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A pilgrimage to Ellen Altfest’s body paintings

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.”

The ad had appeared on Marfa’s online bulletin board in January 2010, in the quiet after the holiday tourism rush. An unnamed artist was seeking a male “leg model (clothed)” for three months’ full-time work, paying fifteen dollars an hour plus a two-dollar-an-hour bonus on completion. These are killer wages in a rural Texas county without any oil, but most of the underemployed regulars at Padre’s, the local bar, were wary. Performance-art pranks are a regular hazard in a town with a fake Prada store.

But I was broke. I had come to Marfa the previous spring to write a novel; when the ad appeared, I’d burned through my savings and retreated to grad-school applications. I had nowhere to go until fall. I emailed two photos of my legs taken with a self-timer out on my front stoop in the cold winter sun: one in shorts and one in a pair of thrift-store Wranglers I was immoderately proud of that year. Altfest wrote back two days later.

Ellen, as I came to know her, arrived in town on April 1 to begin her residency at the Chinati Foundation, a museum of minimalist art in an old cavalry fort at the edge of town. We met the next morning and spent several days stomping around Chinati’s 340-acre grounds, auditioning the dead yuccas that littered the desert floor. Ellen loved their exhausted slump and weathered spines. She’d brought me a little chair — really just a foam cushion with a blue canvas back, the kind I used to sit on to watch TV on the floor of my grandparents’ den — and I posed next to each stump for a sketch. As she drew we took turns holding a flattened cardboard box to shade my leg from the sun, fierce even in April. She paints exclusively in natural light but said she had never been exposed to so much. Besides the overalls, she worked in a sun hat, special UV-blocking gloves open at the fingertips, and, until it got too hot, a sort of mask made of the same nylon as the gloves and covering all but her eyes.

We finally set up camp in a far corner of the property with the view of a quiet county road and the plains beyond. Each morning I staked down the dew-damp tent, carefully arranged my chair and stack of books, and laid my right ankle between two barbecue skewers jammed in the dirt. Then, for the next eight hours, we sat inches apart, painting and being painted. Every twenty-five minutes, Ellen’s iPhone announced a five-minute break with the strum of a harp.

There was a boss-and-employee dynamic I hadn’t expected. Besides modeling, my duties included duct-taping the tent as it tore in the spring gusts, gathering the foil wrappers of Ellen’s instant-curry lunches, and providing just enough conversation to keep her sane. While mixing dozens of skin tones a day, she would let the rest of her mind wander to subjects like celebrity gossip and Marfa’s frustrating organic-yogurt selection. I began to understand my role one dawn in late April. As we were walking to the site, Ellen clipped her right foot against a prickly pear. She stood on one leg, peeled off her shoe, and waited silently until I took her foot in my hands and pulled the fat spine from her pinkie toe, releasing one tiny, perfect drop of blood.

I’d imagined the job as a literary furlough: hundreds of free hours outdoors, reading and thinking with a journal in hand. I had just discovered W. G. Sebald; the sit in the desert would be my walk through East Anglia. In a weatherproof notebook I took diligent notes on the sky overhead, on the black cows wandering the distant rise across the road, and, with un-Sebaldian pique, on the ups and downs of what I’d envisioned as an artistic partnership. I chewed mesquite twigs, snapped at Ellen’s attempts to explain The Bachelor, and made incredulous scribbles when she said she’d never heard of a cooler, the thing you put drinks and food and ice in.

One day Ellen looked up sharply from her easel. “Stop it,” she said. “I can’t paint while you’re writing.” The Diary of a Leg Model ends with an unfinished sentence about my ass falling asleep and Gillian Welch’s “I Dream a Highway,” one of the few songs in Ellen’s painting playlist actually improved by tinny portable speakers in a howling desert. The artist needed a subject, and so a subject I became. At her direction I began to read aloud from Matisse’s writings on color, Gerhard Richter’s journals, and the New York Times Friday art previews. I spoke for myself only when spoken to. Altfest: “Sting has an open marriage. Did you know that?” Me, glancing up from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: “No. I did not.”

Without a journal to keep, I spent the long days watching the desert change seasons. Week by week, the grama grass turned from pale yellow to green to gold. Pronghorn antelope walked right up to the tent. Yucca flowers shot up around us, bloomed, and were eaten by the pronghorn. Dragonflies buried their eggs in the soft sand next to my chair. A tarantula crawled into camp. One afternoon Ellen pointed out how my foot fell naturally outward from the shin and said, “This is what I’m in love with, right here.” There were days when the thunderheads boiled up and dropped blue-gray curtains of rain in four different points around the horizon.

Still, what I’d initially figured for a bohemian lark soon became an epic test of endurance for us both. In April we had to call off a session because I couldn’t keep down goosebumps; by June, afternoon temperatures ran above a hundred degrees. Blowing sand stuck to the canvas, and a dust devil once sucked the top of the tent right off. The rains came in late June, and one particularly violent thunderstorm leveled the camp, leaving one dripping tent stake dangling evilly over the spot where Ellen sat. She worked long days, ten or twelve hours on a donut pillow in the dirt, seven days a week, filling in the background after I left each afternoon.

As the work dragged on through July, weeks behind schedule, we lapsed into a sweating, exhausted silence. My pose required me to stretch out my legs on either side of the yucca, leaving all my weight to fall on my tailbone, groin, and meager ex-runner’s behind. By June my nether regions had compressed into a sheet of hot steel, numb to the touch but fire to sit on. My pee gradually slowed to a dribble, no matter how much water I drank. During breaks I stood and tried to punch my buttocks back to life while Ellen lay supine with a handkerchief over her face.

I went weeks without a glance at the canvas. Our daily commutes out to the site wore a path still visible on Google Earth. At home each afternoon I drank straight from a jar of pickled banana peppers to replace the lost salt. My intermittent notes, kept up in the evenings, slowly ground to a halt. We finally finished, on the afternoon of August 12, placed The Leg in its Tupperware case, and broke camp without ceremony. We left the yucca where it lay. I drove off to school a few days later, stopping every half hour across the Great Plains to walk off the pain in my ass.

Graduate school turned out to be another gig requiring lots of sitting, and the pain continued all fall. After trying various orthopedic pillows, I went to a physical therapist, who shook her head when I demonstrated my pose on the linoleum floor. Once a week that spring, I took off my pants and lay under a cool sheet as she pressed a finger to my crushed perineum. Three years and two therapists later, the pain is mostly dormant but only one hard seat from a relapse. For the long flight to Venice, I brought along my latest homemade cushion, a gardener’s foam knee pad stitched between two old handkerchiefs to hide the perineal groove hacked down the middle.

The pallid glitterati lined up in hungover silence for the Biennale’s final preview day, all in black, bristling with clip-on badges and dripping umbrellas. I felt underdressed in my ratty denim jacket but consoled myself with the thought that a part of me was already somewhere inside the wrought-iron gates with the rest of the world’s coolest contemporary art. Altfest’s work had been selected for the Encyclopedic Palace, a show curated by this year’s Biennale director, Massimiliano Gioni. The name of the exhibition alluded to the utopian vision of the self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti, who in 1955 filed a grand plan with the U.S. Patent Office: an enormous tower, to be built in Washington, D.C., that would house all human knowledge.

When the gates opened at ten a.m. sharp, the crowd pushed through, raised their umbrellas high, and ran for the art. In the first gallery of the Central Pavilion was Carl Jung’s Red Book opened to an illustrated hallucination of an undersea monster. Down a hallway to the left was a video of blind people finger painting, and far in the back was an unfired clay sculpture of Einstein’s parents lying in bed after conceiving their genius son. Under a skylight at the pavilion’s center the conceptual artist Tino Sehgal had hired performers to sit on the floor in twos and threes, some chanting freestyle nonsense while others waved and rolled about. Whenever a viewer tried to take a photograph, the performers wagged their fingers in excruciating slow motion.

The Leg hung under golden track lighting in the corner of a small gallery dedicated to Altfest’s work. The painting is no bigger than a sheet of paper, the shin exactly life-size, cropped from just below the knee to just above the ankle. In JPEGs online it looks like a box of meat in cold gravy, but in person the canvas seethes with life: every last sandy hair, the old scar from a slip in the tub, the flush of blood beneath that summer’s deep tan. Gioni’s catalogue text praises Altfest’s work for its “scopophilic yearning” to “capture and discover the world one inch at a time.” While many of the works in the Encyclopedic Palace use dreams, fantasies, and elusive memories to map the outer limits of human knowledge, these paintings creep up on that frontier from within, methodically counting follicles. Penis wasn’t there, but I was pleased to see The Butt, with its miraculous halo of sunlight on a tuft above the crack. Armpit, Torso, The Hand, and The Back were there, too, along with the droll Head and Plant, in which an anonymous bearded face is hidden by a potted cactus.

I settled into a stakeout. The Leg’s first admirer was a French curator, who asked me to hike up my pants for a photo, then gave me a card and told me to look him up in Nice. Emboldened, I stopped an avuncular German art critic/cooking teacher with a melon-shaped head, a silver buzz cut, and glasses riding sagely down his pink nose, like a Teutonic Wilford Brimley. The Hand was his favorite, he said. He laughed richly when I told him The Leg was my leg. Altfest’s paintings were not portraits, he explained, clasping his hands behind his summer-weight suit. “Not always image, ja?” he said. “Now it is a new object. A new object as this painting, yes? Nothing anymore is your leg.”

I spent much of my Biennale visit hovering near The Leg, making sure people knew its leg was mine. Antonella, a fifty-six-year-old curator from Milan in girlish bangs, gave a happy gasp that powered most of my afternoon. “Are you proud about your leg?” she asked. “You should be!” Laura, a London artist: “It has a slightly forensic quality about it, doesn’t it?” Sabina, a gallerist from Zurich: “It’s very haptic,” then, “Are you still friends with her?” Every few minutes the recorded sound of a piano came tinkling through the wall from an Israeli artist’s installation — a cluttered desk and a filmstrip about memory.

Three young painters studying in Ghent assured me that painting was not dead, painting was poetry, painting was attached to history but an escape from reality, then posed next to The Leg for a group photo. Lisa, a Ph.D. student from Hildesheim, Germany, spent several minutes outlining how each painting’s equal attention to foreground and background made its subject “not a human body anymore, but more object,” and then, once I pointed out my leg, kindly doubled back and noted a contrast with “nineteenth-century realism,” which, she explained, had been all about painters trying to depict their subjects as Platonic ideals. In Altfest’s work, she said, the subject remains an individual. The tinkling piano drifted from elegant to annoying to asylum sound track.

Stephen, a painter from Edinburgh, was “slightly underwhelmed” by the painting as a whole but impressed, as several others were, with the technical proficiency Altfest displayed in capturing the blue veins floating just beneath the skin. I stated my own mild objection to their eerie luminescence, which I’ve never noticed in my actual veins. “A bit of license, maybe, on the artist’s part?” Stephen suggested. I wobbled a bit at the thought and told him I would have to inspect my leg more closely to be sure.

The Giardini, where about half of the Biennale is held, is a collection of national pavilions in varying architectural styles packed tightly along wide gravel paths. Outside the Central Pavilion’s themed show, each national pavilion presents the work of one or more artists selected by that country. I sought refuge in the American Pavilion, a campy Monticello in miniature filled with a sprawling but delicate installation by the forty-four-year-old MacArthur genius Sarah Sze. Inside the first room was an exploding star built from balsa wood and colored painter’s tape, sheltering legions of found and tenderly placed everyday objects: an overhead projector, Q-tips, a Pyrex dish of water rippling before a clip-on fan. None were painted; they were just invited to be here. An orange five-gallon bucket had come all the way from a Home Depot in the States.

One of Sze’s interns, an art student in red lipstick and faded black jeans, saw me taking notes and drew in close to point out a single dandelion, taped to a skewer and dangling over a paper coffee cup. “Because you’re a writer,” she whispered. She led me next over to the pavilion’s broom closet, which Sze had opened to viewers and filled with tiny sculptures twisted out of napkins from the Biennale snack bar. The intern said she’d helped make the shapes, rolling napkins into Q-tips, little toy tops, even a joint, all laid out like crime-scene evidence on the closet’s plywood shelves. Now these imitations of objects popped out at me at every turn. In the adjacent rooms, I wondered at a sneaker made from plain white paper, even the laces, and prescription bottles pinched out of clay. I staggered out among the fake rocks of the courtyard elated but confused.

A few blocks from the Giardini sits the Arsenale, with a few smaller national pavilions and the other half of the Encyclopedic Palace. The city beyond teems with off-site national pavilions, pop-up galleries, and legendary parties, but as Friday night approached I had no invites and had failed even to track down a proper map. Hustling through the narrow stone streets to see the Arsenale by closing time, I spotted a small knot of people drinking beer and eating off paper plates. I pounced, confidently striding into the open doorway. In all of Venice, the only party I was able to crash was the Italian Communist Party.

The Venice chapter of the Partita Refondazione Comunista was hosting their loosely private Biennale reception in what turned out to be their local headquarters, a cheery dive hung head to toe with portraits of Che Guevara. Papier-mâché busts of Che and Lenin surveyed a pair of tables draped in red-checked oilcloth. I collected a prosecco at the bar and told the story of my leg to a compact Englishman with a long gray stare and the leather tan of an expat lifer. William was an artist, he said, though he never went to the Biennale. “You’re going to have to write a really good book to forget about The Leg,” he said. “Then they’ll say, who made that painting of Dan?”

As he translated the story around the room, limbs came out for display. My leg won a ribbing for the pink imprint of elastic left by my cheap socks, and the bartender stepped around the counter to trump me: beneath white cotton slacks on his right calf was a large portrait of Che, the famous Korda photo but narrower, with the revolutionary’s lips pursed in thought. Alberto Cacian, secretary of the Venice chapter, was a tall, genial vaporetto captain with a two-day shadow across his cheeks. He’d gotten the tattoo only a few years before, when he turned forty. “Wherever I go, I carry him with me,” he said.

We could get by in Spanish. I told Alberto the leg story in more detail: the long summer, the pain, the struggle to see myself in the piece now. When I dropped to the bar’s marble floor for a quick reenactment, Cacian chuckled in sympathy. “That’s real work,” he said. “I understand that you can feel a little frustrated. But think about it. A lot of people have seen your leg. Everybody’s seen your leg, and everybody has a different opinion of that leg. Someone from China could think one thing, and someone from South America something else. Your leg, at this moment, makes people think.”

On Saturday, I toured the Giardini with two friends down from Munich before setting out to fight the crowds for a nice Italian dinner. After a long hike past scores of booked tables, we wound up in a happily chaotic place called Paradiso Perduto, scarfing fish paste in the doorway. The chef, a beefy Obi-Wan in spotted kitchen whites, paid us a liter of the cloudy house white to serve as unofficial bouncers. When the liter was gone, he insisted we take a ride in his battered wooden dinghy.

Once the dinner crowd cleared out, Chef Maurizio fired up the motor and led us zipping across the Grand Canal, passing a bottle and cheering like pirates. In a corner next to a tiny island garden he killed the engine and let us drift. The ancient, wet silence of Venice was broken only by water lapping against stone and laughter through an open window overhead. He had already forgotten our names. It was a moment of pure touristic grace.

On Sunday I explored the magnificent city that I had missed while mooning over The Leg. Altfest had been in town looking at art for a week and had recommended a Titian in the sacristy of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, featuring a nude male calf worthy of her highest endorsement: “I sketched it. Totally.” Following her directions, I found the sacristy set off from the usual tourists’ rounds by a three-euro admission and a stricter than usual ban on photos, enforced by a priest selling postcards from a wooden kiosk.

Titian did not skimp on legs. There was the rippling tree trunk of a decapitated Goliath. There was Cain, stomping a bare leg on fallen Abel, who was bleeding from the head but flexing his own leg in return. Old Abraham sported a nearly trapezoidal cyclist’s calf as the angel stayed his sword above little Isaac, and even Isaac was pressing a pale, boyish shin to the unlit pyre.

But I recognized the leg that Altfest meant as soon as I saw it: St. Sebastian in St. Mark Enthroned, an arrow in his naked chest and his right leg turned to catch the light. The thigh is gawky, but the lower leg is vividly alive, and skinny and pale, like mine. In place of my scar there’s an arrow wound. Behind Sebastian stands San Rocco, hiking up his tunic to point cryptically at his own leg. As I studied the painting, a priest with stormy eyebrows and rotting teeth came over to whisper that Sebastian and Rocco were both invoked as protectors against the plague, which was making one of its periodic visits to Venice when Titian received the commission in 1511. Rocco’s showing off a plague sore. Sebastian just looks bored.

Titian, the priest continued, was the first of his peers to paint from live models. It shows. Saints Cosme and Damian on the left, painted from two friends of the artist, look like Seinfeld extras. If I understood the priest right, Titian put his own face on San Rocco — his own leg too? — as a promotional stunt. Who modeled for Sebastian? “It is not written,” the priest said, eyebrows trembling.

That night in the hotel room, I had to check. I dug out the postcard I bought of St. Mark Enthroned, took off my pants, and stood before the closet door’s full-length mirror. Close. Turn that restless ankle. God, my calves are even skinnier. I took a few mirror selfies, trying to match Sebastian’s pose, then took another with the camera setting that turns every photo into a painting.

I spotted Sarah Sze on Sunday morning as the Biennale crowd was languidly brunching through their good-byes in the cafés along Via Garibaldi. Down the middle of the street a guerrilla artist had spread a long stripe of iridescent blue pigment, now reduced by the weekend’s heavy traffic to ghostly footprints, and Sze was strolling along the smear in a white scarf and sharing a pink gelato with her young daughter. I introduced myself and gushed over her piece. Why, I asked, in an installation that used so many found objects, had she also included those copies in napkin and clay?

Sze received my entry-level question with a nod and gently pointed out that her installations always include things that have been made. Both the found and the handmade objects, she continued, were meant to invoke the human actions that brought them into the work, whether creation or placement, twisting a napkin or taping a flower to a stick. “When you come to the pieces, you think about time,” she said, “how they are made, ‘I’m seeing them in a moment,’ and how they are going to die.” She took a bite of gelato. When I told her I’d come to Venice to see my leg, she laughed. “You see it every day,” she said. “Now you see it in a new light.”

The Leg, 2010, oil on canvas, 8? × 11? ©  Ellen Altfest

The Leg, 2010, oil on canvas, 8? × 11? © Ellen Altfest

When I went back to The Leg one more time, I began to understand the abstraction that Altfest had described. The Butt is always a butt, but when I stepped back from The Leg my shin became just a pink stripe between brown and gray. Farther down the same wall hung the newest painting, Tree, a mossy trunk cropped short in a similar layout: a thin line of orange leaves along the bottom, the mottled brown bark filling most of the small canvas, more orange leaves along the top. The Leg’s forensic detachment is unsettling, but it’s impossible to tell whether Tree is alive or dead. Altfest spent thirteen straight months painting Tree outside in the Connecticut woods, working in a snowsuit through last winter. From across the room, it looks like nothing at all.

The critic David Humphrey has described the experience of Altfest’s early plant studies — she once dragged a tumbleweed up to her New York studio, and Green Gourd made the trip to Venice — as a journey into “nether-spaces of bewildering complexity,” in which a particular subject might suggest a brain, an animate being, or a world before inevitably returning to its origin as “nothing special.” Most of her paintings of animate beings rely on the same loop: The Back is a lost continent, then a naked guy on a couch. But the abstraction that began with The Leg and deepened precipitously in Tree strikes out for stranger ground. One viewer I spoke to thought The Leg might be an arm, and we all had to step pretty close to the brooding murk in the next corner to discover that it was “just” a stretch of knotty bark, more profound and unknowable than any man in the room.

Somewhere overhead a subway-quality loudspeaker announced closing time, and a security guard marched briskly past to clear the back rooms. The piano tinkled without mercy. I pocketed my notebook and faced The Leg, likely for the last time. Then, after glancing around for the guard, I reached out and ran a quick finger down the left edge of the unframed canvas — not the front, just the unpainted side, messy with dribbles the color of my skin and tinged with a patina of West Texas dust.

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

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April 2006

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