THE WRITER OF DARK SATIRES DEVOTES HIS PEN TO AN AB-EX ARTIST
THE LATE KURT Vonnegut was known for strong anti-war sentiments in many of his novels, and one of these is about a painter, a novel titled Bluebeard (1987).
A natural, if uneven, writer, Vonnegut had paid his dues during the Second World War. Captured by the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge, he was in Dresden in 1944 when the Allies firebombed the city. Vonnegut survived by being three stories underground in a meat locker. Later he was repatriated to freedom by the Soviet Army.
All of which explains a good deal about his best novels, especially his darkly satirical Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a best-seller that catapulted him to enduring fame in the American world of art and letters—and in the student anti-war movement. Fame was sweet, but life not so easy. After a rough psychological spot through the 1970s, Vonnegut came back with a series of satirical novels, one of which is Bluebeard.
Bluebeard is not the name of the artist. It's rather a reference to a gruesome fairy tale in which a nobleman secretly kills one wife after another and hides their corpses in a room of his castle. In the latest marriage, the noble tells his wife she can visit any room except that one (and, of course, she opens it when he’s out of town).
In Vonnegut’s 1987 novel, the old artist Robo Karabekian has an estate in the Hamptons. On it stands an old a potato barn turned into a studio for his large paintings (the typical size for Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s). The studio is his Bluebeard room, or as he tells us, “I am Bluebeard, and my studio is my forbidden chamber.”
The novel is a pseudo-biography of a once-famous Abstract Expressionist (Ab-Ex). Told in the first person, the story often flashes to the past as Robo narrates a few weeks of events in the present. And Robo drives our interest with a single question: What is he hiding in his potato barn?
As the tale unfolds, Robo is a widower living at his Hamptons mansion, a kind of house-museum. He obtained the property by marrying a wealthy woman back when he had relative fame in the art world. Presently, a visitor arrives at his door, a writer named Mrs. Berman. She wants to do a book on his life, but Robo resists. Privately, however, he reflects on his adventures, and that is the heart of the novel.
Robo tells the story of immigrants, war, and the cynical business of modern art. He chronicles his rise to be a noted Abstract Expressionists, in fact, the best pal of Jackson Pollack and another artist (fictional) named Terry Kitchen. They were “Three Musketeers” down at the Cedar Tavern in Manhattan, the storied hangout of the painters of that postwar generation.
Robo’s parents were Armenian migrants to California. There, the young artist aspired to be like a famous magazine illustrator back East, a realist artist named Dan Gregory. Robo’s art career was not working out in the California sticks, “So I went to New York to be born again.” He arrived in 1933, and came under Gregory’s wing.
This Manhattan artists is obviously the villain of the piece: he’s stubbornly realist in his art, saying a good painting is “virtually indistinguishable from a photograph,” and that Abstract art is “the work of swindlers and lunatics and degenerates.” To make his villainy even clearer, Gregory goes to Italy to support Mussolini and the fascists.
Robo, who temporarily falls in love with his teacher’s assistant, Marlene, has studied “representational” painting at the Art Students League. But in aversion to the snobbish Gregory, Robo swings in the opposite direction. He becomes an Abstract Expressionists and, as he says later, Matisse is his favorite painter.
War arrives. Robo goes to the front. He leads a camouflage unit and loses an eye in battle. After victory, he goes to Paris and visits Picasso to see if he “was OK,” then goes to Florence to privately hawk some foot-loose paintings he’d picked up in the chaos of the war front. Still in the Army, he does some final work identifying paintings looted by the Nazis.
Robo returns to New York, where he becomes known as “Diamond Robo Karabekian,” in other words, a slick art dealer. He gets a NYU business degree and hangs out with the early Abstract painters, buying some works, and getting others free that “nobody wanted.” Soon he is a major collector and dealer as well as a sometime painter.
“I could talk if not paint pictures,” Robo reports. Eventually he marries money among the heirs of the Taft family, inherits the Hampton estate, and now is alone, looking back on his life.
We readers are still wondering: What’s in the potato barn, Robo?
Mrs. Berman, the writer, is also eager to get a peek. One day he takes her out to the locked building. Before this, Robo has offered up a few stories—not exactly true--about what’s out there (in Vonnegut dream-style, what characters say can be taken several ways).
At first Robo says the barn houses what remains of a major art project he had done years earlier—eight painted panels, each 8 x 8 feet in size. The panels had once decorated a big corporate lobby in Manhattan, but were discarded after the blue paint and tape Robo used began falling off. (Big paintings that have deteriorated is a real Ab-Ex issue). After Robo retrieved the unwanted panels, he scrubbed and primed them back to the original white.
So, is there a white wall of primed canvases in the barn?
At one point he tells Mrs. Berman the thing is called, I Tried and Failed and Cleaned Up Afterwards, so It’s Your Turn Now.
When Robo finally takes her inside, it is a different story. He now calls the artwork the “whatchamacallit” painting. Apparently, the eight years in which Robo had vanished from New York society—a kind of artist’s disappearance—he had painted all sixty-four-feet of the canvas surfaces in remarkably realist detail (the kind that the loathed Gregory has advocated).
What Robo has painted, however, is a vast landscape of battle scenes with hundreds of figures, each with a story about the terrors of war. Viewers, he says, can make up war stories with any of the people in the painting. He tells Mrs. Berman the title: Now It’s Women’s Turn. War is “man” made, Robo is suggesting, and there the novel ends.
After this 1987 novel, Vonnegut will live twenty more years. His last work is a collection of essays, A Man Without a Country, reflecting—in print at least—his final alienation from the kind of nation states in which he experienced both war and a remarkably successful literary career.