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Book Reviews : Dirty Deeds Afoot in New York's Art World

December 26, 1985|ELAINE KENDALL

Chiaroscuro by Peter Clothier (St. Martin's Press: $14.95)

Offering unequaled opportunities for theft, forgery and general chicanery, the art world is perennially alluring to mystery writers, though few bring as much inside knowledge to it as Clothier, a former dean of Otis Art Institute and a frequent contributor to Art in America. Jacob Molnar, the curmudgeonly hero of this literate example, was a precocious success as a painter in the 1960s, not only lionized and admired but also readily sold. By his mid-30s, disgusted with the duplicity of the art broker and able to afford the luxury of integrity, he dropped out of the frenetic New York art scene to concentrate on figure painting, a move professionally analogous to learning how to pilot a dirigible.

Ignored by critics and collectors but sustained in his isolation of high principles, his beautiful and devoted model Laura and the income from various sound investments, Molnar's life is eminently satisfactory until a phone call from the young artist Carlos Smith shatters his tranquility.

Smith is a neo-expressionist specializing in "raw anger on raw canvas"; the splashy commercial sort of work Molnar most disdains. With that one call, Molnar is suddenly plunged into the lowest depths of the world he left behind.

Death in an Alleyway

The Renaissance aside, the last artist Molnar truly respected was his friend and mentor Worthing Nelson, found dead in a Soho alleyway 10 years before the story begins. When Smith mentions Nelson's unsolved death and suggests there may be some connection with the recent suicide of a promising young woman artist, Molnar's curiosity is aroused.

After learning that one of his own early paintings is to be sold at Sotheby's that same afternoon, Molnar agrees to meet Smith at the auction gallery, a setting nicely calculated to introduce the cast of dealers, artists, speculators, assorted sycophants and art-scene groupies.

Clothier needs only a few paragraphs to dispel any illusions the reader may harbor about the altruism of the artistic life. Forget Monet painting lilies in his country garden or an elderly Renoir working with the brush strapped to his arthritic hand. The painters in "Chiaroscuro" die young and violently.

Though the ensuing events are standard for the genre, the contemporary art world is satirized with uncommon perception and depth of field. The exposure of the crass process by which talent is celebrated, exploited and destroyed eventually emerges as the dominant theme: an insidious kind of murder as lethal to art itself as the murders are to the victims. While the evolution of Molnar from reclusive cynic to efficient sleuth is mechanical, the killings and their perpetrators become merely incidental to a knowledgeable exposure of the jungle in which these types flourish.

Death Raises the Price

Collusion, price fixing and blackmail are standard operating procedure for Clothier's art mongers, and when ordinary scurrility fails to produce immediate results, they're not above more draconian measures. Aware there's nothing like a premature death to boost the value of an artist's work, the villains in this piece don't hesitate to help nature along.

The meticulous detailing of the background more than compensates for the sketchiness of the central figures in this novel; Molnar's technique as a detective matching his methods as a painter. He's intuitive, emotional and eccentric, qualities transferring easily and naturally from his first vocation to his second. If at first the unprincipled art world types seem somewhat overdrawn, recent reports of manipulation and outright misrepresentation in the buying and selling of major works justify the author's jaded view of his milieu.

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