In elementary school, you were given two vertical columns of information and asked to draw a line between the items that were connected.
It was so easy that it almost seemed like cheating, and the criss-crossed lines between the words made a satisfying design. There's nothing like getting all the connections right, and putting a tiny universe into alignment.
That's why we love detective stories. We watch someone given information in separate columns draw connecting lines until they have criss-crossed their way through a plot and into a solution. Lots of my first literary heroes were detectives: Spade, Marlow and the various psychotics that populate Elroy novels. All my jobs have involved research and investigation, trying to solve some kind of mystery. I must really like that kind of thing because none of them paid well until I went into business for myself, hitting the streets like an unlicensed gum shoe, looking for free-floating, uncatalogued works of art.
It's a life of total freedom. You make your own hours. You diagram your own day. You punch your own clock. And most of your attachments are to people just like you; other loners out on the road looking for stuff. You check in only to brag about scores, because rubbing success into someone's nose is better than success itself.
In this line of work, most of the mysteries are solved when something is found. A mis-catalogued object is out of place. Someone like me is there to collect it, and hustle it over to its new home: a museum, a collector, an auction house, a decorator, another thrift store, the trash. The more persistent mysteries involve works of art whose authorship and full story cannot be immediately discerned. We know we have something interesting, we just don't know what it is.
There is a seemingly endless supply of these amnesiac question marks. They show up unconscious, unable to tell us anything about themselves. They're like emergency patients. The first 15 minutes are crucial. Can you read the name, the date? Is it someone known or famous? Is the style distinct enough to act as a signature, or is the surface too generic to ever betray an identity? Without quick answers, or an obvious research path, the doctor loses steam and the patient slips into a coma. It is then wrapped, boxed and buried in the far corner of a warehouse, waiting like a mummy to be re-awoken. This happens now more than it used to, courtesy of the internet, which has to be re-checked periodically as new information comes online. After 10 years of owning this unsigned wall construction from 1930, I finally put it together with the help of wikipedia and artprice.com. The author is Fidele Azari, a futurist aviator, and the initiator of a painting school called aeropittura.
I was bracing for another drawn out search after buying a gloomy expressionist painting from a hole-in-the-wall antique shop while in New York attending the Frieze art fair. The condition of the painting is a disaster. It's literally peeling off the canvas. I could read neither the signature nor the date, nor could the owner, an experienced dealer, and it was $2,500 minus my charm school discount. Only an idiot would buy it. But having just been to Frieze, where all you get for $2k is some barbecue, a useless multiple and a ride home from uber, it seemed kind of reasonable. Once it arrived, the gods of art mystery smiled upon me. Within 15 minutes, I letter-checked a close-up of the signature against the various databases that I scubscribe to, and up popped a sister painting from 1927 by Rene Guiette, a Belgian expressionist turned cubist turned photographer turned primitivist.
Lest you think I live to brag, let me share with you some research projects that are not going well. I bought a thickly-painted, orange and black abstract expressionist canvas at the flea market recently, thinking it might be an early Joan Brown. I spent two days researching it and two more trying to pick out the figures from the abstraction. I still can't even tell you if it's Bay Area figurative, New York School or post war Eastern Europe. I do know that it's a crucifixion scene with a figure mounting a horse and a group of strange mythological animals looking on. But no one seems to care.
Like a dime-store fortune teller, I flip these mysteries over like tarot cards. This week's flip feels like a joker and I'm trying not to overcommit my time. That's the hideen cost in all these projects, which are cheap to buy but get more expensive as the years of intermittent research go by. It's a 1940s scene of a black, tonsured choir, woven from elements of primitivism, modernism and perhps colonialism. Although unsigned, the eyes and mouths on these cartoony stereotypes promised me they would reveal the author's identity, or at least his general location, when I was contemplating the purchase. Needless to say, they have broken their word.
Perhaps the most frustrating mystery in my collection remains a suite of expressionist paintings acquired two years ago with extremely high hopes. Lurid, transgressive, referential and allegorical, these works made with poster paint on paper illustrate the life and death of a tragic romance. A couple embrace, have what appears to be a forced sexual encounter and fall into existential crisis. The female beloved dies. The lover then, in a gesture right out of Poe, tries to replaces her with, or elevate her to, the eternal, a work of art. The images reference Ludwig Kirchner, Edvard Munch and Bob Thompson, and the story line echoes post victorian aesthetics with two allusions to the main character's blackness. But that's all it does right now—reference, echo and allude and I remain paralyzed. I can't resolve it, yet I can't bring myself to sell them and move on. And I worry that I might be obsessed with these paintings less by their aesthetic power than by the very fact that they are mysteries.