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Tableaux Morts

Art plus art history plus money plus madness: It must mean murder.



The Death Artist

By Jonathan Santlofer

Morrow, 344 pp., $24.95

Back in 1989, five years' worth of work by abstract painter Jonathan Santlofer went up in smoke. His show in Chicago, he told his friend Diane Keaton in Interview magazine almost 10 years later, "opened one day, the gallery burned down the next." Two things then happened:

One: Santlofer went to Rome, where, inspired by Caravaggio, Bernini, etc., he began basing his work on imagery direct from art history. The result is Santlofer's current gallery work: paintings based on artist portraits -- Gauguin, Warhol, etc. -- accompanied by renderings of those artists' representative works.

Two: Santlofer turned to writing as a "therapeutic way," according to his publisher, "to deal with his loss." The result is a fictional work of the bloodbath variety, The Death Artist.

The novel opens with the stabbing murder in New York's East Village of a young performance artist named Elena Solana, and before the novel ends, we get the bathtub-drowning on Park Avenue of a chubby museum director named William Pruitt, the skinning-alive in Hell's Kitchen of a second-rate minimalist painter named Ethan Stein, the disembowelment in Chelsea of an exorexic gallery owner named Amanda Lowe, the dismemberment on Long Island of an aged collector named Nathan Sachs, the hanging/spearing in Italy of a clueless cop named Maureen Slattery, and, unless Kate McKinnon Rothstein reaches him in time, the mock crucifixion in a Manhattan no-man's-land of another painter, Willie Luther King Handley Jr., a young hotshot in the hottest of that island's art circles.

Who is this Kate McKinnon Rothstein? A rare thing indeed: a woman who grew up the daughter of a cop with a bad habit of beating her; a graduate in art history from Fordham University who (surprise!) can't find a job; a B.A. turned cop with a beat of her own in Astoria, Queens; an eventual wife to superstar lawyer Richard Rothstein; a Ph.D. in art history thanks to Rothstein's encouragement and fat income; a hit author after she writes a book called Artists' Lives; a star on PBS after television turns that book into a popular series; a hit in New York society thanks to Rothstein's fat-cat connections; a leading member of a charity that mentors at-risk high-schoolers; and a comfortable occupant of a 12-room apartment on Central Park West that anybody in his/her right mind would understandably kill for.

Kate's also a smoker (Marlboros; in a pinch, Merits), and the death of Elena isn't helping her to kick the habit. But the murder does kick-start Kate's reentry into police work, because Elena was one of those very teenagers Kate mentored and because the murderer is sending Kate a sign: a Polaroid of the victim that has a weird resemblance to something that Kate the art expert should recognize but Kate the ex-cop at first does not. The more the murders, the more the signs, and it's no time before Kate sees them for what they are: small-scale artworks based on imagery direct from art history, imagery that inspires the manner of each killing. If you're at all familiar with Jacques-Louis David's painting The Death of Marat and the death of Bill Pruitt springs to mind, you get the picture. If not, don't worry. The entire New York City police force and FBI are equally ignorant.

What ties these murders together? A serial murderer, that's what, and one who happens to have: 1) a handy way with an X-Acto knife, 2) a bad brain split two ways, 3) a crippling case of woe-is-me, and 4) a miraculous talent for split-second timing, the kind of timing that exists only in paint-by-numbers thrillers such as this one and that lets somebody get away with murder until somebody along the lines of Kate McKinnon Rothstein gets hold of him. But Santlofer knows a thing or three too about: 1) art, 2) the art world, and 3) the art of page-turning. The Death Artist has its rhythm going in and doesn't quit and damn the implausibles. And forget the impossibles. Believability's no issue because it's just no use. Except ...

... As in this thumbnail sketch (from life?) of art dealer/dead duck Amanda Lowe: "Unnatural eggplant-colored hair, blunt cut ... [E]yes lined with dusky kohl, her mouth a red gash. The total effect was somewhere between a Kabuki mask and a corpse." Arguing in favor of "corpse": the self-proclaimed "Death Artist." You be thinking Ed Kienholz's assemblage The Birthday (1964) -- what, you know it? -- for clues to why and how.

Arguing in favor of The Death Artist: It's speedy, grisly, a thinking man's/woman's whodunit and good bad fun. I see movie rights, not dead people. And forget Keaton. The call goes to the actress who needs real rescuing: Michelle Pfeiffer.

Jonathan Santlofer

reading from and signing The Death Artist

Square Books, Oxford:

Friday, October 25th, 5 p.m.

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art:

Saturday, October 26th, 2 p.m.

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