Letter from Venice — From the November 2013 issue

Showing a Little Leg

A pilgrimage to Ellen Altfest’s body paintings

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My leg was not what Ellen Altfest had imagined when she walked out of the Louvre’s 2008 exhibition of work by the Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna knowing that she had to paint a man’s leg. Dark hair would have better matched her other paintings of men’s body parts — Penis, The Butt, and the rest. “It’s a signifier of masculinity, and your leg didn’t have that,” she explained when we met again on the bustling terrace of Café Paradiso, just outside the gates of the Venice Biennale. “Sometimes you just have to be like, ‘This is what I’m meant to be working with, because this is what’s here.’ ”

I had last seen Altfest in the desert outside Marfa, Texas, wearing filthy white painter’s overalls. Now she wore a black-and-gold blouse that set off her red hair, and she crossed her arms for warmth as a morning rain thinned to a chilly mist. But she sat with the same deliberate stillness, her dark eyes refusing to settle anywhere too long. I had come to Venice to see The Leg for the first time in three years, to congratulate her on her inclusion in the Biennale, and to swap memories about the four months and eleven days it took her to paint my right shin.

Head and Plant, 2009–10, oil on canvas, 11? × 10? © Ellen Altfest

Head and Plant, 2009–10, oil on canvas, 11? × 10? © Ellen Altfest

She had grown to see my light hair as “subtle,” she reassured me, and my leg itself as “glowing.” She remembered a late-summer nick she had chosen to include, a rare injury in her body paintings, the scab rising from a yellow bruise like a campfire spark drawn in blood. I had been secretly proud of the price the painting might fetch — Torso, from the same series, is listed by her gallery at $90,000 — but Altfest told me she had chosen to keep The Leg for herself. “It’s a leg, but it’s also an abstract composition,” she said. “I felt like I turned a corner with that painting.”

We bonded over memories of pain. Her legs had gone numb during the sit, and she’d done yoga right there in the dirt, folding her legs back over her head in the plow pose to unkink her back. She asked if I felt any lingering discomfort. I did, in fact — Café Paradiso’s arty plastic chairs were not ideal — and a lump caught in my throat as I soft-pedaled my answer. “Maybe a little bit, yeah.” Maybe I’d come to Venice just to say that.

How had she seen our working relationship? “It wasn’t like with some of my models,” she said. “Especially if they’re painters, and we’re plugged into the same interests.” I felt jealous. “Let’s say you’re a parent,” she continued, her voice rising slightly, “and you have a nanny, and on top of everything you’re going through day to day, they’re observing you.” She paused. “I probably wouldn’t have chosen to hire a writer, if anyone else had applied. I mean . . . ” My notebook lay open on the table, my audio recorder next to her water glass. “You’re . . . ” She flipped a hand. “Whatever. So.”

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lives in Shanghai. This is his first article for Harper’s Magazine.

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