The Catalan Fraud

Dr. Amarillo stepped through the door and strolled down the wheelchair ramp, which was quite a surprise since he was dead. At least, he was supposed to be. According to the flurry of activity on Facebook, he had died of a heart attack during a particularly vigorous game of cribbage.

I’d run into him at the La Hacienda Coop last week, the day before he supposedly died, and he looked one Frito pie away from a coronary embolism. It made sense that cribbage would be enough to push him over the edge. He hadn’t recognized me, which was fine. I’d spent probably six semesters in his art history classes, but that was nearly a decade ago and I have trouble remembering my current student’s names, let alone random ones from the past. I let him pass without saying hello. When I heard he’d died, I was a little wistful about my silence. I’d probably been a pain, argumentative at least, but I did like his classes. This was a rare second chance

“Hello, Dr. Amarillo. It’s nice to see you.”

“Ah, yes.” He was failing to match a vague face with a dim memory.

“Josh Lynch,” I lied.

“Right, Josh. Lovely to see you.” I’d forgotten how much I loved his Spanish accent. Not only did it increase my brain’s supply of melatonin during class, it was also fake.

I learned this a few years back. A painting professor was using a friend of a friend as a chew toy, and for some reason she had suggested he bring some “colleagues” to her “My, don’t I have a big house?” party. It was stiff and weird and eventually a nigh-wasted Dr. Amarillo, who was dating a different painting professor in attendance, told us that he actually grew up in Louisville, or LOL-ville, and had never actually been to Spain. Or Mexico. There was plenty to laugh out loud about after that.

“What brings you to the print study room?” The doctor’s eyes darted around and I had the feeling he was asking me to confirm that’s where we were. He was a weird guy.

“Field trip.” I gestured at the ten or so teenagers that were not normally part of the room. “I thought the kids could stand a day away from school looking at real art.” For being a small university in a small town, the art museum had some amazing cast-offs from big name artists.

“Ah. What do you think of the new facility?”

“It’s really great. Much better than that closet.” We had the distinction of being the first group admitted to the multi-million dollar renovation of the museum’s archive. It was a showcase of state of the art climate control, fire suppression, and storage bins. I wondered how the fire suppression would work, since sprinklers and delicate art seemed like a bad mix. I also made a mental note to tell my students to skip college and get into the construction business.

An awkward silence developed. I thought about saying I was glad he was alive, but it felt too awkward, reminded me too much of my former colleague Mike Adams. He would get monthly emails from distant acquaintances asking after his death. I thought he was speaking metaphorically until he showed me one:

Hey Mike, I heard a Mike Adams died. Was that you? Are you dead? Let me know. — Dave.

“Indeed. Well…”

“Hey, Mr. Lang. Come here.” We were both relieved that Sasha summoned me to the Witkin photograph. “Is that a real head?”

I’d gone back and forth about pulling The Kiss, a photo of an man’s head that had been severed from its neck, then bisected and arranged so that it was kissing itself. It had offended decent people for over twenty years, so it was a good thing I was working with teenagers.

“Yea, it is.”

“That’s fucking gross.”

The print study lady raised an eyebrow at us.

“Hey.” My protest was half hearted. It was kind of fucking gross.

“Really, what’s wrong with this guy?”

“Yea, Lang. Why’d you put this on the list?” Emily asked.

“It’s Halloween. At least it’s not the one with the lady and the dog.”

“What?” the girls asked in unison. I probably should have kept that one quiet.

“I’ve got a story about this photo for you. So Witkin went here for his master’s degree.”

“His what?” Sasha asked.

“The degree after your bachelor’s.” Her face was blank. “The first degree you get in college.”

“Oh yea. Duh.”

“Anyway, Witkin’s working on his thesis exhibition, the one you have to do to graduate, and unbeknownst to the art department, he’s raiding the bio lab late at night for his photos. Well, his professors see the prints and just assume he’s gone through the proper channels or whatever. They don’t want to get in the way since he’s totally out in left field and they know the art’s going to be a big deal.”

“What a bunch of creepers.” Emily shivered.

“It gets better. At the opening reception, you know, the party for the exhibit, the head’s family shows up. They recognize their father, or grandfather, whoever, and freak. The guy’d donated his body to science, not an art exhibit.”

“What happened?”

“Did he get in trouble?”

“Actually, he got super famous. This photograph launched his career. He’s got all kinds of awards now. All publicity is good publicity.” I shrugged. The story bordered on urban legend while I was in undergrad, and therefore might be as accurate as the one about the guy with the drug-laced business cards.

“That’s fucked up,” Sasha said.

“Stop it.”

“Whatever, Lang,” Emily led Sasha to a different artwork. The print study lady gave me an impenetrable look.

I made the rounds to see if my students were actually doing their work or just pretending. At least they’d taken me seriously when I said “no pens.” Overall, everyone was on task, so I could sit back and relax.

Dr. Amarillo floated about as if he wanted to talk to the students but would change his mind when they ignored him. He was more pallid than when he’d first shown up. If a heart attack was imminent,  I hoped he’d have the decency to wait until we left. The trauma of a severed head kissing itself was kid’s stuff compared to a real guy’s heart exploding. We’d all have to see the guidance counselor when we got back to school.

He flopped next to the Salvador Dali lithograph. The print study lady was engaged with Nick and Alex and ignored him. I was surprised he would pick that table — Dr. Amarillo hated Dali.

“Talentless hack,” he’d said in fake-Spaniard. “Not a true Surrealist. Thrown out of the movement due to his capitalist and fascist sympathies. He thought Franco and Hitler were decent guys. All his late-career work was done by studio assistants. Terrible fraud.”

As my relatives on Facebook could attest, Dr. Amarillo, by virtue of his being a professor, was a devout socialist with communist leanings. Not the fake socialism that Fox News tries to pin on the Obama administration, but actual Socialism. I would have expected him to pester the students about the Francis Bacon etching of Peter Beard over Dali’s red-brick skull lithograph. Maybe he intended to regale Nick and Alex with tales of what a baby-eater Dali was.

The print study lady shuffled to allow Dr. Amarillo into their huddle, but looked right through him and continued as if he was not there. It was a well known secret that everyone hated each other in the Art and Art History departments, so I figured they were on different art teams and that’s why the print study lady gave him the could shoulder.

A big glob of sweat ran down Dr. Amarillo’s nose and threatened to land on the Dali lithograph. He wiped at his nose distractedly and massaged his chest. Great. Coronary embolism. It was actually happening, the man was having a heart attack right here.

I took a step towards him when things got really weird. With both hands at his chest, Dr. Amarillo fell onto the Salvador Dali print. Well, not so much on as through. The man went all transparent and passed through the art, which ignited in orange and yellow flames. Alex, Nick, and the print study lady shrieked in unison and jumped about five feet in the air, while I got to see how the state of the art fire suppression system worked.

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