The Artist’s Model

Mary Gordon
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

You owe it to me, you know. You couldn’t possibly deny you owe me something.

People were divided in their response to these words of Clara’s, because Marya had of course told the people she had expected to be on her side, not understanding that most people would not be, even the ones who knew that the Lichtmanns’ marriage was a horror, even the ones who were surprised that what had happened hadn’t happened much, much earlier. And even the people who liked Clara, who admired and enjoyed her, understood that she would have been impossible to live with and that Dan, who was eight years younger and had married her when he was just twenty-three, had been disastrously under her thumb for the twelve years of their married life. Nevertheless, the Lichtmanns had been a feature in the world of painters, sculptors, actors, and writers who had found Fort Greene while it was still affordable, and had somehow made something desirable out of what was considered a wasteland or an embarrassing lower-class cliché. They had “bonded,” as they liked to say of themselves, using air quotes when they said it, to hide the fact that they really believed that something united them, something real and valuable and as lasting as anything in the world they so tentatively inhabited could be.

“What surprises me,” said Maribel, who was not an artist but was the head of a bilingual French-English day care center, “is that Clara didn’t see it coming a mile off. That she took Marya to her bosom with such zeal, such misplaced enthusiasm.”

“Childlessness,” said her husband, William, who worked in textile design.

“I just don’t want to believe that. It’s too … essentializing.”

“Believe it or not, my dear, the whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, to be perfectly cold about it, all of them have reaped what they sowed.”

“I’m not sure that the three of them weren’t just naive, just a trio of absolute babes in the woods, lambs to the slaughter, or just a bunch of blind drunks, shitfaced on the rotgut of Clara’s high ideals. “

“You cannot possibly think of Clara as an innocent. She was born knowing, born knowing everything she needed to know.”

“I disagree with you on two points. First, she didn’t know enough to protect herself and her marriage from Marya. And second, whatever you think of her, she’s absolutely committed to the ideal of the pure artist, the absolute importance of the work of art. I call that a kind of innocence.”

William didn’t know how to answer that, so he said, “I’m sick of the subject. It’s replaced the real estate conversation in our crowd, and that’s really quite something. How I’m longing for the days of discussion about the viability of garage space in Bed-Stuy!”

The way the Lichtmanns and Marya had met was so ordinary as to be almost laughable. Marya had waited tables at the café that the Lichtmanns went to every day, starting their morning’s work, habitually, with double lattés and whatever scone was on offer. Marya had arrived from nowhere, as all the girls who worked at the Bean and I seemed to have done. In her case, it was Toledo, and she seemed to take an outsize pride when Dan said that the museum in Toledo was really fine.

Clara had become enthusiastic. “Where were we driving, sweetie, to Chicago–it was when I had a show there and we had to drive the paintings, or I guess we decided it would be cheaper and safer, and it sounded like fun, a road trip, and it was fun … but anyway we stopped at Toledo, and we were so happy. It’s what we always do when we go to a new museum. We separate, we make sure we don’t say a word to each other the whole time, and then if we find something that really grabs us, we tell the other only when we’re completely finished looking, and then we go together, like visiting royalty, or maybe some young lovely we both were interested in fucking, could go either way. And in Toledo we both found something that turned out to be really important to our future work. This sculpture, Migrating Pediments, for Dan and for me, a fabulous Cecilia Beaux, very elegant, very cynical, fashionable, but kind of cruel in a genteel way. Just up my alley.”

“I love that painting, that Cecilia Beaux. I never thought anyone else thought about it. I mean, everyone’s always looking at the van Goghs or the landscapes, and they’re wonderful, I don’t mean they aren’t, but that Cecilia Beaux … I’ve loved it since I was a little kid, and I’ve learned so much from it,” Marya had said.

Clara had been surprised to find this kind of interest in a young painter; she was so used to younger people discarding the idea of painting wholesale, or using it to make an ironic or a violent point. And so of course she invited Marya to come and see her work, to come for dinner, because Clara was a fabulous cook, she was famous for it as she was famous for her Bakelite bangles and her scarves: batik, crochet, gold lamé, animal prints, always tied in a way that everyone envied and that no woman felt she could ever match.

No one spoke much about the fact the Lichtmanns needed to worry about money much less than everyone else in their circle. Everyone knew that Dan made money as a welder, but only a few people knew that Clara had been left a brownstone on 12th Street in Greenwich Village which had actually belonged not only to her parents but to her grandparents. Both she and her mother had grown up there; Clara was a third-generation bohemian, but like a certain stripe of bohemian there was a secret source of family wealth, many years back in her case. Unlike most of their friends, Clara and Dan knew they would never have to take a job they hated, and would never have to panic. When her parents died, two years apart, both of strokes, Clara, thirty-six then, sold the brownstone for a price no one knew exactly, but speculated was at least ten million dollars. And she seemed to be very good at the stock market, which was something she never talked about either. But Clara and Dan lived not very differently from their friends, except that each year in the winter they went somewhere warm for a month, but they were always vague about it and didn’t talk about it when they came back tan and free from everyone else’s dalliance with that year’s flu strain.

Their house wasn’t very different from those of any of their friends; they made a point of that: the same open plan, pine floors, granite counters, and white cabinets. They had a tiny back yard, and, like everyone else, they had replaced the aluminum siding of the house with white clapboard. They didn’t spend money on clothes; everyone was impressed at what Clara did with her soft, large body: draping it, but not as other heavy women did, with a kind of half-apologetic half-aggressive bravado, but finding clothes that made her softness seem deliberate and a kind of riposte to the prevailing thinness of everyone else, making it seem assaultive, and she the refuge in a world of drawn knives.

Everyone knew that her work was much stronger than Dan’s, although his was clearly much more cutting-edge and hers almost deliberately arrière-garde. Her paintings were small, and she concentrated on the human figure. She showed every two years or so at a gallery her friend Livia Martenson had started when their circle moved into Fort Greene. It was a small enterprise, deliberately modest, and Clara sold modestly and steadily and seemed not to pay attention to what she called “all that,” putting furious energy, instead, into the installation of her shows. Livia’s gallery was small but respectable, and her respect for her painters was legendary. She was famous for being unusual among dealers for paying everyone on time. Everyone felt good about going to events there, because she didn’t just exhibit paintings, she showed fabric art and video and even hosted performance events. It was a big, warm, open space; at one point it had been a luncheonette, and Livia had kept the counter and the stools. That was where she left the book for guests to sign, and the information about the works for sale. She paid the rent by renting out the space for weddings or book parties or anniversaries; a lot of happy memories had their source and home at Livia’s.

Dan had got a commission for the courtyard of a municipal building in a small Montana town, and so he was away from the house a lot working with his large, noisy dangerous materials, coming home exhausted, spent. Perhaps that was why Clara took to inviting Marya over so frequently; she had just had a show, she was feeling fallow. The truth is, she said, she was lonely with Dan away so much. She had never wanted to teach, never wanted to be part of that institutional structure, with its anxiety and competition and false promises, but it pleased her to be able to offer Marya instruction. Marya hadn’t been to art school; she had come to New York because she wanted to eventually take courses at the Studio School, which valued drawing and representational painting, but the reality of the expense of New York life was a shock to her, and she hadn’t yet been able to save enough money to take even a single course.

And so it seemed ideal that Clara should become Marya’s teacher, and Marya her adoring student. It was almost comical to see them walking down the street together, Clara so large with her flowing clothes and swinging arms and the long braid halfway down her back, graying now but in a way that seemed cunning rather than careless. Marya was as small and dun as a half-drowned bird; she sank into her shoulders, they seemed like a hanger someone had stepped on in an overcrowded closet; her torso seemed almost caved in, almost tubercular. She walked well, as if she’d had dance training. She had a perfect pointed nose, well-sculpted thin lips, and overlarge gooseberry-colored eyes that only just didn’t look exothermic. Her hair was cut boy short, and seemed to be of no particular color. She wore a nose ring, but her hands and arms were completely free of jewelry.

She was surprised when Clara said she wanted to paint her. “I’m fascinated by your nearly visible skeleton,” she said. “And the fineness of your lines."

When Dan came home from his studio, Marya was often stretched out on the floor, naked on a large olive-and-blue Art Deco rug, which Clara had brought out from among her parent’s things. “Just finishing, darling,” Clara would say, and then take as much time as she wanted to do what she wanted. He would usually disappear into the bedroom and reappear to start dinner. Marya was invited to stay, but often she said she had to go to work.

“She’s a brave character,” Clara said to Dan one night in bed. “She comes from nothing; her mother works in the grade school cafeteria, her father sells mattresses. Neither of them has ever been to a museum in his or her life.”

“You can find a Marya every twenty feet in Brooklyn nowadays. Do you think she’s good enough to survive in this jungle?”

“Too early to tell. She has no training. I think she has an eye. I don’t know if she’s obsessional enough to follow through.”

“Did you ever think of telling her that if she thinks she has an obsession she should work on giving it up? That the price is too high?”

“You don’t give up an obsession, silly, either you lose it or it’s stolen from you. I just don’t know myself any other way than being a painter. It’s like the color of my eyes.”

Dan didn’t say anything. More and more, he tried to think of something he could do that would allow him the chance of an ordinary life. But he knew that if he said that to Clara, he would risk losing her love.

It was all so predictable that Dan and Marya would end up in bed together. What wasn’t predictable was how long it took Clara to find out, and what was absolutely incomprehensible was what she did when they told her they were moving in together.

Given Clara’s dramatic self-presentation, everyone thought that she would scream and throw things, burn the house down, take a sledge hammer to Dan’s sculpture, send Marya packages of dog shit through the mail. But she did none of those things. It was as if she turned not only cold but massive; a monumental ice sculpture, silent, unable to be moved.

She told Dan to take a month to get his things out of the house; she would take herself to New Mexico, where she would stay with friends she knew he didn’t like and she hadn’t been able to see, therefore, for much too long. He left the house immaculate, his days of tearful ranting seem to have been bleached out of the walls and floors; he left a one-line note, “Sorry. Remember the good times,” and his new address.

Marya was still working at the Bean and I. Clara had stayed away for nearly two months, so when she appeared, Marya was shocked and disturbed to see her.

That was the day she said the words that to nearly everyone seemed incomprehensible.

“I need you to finish posing for me. I’m not finished with the picture.”

Marya’s skin turned a blotchy mix of gray and rose. “I couldn’t Clara, I couldn’t possibly.”

“You owe it to me, you know. You couldn’t possibly deny you owe me something.”

Everyone told Marya that she didn’t have to do it, that Clara’s request was perverse, that it would be masochistic for Marya to go along with it. So it was. But they could tell that she was taking a pleasure in her new role: martyr to the artistic process, atoning for her sin by enacting the ideals that Clara, her high priestess, held sacred.

It must have been hideous, everyone said, worse because the painting had begun in summer and it was November now, and Marya said she was afraid to tell Clara that she was cold; she was sure Clara could tell because her skin was covered with goose flesh, and obviously she didn’t care.

And then, simply, it was over, and Clara said, “Thank you. There’s no need for us to see each other again.”

“Did you get to see what she’s done with the painting?” people asked Marya.

“I didn’t dare. I didn’t think I had the right.”

And people stopped thinking about it until the day of Clara’s show.

Everyone felt strange the day of the opening; it was the first show of Clara’s since she and Dan had split; everyone was used to seeing him working the room, greeting friends and strangers, making comments about the paintings that would lead, he hoped, to sales, and then dipping in and out of the back room of Livia’s s gallery where Clara hid. For all her bravado, she couldn’t bear to hear what people were saying about her work at the openings. Some of the women painters had been jealous of Dan’s attentiveness, held him up to their husbands and partners as an example of their failures and their lacks, and so now that he was not there in his accustomed role, there was a mixed feeling of sorrow among the kinder folks and grim satisfaction among the envious and the newly embittered. Livia couldn’t sit with Clara; she had to see to sales, and she left her with a young male assistant who didn’t seem to be able to put down his iPhone.

For the first time, Clara had included landscapes, mainly of the high New Mexican desert; some people remembered that was where she had gone to give Dan time to clear out of the house. They had the same precision of line and tonality that the portraits did but there was an elegiac atmosphere about them that no one had seen in her work before. Most of the paintings, both landscape and portrait, were small, around 8 x 10, but on a wall by itself was a painting utterly unlike anything that Clara had ever done. The background was a matte dove gray, flat as a Balthus. At the bottom was an olive-and-green art deco rug. Dominating the canvas was the reclining figure of a young woman, her body emaciated, unhealthy. But what you couldn’t take your eyes from were the blood- or ruby-red nipples, bullet-like protrusions from the flat down-turning breasts. The face was nearly all eyes, the complexion muddy green, unhealthy looking, and yet malevolent, particularly in combination with the colorless sly lips. Covering the sex were thin crossed hands that seemed to be the hands of a skeleton. But wherever the eye traveled, it was drawn to those dangerous nipples that would wound whatever touched them but remain entirely impervious themselves.

Nobody said anything, and the silence in the room was ominous and seemed to some full of reproach. People started walking out into the corridor in twos or threes, coming back uneasily, saying complimentary things about the landscapes, the excitement of Clara’s striking out in a new vein.

When Maribel and William approached Livia hand in hand everyone’s heads swerved, though they tried to make their gestures seem natural and unobtrusive. Livia nodded then went up to the picture, which was titled The Artist’s Model, and placed beneath it the important small red dot.

Everyone gathered around Maribel and William. “We had to do it,” Maribel said. “It can’t just be let out into the world like that. It’s too full of hate. We’ll put it in our house where it will be hidden. Where Dan or Marya can never see it.”

“Since when did you become such a defender of the little home wrecker?” asked Ann Stephens, who had been the most aggressive leader of the party that unequivocally took Clara’s part.

“It has nothing to do with it,” she said. “I don’t think art should be used for cruelty or for revenge.”

Clara walked out of the back room. She looked at no one. She walked over to the painting and with the nail of her second finger, scraped off the small red dot.

“This painting is not for sale,” she said, and walked back into the room.

Everyone went silent and then, with a surprising vehemence, because she was known for being the most-mild mannered of the circle, Maribel said, “You can’t do that, Livia; I mean she can’t do it, can she? You’re the dealer. It belongs to you, doesn’t it? It isn’t hers anymore.”

Livia started pulling at the ends of her long frizzy hair. “I don’t know, Maribel. I don’t know. Can we talk about it later?”

Clara walked out of the back room, took the painting off the wall, and walked out the door.

“There will be no more talking,” she said. “The painting is mine."

No one ever saw the painting again, but it was the thing everyone talked about for a while, at least once, whenever everyone got together. Or didn’t talk about, building a kind of protective igloo around it, whenever Dan and Marya appeared, which wasn’t often, because they were planning to move to the Catskills as soon as the lease on Marya’s apartment was up. A few who had been close to Dan met them for drinks or a movie, but most people only saw them when they happened to run into them at the drug store or the dry cleaners.

No one liked to admit it, but everyone was afraid of Clara now, afraid of her sorrow, and her anger, and her hatred, and her sureness. People wondered if she’d move away, but she told everyone she just wanted to travel for a while, maybe for rather a long while, but she had no thoughts of selling the house. This was her home; she loved it, it was full of happy memories. Some things were finished, but there was no need to make more of them than they were.

But other people started moving away, to Salt Lake City or San Antonio or Portland (Maine, not Oregon, which everyone knew had been unaffordable for years) or to Detroit, where artists were being offered huge spaces at bargain prices. They had a second child, or lost a job or got a better one. Younger people moved in, The Bean and I closed, three new tattoo parlors opened up and a place that sold bubble tea.

No one was really surprised when the announcement of Clara’s new show came. She’d left Livia for a much larger, trendier Chelsea gallery. She was painting abstractions now. They were quite large, and selling for much more than any of the work she’d done before.

Mary Gordon is a recipient of the Award for Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters and is the author of There the Heart Lies. She is the Millicent C. McIntosh Professor of English at Barnard College.
Originally published:
November 1, 2017


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