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.

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