Episode 3: Pre-Sherbet

I literally bumped into Billy Keening on my way back from Starbucks the next morning.

“Scuse me, scuse me,” he said, recovering from the accident.

Billy held a crumpled paper bag his hand exactly like the kind The General left on my desk the day before. Only Billy’s bag had Harry’s written on the side in jet black elephant font, the word a set of tragic wrinkles around those stubby fingers.

His sack looked more empty than full. Then his face lit up.

“You gotta watch where you’ve been to,” he said.

We made small talk. How was my gallery? How was his painting? About fifty, Billy had a shock of sharp white hair shooting out above his forehead.

He was that Norwegian Nordic blonde, a waning toe head, his command of the language inspired by the movies and TV shows on air when he stowed away on a cruise liner bound for America way back when.

“Could be better,” we both agreed about our individual work. Except I’m pretty sure Billy said “Could be bester.”

Billy was best friends with this Russian guy, Adolphe Gurkus, who I already mentioned bought two meals the night I became his fairy godmother. Gurkus, everyone knew, could paint anything he wanted to.

He had riffs and copies of everything from Degas to Cézanne; Picasso to O’Keefe in his studio in SoHo.

The problem was, when Gurkus had the chance, all he did was knock-off watery imitations of Matisse.

“Gurkus beated me again,” Billy said. He held up his pitifully empty paper bag. “You know Harry’s paint shop? The dynamite?”

I nodded. Billy shook the empty bag with each pattern from his own brand of word-music.

“I go in and Harry has the sale. Everything on clearing out. I say to him ‘wait,’ and go gotten my stashes in the studio. Oh the brushes, the brushes!”

Billy scanned off to a purple pigeon perched up on a windowsill, smiled. “This creamy white oil, like thinking of a cable cooking show,” he said.

“The more better, the more the butter. Everything delicious.”

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Lunch hour and the street was awash with clumps of people.

They pushed to and fro over the black painted canvas that was Manhattan. Impressionist blobs of red scarves and fleshy blurred faces took their cues from the Walk and Don’t Walk signs and swirled around Billy and me.

“I bump into Gurkus, like this,” he said and motioned as if they had also literally bumped into one another. This picture in my mind was like seeing a yin and yang symbol come to life—Gurkus with his black hair and mustache, his six and a half foot stature wrapped around Bill’s sea of white.

The image brought me back to Jade the night before and the money, the bills sticking to her curvy back, a yin and yang tattoo in circles at the base of her spine, the sheets half-covering her liquid skin.

“After I return to Harry’s?” he said. “Nothing left. Not a gosh-darned thing. I got the three brushes Adolphe left me out of pity.” Billy pulled them from the bag.

Any disgust or disappointment vanished as he ran his fingers up and down the long stem of the largest brush of the three, admiring the product.

“Beautiful, beautiful brushes,” he said.

More than anything I think I took his empty paper bag as a sign, Billy holding three brushes in his hand on the crowded street was a white-haired Statue of Liberty with paintbrushes instead of a torch, his eyes on fire.

If I could claim any genius in my selection of Billy Keening, it was in my wondering—given the chance, could he do the same to color as he had to the English language?
I said, “Can you keep a secret Billy?”

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I remember walking with Billy under my arm.

We passed a wino on 74th, a guy with an empty bottle in a paper bag. Maybe part of it was the idea that with his wacky accent and immigrant vocabulary The General would flip at Billy Keening’s un-Americaness in whatever special operation I’d been signed up for without my permission.

I had under my shoulder a cultural nuclear armament whose only mistake was in telling his buddy of an art sale and getting beat to the punch. Gurkus was always an asshole.

But Billy, Billy was a painter. He stared at the brushes he did have, happy to imagine the world in streams of paint.

Later in the decade, after Billy Keening was a multi-millionaire, he said he switched his paint palette to thirty-one flavors like Baskin-Robins. His canvases became sherbet dreams.

I stuffed a dollar in the homeless guy’s empty sack as we walked. While my upcoming Gurkus show would prove less than successful commercially, New York was about to go crazy for the pre-sherbet dreams of Billy Keening.

Between Gurkus and the ultimate feast, and Bill Keening, me, and the homeless guy on 74th, I feel some sense of forgiveness now for the fiasco I brought to American art. When I look back, I realize all of us were starving.

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Meanwhile, all of us were well fed in Facility D.

The top secret wing of America’s most notorious prison had lots of food. Maybe the Patriot Act had some provision for nutrition.

We got everything from sloppy joes and chicken tenders to tacos and American chop suey. On Wednesday nights I couldn’t help but think of James Rosenquist’s 86-foot-long masterpiece, F-111 from 1965.

The combination of canned pasta against a backdrop of military might was a perfect representation of the ambiance found at Spaghetti Night at Guantanamo Bay. While the food wasn’t very good, there certainly was a lot of it.

My jailhouse confidant and sponsor Rusty Pete went wild for the macaroni and cheese. He couldn’t make it through a meal without leaving a big glob of orange-yellow in his beard. One of these gelatinous sculptures jiggled as he spoke to me across the table.

He couldn’t make it through a meal without leaving a big glob of orange-yellow in his beard. One of these gelatinous sculptures jiggled as he spoke to me across the table.

“Everybody’s a Monday Morning Quarterback here,” he said. “What does this guy Billy Keening have to do with your so-called perfect defense plea?”

I motioned to the side of my mouth, not wanting to offend my only friend in jail. He didn’t get the hint.

“You say you were some sort of artistic mastermind in a plot to save the U.S.A. I say you’re crazy as a shithouse rat, no offense,” he said.“None

“None taken,” I said.

“I mean, Arthur. You say you got money from some guy and then gave it to someone else? That isn’t a defense argument against terrorism—that’s capitalism, brother.”

Rusty Pete laughed so hard at this statement the goo fell from his beard. Watching him put away two plates of the stuff, I understood why he needed the Overeaters Anonymous meetings on Tuesdays.

He pressed a finger into the remnant that had hit the table and placed the last morsel in his mouth.

I said “It wasn’t just Billy Keening, Gurkus, or Fletcher Flynn. There were things like Eva Keening and her legs.”

At least Rusty Pete pretended to listen between his chews. He was right, everyone was a Monday morning quarterback here and a Monday Night Macaroni addict. We ate dinner every night in a cafeteria filled with regret.

The other day at the 2pm AA discussion meeting Rusty Pete summed up my state of being. His 350 pounds were impossible for the chairperson to ignore for long when he shot his hand up.

Most of the tattoos that swarmed his arms—the spider and the web, the fire, a set of praying hands—were done right there in jail by his cellmate Jose with ink from black Bic pens.

Little Jose turned each of Rusty’s arms into an undulating Thomas Hart Benton in stark black against skin tones with his lines. I stared at one of these mini-masterpieces on Rusty’s flesh as he waited for the chairperson to call on him.

I don’t even remember what the topic was. I was just happy to be out of my cell.
Rusty Pete said, “I know so very little, about so very much.” I nodded my head in silent recognition. That was me.

I nodded my head in silent recognition. That was me.

Episode 2: I Am The Dream

Fletcher Flynn had his first exhibition at Foundations Gallery on 8th Street in 2002.

A painting named Silver Eagle provided the centerpiece for the affair. This super-flat representation of an American Bald Eagle looked like the ones found on the back of any quarter.

Except Fletcher Flynn’s Silver Eagle depicted the engraving on an American 25-cent piece with an acrylic painting eight feet tall by six feet wide. When asked whatever moved him to paint this iconic American image while art existed in a mad jumble of collage and photography, Fletcher Flynn replied:

I had a dream one night I drew the back of a quarter, a silver bald eagle.
The next day I went to the store, bought the materials, and started to paint.
           from Fletcher Flynn: Icons, by Sal Pasqual. Foundations Gallery Press, 2002

His first show sold out. Artwork flew off the walls like the paintings were eagles themselves.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought an unprecedented three pieces at the premiere one-man show for an unknown artist. No one could find any evidence of Fletcher Flynn’s work beforehand.

Believe me, the collectors tried. A scrap of paper from an early art journal would have brought a mint.

He claimed to have destroyed everything from his early career without a trace. The young man went from complete obscurity to art world super stardom.

At least with John Baldessari’s Cremation Project there were ashes left over. There were cookies baked with the remains to peer at through glass containers later.

And is there anything as cruel as delicious cookies that are so close you can almost just barely reach out to touch and taste them? You strain and salivate but just can’t get there.

It’s the story of my life in inedible baked goods.

David Hockney may have painted a stunning portrait of Baldessari. But John Baldessari painted my picture in cookie dough.

And with Fletcher Flynn his cloak of early invisibility only added to the mystery.

Fletcher Flynn just appeared out of nowhere.

New York Art Loft

When I first met Fletcher Flynn…

…he lived in a dingy commercial space and cooked dinner on a hotplate. For money he designed department store window displays with his upstairs neighbor, Doctor Marvell.

According to legend, the famed gallery owner and super-aggressive art dealer Salvatore Pasqual discovered Fletcher on a visit to Doc M’s abode. Sal allegedly asked “Who else do you know who has it in this space?”

A few months later Fletcher Flynn had a pocketful of money and the Met owned three new paintings by the hottest young artist in the world.

Fletcher Flynn’s career is one of my first and most important masterpieces. True, one of the reasons I selected Flynn and encouraged him to dispose of every shred of art he ever made was because he was engaged in an obvious and powerful sexual relationship with Doc M.

But without my guidance I hardly think the hundreds of prints and variations on Bald Eagle 1, and the rest of Fletcher’s oeuvre, would ever have seen the inside of a museum.

My boss at the time, The General, was completely unruffled when he discovered Fletcher Flynn was gay, to my complete chagrin.

He said to me the day after Fletcher’s sell-out opening, “That boy may have painted the back of a nickel, but he’s as queer as a three-dollar bill.”

How can I take credit for Fletcher Flynn, arguably one of America’s finest treasures?

One of our most celebrated artists? The man I have heard more than once referred to as the Da Vinci of our time?

Simple.

I’m the one who found Fletcher Flynn.

Forget everything you’ve heard about Sal Pasqual, Foundations Gallery, and Doc M.

Forget the art world legends of fame and fortune in a single night at the hands of smiling fate. I walked into Fletcher Flynn’s studio loft in 2002 and explained that if he wanted to be a rich and famous artist he had to do two things.

The first was to destroy every single piece of art he’d ever made. The second was to listen to me, very carefully.

It didn’t hurt any when I peeled a stack of forty one-hundred dollar bills off a roll and told him to buy some new supplies. “You’re gonna need them.”

By then most of my transactions were loose imitations of my own discussions with The General.

“And one more thing,” I said. Fletcher raised his large twenty-seven year old eyes to me and listened. God that kid could listen.

“Your first painting is this,” I said, and handed him a quarter, tails-up.

“A quarter?” he said.

“A silver bald eagle, just like this,” I said. I really had trouble keeping a straight face.

I can see him now as a painting, his expression as portrait, hanging among the colorful landscapes scattered across the walls of that makeshift studio.

Fletcher, aghast, held his face in a contemporary version of Edvard Munch’s Scream. The room, a curator’s nightmare, was covered with dozens of awful Impressionist rip-offs.

“Make it huge,” I said.

This is why I take credit for Fletcher Flynn and his explosive career. I was the one who told him to paint a huge, flat, silver bald eagle with acrylic paint on canvas.

I’m the tragically unknown taste-maker of post-911 American art, Arthur Oswald Fischel, the artist who created other artists out of thin air.

New York Art America

I am the dream.

In all the crazy that entered my life after I opened that first bag, perhaps the silliest permutations were the calculations I did while counting the money. I looked for sequential serial numbers; I held hundreds up to the light and felt at the paper to test its consistency.

I tried to smudge the ink.

I even bit down on a bill the way prospectors did in old movies with lumps of rock to discern whether they had glittering wealth or fool’s gold. The insanity in all this, besides the obvious biting incident, was I knew nothing about counterfeiting, or even why the bad guys in movies asked for non-sequential bills.

But every artist I handed a wad of money to over the next eight years did nearly the same thing.

Rumor has it that after Adolphe Gurkus watched me leave his studio he went out with a girl and ate two separate dinners, one after the other. He had to test the validity of his brick of cash at a checker-table-clothed Italian joint in SoHo.

Gurkus wanted to know if his stack of bills could actually be exchanged for sustenance.

“Another? What is that, a scotch sir?” the waiter said.

“No,” Gurkus said. “I want you to start over. All over. Bring the menus.” He may have snapped at the guy.

Rumor has it that before I found Gurkus and gave him the money he was starving. Literally.

An oniony smell in the air reminded me how The General hadn’t said anything about amounts or directions. He just set a sack of dead presidents on my desk and walked out.

Pardon me: A sack of dead almost-presidents. There were 260 slips of black and green stained paper with the face of non-President Benjamin Franklin smiling back from them.

I counted them again. Then I counted them again.

Like Gurkus, I was starving. My gallery was a flop. After the dust soared down the streets of New York and those two huge statues to hope smelt their way into ground no one was buying anything, especially art.

Artists were on hunger strikes. Corliss Bergman chained herself to the front door of the Pelham Museum before its opening of an International Quilts retrospective four days after September 11th, and no one noticed.

No crowd collected outside. No one believed in anything anymore, forget art.

I reviewed the regrets Jade must have had as I counted through the money:

1, 2, 3) Her decision to become my gallery assistant.

4,5,6,7) Her decision to become my student in a course in Impressionism at the CUNY Upper East Side Campus.

8, 9, 10, 11) Her decision to meet me for a drink after her mid-term.

12, 13, 14, 15) Her decision to give me a blowjob in my office, the two of us filled with Southern Comfort garnished with ice and lime.

16, 17, 18, 19) Her decision to follow me out to my Volvo afterward, angled in the faculty parking lot.

20, 21, 22, 23) The one to be my girlfriend, my live-in girlfriend, and then my gallery assistant.

There were 260 bills in the bag. There was $26,000 in the bag.

But I kept losing count of Jade and her regrets. So the second thing I did was tell Jade.

With $26,000 stacked up in a paper bag, what was left to be unsure of?

New York Art Money

Jade asked, “Did that man in the jacket?”

I waved her off.

There was a level of concentration on her face I hadn’t seen since the parking lot on our first date, the pine tree air freshener bobbing and weaving above her jet black hair.

Jade was consumed with counting money just as she had been in the first half of my course in Impressionism, or when I shared my desire to open my very own gallery over dinner one night.

The third thing I did was Google the General.

Guess what happened? Absolutely nothing. The search came back blank.

“Twenty-six thousand dollars,” Jade said. I looked up from my blank Google search. The cursor blinked expectantly.

“Do you know how rare it was to produce a blank Google search?” I said.

She said, “Twenty-six thousand dollars,” again. The emphasis was different this time. Every syllable had meaning.

And then she said, “I guess we can put on another show.”

It was a gorgeous understatement.

We made love on a field of Benjamin Franklins that night.

The money was sticky while we sweat and the dirty bills clung to my back, to my chest and thighs, and wrinkled along with the bed sheets. As I lay still later, with the half-light of the city filtering through the upper windows, it felt like The General was there in bed with us.

I saw a rendering of his trench coat and paper bag beneath our flesh. Jade snored against my shoulder.

I stared up at the ceiling with the twin discomforts of her head digging into my shoulder and the oily promissory notes touching me in places they didn’t belong.

I didn’t think about paying my lease on the gallery we lived above, or the electric bill, my internet access, the printing costs for the last set of postcards, or even my overdue insurance on the artwork and the space.

I thought only of fairy tales and wishes. I wondered which artist I might touch ever-so-gently with my wand of top secret government currency, and invite to the magic ball.

Don’t wait for the next part of Art Official. Click here and read Episode 3 now.

Episode 1: My Name Is Art O. Fischel

My name is Arthur Oswald Fischel and I’m an artoholic.

Artoholism wasn’t in the PDR last time I checked. Although the only copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference I could get my hands on here in jail was a mangled version that belonged to one of the counselors.

It wasn’t exactly up to date.

According to my sponsor Rusty Pete, an artoholic is someone who has an unmanageable relationship to art. This problem’s intensity can range from spending way too much on paintbrushes to neglecting your family and friends in order to paint 14 hours a day.

Many famous and not so famous artists were vicious artoholics.

In my case my unmanageable relationship to art landed me in Guantanamo Bay.

My relationship to art started out normal.

I actually loved art as a kid.

I lay on the floor of my bedroom and drew for hours in high school, blasting Def Leppard tracks in the background.

Moving through the Art Students League and into teaching as an adjunct around the city I still had hope.

Even after I opened my ill-fated gallery on the Upper East Side things were manageable. My timing had been abysmal though.

And at that point I hadn’t even made art with my own two hands in years.

I sat in the back office of that ghost town gallery one Monday afternoon. There were unopened bills in envelopes of nearly every color scattered across my desk.

The envelopes were like the new terror hazard color chart that Homeland Security had just invented. The internet and cable bill were yellow and orange.

But the telephone and electricity and lease were bright red.

The newest Victoria’s Secret catalog sat on my desk too. I’d already dog-eared some pages and circled wish list items for my live-in girlfriend and gallery assistant, Jade.

The former brilliant front row sex pot from my course in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism at CUNY Harbor Campus barely spoke to me those days. The catalogs were our love notes from the apocalypse.

New York City, those days, seemed like the apocalypse.

The smoke had barely cleared.

On that afternoon in November of 2001 I held a postcard from the first exhibition in my gallery.

The black and white photo of my storefront showed the World Trade Center Towers poking above the skyline in the background.

By then they had been erased. Just like my manageable relationship with art would be as soon as The General came walking through the door.

My art life wasn’t unmanageable until I met The General.

And now I’m an artoholic who’s about to blow his anonymity sky high.

I looked at those erased buildings in the background. I thought of one of my favorite stories from art history.

Robert Rauschenberg, the young upstart, showed up at the door of Willem de Kooning, the master one day.

There’s no way to believe any version of the story. This is how you know it is real life.

In some versions, Rauschenberg betrays a kind mentor. He asks De Kooning for a drawing and the master presents the kid with a beautiful gift.

In other versions, there’s no pulling one over on Willem de Kooning. He knows what Rauschenberg is up to all along.

So De Kooning plays a game with him. He walks around the studio pulling out masterpieces.

“Should I give you this one? Oh no, let’s find something more beautiful,” he says.

In either case, Robert Rauschenberg erased the drawing. One variation of the story is that De Kooning picks something especially difficult to erase.

If the kid is going to erase a masterwork then he’ll be walking around with a sore wrist for weeks.

No matter which version you believe, Erased De Kooning is one of the most famous works of contemporary art. It’s an artwork made by erasing something else.

I thought of all this as I stared at the postcard. I’d opened a gallery a month before 9/11 and all I had to show for it was a sore wrist.

Some terrorists had erased the sky.

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“I hate Americans.”

That was the first thing The General ever said to me.

I wasn’t sure how this source of onion breath and rumpled tan trench coat appeared in my gallery, much less the cramped quarters of my back office space.

I looked up from the postcard and said “Excuse me?”

“That’s what the rest of the world is saying about us. ‘I hate Americans.’”

He plunked down in the seat across from my desk.

“I’m Sergeant-Major Nelson and you’re going to help me,” he said.

He looked vaguely homeless and offered a badge. There in the see-through window a high and tight image of The General in photo identification form stared back.

My thumb felt the texture and weight of the pleather case. Beneath his name his title read Cultural Ambassador. The card held the appropriate leafs and insignias.

The photo ID looked almost exactly like the Chuck Close painting “Mark” from 1978-79, right down to the goofy brown glasses.

“Are you looking for some art?” my voice cracked.

“Now we’re getting to it,” he said.

“A born salesman,” he said. “First off soldier, I don’t want to buy some art, I want you to sell some art.”

“We have that in common.”

“We’ve been watching you.”

The General waved out toward the gallery. This seeming wacko motioned toward the door, toward New York and the Upper East Side, toward the Duane Reade and Chase Bank I shared the city block with.

At that moment, Jade walked by the open office door. She craned her neck and I caught her eyeliner-enhanced glance before The General flicked his wrist and slammed the door shut.

“Art Students League, CalArts, NYU, Art History, art practice. In fact, you didn’t do so bad yourself in the art game before giving it up to open this place.”

With the door closed his breath was awful.

“But you chose,” he continued, “to open a gallery two months before some jumbo jets flattened out the world.”

This man was insane. No one I knew spoke about the World Trade Center tragedy like that: Flattened the world.

“Soldier,” he said. “I’m your meal ticket.”

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Next The General did something he would do twelve more times…

…in the span I knew him. Thirteen if you count the Statue of Liberty incident.

He pulled a package out of his jacket about the size of a brick, all wrapped up in a crumpled paper bag, and set it on the desk.

“This is your seed money to put on a successful art show. Go ahead,” he said.

I lifted the bag. It was heavy.

“You pick the artist and introduce him to The Man. Use the money to help whoever you choose, coach him a little, and then disappear. We handle the rest.”

“You want me to host a show?”

“No soldier, that’s too close for right now. We need you to find an unknown New York artist with some talent.

“This is a tip-top secret mission. The rest of the world out there is flying planes into skyscrapers, and now we have fire in the Middle East, and people hate us even more for retaliating. Good old George Junior and the powers that be need me and you to fight the war on terror starting here on 79th Street.”

The General had passion.

When I worked as an instructor at the CUNY campus on the Upper East Side I taught technique and then prayed each of my students had passion. The General was an artist all right, in terms of passion alone.

“Forget ‘why me,’” he said. “Think ‘why not me.’ We like your writing, like your space. Hell, we even like your politics for this thing.

“You know New York art and we need some people no one has ever heard of—no one suspects—to make into stars. You pick some good unknown artists. We take care of the rest.”

I opened up the bag and peeked inside. A brick of one hundred dollar bills peeked back.

“I’m a simple man and give simple directions. Go find an artist. Coach him in his portfolio and presentation and bring him to Sal Pasqual. Then you disappear and pay your rent, all that jazz.

“What we have here is something between you and me. You don’t tell her,” he jerked his head toward the gallery, “You don’t tell the artist. You don’t say anything to nobody. Not even Sal. He’ll understand.”

“I don’t say anything to anybody,”

“Nothing,” he said.

I said, “How do you know I won’t take the money and run?”

He laughed and stood up. “If you were stupid we wouldn’t be talking. Nice job on the SAT’s by the way.”

“Sal Pasqual?”

“See, you even have a real firecracker for a memory,” he said. “Give the artist some dough, help him with canvases, all that crap. We want it to look like Pasqual would be crazy not to give the guy a breakout show, even though no one’s ever heard of him.”

The General didn’t need to tell me who Sal Pasqual was or how to find his infamous 8th Street gallery. Unlike the artists I was asked to go recruit, everyone had heard of Sal. He was the hit-maker in New York and had been for a generation.

As The General turned the door handle I asked, “Anything else?”

“You have six weeks. Those towel-heads are convincing the whole world we’re the blue-eyed Satan.”

“How is this going to help?”

“God Bless America,” he said, and walked out the door.

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Click here now and continue to Episode 2.