The Old Master Painter

John A. Lane

     I had started work at the Weymouth Gallery downtown, corner of Charles and 32nd near the soup kitchen that everyone wants to tear down.

     The only reason why I had gotten the job (and was saved from yet another year of bussing tables) was because I had a small part in assembling an informational brochure at the university gallery. The historical study, that was mine; the reflections on the works were somebody else's. But I got the job, and that was all that mattered. A small environment where I could catalog works, maybe provide some informational materials for visitors, and during lunchtimes pop around the corner to Louie's for coffee and a sandwich.

     Steve Tedaldi was the primary owner of the Weymouth Gallery, and his day job was university professor. He was the kind of fellow who would invite you to lunch, ask you a few simple almost-personal questions, and then sit there and study you without offering much in return. He'd also ask things like, "Enjoying that sandwich?," because he'd bought it for you, you see, and you had to constantly reassure him that he'd done you a fantastic favor. It got to the point where I started to bring a bag-lunch to the gallery and just eat it downstairs in the Archives basement. I think that annoyed him, but I canšt prove it.

     All I know is, I'd be sitting down there munching on a ham sandwich and listening to a tape on a barely-alive popping-and-crackling Montgomery Wards stereo, and he'd come downstairs and say, "Beatles, huh? Never much liked 'em, and mind you, I was around when they were around, so I knew. I knew. But I was more of a James Brown fan. One time when I was working as a baggage handler at the local airport in Appleton I actually got to meet him. Mister Soul Man, himself. Do you like James Brown?"

     I'd swallow what I was eating and say, "Yeah. Sure. I don't know. The song about Papa and the brand-new bag is good stuff, I guess. I'm more of a --," but it didn't matter what I had said because Tedaldi would have his back turned to me, engrossed in something else. If I paused, he'd say, without turning to look at me, "Go on. I'm listening. Just grabbing this one Heindt painting."

     Would try to gather my train of thought again, "What were we talking about? I'm sorry."

     He took about 15 seconds to answer, as he was struggling with removing a painting from an over-congested crawl space. "Hm? Music. Stuff you like. Stuff that makes your mojo -- say, I donšt mean to break up our conversation, but would you mind coming over here and maybe getting in there? You're smaller than me, so you should be able to fit down there and give that painting a yank."

     "Sure," and I wiped my mouth with a napkin and walked over, hunching to get a look at the crawl space. "Looks jammed in there pretty tight. You must have, what?, hundreds of paintings tucked in there? Donšt you worry about water damage, 'cause the crawl space is so close to those old pipes?"

     "I do," he replied. "But I need you to scrunch down and try wedging that one out, the one marked with the '425' series number on the wrapper. You see it?"

     I squeezed into the crawl space. It was musty, damp, and felt like I'd tucked myself into an ash-filled chimney. My hands became blackened instantly from pushing myself around on the floor; a few thick cobwebs also got in my mouth. I flipped through the heavy stack of paintings.

     "You see it?" he called.

     "Yeah, almost got it. I'm just trying to maneuver these others that are in front and behind carefully."

     "Yes! And please, I beg of you, be careful! Some of those paintings are priceless! And as long as you're in there," he chuckled, "you should know that this'll probably be the first of many times you go spelunking in that nether region because I'd like to have you catalog the remainder of that junk as well. Then we'll probably have to move 'em and ship 'em to the university archive where it's all temperature-control and sterile. So keep that in the back of your mind. -- How's it going in there?"

     I'd managed to pull the painting out from between the stack. "Careful," Tedaldi kept saying. "Careful, or else I gotta explain to a dead artist's rich widow why I handled her cherished possession like a gorilla. You ever see that commercial with the ape throwing the baggage around? Ah, you're probably too young to remember. They'd throw luggage into this gorilla's cage and he'd stomp on it and throw it against the bars, and it was all to prove that --"

     "Yes, I remember that one," I said, and pushed the painting toward the entrance.

     "I see it!" Tedaldi cried out. "I see it! The head's beginning to crown!"

     "I need you to take it from the top end," I said, "or else this whole stack is going to collapse on my leg, which is the only thing keeping these other paintings from touching that one."

     Tedaldi quickly leaned down and tried looking inside the dark crawl space, uttering "Whoa-whoa-whoa! You mean, you're kicking the paintings over?"

     "Not kicking," I said, "just wedging them to the side, now please just pull that one out and it'll free me up to carefully push the stack backwards and upright again. O.K.?"

     Tedaldi tugged at the painting, freeing it from the crawl space with one dramatic pull, but also stirring up all the dust where I was lodged. I coughed, took one slow look around at the wrapped paintings, and then exited.

     Tedaldi had sloppily pushed my lunch aside on the big worktable and had begun to unwrap the brown paper from the painting in a meticulous fashion. As he unwrapped with the precision of one trying to defuse a bomb, I said, "I noticed you have a small Alan Taubman painting in there."

     "Do we?"

     "Yeah, and you know, I regard myself as a huge fan of his work. It just occurred to me that we donšt have any of his stuff hanging upstairs, so why not pull that one out?"

     Tedaldi kept his focus on the paper, trying to fold the creases back just so. "Taubman's pretty obscure. For the attention that little painting of his will get, we might as well put it next to the fire extinguisher. And then see how much people will offer for the extinguisher. -- Here, make yourself useful. Get a scissors and cut the twine at the bottom, O.K.?"

     The twine was knotted every which way, as if someone had done a ham-fisted job at trying to keep the wrapping paper on. As I tried cutting, I kept on pitching the idea because I really love Taubman's stuff.

     "Taubman's not all that obscure," I added. "I mean, I know from my last visit to the Met that they've got at least one of his paintings in the Moderns section. I bet you anything that that little painting would move within a week. Put it in the window, a curious guy or gal does a double-take, turns around, and before you know it, you've got a cool three-thousand in the register."

     "That's an awfully liberal price quote, Van. I'd ballpark any of his earlier works, like that one, in the five-hundred zone. There's not a lot of interest in his I'm-A-Drunk-Young-Artist-Living-In-Manhattan-Like-A-Thousand- Other-Drunk-Young-Artists period. -- How's that twine coming? And remember to ball it up neatly and save it. We don't waste anything around here...that is, unless you get the grant money and you earned the right to throw things away," he said through a thin smile.

     I removed the twine, and Tedaldi took off the last of the wrapping paper to reveal an abstract painting of a bullfighter about to gore a butterfly. Tedaldi stood back, gasping, overwhelmed. "I wish to Christ I could paint like that."

     "Look," I said, still hot on the idea, "tell you what: Alan Taubman lives in Guilford, about a mile from my apartment. If I could correspond with him and get him to install, say, five paintings for a mini-exhibit, would you be game for that?"

     Tedaldi looked annoyed, not removing his eyes from the bullfighter/butterfly painting though. "If you can get Taubman to climb out of his bottle and his pickled attitude, sure. But two ground rules, first: One, that little piece-of-shit painting in the crawl space stays in there. And secondly, all of his works have to pass my approval. Once we get through that very difficult and probably insurmountable period, then, sure, we can throw a little exhibition for him. Like I said, he's pretty obscure and you'll be lucky if the audience on opening night isn't made up of 95 percent winos and hookers passing by. But sure, you want to put the time and effort into this, go ahead."

     I'd written Alan Taubman a letter and heard back from him promptly within the following week. Taubman had knocked me out with a three-page letter, hand-written, and very warm, open and honest.

     Over lunch with Tedaldi, the day I received the letter, I read it aloud. I was expecting Tedaldi to have a change of attitude about Taubman, waiting for his face to change but it didnšt quite happen like that. "Can I see that?" he asked, extending his hand out for the letter; I handed it to him. "Shit, I've got mustard on my fingers, hang on," and he set the letter down on a small water spill while pausing to wipe his hands with a paper napkin. Then he perused the letter, silently.

     "Well?" I asked.

     "Your Taubman," he began, "is sort of a self-serving fella, isn't he? He starts off with the sob story about his crippled wife," flipped a page ahead, "...then alludes to his financial woes, about his kids and private school, then whines about having to travel to Europe because it means time away from his craft, sheesh," flipped a couple pages ahead, "...then says how he'd rather have his work mixed in -- whatever that means -- instead of all these solo exhibitions. And it all concludes with him saying that he's been pulling away from oil and canvas, and now he's going through a -- what's it say? His handwriting is goddawful." He thrust the letter back at me.

     I scanned the page for what Tedaldi was talking about, then said, "Oh. Right. Says he's going through an ink sketch period, and a watercolor period." I looked up at Tedaldi, who was sneering through a sip of coffee. "You know, different medium, that's all," I explained.

     Tedaldi laughed, "Call it what you will, but it sounds like he's too lazy to mix paints together or stretch canvas. It's called 'The Lazy Bastard' syndrome. Afflicts nine-out-of-ten self-important artists, and it looks like your Taubman has fallen victim."

     "I wouldn't exactly call him lazy, Dr. Tedaldi," I said, somewhat defensively. "By his own admission, he paints and/or draws every day, no matter how much time."

     "Right! Well, who's to say he's not lying? Making himself out to be more dedicated than he really is, right? Please! -- Waiter, check!"

     The following week, I received three charcoal sketches from Alan Taubman. I rushed to the gallery to show Dr. Tedaldi, who was already busy hanging a painting (by the same bullfighter/butterfly painter) of a hornet with sunglasses with the phrase "W.A.S.P." spraypainted at the bottom.

     "Well, Taubman definitely came through for us!" I announced.

     "Mm?" Tedaldi turned to me, distracted.

     I showed him the three sketches. Tedaldi just stroked his beard and nodded.

     "What do you think?" I asked.

     "I think Taubman has big balls to send us these scribblings. And in charcoal, at that. He might as well have gone all-out and just given us some crayon drawings."

     "I don't see what's wrong," I replied. "These are pretty good."

     Tedaldi stuffed them back in the envelope. "Good enough for the Met, Van? Are they good enough for the Met? Because if you honestly can say they're not, then they're not good enough for this small gallery. Everything has to be on an equal par," he indicated by making an even spreading motion with his hands. "He should take this tiny gallery as seriously as he takes the Met. If he doesn't then he's just wasting our time and his." Tedaldi actually looked angry, upset. "You never answered me."

     "What?" I choked.

     "Good enough for the Met?"

     I stammered, "I think all of Taubman's work is on, what you call, an equal par. Or level. I don't think he's hyper-aware of an audience, so I think it's all of equal value. Er, that is, drawn from the same source." Coughed. "I'm not making myself very clear. But I'll just say that these works did impress me a lot, and I think they could be hung anywhere, if that's what you mean."

     Tedaldi took the sketches and roughly jammed them into the oversized manila envelope, with the sound of paper being crunched against the thick cardboard reinforcements inside.

     "Look, tell your Taubman that these are slightly art-school-ish. No wait, don't tell him that. Just tell him that we were looking for something more high profile, something that'll compete with what's on the fair market. Is he aware of the market at all? Does he realize the business we're in? I mean, I'm an artist too, let's not forget, and yet I'm aware of how the machine operates. So what makes Taubman so special that he doesn't have to concern himself with the etiquette. You know?" He tossed the envelope onto table haphazardly. "Those are rhetorical questions, mainly for Taubman. Maybe for you too as well, as you're still learning. Tell you what, just politely tell Taubman that he can give us something that's got to stand a chance. Or else it's a waste of space. You've got the facility with words, right, so just do what you did when you wrote that brochure thing. And tell Taubman that he can always send his work directly to the gallery. Don't know why you're brokering this deal, since I'm the one who owns the place, right?"

     The following week, when I came into work, Tedaldi called to me from downstairs. "Come on down, I wanna show you something." On the worktable, he spread out five stunning new watercolors by Alan Taubman. Each one was beautiful and instantly appealed to me on a sublime level. These were the kinds of works that I could only dream about owning, would that I had any money whatsoever to spend on Art.

     "Seems that A.T. sent his work here direct this time," he began. "And he also sent me this letter, saying that youšd made a very polite and kind request for more work. Good job. But I got to say, he really came off as stuffy in this letter. Said that 'this brings the grand total up to eight' and hopes that I'll find something that'll grab my attention. Now I don't know if I like that kind of attitude. You should tell Taubman in your next note that quantity doesn't count but quality does."

     I surveyed the watercolors. "But these look pretty darn good."

     Tedaldi let out a long-drawn sigh and rubbed his eyes wearily. "I'm not running a pretty-darn-good gallery for so-so work, Van. I don't want Taubman's sloppy seconds. I want the same caliber of work that he'd offer up to a rich client. We're doing him a favor by expressing interest, so why does he insist on giving us slap-dash efforts?"

     I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't know, but I know that one of those charcoal sketches you turned down got housed in the Tiqueler Gallery in New York. Read it in a trade magazine."

     Tedaldi leaned into me and glowered, while trying to maintain his calm.

     "Look, I teach Art, and have done so for about 20 years. I think I know when I'm being snowed. And what's worse is, I'm being snowed by a guy who's managed to survive in this business by playing the humble ol' dogged artiste while rejecting the very community that tries to embrace him. He's a prolific boor who refuses to acknowledge his contemporaries, which matters a helluvalot to me, while giving interviews left and right and acting as if he emerged from nowhere without any influences! You know how long I've tried to get my stuff into the Tiqueler Gallery? He blows his nose, frames it and they house it. GODDAMN!"

     I visited Alan Taubman at his home a few days later.

     Over tea and chocolate-chip cookies, we chatted. "Your house seems kind of quiet today. Where is everyone?"

     He yawned, "Let's see -- excuse me for the yawn, been getting about five hours sleep these days -- um, my wife's up at the clinic for a week's worth of intensive physical therapy. I don't hold much hope for it, but at least it makes us both feel a little better that something's being done for the greater good. She's fiercely independent. She's gotta be the weakest thing, physically, you've ever seen, but she'll just keep going and going. I could take a lesson from her. 58 years old, and I'm still as green and dumb as ever. And as for the kids, they're both with their grandparents in New York, just a week-long thing. This gives me a little time to get back into the work at-hand, after the bill-paying and house-cleaning of course. It's a bit of a break, one thing I take with all-due amounts of heaping guilt. I'm a lucky, lucky man, that's all I can say. Stronger people than myself falling apart around me seems to be a common theme in my life. I don't know why I got so lucky."

     "Hard work?" I asked.

     "That, yes. And just the fact that everyone's got to keep on going, and every person is fated, to a certain extent. But don't listen to me. I'm just a guy who paints and draws because he can't do anything else that actually contributes to society. I'm good at it, that much I know, but I sometimes wish I'd been a doctor. I could've saved a whole slew of people in my life."

     He sipped his tea.

     "Like your wife?"

     He nodded, "Like my wife. Sure. But I guess everyone entertains that fantasy. I'm no different. You probably got one person in your life that you want to save, I bet. Everyone does. That's a good thing, in a way. Keeps you human, makes you realize that Art is great stuff but also that all of this highbrow stuff isn't too be taken all that seriously."

     Later at the gallery, Tedaldi inspected the latest offering, a pencil sketch, that Taubman had given to me during my previous visit. He gave a begrudging nod of what seemed like approval.

     "And did A.T. say that this now brought the tally up to 'nine'?"

     "No," I replied. "Just said he hoped that this might be the one that grabs you."

     He continued to nod, "Hm. Yes. This just might be the one, you're right. Seems like he showed a bit more effort here, though who's to say?" He held the sketch at arm's length, turning it at different angles.

     "So, you like it?"

     He cracked a smile. "It's growing on me. Alan Taubman's work is growing on me. Like a fungus."

     At the night of the opening of The Alan Taubman New Works Exhibit, there was quite a crowd. I'd estimate about a hundred people were filtering in and out of the gallery at any given time. I'd arrived a few minutes late, but still made it in time for the obligatory opening remarks, as I'd been held up ironing my shirt. When I got there, I noticed that all nine works were hung up, but the spotlighted work was one that I was unfamiliar with. I stood in front of it, trying to remember if I'd ever come across this one.

     Tedaldi, clutching a plastic cup of white wine and sucking on a toothpick, sided up to me. "You like? It's pure Taubman...whatever that means."

     "Which one is this?" I asked.

     "Oh that? That's the runty one I saved from the crawl space. I figured, it either gets a new life here or it hits the garbage. Just wanted to see if anyone would get the joke."

     I turned and stared at him. "Well, I don't think it's very funny."

     He clenched his teeth and then put his arm around me. "Look, you," he said, chomping on the toothpick and guiding me towards the basement door. As we neared the door, various friends of his stopped him every few feet, congratulating him on "a fine exhibition" and all of his "hard work" and "kudos". He acted bashful and kept saying, "Thanks. You're too kind. Too kind. It was worth the effort, believe me."

     He ushered me downstairs, shut the door behind us, and then told me to take a seat.

     "Van, I don't know what your problem is, but you've got some nerve giving me grief, after all the work I put into assembling an affair for an overrated hack like Taubman," he growled, pointing his finger in my face. "And on top of everything else, your hero doesn't even bother to show up to his own party!"

     "His wife's been sick, you know. She's in a wheelchair and I think that may have --"

     He barked back, "Yeah, I know all about his trials and woes. That wheelchair thing is a great excuse for everything, isn't it? Hiding behind her wheelchair when he's too lazy to pick up a paintbrush. Give me a fat break. Now listen and listen good," pushing his face right into mine, "if you've got a problem with me, you just come right out and say it and stop sniping at me and wisecracking, because I think I deserve a lot more respect than you're dishing out, you got it?"

     With that he removed an index card with notes from the breastpocket of his sportscoat, and fanned himself for one second. His eyes never left mine. Then he spat his toothpick into the garbage can next to my chair, and went upstairs.

     I remained sitting.

     Listened as the crowd hushed , polite applause and then heard Tedaldi announce, "It gives me great pleasure tonight...."