Ulysses: The Stained-Collar Crime Wave

Table of Contents here.

June 16, 2022 – As Hopper continued walking north on Park Avenue, he was reminded of the stories his father, the noted painter, told him about art and the art world.

“You can always tell that you are in a neighborhood filled with high rates of unreported crime by how many private art galleries are located there,” Hopper’s father told him. “There are more art galleries in New York than any other city, and more art galleries on the Upper East Side than any other neighborhood in the world.”

Hopper’s father called this phenomenon “stained-collar crime,” after the ways art dealers tricked individual collectors and the painters they purportedly represented. “It’s more like prostitution,” he explained. “Someone gets fucked, money is exchanged, and no one wants to talk about it afterwards when they realize what actually happened.”

Early in his career before he became famous, Hopper’s father was often commissioned by friends of friends with limited resources to copy famous paintings to hang in their living rooms. “Mostly abstract art,” he told Hopper. “Rothko, Kline, Kandinsky. That ilk. Never Jackson Pollock, though. That was way too much work. My copies somehow gave people something they needed in their lives at a fraction of the price.”

His father was a good storyteller or, as Hopper in adulthood would describe him, “a talented bullshit artist.” Hopper loved hearing about the art dealers who would visit a home and see one of his father’s copies, try to convince the owners that they were sitting on valuable works, and offering to sell the paintings for vast riches to the gullible minus their commissions. His father would never betray the names of the dealers because, as he told his son, “Art dealers don’t care what you think of them, but they don’t want a lot of people to know what you think of them.”

During each of his birthday celebrations for the past 20 years, Hopper’s father would regale partygoers in his Westbeth apartment to another chapter in the saga of the New York art dealer Joseph Duveen and the art historian and critic Bernard Berenson, who together swindled wealthy industrialists and financiers out of money and pride in the early 20th century.

He told his stories like a carnival barker: “Gather around, folks, and listen to a true tale about the fraud, deception, malfeasance, and the pure genius behind the construction of the world-famous Cloisters Museum right here in New York City. The story features a former taxidermist from Iowa named George Grey Barnard; the two greatest of the American Robber Barons, J. Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller; and our hero, the art dealer Joseph Duveen. You will come to understand the curious connection between the Cloisters, the sculptures of 33 nudes at the entrance to the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg, and the remains of the ninth century Benedictine abbey in Saint Michel-de-Cuxa in southern France. And you will marvel at the clumsy system of French governance and oversight on the eve of World War I.”

Hopper’s father swore to the veracity of all the stories, sourced from a book published decades ago, a dozen of which he owned and invited visitors to inspect. “The author, I am told, was a scoundrel,” Hopper’s father claimed, “but the book received a long front-page review by John Updike in the New York Times Book Review.”

The poet Stephen, who was invited to attend the birthday parties after he was awarded a MacArthur Grant, fact-checked every story by using the book his father had mentioned. “Your father certainly embellishes the stories to make them more interesting,” he told Hopper, “but not by much.”

The guests at the Tilley-Blandin celebrations were entertained by these hijinks, but Hopper saw how much work his father put into the telling of the stories. Bullet points for each year’s story were committed to index cards, memorized, rehearsed for hours, and filed away to ensure a story would never be repeated.

As Hopper was negotiating the path underneath the permanent scaffolding in front of the infamous 740 Park Avenue coop, he saw a familiar young woman without a mask approaching him. Her name came to him a beat after they passed.

“Gerty!” he shouted, turning around to face the woman. “It’s Hopper,” he said, pulling down his face mask with the pug.

“Hopper!” the woman nearly shrieked with a mixture of mirth and terror.

Gerty had been his father’s studio assistant and the last in a string of young mistresses who were convinced that they were the artist’s muse. Gerty had been the person who found Hopper’s father alone and dead in his studio. He had bled to death overnight in a combination of experiment, inebriation, and clumsiness. Gerty’s subsequent 15 minutes of fame within the art world lasted approximately 36 hours, or until the news of Eric Fischl’s passing from complications of long-haul COVID-19.

Hopper had been in the same room with Gerty only once, twice actually, if you count the funeral and the wake for his father separately. Gerty had been overly distraught at the wake, attracting some scorn from the people who thought paramours should abide by certain rules of comportment in the presence of the deceased’s actual loved ones. At his mother’s prompting, Hopper escorted Gerty outside the funeral home and chatted her up, learning more about her life coming from the wrong side of Providence, Rhode Island, than he wanted to know. Then she confessed, “I read your book.”

Hopper looked up, nodded, and smiled.

“I think you were very unfair in the treatment of your father,” she said.

“My father, may he rest in peace,” Hopper responded, “was an asshole.”

Those were the last words spoken between them until now. After fumbling through some awkwardness, Gerty explained to Hopper that she was now managing an art gallery a few blocks away.

“The owner sells limited edition prints,” she said. “He sells them to galleries all over the country, who then do the mark-up on their clients.”

“Sounds like a wholesaler racket,” Hopper said.

“I know, right?” Gerty responded. “I had no idea until now how lucrative art could be, even for artists not as famous as your father. The cash just keeps flowing in, even during the worst of the pandemic lockdown. These wealthy collectors think of the art as investments, and nothing is proving them wrong. I may open up my own gallery in a couple of years.”

Her statement reminded Hopper of the epitaph on his father’s grave marker: “Dead artists roll over in their graves.”

Hopper’s father had insisted on having his corpse buried in a traditional manner. Through his wife’s connections, Hopper’s father had arranged to have himself buried in Friends Quaker Cemetery near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. “It’s closed to the public,” he said. He had drawn up a list of people who would be allowed to visit his grave. Hopper had not seen the list, nor had his sister Silver. However, his sister Olympia claimed to have a copy, which she kept in a secret hiding place. Hopper was worried about what Olympia might be planning to do with all her secrets.

“I visited your father’s grave last week,” Gerty said. “It’s tranquil and inspiring.”

Hopper had never visited his father’s grave. He wondered if Ingrid was on the list. Probably, he thought to himself.

“I’m glad you found peace with him,” Hopper said, at the same time wondering how many of his father’s mistresses were on the secret list.

“I know you have hard feelings about your father, Hopper, but he loved you,” Gerty said. “He talked about you all the time.”

Hopper paused.

“I never knew him to talk about anyone but himself,” he said.

“I think he was intimidated by you,” she said. “You need to forgive him.”

After confirming they were both vaccinated and exchanging phone numbers, Hopper and Gerty hugged. Hopper felt good about allowing himself to be hugged by Gerty and returning the embrace. He felt himself forgiving Gerty for sleeping with his father, for not arriving in time to save his life, and for thinking that maybe she felt entitled to some small slice of his family’s life.

Maybe, he thought, she deserved part of my father. After all, she had given herself over to him.

Hopper liked the feeling. He vowed to himself to call Gerty in a couple of months to see how she was doing.

“We are living in the wrong century,” Hopper’s father told guests on his birthday during the centennial anniversary of the Armory Show of 1913. “Art, serious art that can change the way people think about the world, died after Jackson Pollock was featured in Life magazine in 1949. Painters became celebrities creating fungible assets. They stopped being artists. Contemporary art is just an absurdist parody of itself.”

Continue to Chapter 16 here.

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