“There is something both marvelous and hilarious,” writes Lawrence Weschler, “in watching the humdrum suddenly take flight. This is, in part, a collection of such launchings.”
Indeed, the eight essays collected in A Wanderer in the Perfect City do soar into the realm of passion as Weschler profiles people who “were just moseying down the street one day, minding their own business, when suddenly and almost spontaneously, they caught fire, they became obsessed, they became intensely focused and intensely alive.” With keen observations and graceful prose, Weschler carries us along as a teacher of rudimentary English from India decides that his destiny is to promote the paintings of an obscure American abstract expressionist; a gifted poker player invents a more exciting version of chess; an avant-garde Russian émigré conductor speaks Latin, exclusively, to his infant daughter; and Art Spiegelman composes Maus. But simple summaries can’t do these stories justice: like music, they derive their character from digressions and details, cadence and tone. And like the upwelling of passion Weschler’s characters feel, they are better experienced than explained.
“Weschler seems so hungry for life that the rest of us become hungry for him . . . a magician, a performer, and a scholar. All in one.”—from the Foreword by Pico Iyer
“Weschler’s essays are exquisitely written—so perfectly and unobtrusively organized that one can’t imagine telling them a better way.” —New York Times Book Review
“Weschler is the owner of a large dose of novelistic vision, and a particularly poetic set of ears, but . . . as important an endowment as a novelist’s eye or a poet’s ear is still the journalistic nose which led him down the proverbial alley.”—National Post (Canada)
“Weschler is a thoughtful observer and a superb storyteller.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
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About the Author
A widely honored journalist, Lawrence Weschler is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. He is the author of twelve books, including Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Vermeer in Bosnia, and, most recently, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences.
Read an Excerpt
I was up late one night last fall, absorbed in Serge Guilbaut's provocative revisionist tract How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, when, at eleven-thirty, the phone rang. A stranger on the line introduced himself as Akumal Ramachander, from Bangalore, India. He was calling from Washington, D.C., he informed me in a spirited voice. He'd just been in Warsaw a few weeks earlier, where he'd had many fascinating experiences. He'd read a book I'd written on Poland, and could see that I'd given the situation there much thought. He was going to be in New York City later in the week, and would it be all right if we got together? It all sounded mildly diverting, so we set a rendezvous.
A few days later, on schedule, Ramachander appeared in my officea youngish, fairly slight gentleman with short-cropped black hair and a round face. His conversation caromed all over the place (Gdansk, Reagan, Sri Lanka, Lech Walesa, Indira Gandhi, the Sikhs, Margaret Thatcher, Satyajit Ray, London); he told me that he was some sort of part-time correspondent for the local paper of one of those Indian towns almost no one in America has ever heard of. He'd taught English at an agricultural college but had generally been something of a drifter, he explainedthat is, until recently, for he'd just discovered his true calling. "My destiny!" he insisted. "We Indians believe in karma, in destiny, in discovering the true calling for our lives. It has nothing to do with making money, this `making a living' you have here in America. No, it is the spirit calling, and we answer. Not in some silly mystical way but as if the purpose of life were revealedsometimes, as in my case, all-of-a-suddenly, like that! And this is what has now happened."
And what calling, I asked him, had he suddenly uncovered?
And who, or what, I hazarded, was Shapinsky?
"Harold Shapinsky," he replied. "Abstract Expressionist painter, generation of de Kooning and Rothko, an undiscovered marvel, an absolute genius, completely unknown, utterly unappreciated. He lives here in New York City, with his wife, in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, where he continues to paint, as he has been doing for over forty years, like an angel." Ramachander scribbled an address and a phone number on a scrap of paper, shoved it at me, and continued, "You must visit this Shapinsky fellow. He's a true find, a major discovery. It is my destiny to bring him to the attention of the world."
I was somewhat speechless.
Ramachander was not: "You will seethis is an extraordinary discovery. As I say, I don't care about money. What's money? I do it because of my destiny."
Well, at length Ramachander departed. (He was, he told me, headed for Europe a few days hence.) I tacked Shapinsky's address and phone number to my bulletin board but didn't get around to calling him right away, and then one thing led to another, and I pretty much forgot about the whole incident.
A few weeks later, at seven in the morning, the phone in my apartment rang me awake. "Hello, Mr. Weschler. Akumal here. In Utrecht, Holland. You won't believe the good news! I took slides of Shapinsky's work to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the curator there was amazed. He told me that I'd brought him the work of a great artist, that Shapinsky is a major find. I must tell you, I'm beginning to believe this is one of the great discoveries of the last five years. The curator was extremely supportive, and eager to see how things develop."
Myself, I wasn't really eager to believe any of it. I hung up and went back to sleep.
A few days later, the phone rang againat ten in the morning this time. "Akumal again here, Mr. Weschler! Only, in London today. More good news! I visited the Tate this morning. Just walked in with no appointment, demanded to see the curator of modern art, refused to leave the waiting room until he finally came outto humor me, I suppose, this silly little Indian fellow, you knowbut presently he was blown away. He bows to me and says, `Mr. Ramachander, you are right. Shapinsky is a terrific discovery.' I'm becoming more and more convinced myself that he's the discovery of the decade. Anyway, he gave me the name of a gallerythe Mayor Gallery. James Mayor, one of the top dealers in London, Cork StreetWarhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, first-rate. I went over there, and he, too, was flabbergasted. He's thinking about scheduling a show for the spring."
I still didn't know quite what to make of any of this; I assumed that it was all a bit daft, some elaborate fantastication, and, anyway, I remained too busy with other projects to take time to call and visit Shapinsky, if Shapinsky actually existed.
A few days later, the phone rang, again at seven in the morning, and, used to the pattern by now, I managed to preempt my new friend with a "Hello, Akumal."
"British television!" Ramachander exclaimed, utterly unimpressed by my prescience. "I showed the slides to some people over at British Channel 4 and they loved them, and right on the spot they committed themselves to doing a special, an hour-long documentary, to be ready in time for the show at the Mayor Gallery. Did I tell you? A one-man show to open on May twenty-first, Shapinsky's sixtieth birthday. They love the story, the idea of this unknown genius Abstract Expressionist and of the little Indian fellow and his destiny. They'll be flying me back to New York in several weeks with a camera crew to re-create our meetingShapinsky and myselfand then the following month they're going to fly Shapinsky and his wife and me to Bangalore, in India, so I can show them around my digs. This meeting of East and West, you seethat's the ticket. So maybe I'll see you in New York, yes?"
I set the phone back in its cradle, resolving to give the whole matter a bit more thorough consideration once I'd reawakened at some more decent hour. But just as I was nodding back off the phone rang again.
"The Ludwig Museum! I forgot to tell you. Just before Channel 4, I went to Cologne and showed the slides to the excellent lady in charge of the Ludwig Museum there. She couldn't get over them. She can't wait to see the show at the Mayor Gallery. Everyone agrees.
"I'm beginning to see it clearly now: Shapinsky is one of the top finds of the century!"
Several weeks later (I'd anticipated the visitation with a notation in my desk diary), the phone rang at my office, and of course it was Akumal, this time in New York, in Shapinsky's apartmentI simply had to drop whatever I was doing immediately, he told me, and come see for myself.
So I did. The address on Seventieth Street, east of Second Avenue, turned out to be a Japanese restaurant. Off to one side was a dark entry passage behind a glass door. I pushed a doorbell and was buzzed ina five-story walk-up; steep stairs and dim, narrow corridors. I could hear something of a commotion upstairs as I approached. Rounding the corner onto the fifth-floor landing, I was momentarily blinded by a panning klieg light: the tiny apartment was indeed overflowing with a bustling film crew. I craned my neck into the bustle. The foyer was almost entirely taken up by a single bed (the only bed in the apartment, I later discovered), which was covered with coats and equipment; the next room was an almost equally crammed kitchen; and just beyond that I could see into a tiny bedroom, which was serving as the studio. A very dignified and dapper-looking English gentleman had spread several paintings about the floor of the studio and was crouched down making a careful selection as the television crew peered over his shoulder. I managed to step in. In the far corner I spotted Akumal, who was beaming. Next to him stood a soft, slightly stooped, fairly rumpled, gray-bearded old man, wrapped in a moth-eaten wool sweater and puffing cherry-sweet tobacco smoke into the air from the bowl of a well-chewed pipe.
"Ah!" Akumal exclaimed, suddenly catching sight of me. "Mr. Weschler! I want you to meet Harold Shapinsky."
Shapinsky looked up, mildly (understandably) dazed.
The dapper Englishman got up off his haunches, wiped his hands, gave one last approving glance at the paintings arrayed before him, and then looked over at Shapinsky, smiling. "Yes," he said. "I think that will do. That will do superbly."
"Cut!" shouted the film director. "Good. Very good." The kliegs went dark.
"James Mayor," Akumal said, introducing the distinguished-looking Englishman, whose identity I'd already surmised.
Shapinsky puffed on his pipe and nodded.
The cameraman asked if he could have Shapinsky and his wife stand by the window for a moment, and Mayor walked over beside me. "Most amazing story," he said. "I mean, an artist of this calibre living like this, dirt poor, completely unknownliving in a virtual garret five stories above a Japanese restaurant I've been to literally dozens of times. Quite good Japanese restaurant, by the way, that." Mayor is in his late thirties, trim, conventionally handsome, with a shock of black hair cresting to a peak over his forehead. "I must say, when Akumal brought me in those slides I was astonished," he continued. "I mean, this art business can get one pretty jaded after a while. One gets to feeling one's seen it all. You begin to despair of ever again encountering anything original, powerful, real. I haven't felt a buzz like this in a long time."
Akumal and the director of the film, Greg Lanning, joined us. Lanning explained that he'd now like to shoot a sequence of Mayor and Shapinsky talking together. Everything really was intolerably cramped. I asked Akumal if he'd like to join me for a little walk, and he agreed.
"Well," I told Akumal outside, "you've certainly gone and caught my attention. But do you think we might slow down and wind this tape back a bit? First of all, seriously, who are you?"
"Ah, yes." He laughed. "It's been just as I predicted, hasn't it? Wonderful destiny! Manifest destinyisn't that one of your expressions here in America? Manifest karma, if you'll allow me. As I told you, I am a lowly professor of elementary English at the College of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore. I am there every day from eight to three, teaching my classes of forty students grammar, spelling, sentence structure, conversational skillsonly, I'm on leave just now, as you can see."
He was born in Bombay on the tenth of July, 1949, and his family presently moved to Calcutta. His father was a clerk in the army. His family was lower middle class, struggling to advance slightly higher, into the middle class proper. When his father and mother were married, they were so poor they couldn't afford a single night in the fanciest hotel in Bombaythey couldn't even afford tea thereso they went over and just rode up and down in the lifts. "That was their sort of honeymoon celebration. When I was growing up, there were six of us in two rooms."
Walking and talking at a brisk clip, Akumal continued, "My parents are both polyglotsthey speak five Indian languages each, I speak sevenand they would encourage my reading. Especially my mother: I remember coming upon her in my room one day; she was reading my copy of Death of a Salesman and she was weeping. I was very bookish. I almost went blind with all my reading. There was no electricity, and to save my eyes my father made a huge clamor and got electricity for the entire block. He was not able to complete his schooling himself, so he sacrificed enormously so that his children would be able to: he sent me to a fine school where I perfected my English. Eventually, I even managed to teach English for many years before ever going to England my first time, which was in 1980.
"I was especially in love with beauty. In India, even the poorest will adorn themselves with colorful saris or simple jewelryyou may be economically deprived, we say, but God has given you eyes in your head to seeand from a very early age I was entranced, mesmerized by the flowing movements of all those intense colors. One of my earliest memories in Calcutta was going to the fields not far from Fort William, along the banks of the Hooghly River. This was my art school. Because there, each summer, thousandsno, hundreds of thousandsof butterflies would gather, and I would run among them, chasing them, all those brilliant hues floating about. I never actually tried to catch any. It was just the swarming of all that color. And that was my initial association when I saw the slides of Shapinsky's paintings for the first time. They reminded me of the butterflies back in Calcutta, and the rhythms of classical Indian dance, tooanother great passion of mine. I knew I must be in the presence of a profound art if it could inspire associations like that."
Akumal went on to relate that his family had moved to Bangalore when he was sixteen. He received his bachelor's degree in physics and chemistry and mathematics from the National College in Bangalore in 1968, shifted fields and campuses and attained a master's degree from Bangalore's Central College in 1971. In addition to teaching, he wrote poetry in Hindi and fiction in English. In 1973, an early draft of an antiwar play of his somehow got him an invitation to Weimar, East Germanyhis first trip abroadand there he was "bowled over by Brecht." I say "somehow": Akumal was actually very specificexhaustively soabout the circumstances, but my concentration had begun to buckle under the weight of his relentlessly detailed recapitulations. All of Akumal's accounts are exhaustive: it's not so much that he is incapable of compression as that he seems authentically dazzled by the particulate density of every aspect of his fate. Anyway, he returned to India and became something of a gadfly in Bangalore, one of the fastest-growing provincial cities in India, endlessly exhorting the editors of the local papers to expand their cultural coverage, especially of international film and literature. He haunted the British Council Library. He arranged for the first translation of Darwin's Origin of Species into Kannada, the local language. He acted as a literary agent on behalf of various local poets and essayists. He managed to finagle a special four-page supplement on the films of the Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi during a Bangalore film festival in 1979. Zanussi eventually saw the supplement, and had Akumal invited to the 1980 Gdansk film festival, at the height of the Solidarity periodthe first of several trips Akumal took to Poland. Somewhere along the line, he met Lelah Dushkin, a sociology professor at Kansas State University, who managed to arrange an invitation for Akumal to come to Kansas to lecture on Indian politics and cinema, so that early in the fall of 1984 Akumal found himself in Chicago, flesh from Poland (where he had just attended another film festival}, en route to Manhattan, Kansas.
This is where the story proper beginsa story that Akumal has now told hundreds of times, each time the same way, with the same formulaic cadences and ritualized digressions, except for the addition, at the end of each new telling, of the name and reaction of the person he told it to the immediately prior time. It's like one of those Borges fictions, in which to hear the story is to become part of it. And the story always begins with Akumal's fresh astonishment, his sheer amazement at the wondrous coincidence of it all. Because, as he points out, if he hadn't been on his way to Kansas he would never have been in Chicago, and if he hadn't been in Chicago he would never have accompanied his host, the distinguished Indian poet (and MacArthur Fellowship recipient} A. K. Ramanujan, to a retirement party for Maureen Patterson, the South Asia bibliographer at the University of Chicago, and in that case he would never have had an impulse "to befriend one young man who was standing somewhat shyly in the corner"an impulse that arose "because the man had an interesting, kind face"and then he would never have met one of Maureen Patterson's graduate assistants, who proved to be David, the twenty-four-year-old son of Harold and Kate Shapinsky. "It could all easily never have happened," Akumal invariably points out here. "It was all built on the most precarious of coincidences. But, then again, it had to happen, because it was my karma to discover Harold Shapinsky, and it was Shapinsky's karma to be discovered by me."
David Shapinsky was in Chicago doing graduate work in American diplomatic history, so their conversation initially revolved around international relations, alighting on the subject of Poland, and thence on to the subject of a young Polish artist whose work Akumal had taken to promoting since his most recent trip to Gdansk, and some of whose etchings he had back in his suitcase at Ramanujan's. (He had bought them in Poland to assist the poor artist, and was now reselling them as he went along to finance his trip; beyond that, he was virtually without funds.)
"David didn't mention anything about his father that night," Akumal explained to me as we completed perhaps our twelfth lap of the block the afternoon he recounted the whole story to me for the first time. "That took another coincidencethe next day, we just happened to run into each other at the University of Chicago library, and he asked me if I'd mind going with him for coffee. Presently, he told me about his father and invited me up to his room to look at some slides of his father's paintings and see if I might be willing to promote his father's work as well. He is a loving son, and he was pained by the oblivion into which his father had fallen. I was interested, but I really didn't know much about Abstract ExpressionismI mean, I of course had Alvarez's anthology of twentieth-century English poetry, which has a Pollock on the cover, and I'd read a piece in the Economist for June 1978, a review of a book about ancient Indian popular painting in which the writer suggested that these artists must have unconsciously anticipated Pollock. So I knew about Pollock, though I'd never heard of de Kooning. And I had no idea how I would react to this work of David's father. In David's room, though, looking at the slides, I got butterfliesthe butterflies of my Calcutta youth!
"Over the next few days, I got very excited. I told David to call his parents and tell them to sit tight just a big longerthat a crazy Indian from Bangalore was on his way to promote Harold's paintings. And I made David a two-part bet. I bet him that within a year I would secure a show for his father's paintings at a major world-class gallerypossibly not in America, possibly in Europe. I wasn't sure about New Yorkthey're funny in New York, you can never tell. And, secondly, we would force the Encyclopedia Britannica to revise its entry on Abstract Expressionism to establish the name Shapinsky in its rightful place among de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, and the others. We bet a dinner at the fanciest restaurant we could think of, and then I was off to Kansas.
"From Kansas, I called a friend of mine in New Jersey, an Indian fellow named Sudhir Vaikkattil. An exceptional photographer, he was an earlier discovery of mine. I told him not to ask any questions but to call the Shapinskys right away, go over there, and take new slides of the work and of them. I'd be joining up with him in a few weeks. I told him not to worry, that somehow I'd find money to pay for the materialsalthough at that moment I was, frankly, penniless. I called Haroldthis was our first conversationand told him about Sudhir and the need for the new slides. Andthis was fantasticyou know what he said? He said, `Well, I hope he gets in touch with me.' This was a wonderful omen. In India, we have a proverb`The thirsty man goes to the well, the well doesn't go to the thirsty man.' As I suspected, this confirmed that Shapinsky was a well, not a thirsty man. He is incredibly serene. He is siddhipurushthis is a Sanskrit expression meaning a wise man, self-actualized, unflappable, unfazed."
Akumal soon completed his lectures in Kansas and flew on, for some reason (he told me why; I just got lost somewhere in here), to Los Angeles and then to Washington, D.C. There, as elsewhere, he managed to find some Indian patrons. "I sing for them," Akumal explained to me matter-of-factly. "Oh, I didn't tell you? Yes, I am a great fan of Indian semiclassical music, and I can sing unaccompanied. Homesick Indians all over the world love to have me stay with them in their homes as long as I sing for my keep." He now launched his siege of the Smithsonian, armed with David's slides. There was a whole series of coincidences here as well, including a fellow named Asman ("This was a wonderful omen, because, you see, asman in Hindustani means the sky, and, of course, I was reaching for the sky, and also, in Bangalore, I am known as Chander, the Moon, so the Asman-Chanderyou get the idea"), whom Akumal encountered somewhere along the way toward Dean Anderson, "the number two man at the Smithsonian." Anderson was impressed by the slides and dumbfounded that Shapinsky wasn't listed in any of the reference books on his extensive shelf. He promised to pass the slides on to the curators over at the Hirshhorn and get back to Akumal with their response as quickly as possible. On one of the days in here, Akumal happened upon a copy of my book on Poland in a bookstore and noted, from the jacket copy, that I'd also occasionally written on art ("another wonderful omen"), which is why he called me later (very much later) that night. As he pointed out, admiring his own tactical acumen, he'd limited his conversation in that first phone call to the subject of Poland. This was partly, he now told me, because he'd spent much of the interim that afternoon calling New York galleries. "I must tell you I've made a major discovery," he'd told one receptionist after another, "an extraordinary Abstract Expressionist of the generation of Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning, and I would like to make an appointment to come in and show you some slides." In a few cases, he managed to get past the flak-catchers, but it didn't much help. "Harold who?" was a common response. One prominent dealer, Ivan Karp, went as far as to assert, "He couldn't be very major if I've never heard of him." Akumal called thirty-two galleries and got not one appointment. A few days later, on October thirtieth, undaunted, he boarded a bus for Manhattan. He immediately called on the Shapinskys. They became fast friends, and later that very afternoon he showed up in my office, making his subtle (as it developed, almost too subtle) pitch.
The next day, Akumal called Anderson at the Smithsonian. "The people here are amazed," Akumal recalls Anderson's telling him. "They say either Shapinsky is an outstanding genius of twentieth-century art or he is a first-class derivative artist. They want more time." Akumal pointed out that all Western art was derivative of the East, if you wanted to get picky about things, and anyway art history was not a relay race. He asked whether Anderson would mind if he began showing the slides to art people in Europe. Anderson said of course not, and shortly thereafter Akumal boarded a flight to Amsterdam on the first leg of his prebooked, prepaid return to Bangalore.
We'd now accomplished a half-dozen more laps of the block, and we decided to peer in and see how the TV shoot was going. It was going like most such thingsat a snail's paceand Akumal would not be needed for a bit longer, so we decided to head out for a few more rounds.
"The next coincidence occurred on the plane," Akumal continued. "The KLM in-flight magazine happened to include an article about the Stedelijk Museum, mentioning a curator named Alexander van Gravenstein, so once I arrived in Holland I immediately took to calling him, and eventually obtained an appointment. When I arrived at his office, he invited me down to the museum cafeteria, and I was momentarily alarmed, because I literally didn't have a cent in my pocket and, you know, there is this phrase `going Dutch, and, this being Amsterdam and everything, I figured I might be expected to pay for my own coffee. But he was very generousanother good omenand he just picked up the tab. And after he looked at the slides, he said, `You have brought me the work of a great artist. The work of the late forties and fifties is especially original.' He gave me the name of Xavier Fourcade, a dealer in New York City, but I decided not to tell him how I'd already called the thirty-two New York galleries, all to no avail."
Buoyed by that exchange, Akumal borrowed money from some Dutch friends and took the boat to England, arriving in London early in the morning and being met by an Indian friend who was studying at Cambridge. Over dinner, their conversation turned to the Booker Prize for fiction and the fact that it had recently been won by Anita Brookner, who happened to be a professor of art. "I took this as an omen," Akumal recounted. "And I excused myself momentarily from the table. I went over to the pay phone and looked up her number in the phone book. It was listedanother good omen. And since it wasn't too latebefore ten, anywayI placed the call. She answered herself, and I quickly explained my situation and she was very gracious, at the end suggesting that the man to get in touch with was her friend Alan Bowness, the director of the Tate." When Akumal returned to the dining table, his Cambridge friend was aghast that he'd actually called Miss Brookner, but "once in a while you just have to be bold."
The next morning, Akumal presented himself at the reception desk at the Tate, insisting on seeing the director. No, he did not have an appointment, but he did have urgent business. Bowness, it turned out, was not in, but Akumal would not be budged. Finally, the receptionist managed to get Ronald Alley, the keeper of the modern art collection, to come down and attend to this immovable Indian. "I pulled out the slides, and as he looked through them he almost immediately said, `You have made a major discovery.' I said yes. He suggested that what Shapinsky needed now was a first-class gallery, and asked if I'd like a referral. Of course, I said yes again. He went over to his phone and called James Mayor and told him he'd be sending over someone with some very interesting work. I thanked him, left the building, flagged a cab, and immediately proceeded to the Mayor Gallery."
Salman Rushdie, the best-selling author of Midnight's Children and Shame, who was to become another student and chronicler of this affair, has pointed out, correctly, that this was the turning point in Akumal's Shapinsky quest. As Rushdie says, "Now, for the first time, Akumal had become that most pukka of persons, a man who has been properly introduced." (Pukka is Hindustani for "complete," "whole," "together.")
Table of Contents
Art's Father, Vladek's Son
Katchor's Knipl, Knipl's Katchor