This short piece was just published in The CalArts Eye, a student-run periodical that struck me as the perfect venue for this odd little story inspired by a run-in with one of Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca sculptures at MOCA in Manhattan.
No Two Ever the Same
It was Pablo Putnam’s 49th birthday. He sat in an attitude of true prayer, pants around his ankles, one hand on his abdomen, the other lightly on his knee. He was alone in what others called a Beacon Hill mansion. But to him it was just home, a womb passed down the generations from a genius coal tar chemist who, after buying a fresh start and a shorter last name, made it possible for every Putnam thereafter to pursue a more meaningful existence, free from the need to count money.
Pablo was nestled in a legless leather armchair grafted on top of what looked like a marble-faced cabinet, about the size of a refrigerator laid on its side. He suddenly gripped the arms, leaned back into the dark cowhide, then, with a slight shudder, sighed, stood up and looked into the seat.
There, on a porcelain plate, was his 49th birthday piece. Nicely formed. Delicately shaded. A piece that would have made his mother proud. He smiled and clapped twice. A hum rose, the conveyor belt began its Sisyphean journey, and the dish disappeared into the cabinet. Pablo pulled up his pants, carefully tucked in his Oxford shirt, and by the time his belt was buckled, his piece was ready at the other end. He wrote the date in a legible but distinctive hand on the clear, vacuum-sealed pouch. Then he took it carefully into the ornate but narrow box of the mansion’s antique lift, down three flights to what was once a wine cellar.
A gallery of wood-paneled cabinets with engraved brass plates glowed under the lights. He opened the cabinet labeled “Birthday Series” and leaned into the wave of chilly air rolling out of the freezer. He looked thoughtfully at the contents, back through his thirties, twenties, teens (how the years had flown!) … right back to his first piece, quaintly encased in plastic wrap.
Elizabeth Putnam had always wanted an artist in the family but had less than no talent of her own. Her hope was kindled, however, after reading an interview with a famous painter. Everything he said about the creative process seemed to describe what her son, just eleven months old, was doing on a daily basis.
“The artistic process,” she read, “is mysterious. An artist must create the conditions for a piece to emerge—indeed must sometimes work very hard to create them—but is never fully in control of the result, which must always speak for itself.”
Leaning over the crib, she felt some preternatural connection between the artist’s and her son’s baldness. She put her hand on Pablo’s small round belly, felt the prodigious gurgling and was encouraged.
“Critical is the artist’s willingness to surrender to the process. When the process is forced, the result will emerge damaged, and the artist’s vision will remain unexpressed.”
That was the final sign; Pablo’s daily productions were so effortless! She was even a little envious of his facility, but far be it from her to let a mother’s ego stand in the way. On Pablo’s first birthday, she had asked the nanny to bring a square of plastic wrap from the kitchen. Among the staff, the nanny was the first to leave—regretfully, she said, telling the cook that as Beacon Hill brats go, Pablo was a dream. Resourceful and committed, mother and son had never looked back.
Pablo loved his mother, so when he became a man he took on the mantle of his creativity and later invented the device to make the process more elegant and, he felt, even more eloquent. True, it took some of the whimsy and handcrafted authenticity out of each presentation, but he had begun to feel that the outer wrapping distracted from the real event. Decorating the package with colors or designs seemed the crutch of a young artist unwilling to fully embrace the bold message emerging from his deepest instincts and inclinations. He considered the vacuum-seal process and its clear result a sign of creative maturity. He was also tired of grazing his fingers on the serrated edge of the plastic wrap box.
Art was always a private family affair. But one day (years after his mother quietly slumped in the corner of the elevator on her way down to ensconce “Summer Storm 1976” in the gallery) his Bentley was rear-ended. A woman negotiating an unfamiliar manual transmission had hit the gas instead of the brake. She was from New York, and when she asked what kind of business he was in, he was emboldened by her open expression to declare himself for the first time publicly: “I’m an artist.” She asked to see his work and, surprising himself, he agreed, then tore up her insurance information and declared that he would take care of the repairs.
He took her down to the gallery. The lift was a close fit, but she was charmed by the old technology. The Putnams were the first family on the Hill to install one, he explained. “Visionary,” she said, and blushed when the car, hiccupping on the descent, jostled them together.
Under the gallery lights, he shyly opened display after display, until they stood in front of the “Snowstorms” series, waves of cold rolling out of the freezer. She hugged herself, shivering with pleasure, and turned to him, dumbfounded: “Why have you never shown these?” He demurred. She shivered again. “We must take these to Manhattan. I have connections.”
So they did, mounting an ongoing series of exhibits that began with a few snickers but quickly turned to admiration on the strength of “Turning Points,” pieces inspired by dramatic days including Lennon’s assassination, fall of the Berlin Wall, Cobain’s suicide and 9/11. Critics noted the remarkable similarity of those pieces to each other, as compared to the variety in a travel series like “Mediterranean Fantasie.” (He had invented a discreet travel version of his vacuum seal, making it possible to take exotic trips that never failed to inspire what critics agreed was some of his best work.)
Soon celebrity chefs proposed collaborations to showcase their cuisines, providing (as one commentator described it) the paint for his portraits. A line of men’s kilts showed up at Fashion Week, pitched as an unencumbered approach to artistic expression. Pablo distanced himself, telling the press that the fashion designer had clearly misunderstood the deliberate, systematic nature of his process.
He refused commercial connections, having no need of money and no interest in being part of what he saw as a sellout consumer culture. Young imitators had already begun to mount copycat shows, but no one yet could match Pablo’s originality. One young video artist was adamant about wanting to capture him on film “at his canvas,” suspecting some secret poetry in motion was behind such distinctive work. But Pablo refused, uncertain if the videographer’s interest was truly aesthetic or perhaps—and this came over him like a waft of intuition—prurient.
The only person he wanted to invite into his process was her, the one who had recognized his unique gift and helped him bring it to the world. But so far she showed no interest. The one time he obliquely proposed the idea, she put up a hand and said something about the inviolate sanctity of the artist’s studio, a place that should not be compromised with outside influences—not even hers.
He didn’t mention it again. But sometimes he felt her absence, wishing she might want to kneel by him, one hand on his lower back, encouraging him to make something no one had ever seen before or would ever make again.