Monday, February 6, 2017

We Shouldn't Have Done It

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published February 8, 2017] ©2017
I just want to say, there were extenuating circumstances. And if you’re an art collector, please read no further.
When my first husband, a physician, finished his two year commitment to the Navy and opened his private practice, we were really short of money. We’d bought our home on a 100% VA loan, even borrowing the closing costs. My husband had paid his own way through college and medical school, and would pay off medical school loans until he was 48.
So there wasn’t a lot of money for art.  In fact, none at all. The few inexpensive prints we owned were now hanging in his new office leaving the walls of our house totally bare.
A favorite low-cost date for us in the mid-1970s was to go to an opening at one of the small galleries in La Jolla. It was fun to drink some wine and look at the art, chatting it up with some of the other cheapskates who were there for the same reasons that we were.
At one of these openings, my ex and I stood pondering a 3’ x 4’ oil depicting a daisy petal. It was basically an off-center yellow blob on a white background with assorted black and white petals disappearing into the frame. It cost $1,500, a chunk of money at the time.
Now, both of us, to our admitted detriment, had failed to ever take an art history class so we often struggled to understand why a particular work was considered “art” as opposed to a cruel psychology experiment to see who would be duped into thinking this utterly minimalist work (in our uneducated view) was worth that kind of money.
My husband suddenly had an idea. “I think I could duplicate this,” he whispered. Even we weren’t so gauche as to whip out a pencil and sketch it on the spot.  But we were not so gauche as to come creeping back a few nights later after dark when the gallery was closed, press our noses against the glass, and sketch away. 
The next day we stopped off at the art store on Cass St. and purchased a canvas, and some black and yellow oil paints.  As my husband painted, I concluded that the composition lacked a certain pre-Raphaelite je-ne-sais-quoi while he noted that the asymmetrical focal point emboldened the saturation of the petals creating a contemporary but evocative aesthetic with its own stylized drama.  We may not have taken any art history classes but we’d hung around at a fair number of art openings by that time.
Forty-five minutes later, “The Daisy” (as we unimaginatively entitled it) was hanging, still drying, in our guest room. It wasn’t as though we weren’t aware that this was technically art forgery, but we rationalized that we weren’t trying to sell it. We just wanted a little color.
About a year later, we had invited some new friends to dinner, another physician and his wife, also just starting in private practice. We were giving them a tour of our little house and when we collectively walked into the guest room, their eyes were suddenly riveted on the daisy painting. “Where did you get that?” they wanted to know.
And thus we regaled them with the story of seeing this painting at a gallery, deciding it was pathetically easy to copy, and wondering who in their right mind would pay $1,500 for the thing.
As it turned out, they would. And did.
I mean, seriously, what were the odds?  Actually, much higher than you might think, given that we subsequently recalled that we had first met them at an opening of another gallery. It goes without saying that dinner was acutely awkward, and we never saw them again.
While going through a photo album recently, I came across a picture of our guest room in 1977 with the daisy picture hanging over the bed. After the dinner guest fiasco, we knew we should take it down. But we hated to blow our $17 investment.
Ultimately, however, our consciences prevailed and it ended up in an alley dumpster in the dead of night.
Forty years later, I find myself wondering: Is the original of “The Daisy” now a classic studied by art students the world over? Is it revered for its uncompromising timeless boldly-organic vibrancy?  Or is it all about the light?  Are those folks who bought it now lending it out under armed guard to galleries the world over, basking in the prescience of purchasing a piece now worth $2,000,000? 
I’m hoping that the bona fide owners of the daisy painting have long since retired in Jackson Hole and will not see this column.  But if they do: we’re sorry.  We shouldn’t have done it. And I promise: we never did it again. 
The daisy picture hangs in our guest room, 1977

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