The Art of Addition by Subtraction
"Hey, Marie -- see the couple staring at Janette's Pomegranate #5?" Buster nodded toward the two men, one tall and slight as a whisper, the other squat, the pleat of his suit coat flaring out like a ladybug's wings.
I'd shoved show catalogues into the hands of the two as they entered the gallery, but they'd looked right past me to the twelve-foot tall nude that Buster had hung in the entryway to aggravate a yawping neighbor who thought of good art as Norman Rockwell. "Window shoppers?"
"They're going to buy your Brooklyn Menopause and All Dog's Children." A wry smile split the thatch of Buster's beard. He held up a fist.
I bumped my fist into his, weak-kneed with relief. After a three-week run, my first gallery showing was due to come down in a few hours, and until that moment I'd sold exactly nothing. Buster, who'd taken a large risk giving a relative unknown half of the wall space in his gallery, would have had nothing to show for his generosity. "Full price?"
"Me? Discount? Please. But the best thing is those two are alphas in the collecting community. This almost guarantees I'll be able to sell the rest of your pieces."
From across the room a bejeweled matron, giggling at Jeanette's Beautox, curled a forefinger to beckon Buster. He gave me a sheepish look and headed her way. I snatched a glass of champagne from a caterer's tray and tossed it down in one unladylike gulp.
One night a month ago, guiltily tempting fate, I'd totaled up the prices of the works I had on display. Absurd. $600,000. Even after subtracting Buster's half, and allowing for taxes, I'd clear enough to finally quit my job at the library to concentrate on my art.
I giggled at the irony—it had taken me twenty years of schlepping my booth from one street fair to the next to become the "promising new talent" the Times had mentioned the week before in an Arts Section tidbits piece. I went looking for my sister Casey to share the good news.
She stood at the foot of the iron spiral staircase that led to Buster's office. She was flirting, as usual, this time with a younger man, mid-30s perhaps, with copper hair and a bushy goatee. He had the almost translucent skin of a true redhead, with protruding ears that begged for a nip and tuck, and doleful eyes behind glasses with thick chartreuse frames. He was dressed in a fire-engine red turtleneck with leather pants to match.
I pushed my way through the crowd surrounding the refreshments table to join the two.
Only the flutter of Casey's eyelids tipped me to her annoyance at my imposition as she pivoted to make room for me in the conversation. "I was just telling Dean here," she touched him lightly on the sleeve, "how hard you worked to get this show. He thinks your stuff is super."
Dean nodded, peering at me over the glasses suspended on the flare of his nostrils. "Dean Lyons. Right. Yes. Super is certainly a word."
I was familiar with the contempt that Casey's ebullience brought out in some men, but he seemed sincere.
"Thanks for the compliment," I said.
"You're welcome. I was particularly taken with this piece." He made a hitchhiking gesture toward the centerpiece of my show in the spotlight behind him. Justice was a full-sized, freestanding sculpture made of human hair on a hidden wire framework; curly, straight, black, brown, red, blond, and white. Very conceptual, in that it didn't resemble anything except perhaps a whirlpool. I'd spent over five years collecting that hair, which had been trimmed by undertakers from the heads of corpses while sprucing them up for their funerals. It was the piece I'd been working toward my entire career.
"I've never seen anything quite like it," Lyons said. He tapped the open catalog in his hand with his index finger. "$75,000. Now, how can you justify such a price?" His tone was playful. Casey sidled closer.
I replied in kind. "Justice weighs almost forty pounds. Christie's just sold Femme by Miró for $2 million, and I'll bet it didn't weigh more than a pound."
"Stalin said quantity has a quality all its own," he replied, smiling as he idly tugged on his goatee. "What's with the title?"
"Do you really expect any artist to answer that question?"
He sighed. "I never give up hope." He rolled up the catalog and thrust it into the inside pocket of his suit coat. "Anyway, I'm going to buy it. The hair thing. All forty pounds."
I almost peed my pants in delight. Casey took a step back, though, and I was puzzled at the sudden suspicion, perhaps even anger, in her expression. She eventually turned on every man she took up with, but never within the first ten minutes.
"You're joking," I said.
"No joke," Lyons said. "Justice will fit perfectly into my collection."
Hoping to draw out the conversation so I could savour the moment, I said, "You're an artist, too? Might I have seen some of your work?"
Casey discreetly kicked my ankle as Lyons replied, "I doubt it. I'm a performance artist. My audiences are very intimate."
"What kind of performances?"
"Hard to explain. Maybe you'd like to attend one?"
"I'd love to," I said. Casey kicked me again, and I kicked her back.
We exchanged business cards, and Lyons promised to call me later with the details. He then excused himself to search out Buster and arrange the purchase.
"What?" I said to Casey as soon as Lyons was out of hearing range. "I'm not trying to steal him from you, if that's what you're worried about."
She put her hand on my shoulder and turned me to face the wall before whispering, "I just figured out who he is. He's that guy that makes bonfires out of art."
I had no idea what she was talking about, but before I could ask, a stocky young man trying to decide between Crass and Boring and Arrogant Prick cornered me with a multitude questions about how each should be hung, curated, and which one I thought would be worth more in ten years. A few minutes later, Buster appeared, carrying a SOLD sticker before him like a communion cup. He transferred it with great ceremony to the label of Justice.
After the gallery closed, Janette, Casey, Buster and I crammed into a vinyl-upholstered booth in the bar next door, Muscadet. I waited until the cocktails were delivered before asking the group about Lyons.
"Dean Lyons?" Janette said, frowning. "The pyro artist? He was there tonight? I read a profile of him in the Village Voice. He calls himself "Mr. Addition by Subtraction." She swirled her martini olive. "He buys art and burns it in public."
Just that quickly, my joy turned to ash. Casey patted my hand.
"He used to come around the gallery every six months or so," Buster said, "asking me to show his paintings. He had some talent, but his technique was sloppy and his subjects were vapid. Still, he has a shitload of money, so I kept thinking that if I got desperate enough I could sell him a few weeks of wall space. Fortunately, I never reached that point. Yet."
Janette asked Roscoe, "You didn't sell him anything of mine, did you?"
When Roscoe shook his head, I said, "He bought Justice. You think he means to burn it?"
"You dickhead," Janette said, glaring at Roscoe.
"What?" Roscoe replied. "A customer buys a piece, he buys the right to do with it what he pleases. It's not like we don't charge him plenty for the privilege. And Lyon's money is as good as anyone's. Right, Marie?"
"But why would he burn Justice?" The notion was intolerable.
Janette said, "In the profile, he said that eradicating bad art was as valid a form of artistic expression as creating good art. I think he even got a grant from the NEA."
"He can't burn Justice," I said. "I don't care what he paid. I poured my soul into that piece."
"You go, girl," Casey said, raising her wine spritzer in support.
Roscoe rest his chin on his fist. "Money is money. It buys you the time to make better pieces. Some artists do commercial work to pay the bills. Is this so different?"
The insult to the quality of my work implicit in Roscoe's words hurt. "If I do better work," I said, "maybe he buys and burns that, too. You think people will remember me for the money I had?"
My tablemates snarled at Roscoe as he replied, "Then think about me for a minute, OK? A sale like this allows me to show more new artists like you two. Besides, the contract's been signed."
"Stop the check," Janette said.
"He paid cash. And he had the piece picked up at closing time."
"Oh, bite me," I said, stood, pulled a ten out of my billfold, tossed it on the table, and stomped out.
I stood on the street corner outside the bar for fifteen minutes before I finally flagged down a cab to haul me from Tribeca to the Upper East Side address on Lyon's card. Along the way, I wondered if our mother would have been as proud of Justice as she'd been of Casey's firstborn, Troy, whose birth she'd regarded like a biblical miracle.
It was midnight when I jumped out of the cab in front of a high-class apartment building overlooking Central Park. I felt like a hobo in the simple pants suit and sensible flats I'd worn to the gallery, and the stare of the doorman implied he shared my opinion. Rather than try to fast-talk my way into the building, I took a few steps to the side of the entryway, pulled out Lyon's card, and dialed his apartment.
He answered on the first ring. Crossing my fingers and trying to keep anger out of my voice, I told him I had to speak with him, right away. I was relieved when he agreed to let me come up. The doorman didn't take his eyes off of me until the elevator doors closed.
The elevator opened on the 30th floor to an apartment the likes of which I'd only seen in high-end decorator magazines. The walls were covered in chartreuse silk wallpaper, and the living room beyond the foyer was decorated in blended curves and playful takeoffs on vegetation; a chair made in the shape of a bunch of bananas, asparagus floor lamps, garlic pillows. Spotlights in the ceiling reflected from the chrome of empty art hangers lining the walls like sconces.
Lyons, still dressed in the clothes he'd worn to the gallery, was leaning against the wall waiting for me, his eyes half open. "It didn't take you long," he said. There was a sag to his face that I hadn't noticed earlier, and he spoke so softly I could barely hear him. He turned and waved an arm toward the living room. "You're not armed, are you?"
"Not this time," I replied, feigning amusement, since I still had a faint hope of reasoning with him. I preceded him into the living room, taking in the panoramic view of Central Park and the West Side. Empty celery-stalk display stands stood like pilings throughout the room. A see-through glass cabinet separated the living room from a music room, but the shelves were also empty. "You have the whole floor?" I asked.
Lyons pointed me to an orange sweet-potato couch in front of the window, and collapsed into the bananas. "Three floors, actually. My grandparents were talented capitalists."
I sank into the couch. A spray of fresh-cut pink orchids on the coffee table concealed Lyons face. He reached out with a socked foot and shoved the vase aside.
"I’m surprised you invited me up," I said.
He shrugged. "Might as well get this out of the way as soon as possible. You figured out why I bought your piece." He yawned. "And you want it back. They always want it back."
I leaned forward to escape the lethargy of the overstuffed furniture. I'd steeled myself for a pitched argument, but Lyons seemed abstracted.
"Of course I want you to stop," I said. "I'll give your money back."
He slid lower in the chair, like a bored child in a pew. "Does a car mechanic worry about what becomes of the spark plugs he installs? Have you ever seen a short-order cook try to buy back a breakfast?"
"Are you comparing my art to a spark plug?"
"Why not? Art isn't holy, is it? It's a product. Mostly a defective product. A few years ago, a hundred paintings by leading British artists were destroyed in a warehouse fire. You know what I call that? A good start."
I bit my lip and replied, "I leave a piece of myself in every work. You burn my work, you burn me."
Lyons removed his glasses and rubbed his face with both hands. "I used to say shit like that, back when I was painting."
"Then you know what I mean. Why I need my piece back."
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "My paintings were crap. All they did was obscure other people's brilliant work. Every mediocre piece taints the art world like a drop of soap in a pot of coffee."
"So my piece is crap?" I clasped my hands between my knees.
"Duh," Lyons said, and yawned again.
"So burning it accomplishes what? Beyond stroking your ego."
He lifted his feet onto the kiwi coffee table. "I call my art addition by subtraction. And yes, I realize how pretentious that sounds. I’m sorry about the harsh appraisal of your work, but I'm not giving your piece back; I need it. Take my money and try harder next time. Or find another way to scratch your art itch. I understand quilting is fun."
I sat seething quietly for a couple of minutes, trying to frame a response that didn't include screaming. Before I could speak, Lyons began to snore softly.
I stood and turned to the window, tempted to chuck one of the end tables through it. When Roscoe had, at long last, agreed to show my work, I'd spent hours digging up the addresses of the teachers and classmates who had ridiculed my ambition. I'd sent them all invitations to the exhibition, and a few had even come. Now, in a few minutes, Lyons had made a cruel joke of my revenge.
I waved a hand in Lyons' face, but he didn't respond. Still furious, I crossed the room and passed through the folding glass door dividing the living room from the music room, which was dominated by a Bösendorfer grand piano beneath a crystal chandelier. The walls in this room were also bare. I took out my house key.
As I gouged Art is sacred into the walnut top of the piano, I wondered if the pieces Lyons had gathered for his next bonfire were somewhere in the apartment. Maybe if I acted quickly, I could still liberate Justice.
I passed through the music room to the dining room, then the kitchen, breakfast room, restroom, pantry, and back into the foyer, checking closets and cabinets as I went. No art. Into the library. No art.
A side door from the library led to a winding staircase. I returned to the living room to check on Lyons, who was sound asleep, a thin line of drool trickling into his beard.
I climbed the stairs. The upstairs hallway opened first onto a massive media room that had escaped the attention of the psychedelic decorator. The only seating, a battered leather recliner, was placed at the focal point of the sound system.
I gave the room a quick once-over. Still no art, although two empty cabinets bookending the entertainment console were purpose-made for displaying sculptures.
I searched the guest bedrooms -- under the bed, in the bathroom cabinets, the walk-in closets. Nothing. My last stop was the master bedroom. Strewn clothes, piled magazines, a 60-inch plasma TV, and a dirty breakfast tray on the floor suggested Lyons spent a good part of his day in bed. A hypodermic, lighter, and silver spoon on the bed stand explained Lyons lethargy.
The only piece of art in the apartment was hidden in a cardboard box under the bed. The small abstract acrylic painting was done in five primary colours. Straight horizontal lines at the top and bottom sandwiched other lines which curved, looped and twisted like intestines. The piece lacked unity, and the color pallet wasn't harmonious. Still, not altogether hideous. It was unsigned, but on the backside was a faint note in pencil: DL '01.
The wronged dream first of vengeance, and I was no exception. But I also recognized the danger in confrontation: some people are willing, even happy to burn, in which case everybody loses. I decided to wait until Justice was in sight before proposing a trade.
I removed the painting from the frame, then cut the canvas free from the stretcher with my Swiss Army knife. I shoved the frame and stretcher back under the bed.
I rolled up the painting and slid it under my collar at my nape and down along my spine, under my bra strap and tucked it into the waistband of my pantyhose. Standing up straight, the canvas was barely noticeable beneath my blouse.
The doorman didn't.
Lyons had left a message on my answering machine earlier in the evening with directions to his next performance, on Saturday night five days hence. A written invitation followed two days later.
I spent the week hounding Buster, fruitlessly pleading for him to negate the deal. I talked with a lawyer, who agreed to pursue it if I gave her a $100,000 retainer. I even stalked Lyons for a couple of days as best I could via public transportation hoping he'd lead me to his cache, but a burly marine-type accompanied him everywhere he went, and he didn't leave his apartment very often.
"Grieve for Justice," Casey counseled me. "Then let it go. Remember when Catigula ran away? We got over that."
"He was a kitten. We were children. There's no comparison."
"You should have had children," she said. "You'd have more perspective."
"So you keep telling me." She'd had two, by partners unrevealed, and now that the kids were grown she had convinced herself that all those years as a single mother had been joyous. I knew better. I'd been there with her, every day, every tear, and every day I had returned home thankful beyond words that I'd chosen art.
Because Lyons had told me his audiences were very small, I was surprised to find over 100 people gathered on the roof of an old brick high-rise for Lyon's performance. Caterers were serving wine at one white-clothed table, canapés at another. The attendees ran to tattoos and trashy-chic clothing. The air was redolent with wood smoke and marijuana.
Lyon's bodyguard collected my invitation and checked my name off the list on his clipboard. He also ordered me to uncap the cardboard mailing tube I was carrying. I told him the painting rolled up inside was a contribution for Lyon's performance. He waved me in.
After grabbing a glass of wine from the table, I wove my way through conversation clusters toward a theater-in-the-round stage which filled almost a third of the roof. It rested on layer after layer of fireproof insulation and was surrounded by a phalanx of fire extinguishers.
Another goon stood guard at the bottom of the ramp to the stage. In the center of the stage, a bonfire of hardwood logs was already sending up flames six feet high. A few steps to its right, a blue tarp covered what I presumed was the artwork Lyons had chosen for the event.
He was nowhere to be seen, so I circulated, dipping into a few conversations long enough to confirm that no other artist whose work was to be burned had been stupid enough to attend. When the conversers discovered that I was one, they assumed that I was a willing participant, and made jokes at my expense. I pretended to be amused, holding my anger for later in the evening.
Finally, as a nearby cathedral struck 10 p.m., floodlights clipped to the roof antennas snapped on, illuminating the stage. I moved to a spot next to the ramp. Most of the crowd was surrounding the door leading onto the roof, twenty yards behind me. The guards quickly cleared a cordon for Lyons' grand entrance.
He appeared in the doorway dressed in a riotous brocaded and beaded robe with belled sleeves and a deep cowl. It reminded me of a Klimt painting; sumptuous, gold. He was wearing too much stage makeup, and his face looked like a mask in the spotlight glare. Following him was a fuchsia-haired girl with a video camera, shooting the festivities.
He passed through the cordon, reaching out as he passed to brush fingers with the hands held out to him. When he reached me, though, he stopped and brought both hands to his heart like an infatuated mime. "What a lovely surprise," he said. "You're the very first. You realize that?"
"The first artist to attend?"
He nodded. "Oh, this is going to be an epic performance. Can't you just feel it?" His face was flushed and his eyes darted around the audience.
"I'm not here to help you murder my art," I said.
"Murder means the taking of a life," he replied loudly, looking around to make sure the bystanders were enjoying his repartee. "Believe me, there's no life in the art we're burning tonight."
The people close enough to hear broke into laughter.
I, on the other hand, spit on him. Startled, Lyons took a step back and would have tumbled over the ramp if the guard had not propped him up. He scowled at me as he climbed to the stage.
In the spotlights, he appeared a foot taller. He stood, hands on hips, taking in the audience for a minute, which was applauding politely, before raising his arms. Music began booming from speakers behind us, a Dead Can Dance piece with the bass cranked up until I could feel it bouncing off my sternum. The onlookers fell silent.
"What is art?" he said, his voice rising in pitch as he strained to be heard over the music, "The struggle to find order in chaos? To bring meaning to meaninglessness? To return passion to a jaded world?"
The people standing next to me smiled indulgently. A goth on the opposite side of the ramp rolled her eyes and elbowed the man beside her. He thinks he's moving them with his so-called art, I realized, but to them, it's just bread and circuses.
"If so, then bad art can make chaos out of order," Lyons continued, playing to the camera. "And worse, it leaves us too numb to recognize the good stuff."
He wrung his hands. "I compare what I do to tearing down a billboard in Yellowstone. Burning a McDonalds on St. Marks Square, or blowing up an oil derrick on the Great Barrier Reef."
The crowd clapped politely as he paused.
Lyons' face was already covered with sweat. The ramp guard had turned his back to me. I eased myself around the banister so that I had a straight shot up to the stage. Now that confrontation was inevitable, I was ticking with anticipation.
Lyons crossed to the tarp, reached down, grabbed a corner, dragged it to the edge of the roof, and with a toreador's flourish sent it spinning into the darkness. Revealed were half a dozen unframed paintings, a misshapen glob of glass the size of a beagle, and Justice. The audience hooted like drunken soccer fans.
Lyons plucked a painting from the pile and held it aloft. "I paid $11,000 for this," he said.
The picture looked like vomit on houndstooth fabric.
"Burn, burn, burn," the crowd chanted.
"This one's for Modigliani," Lyons shouted, and pitched the picture into the fire. It caught fire immediately. I could smell the acrylics as they boiled away.
Lyons waited for the applause to recede before brushing his hands together and saying, "Isn't the world more beautiful now?"
As those around me cheered, I fought off the impulse to imagine the artists whose works were being burned. I had to remain focused.
Lyons returned to the pile, grabbed another painting, repeated the process. Then more self-aggrandizing gibberish. Then another. And another. A portrait of an old man with daisies for eyes. A solid black rhomboid. A puppy taking a crap. An abstract done with a paintball gun. All up in flames, except the glass piece, which shattered. The crowd egged Lyons on, and between each sacrifice, he implored their applause with come-hither motions.
Finally only Justice remained. A young couple behind me debated about how long it would take for human hair to burn. Lyons appeared a bit wobbly on his feet, and he kept rubbing his chest. He locked his eyes on me, though, as he grabbed my sculpture and dragged it to the edge of the fire.
He raised his hands for quiet, then said, "It takes a brave person to admit that the art world would be better without her work." He pointed at me. "A woman like Marie Shaffer. Can we have some applause for the first artist to watch her work burn?"
As the crowd craned to see whom he was addressing, I sprinted up the ramp and crossed the stage, pulling the rolled painting from the mailing tube as I went. I came to a stop a few feet from Lyons, a few feet from the fire.
Lyons, watching the audience, didn't seem aware that I had something in my hand. When the applause died down, he nodded in satisfaction and turned Justice to face me. "Would you like to do the honour?"
The audience fell silent, straining to catch my reply.
"No," I said. "But I will burn this." I unrolled the painting in his face. He staggered back a step and blinked several times. When his bodyguard took a step up the ramp, Lyons shook his head to stop him.
I held the picture up to the crowd, and paced across the stage so that everyone could get a good look. "It's the last remaining original work by Dean Lyons," I yelled. "Should it burn? Thumbs up or thumbs down?"
A multitude of arms shot into the air. Thumbs down. I turned back to Lyons, who sighed deeply.
"It looks like your friends have no pity. Lucky for you, I do. I'm willing to trade. Your darling for mine."
The crowd buzzed with pleasure at the high drama.
Lyons stroked the hair of Justice. "A trial by fire, huh?" To my surprise, he smiled but his eyes were wet. He thought with eyes closed for a minute before nodding, taking a step toward me, and bending his head to whisper in my ear.
"Thank you," he said. "I would never have been able to work up the nerve to burn that one."
He lifted Justice and heaved it into the flames.
I flicked my wrist. Lyon's painting landed beside it.
The crowd's applause was all but lost on us as we watched our art burn. I'll never forget the smell of burning hair, or Lyons, both hands up in the air as though celebrating. His posture was belied by the despair on his face as his painting turned to thumb-sized feathers of ash and floated away in the smoke.
Through my eyes, the world had never seemed so ugly.
Tom Barlow is an Ohio writer. Other stories of his may be found in anthologies including Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Best New Writing 2011, and numerous magazines including Redivider, Temenos, The Apalachee Review, Hobart, Penduline Press, Thrice Fiction and The William and Mary Review. He is also author of the short story collection Welcome to the Goat Rodeo (long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Collection Award) and the novel I'll Meet You Yesterday.
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