The Polish Rider
The show was up, installation complete, the opening was the next night, she’d fought her last obligatory battles with her gallerist, Elena, about placement and press release, they’d made up over a drink, she’d taken an Uber she couldn’t afford from Chelsea back to the Lower East Side apartment she couldn’t afford to get some sleep, only to realize—just as she’d drifted off into the dream in which her mentor, Katrin, arrives unannounced from Kraków, bearing news Sonia always wakes before she can receive—that she’d made a terrible mistake. She had been wrong to concede what had at first seemed a minor point: that the paint on the sides of two of the ten canvases—incidental flecks and smudges—would remain, whereas all the other sides had been cleaned up, overpainted white. Elena thought the little traces of production contrasted nicely with the general immaculacy of the paintings, that this emphasized their “handmade quality,” and Sonia, exhausted, had said, fine, fine, so long as Elena agreed to hang them at the unusual heights Sonia preferred. Agreed. But now Sonia—jumping out of the bed she’d barely slept in for a week, struggling into her jeans while summoning another Uber—decided that this small concession compromised, in fact ruined, totally destroyed, the tone of the show, rendering it all theatrical, self-congratulatory, trendy, cheap. It said, “Look at me asserting the value of painting in an era characterized by the abstract perfection of new media”; it said, “Look at how cutting edge my old-fashionedness is.” (Sonia thought these things in Polish as the car sped up Tenth Avenue; she always reverted to Polish when she was exhausted, and if she thought in Polish she was sure to dream in it, which meant that, sooner rather than later, Katrin would appear.)
When she saw Sonia push open the glass gallery doors, Elena cursed audibly, then walked, smiling, with deliberate slowness, toward her. Elena put her hands on the painter’s shoulders and said to her in Italian, to which Elena reverted in moments of frustration, “Love, it’s finished, the show is up and looks wonderful; go back home and get some sleep as we agreed.” Sonia had lived for two years in Rome, had learned to draw there, sketching bodies and fruit in an academy beside the Tiber, but, not only did Sonia fail to understand Elena’s Italian, she failed to understand that it was Italian, and the depth of the incomprehension in Sonia’s eyes alarmed the gallerist, who cared more about Sonia, ultimately, than she cared about the show. Elena asked the assistant texting behind the high desk to bring Sonia some water and one of the folding chairs they kept around for rich or infirm visitors. Sonia let herself be settled into the chair, drained the plastic wine cup (all the assistant could find), and then stated, without argument or explanation, “The sides must be blank.” (“Blank” wasn’t quite the word, Sonia felt, but it was the closest English term she could muster.) “I’ll take them back and clean them and then the show is finished, I swear.” Elena thought for a second, fingering the malachite pendant she always wore, and said, “O.K., O.K., have some more water,” and soon the two paintings were in a black leather portfolio case next to Sonia in an Uber heading downtown, where she would fix the sides, then Uber them back up.
Every painting in Sonia’s show depicted the same thing: the famous kiss between Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic from 1971 until the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Leonid Brezhnev, the head of the U.S.S.R. from 1964 to 1982. The iconic “socialist fraternal kiss” took place in Berlin, was photographed by Régis Bossu in 1979, the year of Sonia’s birth and mine, and circulated around the world as a symbol of the Eastern Bloc. A two-page spread in Paris Match, etc. The enthusiasm of the kissers, a trace of erotic excess, added to its fascination. Growing up in Kraków, Sonia had often seen the photograph, but what she remembers more clearly is its second life: after the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet artist Dmitri Vrubel painted the image on the East side of the wall with the caption (in Russian) “God help me to survive this deadly love affair,” transforming the iconic image of the Eastern Bloc into an iconic image of its collapse. In March, 2009, the fading, flaking painting was removed by the authorities, although Vrubel then remade it with more durable paints, an event that disgusted Sonia, who saw it as de-historicizing, spectacularizing, cheapening. I said every painting in her show depicted the same thing, but that’s not really right. Did a particular painting of Sonia’s depict the actual kiss? The photograph of the kiss? The painting of the photograph of the kiss? Or was she painting the repainting of the painting of the photograph of the kiss?
The canvases were, as always with Sonia’s work, meticulously composed, but each was composed in a different historical style. One canvas depicted the kiss abstracted into Cubist shapes and volumes, another was Caravaggesque in its chiaroscuro (the kiss of Judas?), another involved a mixture of verisimilitude and blur that recalled Gerhard Richter, and so on. In my essay for the show I likened the series of styles to all the iPhone photographic effects and filters, how you can choose “transfer” or “instant” or whatever, all these images of process detached from actual processes and now made available at a post-historical touch, although Sonia was both citing and reversing that condition, as her own paintings were anything but instant, anything but digital: the painstaking, patient execution of her canvases was one of their most notable features. And then my essay took up the ways in which the different dimensions of the canvases affected the status of the kiss they depicted: the monumental canvases evoked a discourse of socialist-realist heroism, propaganda, or the dimensions of its parody on the Berlin Wall; the two smaller canvases (the two with the dirty sides)—twenty by sixteen inches, a size more commonly associated with portraits—made the kiss feel intimate, depoliticized.
It concluded, the essay I mean, with a dialogue between Sonia and me about the different resonances these images have for us—she was ten in Kraków when the Wall came down; I was ten in Topeka—and the degree to which our respective senses of art history and politics are marked by her having been raised behind the Iron Curtain, my having been raised in the American heartland, and what all that means now that new versions of the right are on the rise in both places and new imaginations of the left are urgently required, now that all the nineteen-nineties talk of the end of history is history. Elena had asked if we would read an excerpt from that part of the essay at the gallery during the opening, then have a kind of public conversation, and, to my surprise, Sonia had said yes.
Uber was trying to reassure the public that its drivers were properly vetted. There had been rapes and murders; in fact, a few days before Sonia left the two paintings in the car, a driver in Michigan had shot and killed six people, apparently at random, and between fares, if they still say “fares.” Uber was also trying to convince the public its data were safe, that Uber’s information about users—credit-card numbers, obviously, but also travel history, real-time locations—was being properly protected. And all this made it harder for us to figure out how to get Uber to divulge the identity and the destination of the passenger subsequent to Sonia.
When I showed up at her apartment, sweating, despite the cool early-spring weather, because I’d biked across the Manhattan Bridge, Sonia was laughing and crying at the same time, saying, “It’s Elena’s fault, she made me drink all that water, so I had to pee, so I rushed out of the car, forgetting the paintings.” When she finally stopped pacing and sat down in her apartment’s one comfortable chair, I went to the refrigerator in the kitchenette to get her something to eat. (Besides the white leather armchair, miraculously unstained by paint or adhesive, and besides paintings and materials related to painting, the studio was furnished with only a low bed, a mismatched dining-room set she’d found on the street, and a standing desk.) The refrigerator was empty save for butter and condiments and leftovers of indeterminate age. I opened the cupboard and found a package of candied walnuts that had probably formed part of some holiday basket from Kraków, struggled with the ribbon and cellophane before opening it with my teeth, then emptied the package into a bowl and took it to her, instructed her to eat. She nodded mechanically and began to chew while I woke her computer and Googled “uber manhattan office.”
Sonia had realized immediately that she’d forgotten the paintings in the car, realized it before she took out her keys to open her building’s door. She ran after the Uber, screaming for it to stop, until it had turned off her street toward Delancey. Willing her hands not to shake, she located the driver’s information on the app—his name was Kashif, the phone told her; his average rating was five stars—and called him, too out of breath at first to speak, but soon yelling, “I need you to come here now, now.” Kashif had assured her that he would be right there, was a minute away, although she also said that he had an accent that was difficult for her to understand.
It turned out that Kashif had thought she was the next passenger, not the previous one, and so had hurried to a new address, which neither he nor the company would reveal, to pick up a person whose identity the company felt obliged to protect, to drop him or her off at an undisclosable destination. That person must have taken the paintings because, by the time Sonia got through to Kashif again, by the time he’d come back to her building, on Hester, the paintings were gone. (As far as Sonia was concerned, Kashif himself was beyond suspicion—he hadn’t been aware of the paintings at all until she explained to him what had happened.) “I quite literally was on my knees here on the pavement,” Sonia told me. She begged him to take her to wherever he’d just come from, but he refused, just repeated apologetically, as he tried to get her to stand up—a passing teen-ager had stopped to film them on her phone—that she had to call the office, “I’m so sorry there are rules.”
From the speed with which Kashif had returned to Sonia’s, she’d inferred her paintings must be quite near her apartment, and this inspired Sonia, who was probably a little feverish at this point, to wander the nearby streets, vaguely hoping to encounter someone carrying her case. Near the corner of Bowery and Broome she saw herself reflected in the window of a restaurant-supply store and was startled by the image of her own desperation, which was when she texted me.
Eventually, she started checking dumpsters and alleys to see if someone had discarded the paintings, perhaps wanting only the leather portfolio case. Near Chrystie Street, she stepped on a rat; “I heard it scream, then it laughed at me.” Cold, dizzy, despairing, she finally sat down on one of the benches at Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Two kids were play fighting, wrestling on the soccer field, one in a puffy red jacket, the other in a puffy blue jacket. No, they were really fighting. No: play fighting. She couldn’t decide.
The yellow-cab driver—the identification card in the bulletproof partition between front and back seats said his name was Miguel de Arco—who drove us to the Uber offices, which happened to be in Chelsea, only a few blocks from the gallery (this was the fifth time that day Sonia had been conveyed up or down a West Side avenue), told us, when he discerned from our conversation where we were going, about the “fifteen second” rule. The problem with Uber isn’t just that Uber drivers are shit (“murderers, rapists”), and are also (“though who really cares”) treated like shit by Uber, and that “surge pricing” means that passengers are gouged whenever there is a lot of traffic or precipitation or a natural disaster (“How much you think they’ll charge during the next hurricane?”), and that Uber is run by a bunch of assholes who use private data to harass their enemies; no, the worst thing about Uber, Miguel said, is the fifteen-second rule, which is putting all our lives at risk. At a red light on the corner of Twenty-third and Seventh, Miguel found my eyes in the rearview mirror, then explained to them that, when a driver gets a request from a customer, the driver has approximately fifteen seconds to tap the phone and accept the request, and this means that the already shitty Uber drivers are hurriedly trying to negotiate requests, paying no attention to the road. “It’s like everything else,” he said, as the light changed.
The Uber offices felt like a pop-up store (corporate capitalism’s perverted image of the refugee camp, the tent city), like offices established fleetingly in somebody else’s space. Everything seemed designed for quick disassembly, desks and shelves composed of white particleboard, black laminated melamine. Each person we spoke to possessed only the power to refer us to another person of equal or greater powerlessness until we found ourselves facing a manager named Mike, who looked fifteen, his blond hair long and angular on top, the sides of his head freshly shaved. Mike had the authority to tell us with finality that there was nothing anyone could do, although he understood how valuable the paintings were, and he was sorry for our loss, an apology that prompted a strange speech from Sonia, which I hurried to interrupt, about how the paintings were worthless, “perfectly worthless,” but how that made it even more important that she get them back before the opening the following evening.
In the intervals between Uber representatives, I’d been thinking about “Taxi,” the TV series. I thought first of Latka, Andy Kaufman’s immigrant character from some unspecified Eastern European country, and how Sonia’s disordered speech was going to start approaching Latka levels of unintelligibility soon. Then I summoned Louie, played by Danny DeVito, the abusive dispatcher, and considered how much easier our search would be if we were interacting with Louie, how much more humane—or at least human—his nastiness was than this Kafkaesque chain of politely ineffectual customer reps. I wondered what the taxi garage in the establishing shot of the show had been turned into—condos, Chase, or Duane Reade? Then I realized how ridiculous it was that my nostalgia for a previous mode of labor and travel was actually nostalgia for an earlier moment of TV, and the image of New York it had broadcast to me in Topeka in the form of reruns I watched with my dad, who looks a little like Judd Hirsch. (I asked Sonia if she’d ever seen “Taxi.” “Yes,” she said. “De Niro.” She pretended to produce a gun from her sleeve.) By the time Mike was before us, smiling, my head was empty except for “Taxi” ’s melancholy theme song, composed the year before Honecker and Brezhnev kissed, before Sonia and I were born, and I thought that the tone of that theme song, the range of feeling it could hold, was wider and deeper and messier around the edges than anything one heard on television now, although I didn’t watch enough television to know. In fact, wasn’t television supposed to be better than ever before? Wasn’t I always envying the HBO miniseries, its ability to depict systems?
As we headed south on the West Side Highway, Sonia pointed out the clouds over the Hudson, the vermillion they were turning in the sunset (“like blood in cotton”), and since it was the first thing she had said that wasn’t about the lost paintings, I thought it was a good time to introduce the idea that we might not recover them, by which I meant there was no way we were going to. She nodded but didn’t speak, and I started to talk—just to fill the air, really—about the stories I love that involve ruined paintings or missing paintings or unmade paintings. Henry James’s “The Madonna of the Future,” for instance, in which Theobald, who has been working on his masterpiece for decades, turns out to have produced nothing (while his model aged), a blank canvas. Or the Balzac story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” to which Sonia introduced me, and which, unlike me, she could read in French: the painter Frenhofer overworks his masterpiece until the canvas is just a vortex of color in which a single bare foot is legible. There are two things, I said to Sonia, who had leaned her forehead against the window, whose eyes might have been shut, that intrigue me about these stories in particular: first, how these failed paintings seem to anticipate modern art—Theobald’s white canvas, as various people have noted, is like a Robert Ryman; Frenhofer’s messy canvas a premonition of Post-Impressionism (Cézanne: “Frenhofer, c’est moi”). But, second, I said, as we passed the new Whitney, which loomed, in the advancing twilight, like a beached ocean liner made of steel and glass, these stories are really opportunities for the authors to assert the superiority of their own art, of literature, over painting. James’s or Balzac’s words can describe paintings the crazy artists can’t actually paint, or intuit canvases that were as of yet unpainted, unpaintable. And isn’t it really true of all ekphrastic literature, fiction and poetry, that even when it claims to be describing or praising a work of visual art it is in fact asserting its own superiority?
“Your students are very lucky,” Sonia said flatly, as she received and responded to a text. I couldn’t tell if she was making fun of me.
Sergeant Kingdom (would I make that up?) was, to our surprise, sympathetic; we sat at his desk drinking the undrinkable coffee he offered us, trying to figure out if there was any way to compel Uber to help. At first, I thought Kingdom was motivated only by the novelty of an attractive foreign painter going on about lost art, then I thought he was probably just avoiding more taxing work, as there wasn’t going to be anything actionable about our “case” (we couldn’t even decide if we were reporting a theft), but, as we talked, the source of his solicitude became clear to me: hatred of Uber. First of all, he explained, they hire rapists and murderers. Second of all, every other day somebody comes in desperately seeking “valuables” they’ve left in a car and Uber almost never helps. And they’re assholes on the phone. And what’s next, Kingdom wondered, a cop app? Anybody who wants to be a cop just gets a gun and a smartphone and waits for a text?
“And the fifteen-second rule,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said, emptying a third packet of Splenda into his coffee.
“It’s like everything else,” Sonia said.
“Exactly,” he said.
We were interrupted by a woman screaming, “The lease, my name is on the lease,” and then something in Portuguese, as she was hauled—she was handcuffed; her legs weren’t shackled, but she was dragging her bare feet—toward a desk at the back of the room. (The metal desks here were bolted to the floor, the opposite of Uber’s modularity.)
“Could you scare Mike into helping?” Sonia asked.
“Who is Mike?” Kingdom asked.
“Mike is the manager of Uber’s Manhattan office,” I said.
“Scare him how? It wouldn’t do anything,” Kingdom said. Then he had an idea: “I could try scaring the driver.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Kashif?” Sonia asked, as if she and Kashif were old friends.
“I call up the driver and I’m just like, ‘Sergeant Kingdom here, from the Seventh. We’re investigating a theft.’ I don’t make any actual threats.”
“It’s in my name,” the woman sobbed.
I looked at Sonia. I could see her weighing the best chance she had to recover her paintings against the prospect of asking the police to harass an immigrant driver who was just following the rules. (Somehow, it occurred to me only now to wonder whether, as a policy, Uber should reveal the number or address of a passenger; probably not. But what if Sonia had left, en route to the hospital, a kidney or a pair of corneas in a cooler of ice? Was it just that I didn’t sufficiently value paintings?) And I wondered, as I looked at the list of “fallen heroes”—a plaque was affixed to the red brick wall behind Kingdom—if and how our thinking about police power and surveillance were different, she having been born behind the Iron Curtain, I hailing from the heartland, both of us living in what was, for more and more of the population, a police state now.
As Kingdom and I waited for Sonia’s response, I thought about how the missing paintings were undergoing change as we chased them. The paintings would be different in some essential sense if we found them discarded in an alley or hanging reverently in someone’s home. I mean that the story attached to the paintings would inflect them conceptually from now on, at least for us: if Sergeant Kingdom frightened a member of a heavily surveilled population into yielding information that led to the paintings’ recovery, then the paintings would depict false fraternity propped up by secret police; if some benevolent stranger returned them through Uber, then the kiss would have a new glimmer of sociality, at least suggest the possibility of communal spirit instead of its evacuated image.
This is all part of the artistic process now, I told Sonia back at her apartment, warming to the notion as the chilled vodka hit my bloodstream. We should think of all this as part of the work, incorporate it, make a project of tracking the paintings as they disappear from the gallery system into the urban grid, into Uber’s network and its regulations, into the Seventh Precinct, into whoever’s possession. (I swallowed some candied walnuts.) Systems that can’t communicate, can only kiss. Let’s bring all that into the show, the old medium of painting dissolving, via the new, via the fifteen-second rule, into our networked but deeply atomistic world.
(I was always reading about what had been described as an “anthropological turn” in the art world, a turn to narrative and ethnography of various improvised sorts. If Sonia had staged this whole thing in order to make an iPhone documentary or a piece of invisible theatre, it would have been much more of its moment than any actual painting.)
“But we didn’t document anything,” she said.
“I’m a writer,” I said. “Ekphrastic literature.”
“You already wrote the essay for the show.”
“And now I’ll delete the essay, over-paint it, and the story becomes part of the show, the canvases themselves unfinished masterpieces, Madonnas of the future. Of the Uber. We’ve always wanted to do a collaboration.”
“You are sweet,” Sonia said, texting again. “Or sexist. But I want the paintings.”
“I know, but we’re not getting them.” Surely she knew that? “Certainly not by tomorrow at six.”
“But I have the address,” she said, smiling, holding up her phone. “Kashif sent it to me.”
When an Uber driver accepts your request within the allotted fifteen seconds, he never sees your phone number—the app distorts it so he can contact you or take your call without having access to the actual digits. Which meant that Kashif, even if he’d wanted to, couldn’t have provided us with a direct line to the passenger. What’s more, the driver receives only a building number, not an apartment number (although Uber no doubt has access to it through the credit-card billing address). Rushing over from Sonia’s, we’d felt, giddily, that recovery of the paintings was, if not assured, within reach. That must have been the exhaustion and the vodka; there are seventy-one units, I reported, Googling the building on my phone as we stood before it. Five floors. Built in 1906. On average, forty-nine dollars per square foot. A faint rain was falling.
Seventy-one apartments to buzz, in order to say, via the crackling intercom at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night, some version of: “Hi, did you steal the paintings I left in an Uber and can I have them back?” (Why we felt confident the paintings were in the building I can’t really say—but we did, both of us.) We entered the vestibule and looked at the tall panel of buzzers. I was about to suggest to Sonia that we leave when she pressed 1-A; instead of a voice on the intercom, we heard the interior door buzz and we walked in. There was a security guard behind a desk, a sign-in sheet on a clipboard, but the guard didn’t look up from her phone. We stood for a minute trying to figure out if 1-A was to the east or west. There was a large, generic Chinese landscape painting on the lobby wall—mist, mountain, pagoda—and under it there was a folding table on which some children’s toys and used books were stacked, presumably left there for the taking.
Two disorienting things happened in rapid succession. First, I recognized the landscape, or, rather, recognized, via the landscape, the building: this, I remembered, was where I had met, at an unauthorized rooftop party on the Fourth of July several years ago (willows of sparks over the East River; cloying rum punch), the young curator who had introduced me to a woman named Liz, with whom I became friends, and through whom I was introduced to Sonia—so this building into which her paintings had disappeared was linked to the origin of our relationship. Then, before I could explain this coincidence to Sonia, I saw that one of the books on the folding table was mine, or, more accurately, less dramatically, that there was an edited volume called “Late Art,” to which I’d contributed a chapter. But still: our semi-sane quest to recover Sonia’s work had not only returned us to an important place in the prehistory of our friendship but had brought us into contact with my work, a strange synchronicity that suddenly lent the building a sinister feel, as if we’d been entrapped by a person we believed we’d been pursuing. (I thought of “The Shining,” the Overlook Hotel. Had “The Shining” been available in eighties Poland? When I was exhausted, I reverted not to a European language but, rather, to Cold War TV and cinema.)
I picked up the somewhat warped copy of “Late Art” and flipped to my essay; the highlighting and marginalia (and fact that it had been discarded) suggested it had been a college textbook. I showed the first page of my essay, showed my name, to Sonia, who just nodded and pointed to a sign that indicated the direction of 1-A.
I put the book back on the rickety table beside a pile of Legos. I was annoyed that she didn’t feel the mystery, and so I didn’t even mention the connection with Liz, but, since I was also beginning to write this in my head, I started to think, as we walked toward 1-A, where somebody was probably expecting delivery sushi, about how different it was to make work that values the original object, like painting, and work that doesn’t, like literature, where any two copies of the work are more or less considered the same.
I’d always been jealous of painters and sculptors and other visual artists, basically jealous of any artist who worked with something other than words, with paint or foam or metal, jealous of their stained clothes, the small cuts all over their hands—jealous because of my unsophisticated but unshakable sense that a work of visual art is more real, more actual, than writing. But maybe the comparative unreality of writing is precisely its advantage, how it can be abstracted from any particular material locus. Isn’t that what Shakespeare says in Sonnet 55? Not marble nor the gilded monuments are going to endure, but these rhymes—powerful in part because they are so easy to reproduce, transmit—are indestructible. No pigeons are going to shit on them, or, rather, when the pigeons do shit on a particular copy it doesn’t matter; nobody is going to leave the only Sonnet 55 in a car. (I know the list of lost books is long, that texts can suffer something other than literal decay; I know many artists these days work with materials less material than text; I know endurance isn’t necessarily the goal; I know that I’m not Shakespeare, that this doesn’t rhyme. Still: I felt literature’s lack of actuality relative to the plastic arts as a power, not a weakness, and that was new for me.)
We could hear the TV inside the apartment. Sonia knocked, and the door opened to reveal a confused twenty-something man in Lycra sportswear who smelled of sweat and, vaguely, of marijuana, probably vapor. “Hello,” he said, more politely than I’d expected, while he waited for us to explain our presence. Sonia looked past him into the apartment, saw the giant flat screen, muted now, the ready-to-assemble furniture, and lost, if not her nerve, her last reserve of energy. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Wrong apartment,” I said. As we left the building, I took the copy of “Late Art.”
While Sonia showered, I read her text exchange with Kashif:
“This is Sonia I need the address please Kashif please I will not tell where I got it from.”
“I am sorry they will fire me I have a family.”
“I have no family just my paintings I will not tell.”
“How much money do your paintings cost people.”
“These paintings are probably 20k total together but it is more than the money.”
“Wow you must be a famous artist (smiley face).”
“I am not famous and I only get half of the money the gallery takes half. Worked on these all year. I can give you money if the paintings are back to me.”
“I am not asking for your money that is not my thought. Sonia what did Uber say then.”
“Nothing they tell me go to the police.”
“Kashif again did the police officers help you.”
“Police they cannot help can I have the artists. Sorry I mean the address.”
“Sonia I know you are a good person so I will tell you it is 203 Rivington between Pitt/Ridge that’s all I have to give you.”
“Thank you thank you (smiley face) can you tell me if it the rider was man woman white asian latino black.”
I have never composed anything at a standing desk before; to be on my feet makes me feel a little like a painter. I brewed some Bustelo in Sonia’s stovetop espresso machine. She is asleep. When she wakes up, she’s going to knock on the door of seventy apartments while I go on writing this—writing under the assumption that she won’t get the paintings back. Surely their recovery is highly improbable, if not impossible. This will be an entirely different piece of writing if it accompanies the returned paintings rather than taking their place, but we’ve agreed that, instead of our planned conversation, I’ll read it to you at the opening either way. And, if the paintings aren’t found, we’ll publish this, the story of their loss and recuperation through literature—make a little book that includes the installation shots of the two canvases before Sonia took them down to clean them up. Or maybe she’ll repaint them? Sonia has let me add one object to the show: the copy of “Late Art,” a readymade. I’ll just drop it on the gallery floor. “Late Art,” a kind of non-site, referring as it does to 203 Rivington, the building, the cathedral, into which Sonia’s diptych has disappeared. It will cost many times the cover price, only one indication that this copy of “Late Art,” while possessing the same words as all the other copies, is utterly distinct. Pierre Menard, Marcel Duchamp. One object, two systems. Now it’s really raining out. It’s one-fifteen.
I say cathedral because 203 Rivington is 0.6 miles from here but feels as if it were in another world, or suspended between worlds, a building henceforth charged with both the presence and absence of art, the actual and the virtual. Really what I keep imagining is the building in “Ghostbusters” (could Sonia have seen it before 1989?), where Zuul, a demigod, has established a portal for Gozer, the Sumerian god of destruction. If she never recovers the paintings, that building will glow for her and for me and maybe for you as a temple of art. I am only half joking. Google tells me the actual building in “Ghostbusters” is 55 Central Park West. Sonnet 55. The traces of a mysterious system. They lend the world a certain handmade quality. As if someone has reached out.
I’m reading this to you in place of a conversation Sonia and I had about a photograph of two politicians kissing, a photograph that was painted, a painting that was destroyed, repainted, then repainted multiple times by Sonia in a range of historical styles. Honecker, secret documents would reveal in the early nineties, had pushed in 1980 for Warsaw Pact countries to invade Poland in order to crush the rise of Solidarity, in which Sonia’s father was active. Brezhnev was “sympathetic” to Honecker’s request, but, for a variety of reasons, the invasion never happened. Where and who would Sonia be if it had? (The small size of the disappeared canvases was supposed to make the historical and the personal kiss, or make the failure of that contact felt.) Maybe Sonia would have been no different; her father was jailed in the crackdown anyway, absent from her first-birthday party, a year after Pope John Paul kissed the tarmac of the airport in Warsaw. Has that kiss, or its photograph, been painted? A kiss represents a formal limit to speech, lips “locked,” and so a painted kiss is anti-literary, anti-ekphrastic, says the coffee. It’s no longer raining. Rindy Sam, a French woman, kissed a Cy Twombly canvas in 2007 in Avignon, smudging it with lipstick. She said that she was “overcome with passion” for the white canvas, a Madonna of the future. Damage to medieval objects of Christian devotion from repeated kissing is an important problem in the field of conservation. My first kiss was with Ashley Marker in Collins Park the year the Wall came down. She used to collect free perfume samples from White Lakes Mall, empty the little vials onto her stonewashed jeans, strike a disposable lighter, and run, slicked with blue flame, through the dark. At the time, it was life; at the time of writing—art.
Now I’d like to ask everyone to imagine that 203 Rivington was built over the gas station and garage where Louie De Palma ran the Sunshine Cab Company. This requires of course that you conflate West and East (Village), fiction and reality, systems and times. But let’s imagine that Louie, instead of just coördinating taxis driven by a community of loners—Eastern European immigrant with multiple personality disorder, beautiful single mother, struggling actor, washed-up boxer (“Taxi” was about solidarity among otherwise alienated workers)—can coördinate all the systems, private and public, aboveground and under: Uber, subway, gallery, representational, temporal, spatial, national, natural, supernatural, not that any of these things, by itself, exists. Louie De Palma or Henry James in his metal cage giving Judd Hirsch or my dad a hard time. Louie De Kingdom declares martial law in Poland and Kashif is jailed without charge but then the wide-eyed Andy Kaufman dies, or fakes his death, for us all.
And then, here it comes, a new version of Bob James’s theme song, an arrangement for recorder and flute, electric piano, drums, and cello, a period style from both the past and the future, a song without words that can be described but not played, notes that fall one after the other all at once, Romantic music, unheard melodies in F major, a portal or door, the news a mentor almost brings you in a dream, the living record of your memory. That sort of thing.