F. called me and wanted to talk about something. He desperately wanted to talk. When I arrived, he wasn’t at home.
Two weeks later, he collapsed on the street in Madrid. I warned him not to go to Spain. It was just a holiday he said. I was destroyed. It was a heart attack, everyone thought. He’d had a row with his current lover. But that was nothing new. F. was always prepared for things not to work out. Still, it was inevitable I suppose. Drugs. Alcohol. Exhaustion. Isolation. Impossible to calculate.
F. was attended by Catholic nuns in a Catholic hospital. I was not there.
He was reckless about his own life and the lives of his friends. He was a gambler and gamblers always lose. In the end.
He returned to dust. The dust that, mixed with life, turns into paint. The dust that turns into words. These words turn back to dust as I write them.
It was a time of Existentialism. We all loved Sartre. We all lived on the edge. Like every moment was going to be our last.
This came out in his work. Risk amused him. Chance. Accident took over his paintings. Every brush stroke was a gamble. Every umbrella must be terrifying.
Tomfoolery and twisted horrors, both poured out. Not just in the glistening sides of beef. The glaucous eyes. The crippled tripods. And there was the great central enigma. Where did all that bloody darkness come from?
Surely from a great well of guilt and grief. F. dredged up some of the most profound images in painting. He thought about death every day, always while painting, regardless of the subject, even the landscapes.
Painting mattered then. Journalists made careers writing about it. In those days, noses were broken in galleries.
F. was, of course, self-taught. He drew badly and was very self-conscious of it. And so he lacked a foundation. He never got over the shock of the human body. Its beauty terrified him. That was a part of his success.
What is it now what, five years later? His life seems even more monumental.
He always used his lovers as models. Dyer, his first, sang sweetly and played the piano.
A bourgeoise, he was soft-spoken, straight-forward, soberly dressed. F. knew better. Dyer turned out to be one of the most sadistic men I ever met. They were often violent. Neither had any control over his emotions. F. was beaten up, regularly, which he invited and seemed to enjoy. His lover once pushed him through a plate glass window and he fell a full story into the garden, suffering permanent disfigurement, a recessed eye, that crooked upper incisor.
F. had the money to cover the dental work, to have his teeth fixed, of course, especially in those last years. But he liked to watch your eyes trying not to look at his mouth. The puckish smile. We can’t resist imperfection in others, can we? We stare at it until it turns into art.
Why he painted teeth, I think, rotted from howling, later on from meth. Gray stubs, filed daggers in vicious sooty slots. Bloodied lips, smeary crimson coronas, as if the subject had just dragged the back of a hand across his wounded mouth, the hand he’d used to punch another drunk. Likely someone bent over a pool table, whose shot he’d ruined nuzzling their bum.
You could count on F. to make you feel safe in a bad bar.
Let me show you the walk-in fridge.
He liked to paint in meat lockers. He actually rented one. He painted in boxers and a coarse wool cardigan that stank of mutton. He painted meat. On the meat, I mean. It was always too gray for him. He glazed or scumbled on crimson where he needed to. Kept a hair dryer on a shelf.
Which brings me to the paintings. The fatted arches of maroon meat, draped over ivory scaffolding. Hacked and flayed, glistening. Ribs stacked or hooked on chains. Then he added a pair of clouded eyes to chill the viewer with his judgment.
He kept almost all his of paintings at the studio. Entering his apartment, final abattoir, I was thinking about his best known triptych, Three Studies for the Crucifixion. Featuring Dyer. Banished in the first panel. Darkly beatified in the third. In the middle, a bloody, mangled horror. F. described it as someone shot to pieces on a bed. It was then hanging at the Tate.
I looked for a note, evidence. The apartment was still locked up, two days after he died. A dark, disheveled warren. More days went by. No one ever came but me. No note. But no lack of evidence.
In Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, he’d nailed Dyer’s image to the bed with a hypodermic needle. This offended his model. Fucking God, Dyer said. What’s that? F. clapped his hands, one, two, three, his face split open laughing. Spewing fog and spittle, propped against a lamp post, he pushed harder, howling at Dyer, hoping to be slapped. Dyer had seen plenty of him like this, and simply turned back. As usual, an eerie calm, cool and beautiful, settled on the scene. In fact, this time they’d had enough. F. lit a cigarette. Dyer was at last gone. It was to be the beginning of a new period. The late landscapes.
There were only ten before F. died. Some of his greatest works. Of course, there were scores more he had me take a carpet knife to. Every time I cut up a painting, there went a million pounds. I would give the man at the dump a fiver and make sure he burnt them right before my eyes.
Dyer had moved to Tangiers years before. F. received word of his suicide at the opening of the 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais. Dyer was found slumped on a filthy toilet in a squalid hotel room, asquat the cuckstool, as Joyce so memorably put it in Ulysses. News of Dyer’s death arrived like a manifesto. F. decided not to mention it in his celebratory remarks and discussed the triptych as if its subject was still alive. The thing was, the news in all its grim horror had traveled fast, like any bad news, and everyone at the reception knew of his lover’s suicide and correctly assumed that F. knew as well. F. was anecdotal, animated, engaging, speaking in French as he always tried to do at French openings. His accent was very bad which would have otherwise charmed and amused. No one was really surprised about Dyer, but to hear F. speak of Dyer’s currency in his life was deeply strange and unsettling.
I’d come knocking at least once a week. I’d wash his dishes, straighten up if he let me. Sometimes he would invite me in and sometimes he wouldn’t. There was always something private happening, even if no one was there. Whatever it was that occupied him, he had to devote himself to it completely. Never any TV going, no radio. He kept no books in his studio, and just a few were scattered around his apartment. I’d offer to play something I’d composed. It was harder to turn me away with a guitar slung over my shoulder. That usually got me in.
F. was aggressively clever, always on, almost giddy. At times, in the driven banter, I felt an underlying strain of melancholy. I told him some of the saddest music ever written was composed in C major.
You could rarely tell if he had been drinking, but it was always safe to assume he had.
He looked to his friends who knew little or nothing of making paintings, for answers to impossible questions. He asked us. Is this one done? I think I finished it Monday. Over here, did I get this part right? How do you trap reality without making an illustration of it?
He knew his models inside out. They were, after all, his lovers. And that’s how he painted them, inside out. When you paint someone, he told us, you are of course painting yourself as well.
He told everyone he painted all night, and I think that was mostly true. If he had to lie down, he got up immediately and began to paint again. Clearly, he was chronically under-slept. If dreaming is essential to mental health, as they say it is, I think he put in his dream time while painting. But, if the paintings reflect his waking dreams, I understand why he never wanted to let himself go to sleep.
I got 4 million in US dollars and two paintings out of all those years. Everyone assumed I was gold digging, and, although I don’t think it ever crossed my mind, that still troubles me.
Stevan Cavalier is a retired physician, writer, artist, photographer, professional pianist. BA (cum laude) English Amherst College. American Academy of Poet’s Prize.