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.
“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.”
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.”
“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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