Over the weekend, as I began my attempt in earnest to plow through a selection of Things I Should Have Read in College and Should Before I Teach Undergraduates Creative Writing, I came across that 1985 New Yorker essay by Lawrence Weschler, “Shapinsky’s Karma.”
The piece tells the extraordinary story of an Indian man who teaches English in Bangalore and who decides that it is his karmic destiny to “discover” the work of an as-yet unknown Abstract Expressionist painter from New York, Harold Shapinsky.
The process of this discovery involves, among other things, calling up Weschler with astonishing persistence to report on the other developments in his project: the positive reactions of art dealers in London and curators in Sweden, the favor of Salman Rushdie and Tariq Ali, and eventually the decision by a prominent London gallery owner to devote an entire retrospective to the man’s work.
It is, truly, an incredible story: it turns out that Shapinsky did in fact study with people like Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, people who–as Weschler confirms through phone calls–recognized in him the genuine talent, skill and discipline to be a great artist. What stymied his commercial success, Weschler writes, seems to have been a combination of being drafted to Korea and a profound shyness that alienated him from the increasingly social NY art scene of the 1950s.
But despite his lack of fame, Shapinsky kept painting: he lived in total obscurity with his dancer wife in a tiny Upper East Side apartment, barely scraping by, until the sequence of events that begins when his son runs into the Indian English teacher at a party in Chicago and tells him about his father’s work.
As you read the piece it’s hard not to feel astonished to the point of skeptical: things like this don’t just happen, like this! And what Weschler acknowledges is that, in fact, they don’t. They don’t, that is, unless numerous local, global and cultural circumstances align to make them possible.
Shapinsky’s “discovery,” Weschler writes, hinged on the particular climate in the art world at that moment: a recent resurgence of the aesthetic exhibited by the second generation Abstract Expressionists, coinciding with an explosion of the global art market and the resulting ability of dealers to sell work by unknowns for tens of thousands of dollars–still a fraction of what works by “great masters” would go for.
In other words: the timing was right.
Yes, Shapinsky was (he’s since passed away) a very talented painter–the value that his work suddenly attained wasn’t completely arbitrary. But surely there are other painters of equal ability who have gone on to be obscure, and surely if Shapinsky’s “discovery” had not occurred in precisely the way it had, it likely would not have produced the same result.
I tell you about this because it strikes me as not dissimilar from another story I heard yesterday: this one on This American Life. It was the episode in which all of the segments derive from some piece of tape initially intended for an audience of one, and is bookended with pretty amazing audio from a young man in the extreme, melodramatic throes of new love.
Specifically, a guy who spent a week on vacation in Rome and met an Italian girl and then, as he proclaims in such genuine, cringe-inducing tones on tape now played for a national audience, could not stop thinking about her.
The tapes become retroactively less cringe-inducing, of course, after you’ve heard them and learn that, in fact, he wasn’t crazy: he and this Italian fling are now married and have a child together.
So, it worked. But what was interesting was how it worked. Ira Glass asked her–the now-wife–whether she thought the affair was really something so serious before she got the tapes.
And she says, basically, no: it was only upon receiving them, and hearing how extremely serious the whole thing was to him, that she felt compelled–almost obligated–to give it a chance.
In other words: the story could easily have ended another way, and we would think that he was crazy. If he hadn’t gone and sent these tapes, she would probably have forgotten about the whole thing and gone and married another Italian and had a different, non bilingual child with him.
If he hadn’t sent the tapes…or if various other things had been different. If they’d met a different week and she’d met someone else the next day…if he’d gone back to New York and sent the tapes and they’d gotten lost in the mail…or if any of eight million other things had not gone the way they did.
The point I take from all this is that, despite our persistent collective cynicism, extraordinary things do happen and one never knows when all those infinite circumstances will align so they will: that Indian teacher was completely oblivious to the conditions that propelled his artist-cause; that lovestruck guy had no idea what would happen once he took the enormous risk of sending those tapes.
Forgive me: I know this is far from an original observation. But from my still-sniffly, sleepy malaise of this early summer, it seemed like a refreshing, and helpful, reminder to have.