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Revenge of the Drop Cloth


Harry Buschman

(writer's note: Sorry for the length of this piece. It's really a tired old joke carried to
extremes - but there are some interesting people. I thought you'd like to meet them.)

"Words can not describe how thoroughly and profoundly I hate Agatha Glenville-Jones!"

"It is a hate that begins at the soles of my feet and eats a corrosive path all the way up to a point just between my eyes. From there it spreads through my sinuses, my vision blurs, my hands clench spasmodically, and all I can think of is strangling her."

"Every gallery owner, indeed every artist hates and fears Agatha Glenville-Jones, but none as intensely as I, Gerhardt Schwitzer. She is impossible to satisfy, and because of her long tenure as art critic for the New York Times, she has grown to be a gorgon, a harridan! A grudging nod of acceptance from this woman is worth a thunderstorm of bravos from everyone else. But not this time -- not this afternoon. Here in the Flick Gallery, Agatha Glenville-Jones will be astonished to see the finest exhibit of non-representational paintings ever assembled. I shall rub her witch like nose into each and every one."

"This afternoon at four, I will stand illuminated in the soft ambient track lighting of the Flick gallery and accept the envious applause from the curators of Guggenheim and Moma; from the skinny hipped Soho crowd and the smart ass know-it-alls from TriBeca. Yes, even the fancy Dans along 57th Street will eat humble crow -- RAW!! But! Most important of all, Agatha Glenville-Jones will be overwhelmed with envy; she will consume herself with jealousy!"

"Agatha! That bitch from the Times."


It is difficult for most of us to understand the maniacal hatred that burned within Gerhardt Schwitzer. "Non-representational" is a seven syllable word, and as usual, the more syllables a word has, the less sense it makes. In the art world it has come to mean paintings and drawings that do not represent anything in particular. A person can stare at such a painting all day and find nothing recognizable in it. The works of man and nature quickly give way to squares and circles, idle dribbling, smears and occasional violent splotches of poorly applied paint. Non-representational painting might be compared to the chaos of sound an unruly child might make if he found himself in a piano store.

The pretense is perpetuated by a gaggle of critics and sycophants who approve or disapprove by means of obscure and misleading reviews in the press. Agatha Glenville-Jones is their high priestess and her endorsement or rejection of non-representational paintings will make or break them. Gerhardt Schweitzer has been humiliated by Agatha Glenville-Jones again and again. His last exhibit of Cynthia Cornball's non-representational paintings were casually condemned by Agatha in her best elliptical manner:

"In the tactile, talkative canvasses of Cynthia Cornball, a 49-year-old Bay Area artist, the idea of painting as an accumulative, notational process paralleling the mundaneness, tragedies and passing thoughts of every-day life is initially quite engaging. Yet, Ms. Cornball's mixed words and images on beautifully worked surfaces, conflating reading and looking backwards -- eventually pall."

He never forgave her for that. It ruined the exhibit and infuriated the Board of Directors of the Flick Gallery. He personally overheard casual visitors say ....

"Ah yes, initially quite engaging, don't you think?"

"Yes, tactile as well, but in the end, a rather notational process -- I think it eventually palls, don't you?"

Gerhardt was humiliated, and he swore that if he could get his hands around Agatha's wrinkled turkey neck he would wring it dry.

The new exhibit was not an easy one for Gerhardt. The Flick's telephone bill had been in five figures for six months.

"Temperamental artists!" He explained to the board of directors. "Gottfried Dove will not show on the same wall as Joshua Nevinson. Abraham Walkover requires UV shields on all the fluorescent lamps. Schmidt-Rottlift wants his giant canvasses to be as close to the gallery entrance as possible."

As a matter of fact, they were so large they were shipped like rolled up carpeting and had to be stretched and framed when they arrived. Gottfried Dove, Joshua Nevinson, and Abraham Walkover, wanted to attend the reception, but only if none of the others attended. Schmidt-Rottlift preferred to remain in his atelier in Schleswig-Holstein, but he wanted the proceedings videotaped. Eventually, all the idiosyncrasies and the clashing egos had been smoothed over by the prospect of world recognition and the promised appearance of Agatha Glenville-Jones at the press opening.

On another note, and to complicate matters still further, the Board of Directors of the Flick Gallery decided to redecorate the cafeteria during Gerhardt's preparations for the exhibit. They contracted with Lou Diglio and Milo Callahan who jointly owned the DC Painting and Decorating Company. The gay abandon of the new color scheme devised by Shapiro Decorators was in stark contrast to the severe dark gray and white partitions of the exhibit area.

Lou and Milo were known in the painting trade as "Saturday" painters (a synonym for clumsiness). Lumbering across the cafeteria floor, Milo tripped and fell face down in the middle of the drop cloth carrying a gallon of "Sunrise" yellow in one hand and a gallon of midnight purple in the other. Lou did his best to help him stand, but in doing so, lost his balance and found himself sitting in the middle of the midnight purple. They used the splotched and splattered drop cloth to wipe their shoes and paint-spattered overalls, which was finally rolled up and discarded by the clumsy twosome on the receiving dock of the Flick Gallery on the very same day the canvasses of Schmidt-Rottlift arrived by UPS.

Although Schmidt-Rottlift had shipped four of his giant canvasses, Gerhardt was surprised to discover five in the basement framing room. He checked his bill of lading and decided that Schmidt-Rottlift must have sent an extra painting. But, like a nettlesome seed of discontent, there was something about one of the canvasses that unsettled him. The technique was completely different from Schmidt-Rotlift's usual temperate hand, and its choice of color was full of gay abandon and strangely similar to the decor in the new cafeteria -- a light snapped on and he realized the origin of the fifth painting! His artistic temperament, long suppressed by his vendetta with Agatha Glenville-Jones, alerted him to the fact that he was in possession of a rare and deadly instrument of revenge. He smiled -- an obscene smile, like that on the face of the cat who stands between the mouse and its hole.

A sharp-eyed person, even one with fine arts training would be hard pressed to separate a Jackson Pollack from the doodling of a backward child. In the somewhat narrow field of non-representational painting, accidental daubing, haphazard smudges and stains can easily be mistaken for creativity. There was little artistic difference between the canvasses of Schmidt-Rottlift and the drop cloth of Lou Diglio and Milo Callahan

Gerhardt, in consultation with Igor, the myopic framer and stretcher, went full speed ahead and he prepared all five giant canvasses for the exhibit, including the drop cloth of the DC Painting and Decorating Company. At the same time, Gerhardt sent invitations to Lou Diglio and Milo Callahan, congratulating them on the successful redecoration of the Flick Gallery's new cafeteria.


On reception day, promptly at four, the minor critics began to arrive. They were uncommunicative and reluctant to pass judgment on anything until Agatha Glenville-Jones arrived. It would be suicidal to wax enthusiastic about a work that Agatha would denounce later. Knowing she would be the last to arrive, all of them huddled together at the bar talking in subdued tones.

"Who are those two over there? I think one of them must be Schmidt-Rottlift."

"I'm sure it is. I've seen him before. God! I didn't think anyone wore corduroy jackets these days."

". . . and the shoes on the stout one! Look at his shoes. Down at the heels I'd say. Splattered with paint -- I'll bet he was wearing them when he painted that big one with the splotch of yellow."

"Neanderthal, isn't he? But I must say the painting has a charm about it ... you know, balanced by that big purple blob." He blushed as the others looked at him aghast to think he would dare comment on a painting before Agatha Glenville-Jones arrived.

"Anyone seen Agatha yet?"

It went on like this for the better part of an hour. They would occasionally leave the refreshment table en-masse and make a hesitant circuit of the gallery, avoiding Lou and Milo.

Lou and Milo stood in front of their drop cloth in obvious confusion. Lou was all for beating a hasty retreat, "When are they gonna check out the cafeteria -- I thought all this fuss was for the new cafeteria?"

Milo was more patient. "Relax, Lou. Have another one of these cocktails. Martinis I think they calls em' They're good -- got quite a kick. I had four already."

Gerhardt shot his cuff and consulted his gold Rolex, and to no one in particular, he stated, "Shouldn't be long now, it's almost five." He was sure his pulse rate was over two hundred. A visible film of nervous perspiration began at the crown of his bald spot and trickled down his nose. His Armani shirt,
freshly laundered, was now clinging to his chest like a mustard plaster, and he could feel the sweat from his underarms running down his sides. "Damn her!" he thought. Would she never get here?"

In her own sweet time she did. At precisely 5:30 the double doors to the gallery were flung open and Ignatz, her scribe, looking this way and that, entered carrying his black leather notebook, then he stood to one side to make way for her. He was followed almost immediately by Agatha Glenville-Jones. She was dressed in a multi-layered black afternoon tea gown and wore a wide brimmed hat similar to those worn by leading ladies of the silver screen in the twenties. Although she did not smoke she carried a foot long black and gold tooled cigarette holder, which she used as a pointer. She would occasionally rap Ignatz on the shoulder with it, and he would write her last observation in his notebook. Ignatz could have carried a tape recorder, but such instruments record the good and the bad. Agatha wanted only the good. Her statements would find their way into tomorrow's art review in the Times.

Gerhardt extended both arms like a maitre-de and rushed to greet her.

"Agatha, my DEAR, what a pleasant surprise! How considerate of you to drop in to see my little exhibit -- may I get you a Martini?"

"I think not -- 'Seltzer', is it?" She stared with obvious distaste at the huge display. "It's a peculiar trait of curators these days that when they have nothing to say, they must say it louder." She gave him a twisted smile and rapped Ignatz on the shoulder. He opened his notebook and began writing. "Stay alert, Ignatz, I shall have much to say this afternoon."

The gaggle of critics began to gather in a semi-circle around Agatha Glenville-Jones. Each of them carried a small notebook of his own. Whenever she rapped Ignatz on the shoulder, they too, would quickly make their notation. When they returned to their desks in the evening, they would tailor their remarks to agree with hers.

She was in rare form this afternoon and by the time she reached the drop cloth, Ignatz had already filled six pages with vintage venom and vitriol. Gerhardt followed meekly behind, his heart growing heavier. He cringed as he heard the words "presumptuous" and "arrogant." At one point, she turned so that her voice could be heard by everyone in the room and loudly stated, "I wish all this fuss and feathering was more worthy of my contempt -- but I fear we have reached the nadir in non-representational painting, Mr. Schultzer. And after all your fanfare -- how heartbreaking for you. You must be devastated." At this point she rapped Ignatz sharply with her cigarette holder.

She hesitated at the drop cloth. Studied it closely at first, looked in the lower right corner for the artist's signature, then stepped back to view it from the other end of the room, where Lou and Milo stood with their Martinis.

Agatha turned to Gerhardt Schweitzer with barely disguised distaste, "Must we have these workmen in the room, Mr. Schvetzer? ...why are they standing in front of the only painting in the room worthy of my attention?"

Gerhardt, in a renewed burst of eager solicitation, dashed across the room in panic and hustled Lou and Milo out of her way. "Gentlemen -- I beg you, gentlemen -- please! Ms. Jones must have room to conduct her review. Would you please step over here -- here by the elevator."

Milo, on his fifth Martini, piped up, "Wait'll y'see the new cafeteria, lady."

"A fresh page, Ignatz!" As Ignatz flipped to a new page, every reviewer in the room did the same. A dozen or more ball point pens clicked sharply in preparation. Gerhardt swallowed dryly and rubbed his sweating palms together.

"A sudden, and most welcome epiphany has emerged from the muck of this non-representational debacle. It beggars description in literal terms -- it is -- it is, how shall I say? An 'Ode to Joy?' Perhaps. An innocent child's invention? More than likely -- but a child of infinite talent. I feel -- I feel, how shall I say -- like an Eve, cast into a garden of incalculable delight. I see the sun, rampant on a field of gray, and over there the purple of the night approaches. The imprint of toddler's feet herald the approach of . . . of . . ."

Her glowing tribute to the DC Painting and Decorating drop cloth went on without pause. Ignatz scribbled madly and turned page after page, gamely trying to keep up. The lesser reviewers did the same. The only sound in the gallery was the deep contralto voice of Agatha Glenville-Jones and the rasping of the ball point pens.

It was Gerhardt Schwitzer's big moment. "Are you finished Ms. Jones?" He asked loudly.

"Yes. Quite, Schwister. I assume you have photos of this piece. Please give them to my assistant, I will need them for the Sunday spread."

"Ha! You are finished then!" Schweitzer stepped forward, and the track lighting formed an aureole about his bald head. He removed a large handkerchief from his inside pocket and mopped his brow. "Let me tell you then, Ms. Jones, what a fool you've made of yourself!" The corners of Agatha Glenville-Jones gimlet eyes narrowed. Surely this idiot of a man would not have the effrontery to question her expertise.

"Tread carefully, Schwelter. Do not cross swords with me, you are entering dangerous waters."

"Ha! Once more, Ha!!" Schwitzer's mouth spread wide in a maniacal grin. "I've got you! You fraud! Yes, you're a fraud, Agatha Glenville-Jones. A FRAUD!!" He ran across the room and gesticulated wildly at the drop cloth of the DC Painting and Decorating Company. "The two men standing over there by the elevator? You see them Ms. Jones? They are Lou Diglio and Milo Callahan. HOUSE PAINTERS!! HOUSE-fucking-PAINTERS!!! The non-representational painting you so admire is the drop cloth they used when they painted the gallery's cafeteria! See! Here is the imprint of of Mr. Diglio's backside, and there! There is where he wiped his shoes! HA! And double HA!!" Again, Schweitzer mopped his face, which had grown as red as a tomato. He looked over at the gaggle of critics huddled together across the room. Most had dropped their pens and note pads. "You see, gentlemen. She can't tell the difference between a painter's drop cloth and a work of art!" They looked from Gerhardt Schweitzer to Agatha Glenville-Jones in astonishment. Had the impossible happened? Had Schweitzer really exposed her? If what he said was true, she would be the laughing stock of the non-representational art world.

They had not reckoned on the resilience of Agatha Glenville-Jones. Like all great charlatans, she was illusive as quicksilver, and as ingenious as a politician.

She drew herself up to her full height, which matched that of Gerhardt Schweitzer and smiled. First at him -- and then at the goggle eyed critics across the room. It was what is commonly known as a 'Mafia' smile, one usually given with a pat on the shoulder to a condemned man.

"Mr. Sweltzer. I believe that is the German word for sweat, is it not? How appropriate. Do you have any other means of livelihood, Sweltzer? I sincerely hope so. You see what you've done, don't you?" She turned to the other critics. "The poor man has dug his own grave you see. Your exhibit is so poor -- so abysmal in concept and execution that a lowly painter's drop cloth outshines the work of your four world-renowned artists of non-representational painting. I pity you, Swelter ... I will be as objective as I can, but I suggest you turn in your resignation to the Board of Directors before you read my review,
perhaps you can negotiate an amicable settlement before they have your hide." She turned to her assistant. "You needn't write that down, Ignatz."

As Gerhardt fumbled for a reply, murmurs of approval could be heard from the other side of the room ...

"How did he ever think he'd get away with a trick like that?"

"Why, I knew it all the time, didn't you?"

"I thought you said you liked it?"

"Of course not old man, I saw through the subterfuge from the beginning."

"Well, he's a ruined man, that's for sure ... she'll tear his balls off."

With Ignatz trailing after her, she made her way slowly to the elevator, then turned back and gestured with a barely perceptible motion of her hand. "Well, gentlemen -- I believe there is nothing more to discuss. Mr. Schickster, I know this must be a trying time for you. But surely, it is not too late to start again -- a new career perhaps -- one that does not involve decision making." Ignatz pushed the elevator button and the door opened immediately ... she was gone.

The assembled critics closed their notebooks and put their pens away, and now, they too, made their way towards the elevator at much the same unhurried pace as Agatha had. They waited for the elevator to return, then the entire body crowded their way aboard. Gerhardt stood like a wax figure in the middle of the room. His eyes, however, seemed to dart from picture to picture while his mouth slowly opened and closed as if he wished to speak but could not.

Milo Callahan and Lou Diglio stood forgotten in the exhibit hall. "Well we won, Lou ... best drop cloth in the show. Got a sharp tongue, that Agatha broad -- sharp eye too," Milo remarked as he finished off his fifth Martini and fished out the olive.

"Boy, I'll say. Look at Mr. Schwitzer over there -- ain't nothin' left of him." Lou glanced nervously at his watch. "Looks like nobody's gonna check out the new cafeteria, I think we ought'a be runnin' along. You ever been to one of these here openin's before, Milo?"

"No, I never. Don't know any of the paintin' companies here either. Must be from outta town."

©Harry Buschman 2000

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