pint, while he twirled the ice around in his single malt whisky. He was studying me very intently with dark, sincere eyes. I looked away, a little embarrassed, and studied my beer.
"Felicia tells me it was actually you who discovered Colón," he said straight out.
"She can't say enough about you." He was wasting no time.
"Yeah, I spotted his first graffiti at Grant's Tomb—one of the Maya glyphs –translated it for an anthropology class at Columbia. And I showed it to Fé. That's how she got started with him."
Between thoughtful sips of whisky, Brinker started laying out a plan for my consideration. He stressed the excitement Colón's work had stirred among a few prominent art critics. And he was more and more convinced Fé's association with Colón was a natural way to sell her show.
"You and I know the power of her work, but I think Colón makes for exceptional PR." I didn't say anything, waiting to see how far he wished to go with this. His eyes searched my face. "How do you think Felicia would feel about having her work shown alongside his?"
"Colón? I don't even know how much of his stuff still exists."
"There is one critic who was particularly taken with Colón. You heard of Max Stoner?"
"Stoner? I've just read some of his essays. Fancies himself today's Clement Greenberg, doesn't he? A little too authoritative for me. And sarcastic. Telling us what's the important art and what isn't. Dismissing most of today's younger artists out of hand."
"Greenberg. Exactly," pointing his finger at me. "That's damn good, you know. Very perceptive. Great if he likes you, but watch out if he doesn't. He's crippled some promising careers. Good artists who couldn't get a gallery to look at them after he gave his thumbs down."
"And you're concerned he might not like Fé?"
"I like insurance." He moistened his lips, brushed back a shock of rusty blond hair and leaned across the table. "Listen, Stoner's betting his reputation on Colón's being an exceptional combination of graffiti and conceptual art. It's damn risky for a critic to be enthusiastic about anything. He's bought all the Colón tiles he can get his hands on. Close to 20, I believe. Even ran ads searching for any that might still be out there. He's been trying to get Warhol's tile from The Factory for more than a year, but he's having trouble with Andy's estate." That brought back a wave of memories.
"We translated a lot of those tiles in my anthropology class. I still remember Warhol's glyph—sak chuwen, pure artisan." I had to laugh. "Andy thought it was a compliment."
"I think it's important to play up Felicia's connection with Colón. Particularly considering what Stoner has said about Arnaldo Bonatti."
"Her father? What's that?"
"He despises what he calls 'pimp art,' forgery for personal pomp."
"Well, Bonatti's certainly conceptual, if that's what he wants. You have to give him that. I mean, bringing Whistler and Sargent back to life. And he's damn good at it."
"You know Felicia better than anyone." He leaned a little too close. "I'd love your help on this. If you could sound her out, see how she feels about using the Colón connection."
Of course, for him it was a no-lose situation. If she went for it, he'd be a hero. If it pissed her off, I'd be the jerk. I had very carefully avoided discussing Colón with her. Then I thought, how about Colón? I wondered how he would feel about being in Fé's show? He probably wouldn't like being used any more than I did.
"We'll take it under advisement," I told Brinker. "And let you know." He looked at me like a jilted lover. I walked away feeling he wasn't quite as sure as he had let on. Suddenly he seemed more like a man looking at an approaching storm and wondering if he had enough wind and flood insurance. Or was he playing me?
Brink gave me the idea, but not the lingering sense of betrayal that came with it. I just wasn't sure exactly who I was betraying when I called Donny Massa from my office.
"You still have photos of Colón's stuff?"
"How many, you think?"
"I dunno. Why don't you come over tonight? We'll look."
I caught the IND train to Long Island City. Massa lived in the maze of housing projects called South Queensbridge. It was after dark when I got there, so I was glad he met me at the station. He lived up on the fifth floor of a building that could only be described as urban neglect. The elevator hinted at urine and only took us up to the third floor. We climbed the last two along a dim and dirty stairwell to a long hallway filled with the smear of graffiti and the beat of hip-hop. His bathroom served as his darkroom. Clotheslines full of prints cluttered the living room, cutting off any sense of space. The shades were drawn, even at night. There were no lines in the bedroom, but the walls were covered with a blaze of images by the likes of Boozer, Vandal, Stag 161, Lil Love 2 and Lady Bug. His favorites were by Dondi.
"I remember a shot you took of a mural with four giant figures from the ancient city of Seibal," I said. "You sent it to my prof at Columbia."
"Yeah, we'll look. I've got more. I know I took more. They're in those cabinets over there, or the flat files."
Over the next three hours, we ransacked the place, piling hundreds of photographs of spray-painted trains and tunnels on his couch and chairs. I was surprised to see shots of the glyphs Colón had painted at Grant's Tomb, Bloomingdale's and Astor Place. Cartouches of great lords from Palenque, Tikal and Copan. There was another photo I hadn't seen before, but it set off a memory from my anthropology class more than four years before.
"Where'd you find this one?"
"Somewhere out on the E line. Forrest Hills or Kew Gardens."
"Jesus, Donny, you're fantastic. Can you get me copies of these?" I studied the last graffiti carefully. Yes, it was a cartouche from Chich'en Itza. The class had joked about the name of the holy lord, Ich-Kan Ti Ho, In Heaven at Five. What a great name for a bar, we said.
Massa promised he'd get me copies of everything he had later that week. "I know I got more. I'll check my negatives." But he had a puzzled look on his face. "You gonna tell me what's up?"
"Right now, it's still a hunch. But I might know someone who'll get your book published. He's nuts for Colón. And maybe, with all your Steel and Tunnel Bombers, just maybe we can come up with some more of Colon's stuff." He looked as happy as a pack of dogs at feeding time.
"Fan-fucking-tastic, my man." And he gave me a big sweaty bear hug.
Spring's first really warm day was pushing everything green in Central Park and half of New York was playing hooky, faces turned to the sky.
I headed toward my flat on the Upper West Side, a terrific noir manuscript tucked under my arm. I wanted to be alone to put together my thoughts on this young author's first novel, loaded with all the dark desire of a James M. Cain and the Freudian intricacies of a Ross MacDonald. My heart pounded with every editor's desire for the big discovery, hellbent to grab the book fast and sell it through to bestseller. Raunchy sex and murder, you can't beat it.
I was cutting through the crowds along the mall and down the steps toward the terrace and the lake, when I spotted her blonde head shining in the sun. She was with a man and they were walking close together, talking excitedly. Their backs were to me, but right away I knew it was Brinker and she hung on his arm like he was a whole lot more than her art dealer. I didn't have to be an expert on body language to come up with a translation. It froze me and I stood watching them until they walked up the path and out of sight behind the trees. So there it was, in case I needed to be reminded just how tenuous my relationship with Fé was.
I told myself, fine, what the hell, but when I got to my walkup and tried to think about the manuscript, the only scene that kept coming to mind was when the protagonist pumps four .38 slugs into his lover. I lay on the bed, watching the light pass from the street through my louvered shutters and crawl across my ceiling toward dusk, listening to Lady Day and Old Blue Eyes on my stereo, moaning to me about crying a river and the one that got away.
The shadows were just starting to congeal around me when she swept through my door in a light cotton dress that caressed her body like a soft breeze, immediately taking ownership of every corner of my dim little flat—the tall shuttered windows, the worn parquet floor, the dark kitchenette and the intimacy of my unmade bed.
"This is so cozy," was her opening line.
"How'd you know I was here?"
"Where else would my workaholic be, with the whole world outside catching rays?" She slipped off her pumps and dropped beside me on the bed, bringing the scent of summer with her.
"Not much work, just idle thoughts." We lay listening to the clip clop of a group of horses in the street below.
"Sounds like country here," she said.
"Riders from the stable on their way to the park. Last ride before dark."
"I love this place." The hoof beats passed up the street until they were gone and the city traffic took over again.
"I want to ask you something pretty personal," I said.
"I want to ask you about Colón."
"Yes. That's pretty personal," she said. "Funny thing, Brink was just talking about him." There was nothing guarded in how she said it, so I went on.
"I want to know what he means to you."
"You mean, meant to me." That got me angry and I heard it in my voice.
"Don't treat me like a fool. Maybe I'm the only one to see you with that young Indian, but I knew from the accounts in the paper the body they found on the tracks couldn't have been Colón." She looked confused at first. Her eyes caught mine, then looked away.
"OK, so I lied. But look, we were just finishing this really terrific mural down there and already the others were moving in to scrawl their graffiti all over it. That was it for me. I had to get out of there, but I couldn't persuade him how futile it was. Then we came on this body. Some homeless guy hit by a train. My telling them it was Colón wasn't so horrible. A lie, sure, but I had to give that boy back his anonymity."
"Tell me," I said. While I waited, she lay thinking. And when she spoke, it was like a dam had burst.
"I suppose you only get to meet someone like that once, if you're lucky. Lucky, both ways. I doubt I could survive another. Such obsession. He's what they used to call an idiot savant. Someone who knows something so extraordinary and detailed but has big problems passing it on to the world. Maybe genius is the right word. Someone who can hold the whole Maya myth in his head, who seems to have memorized every temple, every stele, every lost city, who knows the ancient language, how to write it, how to speak it. And yet shies away from people."
"Why did he let you in?"
"I reached out, I guess—spoke to him, took his hand, got him food, bought him clothes and supplies, worked with him, slept beside him. I befriended him."
"Like a lover?"
"More like a dog. I just don't know who was the master."
I thought about the glyph on the small of her back. "I worried about you down there," I said. "A lot."
"I was scared stiff myself sometimes. There are some very weird people in the subway. Mole people, living underground."
"Why does he stay down there?"
"I think it's a Maya thing. I actually thought I could bring him out. Get him some recognition. That's what the tiles were about. We did them together. I wanted to confront New York with the glyphs. And it was fun, sneaking tiles into places where they'd cause a stir. He was like a shadow, could slip in anywhere. And I just knew you and your anthropology class would tell everybody what they meant."
"It was fun, like a game. Solving puzzles. My favorite was that tile that showed up at Shea. Pitzah. Play ball. That was beautiful." She laughed and moved against me. "But what exactly is he trying to do?" I asked.
"It's art, right? And artists are pretty crazy."
"OK, I think maybe he's trying to take ownership. In some weird way, he wants to breathe the Maya into the foundation of the most powerful place in the world. Sure, it's pretty nuts, except maybe to the Maya, or maybe just to him. He's like a shaman from another time."
"It's a concept, that's for sure," I said.
I had been reticent to speak of Colón with her, and now she had opened up to me so quickly and completely. I opened a bottle of wine and we drank and talked late into the night, never even thinking about food. She told me about murals they had painted, scenes from the Popul Vuh and glyphs off ancient stele painted in dark places under the streets from The Bronx to Brooklyn. I got out a subway map and she marked an X on any place she remembered them working. The sound of the traffic built and then faded away and we made love and slept. When we woke, it was still dark and I was still full of questions.
"What did Brinker say about Colón?" I asked.
"He told me about this critic, Stoner, collecting our tiles."
"He tell you anything about Stoner?"
"He didn't have to. I know him. He hates my father's stuff."
And then when we were in the shower, I asked, "You have the hots for Brinker?" And she laughed so hard she almost choked on the shower water.
"Jesus, Charlie, that's rich. You've got a better shot than I do. Brink's gay."
Massa gave me three envelopes, one with eighteen 16x20 prints, two with Xeroxes he copied at Kinko. I kept the originals and weeded the copies down to six each, giving one set to Brinker and asking him for an introduction to Stoner.
The critic had one of those rent-controlled apartments on the Upper East Side, a handsome five-story gray stone building with large bay windows and a sweeping stairway up to the entry, priced for paupers and occupied by people who could afford to buy the whole building. A man with a voice fighting through morning phlegm answered over the intercom and rang me up. He was not at all what I had imagined. From his hard muscular essays, I had pictured someone lean and snarling. But standing in the doorway was a short, dumpy guy in his fifties, losing his hair and still dressed in a bathrobe and slippers at one in the afternoon.
"Well, young man," he announced. "You come with references." The place had a slight acrid tinge to it—the latent mix of incense and cologne. African fetishes dressed one wall. Eight of the glyph tiles were grouped on another. But a single oil dominated the living room—one of Lucian Freud's nude studies of the obese drag queen, Leigh Bowery.
"I was told you had an interest in Colón."
"The tiles," he answered. "The rest is mostly rumor."
"I have some of what's been rumored."
He snatched the envelope from my hand before I offered it. And given the agitated way he pulled out the contents, I was glad I hadn't sealed it. I watched his face slowly light up with pleasure.
"But how do we know these are Colón's?"
"Three are above-ground graffiti you probably know, glyphs we discovered when I was studying anthropology at Columbia. They all appeared before the tiles but used the same trompe d'oeil technique. We were convinced they were from the same artist."
"Yes, I recall those translations coming from Columbia University."
"The other three are hidden away in the subway system—a Tikal stele, the portrait of a captured slave—probably from Uxmal—and a scene from the Popul Vuh."
"Where exactly are they?"
"I'm afraid I don't know. That's part of the mystery."
"Who took these photos?"
"A photographer who is very interested in doing a book on underground art."
"Perhaps a book on Colón?" I noticed the proprietary interest.
Fé had been getting a tan in the garden above the penthouse, and I was at the back, searching surreptitiously through Arnaldo Bonatti's explorations into art history, when I heard the scream.
His studio had samples by artists from van Eyck to Matisse, but the canvas that dominated at the moment was a primitive attributed to Henri Rousseau—a jungle scene filled with bright flowers, exotic birds and oversized tropical growth. A solitary figure, attired in a dark three-piece suit and bowler, stood bravely in this savage environment, surrounded by leering bears and supercilious bulls. Wall Street's answer to Dr. Livingston, I presumed.
The scream, at first one of shock, had turned quickly guttural and was speeding toward me, hurling insults with my name attached. I made out, "How could you?" and "Slime!" and "Sneaky sonofabitch!" But just as I was beginning to grasp the rapid-fire accusations, the fusillade turned Spanish, and I was having a tough time with translation. "¡Cobarde!" and "¡Cochino!" were mixed with "¡Pendejo!" and "¡Maricón!" I was told to "¡Chingate!" and "¡Pela las nalgas!"
The manila envelope was thrown in front of me, scattering Massa's prints across the floor. Fé was dancing before the Rousseau jungle, bare-assed except for the briefest bikini bottom, red-faced, green eyes flashing, spitting every invective in her repertoire. I had never seen her mad, never even close to mad, and it just didn't seem real. It was like she was declaiming with a really nice tan. The exotic backdrop, the high voice, the exaggerated gestures, all made me think of operetta and I started to laugh.
She had just shouted "¡Chi-chi cabrón!" and I held my hand up and said, "Wait a minute, that's not fair, chi-chi cabrón is fucking East LA." She stopped dead in her tracks, cocked her head like she had just recognized me and broke into a curious smile.
"You are such a devious asshole," she said softly. "Why are you doing this to me?" I picked up a photo from the floor.
"Remember this? Grant's Tomb. I was the one who showed you this glyph. Hanab-Pakal K'ul Bak Ahaw, Holy Lord of Palenque. Remember? This, my dear, is just a copy of that copy."
"Leave Colón alone."
"I'm not hurting Colón. He's dead, remember. You killed him."
"I gave him back his anonymity."
"Let's cut the sentimental crap, babe, and look at this straight." I paused a moment, realizing I suddenly sounded like a noir novel. "Colón, your invention, caused a stir a few years back. Colón, your associate, never existed. Therefore, you are now free to use the name, Colón, as much as you want to rekindle that stir. And Colón won't give a damn."
"What are you saying?"
"What got the critics fired up? You know it was really the tiles. And that game was your concept, so you are at least half the artist they think of as Colón."
"But I've moved on."
"And what you're doing now is terrific. You just need to get the people in the door to see it. Brinker makes the case that Colón is perfect PR."
"Brink? That's where this comes from?"
"I'm not Brinker's man. I'm your man. And you're damn good, even when you're mad. But next time you throw a fit, just remember it'll play better if your hair is still long and dark and flying around. Short and blonde is way too cool."
By that fall I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had a few minor paperbacks in the production hopper and the noir I was pinning my hopes on had gotten full backing from my senior editor. Fé had resisted putting any of Colón's work in the exhibit, but finally agreed to a few tiles and some photos of the street-level cartouches. Max Stoner loved the chance to show off his tiles and thought of the show as more Colón's than Fé's. I continued to feed him a few Xeroxes of Massa's photos—just enough to keep his imagination cooking. But I held off introducing Donny to him and I could tell they were both getting antsy.
One cold, windy autumn night Massa called, very excited, and told me to meet him on the southeast corner of 94th and Broadway at 11:30 sharp, "Old clothes and a flashlight," was all he said. Just as I was arriving, he popped out of an apartment doorway, loaded with cameras, a battery-powered strobe and fill light.
"Take the lights and follow me," he ordered. I couldn't tell if he was angry or in a rush, hustling me down the subway stairs, through the turnstile and onto the platform for the downtown local. At the south end of the platform, there was a red metal sign that read, "Do not enter or cross tracks." He pushed the sign back, skipped down a metal ladder to the tracks and waved me to follow. "Watch the third rail, pal, and try not to get your foot stuck. We've all seen that movie."
"Where we going, Donny?"
"91st Street Station."
"There is no 91st Street Station."
"That's right, but there was."
Away from the platform it turned dark as my dream, and I had the same creepy feeling that someone out there was watching me. Even with the flashlight on the tracks I stumbled a couple of times. After about a hundred yards, I heard a train coming fast from the south and pressed myself against the tunnel wall in a panic, but Donny kept walking right down the center of the track. It was only when the train slowed for the 96th Street Station that I realized it was an express on a different track.
It was so black I might have walked right past the station if Massa hadn't stopped me and shined his light on the wall. The place was a Tunnel Bomber's paradise, so covered with spray paint it was hard to tell where one multi-colored design ended and the next began. Someone had inked his motto in the wild swirl of paint, "I love tunnels!"
We climbed onto the platform and, kicking spray cans aside, approached a metal gate. To the left, a stairway that once led to the street ended at a sealed concrete ceiling. A grate let in a faint glimmer from the street. The lock on the metal gate had been broken and behind that gate we found what we had come for. Donny ran his flashlight along a wall of brilliant blues, greens, yellows and sepias. I stepped back to take in the whole. The fresco showed a powerful Maya dressed in spotted ocelot hide and a headdress of green and yellow plumes, holding his staff of high office and arrogantly confronting a line of what appeared to be lesser chieftains or ministers. Arrayed at his feet and all along the lower foreground of the mural, naked slaves writhed in agony, blood dripping from their fingers. One slave, kneeling before him, raised his bleeding hands and cried out his pain and fear—a timeless image of war as powerful as Picasso's Guernica.
"Bonampak," I whispered. And as I held the lights, Massa worked along the wall, filling his film with wide shots and close-ups. The difference between this rendition and all the photos I had seen from the Maya site, going back to the discovery of the painted walls in 1946, was that this showed none of the deterioration from centuries of neglect. Every minister, every slave was complete and exquisitely rendered. It was awesome, like being the first to break into an ancient tomb.
"This is fresh," Donny said.
"And unfinished. There are no glyphs." But as I studied the fresco, my first excitement began to fade. I had seen this image so many times. This scene was almost as well known in anthropology as the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacán. How was this art different from the work of Fé's father? Both showed the skilled hand and the vast knowledge of predecessors. But Arnaldo Bonatti's work added the irony of our time viewed from the past. Colón's work was deadly serious, a peculiar passing on of an iconography from one time and place to another. It took Fé's humor to lift Colón into the present. "Promise me something, Donny," I said. "Don't tell anybody where you found this or when you took these shots."
"Don't worry," he said. "In no time this'll be covered with someone else's graffiti."
Brinker was pouring large amounts of his own money into the show. Not only did he take out the long-term rental on the second floor of the Greene Street factory, he lavished an impressive sum on reconstructing the space to accommodate Fé's panels. Handbills appeared on fences and walls throughout the city; bold ads ran in key art magazines, the New York Times and the Village Voice—all announcing the show's opening just before Thanksgiving. He even took our advice and changed his gallery's name, so the headlines read, "Fé & Colón at Brink's," giving an edgy nuance to the show.
The only fly in the ointment turned out to be Max Stoner, who still threatened to highlight Colón and downplay Fé in his important pre-show critique. Fé refused to kowtow to him, so Brinker offered a little insight. When he had first met Stoner, the critic had the reputation among the bathhouse crowd as being something of a sexual bully.
"I can't tell you whether he's really serious about this threat or just trying for leverage," he said. "But I think we need to be careful with him."
So when Brink gave his special dinner at an intimate Tribeca restaurant for key members of the art world—critics, museum directors and gallery owners—he very conspicuously sat Stoner at the center table with Fé, himself and me. To my surprise, a couple of gossip columnists from the Post and the News were also there. And Donny Massa, who I had finally introduced to Stoner and who was now accumulating more photos for "the book," was dressed up in a smart new suit and tie, ready to take publicity shots. It was a warm, cozy place on a frigid night. Heavy drapes at the windows kept out the biting wind blowing off the Hudson River. Candles flickered above white tablecloths in the close and softly lighted space.
During cocktails, we had all milled about chatting about the usual artists, money and politics. I watched Max Stoner toss down a few quick whiskies and thought, there's a small man with a big thirst. He kept bringing the conversation around to his favorite subject, graffiti as a mirror of our multi-dimensional urban society. Each drink brought Colón's name more and more into his conversation. Fé and I, sharing a very fine bottle of Bordeaux, started clinking glasses every time we heard the name. Massa snapped a shot of us in the act.
The restaurant featured a chef who had gained a reputation for bucking the trend toward nouvelle cuisine with a uniquely adapted Ten Boy Rijsttafel. His imaginative approach was lauded with hyperbole on the rice paper menu. The Semur Banka featured a delicate soy sauce that hinted of lime and Madeira. The Chicken Sate substituted the usual peanut sauce with a spicy macadamia. A slightly tart banana was imported specially from Guyana to add a piquant twist to the popular roasted side dish. Pancit was dressed with sumptuous Tiger Prawns from Thailand. Ikan Goreng, Chili Crab and Potato Sambal vied with a fruit and pork salad called Yahm Chompu. Ten lovely Oriental girls in white Nehru Jackets served the guests with quiet grace and a French sommelier raised in Vietnam offered the choice of an icy dry Sancerre or a slightly fruity Chablis. The final touch was a deeply rich espresso from Ethiopia sweetened with Jaggery. I only wish I could have tasted some of it.
As soon as we were seated and Massa was taking pictures of guests at their tables, Brinker began praising Max Stoner's foresight in collecting the Colón tiles, especially now that more of his art was being discovered in the subway. The praise seemed rehearsed and overly effusive, and when I saw everyone around us listening, it made me slightly ill. I mean, being careful with Stoner was one thing, being a toady was something else.
"And I imagine with these being the only tiles now in existence, their value must surely rise," Brink added. Stoner, slightly flushed, leaned back in his chair, aware that he was now playing to an attentive audience.
"Yes," he said with a sardonic smile. "Don't you just love it when they die." There was a palpable pause, a stillness. Across the table from him, Fé rose, white faced, her green eyes riveting the critic.
"You stupid mercenary twit! You arrogant little pedant! You don't know the first thing about Colón. He was never about money. His art was free." With that, she raised her glass to the room and toasted, "To the true artist, Colón." And, with the studied grace of an actress, she tossed the last of her Bordeaux into Stoner's stunned face, turned on her heel and strode out of the restaurant.
I was almost as surprised as Stoner and for a long moment I just sat there with my mouth open, watching the wine drip down onto his shirt and tie. He was struggling out of the first shock and trying to gain some composure, using his napkin to wipe his face and hide his expression until he could emerge with a wry smile.
"Well," he said, his voice still unsteady. "Artists do like to express themselves."
When I finally got my legs under me and reached the street, she was already a block away and running. At the end of the next block, she stopped, raised her arms over her head and danced around in a circle.
"Man oh man, that felt good," she yelled into the night. "That felt so damn good. Papa would have been proud." She was smiling so wide and shaking so hard, I thought she had lost it.
"Easy, Fé, easy."
"Wasn't that wonderful."
"You don't know how I've been dying to do that."
"Well, you did it."
"Did he get the shot?"
"Massa. Did he take it?"
"I think. How should I know?"
"I hope to hell he got the shot."
"OK, babe, OK."
"Hug me, Charlie," she said, reaching out. "I'm cold as dead chicken." I suddenly realized we were both out there without coats, being whipped by the wind.
"C'mon, we'll catch a cab and get you home."
And yes, Donny got the shot: got Fé, got Stoner, got the exact instant when the wine reached the face. The shot ran in the News under the headline, "Art Critic Left Red-Faced," and in the Post, under "Artist Tells Critic He's All Wet." Those two papers probably did more for the show than Stoner's review in the Times or his subsequent critique in ARTnews. And it came to be Felicia Bonatti's indelible image. If van Gogh was forever etched in our minds as the artist who cut off his ear and Pollock was always remembered for pissing in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace, Fé would be linked eternally with that glass of Bordeaux.
Probably everyone but Fé and Brinker was caught off-guard by the rave review Stoner gave her work. It appeared under the title, "Art as Concept," echoing Max's main thesis, "The real question is whether art wishes to be merely a decorative wall piece or a true window into our minds." He wrote about size and impact, about the caves of Lascaux, primitive man's search for gods and modern man's loss of faith. And he marveled at the artist's growth from her early partnership with Colón to her new independent stature. No one could have asked for more.
The two had gambled big time and won. Brinker said they had based it on some inside information. "Stoner's greatest fear is that his underground reputation might get out. And that's quite heavy. Rumor is he's not just a sexual bully, but into some pretty kinky sadomasochism."
"That's a hell of risk you took. Based on that quack theory, getting wine thrown in his face gave him an erection."
"No, Charles, that's just background," Brink explained. "The real question for him would have been, how could a renowned critic, surrounded by his peers and caught making such a crass statement about dead artists, then come back and pillory the heroine who took him to task."
"But how did you know what he was going to say?"
"He says it so often it's practically litany."
It was bitter cold, but she decided to leave her coat in the car down the cobbled street. She wore the strapless black item, more second skin than dress, and glided in her simple black pumps toward the cast-iron building, under the gallery banner and up the worn factory stairs to the second floor, where I met her in my rented tux. Her green eyes glistened in the sudden glow of lights, glancing momentarily at the names etched into the plate glass panel at the entry. The preview crowd was already there in their evening finery, champagne flutes in hand. Ten lovely Oriental girls in Nehru jackets passed among them, offering exotic canapés.
The walls of the gallery were painted black, like a night without stars. The first space extolled the mystery of Colón and his use of ancient iconography to cast a unique reflection on our modern society. The left wall was devoted to the glyphs that had been hunted down and translated by our anthropology class at Columbia, giving special credit to professor Samuel Aguilar. Two maps, one of ancient Maya capitals, the other of New York City, showed how the graffiti artist had created a metaphoric fusion of the two civilizations by painting cartouches of ruling Maya lords at key symbolic locations in Manhattan and Queens. Massa's photographs of the glyphs appeared alongside the names of Maya holy lords of Palenque, Tikal, Copan, Uxmal and Chich'en Itza, with English translations and the dates of their reigns.
On the opposite wall hung the tiles, bearing the Colón signature. Under each was the story of where it had appeared and what the glyph said. Along with those from the Guggenheim, Henri Bendel, le Côte Basque, Elaine's, Warhol's Factory and Shea Stadium, there was the tile found beside the Polar Bear pool at Central Park Zoo and its exact duplicate picked up on Rikers Island—chu-ka-ja, captured. There was the glyph of a snake rising from a crevice among rocks on a tile that had appeared at the Gay Pride Parade—lok'yi, came out. Next to an oversized diamond ring glistening in Cartier's window, a glyph announced lakam tun, great stone. And then there was that curious tile that showed up on Christmas at the altar of Saint Patrick's Cathedral—Eb', the sign for the twelfth day of the Maya Tzolk'in calendar. Fé was given full credit in the accompanying brochure as Colón's close associate.
From there she passed into what Brinker called "The Hall of Caves," where each of her huge panels was suspended from the high ceiling, anchored to the floor and lit with its own dramatic spot. The angled lighting emphasized the rough, stony surface and the positioning of each panel isolated the viewer with that particular painting. The first panel seemed to reveal a small ghostlike hand, a very slight impression on the lower right side of the great, dark wall, what the critic Stoner had described as the eternal symbol of human isolation. She paused a moment to have her photograph taken with Max, smiling brightly for the camera. I noted a faint blush of pride rising along her cheekbones as she thanked the guests for coming.
The next six panels were hung in pairs, each a slight variation of elusive movement over cracked, burnt and eroded surfaces, fleeting shadows across rough plains of stone, emitting energy without showing form. None was signed. What was their power? Size. Space. Line. Density. Mystery. As she passed through the gallery to the final panel, I heard a chorus of sotto voce comments and wondered if even they knew whether they were praising the art or the artist? She seemed to float in the attention, the color suffusing her face and neck.
The last panel was her favorite. Caught in the bright spot, it looked like an arc of pure energy across the dark, dry rock. She stepped back to study it, to take in its rare simplicity. Then, all at once I noticed a change. She stiffened slightly, her color paled. She was staring down at the lower right corner of the panel, where the artist might have placed her signature. Instead, a Maya glyph had been painted there, the same glyph I had found at the small of her back.
"That wasn't there before, was it?" I asked. "Did you put it there?"
"What's it about?"
"Smoke. It means smoke. He always told me he was k'ak', the fire. And I was just b'utz', the smoke."