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  • Writer's pictureJay Abel

THE TRAGEDY of ARTIST X

Updated: May 10, 2023


About 35 years ago artist X was my friend. He was wise, funny, quiet, empathetic, and something of a Buddhist. A consummate carpenter, he made a living teaching wood-shop. He was also a very productive and serious artist with a rare gift for putting things together. He combined assemblage with painting and made a kind of 3 dimensional abstract expressionism that was vivid, surprising and jazzy. He also brought a level of care and craftsmanship to his work that is rare in any discipline. His ideas were positive in feel and outlook. He was no tortured expressionist, but he was no little Mary sunshine either.


His work always had some steel under it.


His art was progressive, forward looking, late-modern. I was an old-school illustrator but we came together over a shared love of de Kooning, Hans Hoffman and tequila and we were fast friends. He had a few shows, sold a few pieces and thought he was on a long, flat interstate to the Guggenheim.


Well, he wasn't. Chain smoking and junk food killed him before he turned 45. Anger and bitterness were simply foreign to his nature and even when he was dying he spoke wistfully of big shows and national recognition. He was long past believing it, but his wife, who was a simple, trusting soul, needed to be reassured with some hopeful nonsense.


He declined quickly over the course of a few months, but made no plans for his exit. After he died, his wife, no battle-wagon to begin with, became detached from reality, she simply imploded like broken light bulb. She took their kid, vanished into the fog, and abandoned a garage full of his best work in a rented house.


His regular, medium-dumb relatives didn’t understand his work, thought the stuff was all just crazy home-made jigsaw puzzles that didn't end up looking like anything anyhow, and got rid of them. His friends didn't really know what was going on or didn’t want to intrude, though they probably should have. Most of his art was lost, abandoned, auctioned off for pocket money, and scattered to hell and gone.


I was very bothered by this when I learned about it. I’m still bothered by it, and I was thinking, just now, that one decent monograph about artist X would have saved at least some part of his life. A book would have been who artist X was - a very decent human being and a powerful, original, artist. He would have had more than a box of bones and an empty sack of potato chips blowing down the street, to show for his all to brief residency on earth.

Did he merit such a book? I think every decent artist does. I wish I had a copy of that hypothetical book in any event, as do all the people who loved the guy, a book that was never printed and never can be.

I often wonder how many worthy artists go down without a bubble. I know a few others like artist X who have lived longer but are now retired, blissfully indifferent as Tibetan sand painters to a lifetime's work packed away in deteriorating cardboard tombs. These people are good, perhaps even important artists who didn't make the big museum cut and never will, a cut that is decided by the demands of big money and academic politics or by the vagaries of dumb luck, and not by anything else. Entire legacies will go off to saint Vinnie’s, as non-comprehending relatives don't know what to make of them, and need more room in the garage for a washing machine.

Artists, as a general thing, put too damn much faith in the idea of someday. They spend half a lifetime getting ready for the big gallery retrospective, or something, that never happens.

When Artist X passed away in the 1980s, a book about anyone not yet famous was nearly unheard of. Money and logistics slammed any such idea against a cinderblock wall. But things have changed. This is the age of cheap, easy reproduction, and make no mistake, reproduction is far better than nothing. Multiple copies can be in a lot of places, and storage is only an inch on a bookshelf.


Vital bathroom access will not be impacted.

Yes, do your art for the joy and freedom of that, but know that most art, innocent of reproduction is doomed, and the artist becomes just another forgotten artist X. After all, the only reason anybody has anything from anyplace is because some cock-eyed, hopeful damnfool went to bother of saving it. JDA

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