When he finally killed himself by hastily eating several cans of rat poison, Conrad Leifcrown had become the greatest sculptor of the last three decades.
Or so the newspapers said in the long and detailed obituaries published around the world. I wrote several of them.
When Leifcrown arrived in the art world, he was not warmly greeted. In fact, he spent a long time being patronized and despised. If people in charge of galleries were very polite, they gave him the runaround. But mostly, they threw him out along with his woodcarvings, his plaster creations, his stainless steel ideas, his bronze experiments.
I saw him change.
I’d been writing about art for several publications since I was in high school. I always enjoyed writing about what I liked, though I never had any formal training in art history or appreciation, and that worked in my favor. My pieces, so they say, are honest, reflecting the point of view of the ordinary public rather than the often contrived and biased lectures some of my colleagues specialize in.
I saw Leifcrown's work before and after. He had talent from the start, that was for sure, but he lacked originality, luster. He seemed destined for the gift shop department, churning out designs for porcelain miniature horrors.
And one day he arrived at Henry Moreland's place with a handful of Polaroid shots. I was lucky to be there. The woodcarvings were enticing, the plaster and stainless steel attempts had been abandoned, but the bronzes were unique. Four of them appeared in the pictures, and not even the bald flash of the old camera and the inadequate backdrop used to take the photographs could mask the quality of his work. And he knew it.
Leifcrown had also changed. He had never been a humble character, nor on the contrary a primadonna, but he had always been shy. Now he seemed perfectly sure of himself and of his work. Henry Moreland was cautiously impressed, and agreed to go to Leifcrown's studio once he learned that the pieces were big, five to seven feet tall or long.
I had no need to be reluctant. If I sang some praises just then, I may later have the golden opportunity to say I ‘discovered’ Leifcrown.
And I did.
Not that the market accepted him as a new Rodin overnight. But, after Henry Moreland agreed to put Leifcrown's work on display, things developed. Gradually he began to have more exhibits, sales and assignments. He rose steadily and didn't stop until the night he gave in to a craving for rat poison.
His talent was there, in full bloom, developing. But what had really changed was his approach, his themes, his feelings.
The world was falling on top of our heads just then. It still is, and maybe it already has irrevocably fallen down on us. But those days were the scariest in a long long time. All of a sudden the nice kids who were to be the beneficiaries of the Civil Rights struggle could be found on street corners peddling all sorts of new and dangerous drugs. The dream had become a pipe in every mouth and a .38 midnight special in every pocket. People began dying without any reason, and serial killing seemed to be the rage, going on unnoticed for years, with bodies that never reappeared and murderers who smiled too much on‑camera. Nice couples who had met in college and gotten married after getting jobs and cars were now out on the street along with their dreams and children, fighting for a better cardboard box in which to sleep and sob. Spiritual leaders were carted away to jail for fraud and rape. Businessmen were their next‑cell neighbors, along with the ever‑present politicians.
All of that could be found on the faces and figures Leifcrown sculpted. Especially the bronzes. Every cruel metaphor of society then and there was embedded in the pieces he began to turn out regularly. But that was not all, it wouldn't have been enough to turn him into the artistic demigod he became. There was also the tenderness, the gentle caring that spelled hope amidst the horror. That was what drew you to his figures. Yes, they were often wretched, but never despairing. Victory might have been torn away from their grasp, but not glory. He distilled the horrors of the time and then drew magnificient conclusions that appeared to be rooted in all the good that humanity was capable of, or would be capable of if something happened. Greatness coming from ruin, promises being born from pain and confusion. His sculptures had a soul, we all knew, but didn't say so because it sounded corny and trite.
I wrote that if it is the artist's ultimate goal to draw order from chaos, then the world today was perfect raw material for any artist, since chaos had almost eaten up everything that really mattered. And I added that no artist could find such perfect order as Leifcrown had.
Even though I published pieces like that one, after I hailed him as a genius and went on writing about every major exhibit and every turn his career took, surely helping his success in more than one way, we never became friends. Leifcrown had no friends.
He wasn't rude or ill‑tempered, and he didn't actively drive people away. He was kind and tolerant, but he just didn't seem to have time for his fellow humans. He seemed uncomfortable, not angry, just out of place around other people. So when people came round, they soon felt like intruders, and left Leifcrown alone with his clay and plaster and metal.
In that respect I was the closest to him. I enjoyed access to his studio, his sketches and projects, and tried my best to make good use of what I was allowed, never to overdraw the account of privileges allotted to me by good luck and a moment of boldness.
I saw that Leifcrown worked in creative attacks, completely devoid of discipline. He could spend weeks without drawing or modeling. Then something would happen and he would go into a frenzy, turning out incredible quantities of work, sculpting several pieces at a time, an armature here, an already cast figure ready for patina to be applied there, a plaster cast way over there, and three or four clay models lying around. In a few weeks, all the pieces were ready for shipment, exhibition or sale, and Leifcrown would slip back into his artistic inactivity.
I could say now that there was a pattern to his work, but maybe that´s only hindsight. When something big happened, it was like a spark which jumpstarted his creative process. A gang war in the inner city. A scandalous murder. A large layoff of workers. Big, juicy scandals involving the rich and powerful of the land. The beginning of a new armed conflict somewhere around the world. Any tragedy. Looking back, it seems he thrived on those events, used them to fuel his sculpting. At least most of the time.
The critics finally raved in tones reserved only for great long‑dead artists like Van Gogh. Leifcrown was on his way to becoming a latter‑day Picasso, admired and revered, absolutely successful while still alive and able to enjoy it. He evolved and diversified, creating human figures, mythological creatures, abstract shapes, a strange series of eight sculptures for the blind which were not supposed to be seen by the public, but touched through a dark screen with holes for your hands. And we all talked about the powerful kindness present in every piece, competing for adjectives.
And Leifcrown fascinated not only art critics, but the world at large. Art school teachers talked about his sculptures in class. His generous contributions to charities touched the imagination of people who never went to art exhibits. His Broken Hands bronze, which he donated to decorate the entrance to the Red Cross building in Geneva found its way into every newspaper when it was unveiled.
More than a sculptor, Leifcrown was fast becoming a pop cultural hero, an event, a cult personality even though he shunned publicity and hardly ever went to social events. That made him all the most interesting.
Then it happened. I was with him.
It was back in Henry Moreland's gallery, where a grand exhibit celebrating Leifcrown's fiftieth birthday was being prepared. Leifcrown always was there when his sculptures were moved around. He was overprotective of them. He orchestrated the movements of the strong men who loaded and unloaded, crated and uncrated his sculptures.
Somehow, someone forgot that one of the exhibition rooms was split‑leveled. While Leifcrown was talking with Moreland, a guy carted one of the sculptures right through. It bounced on the two steps, fell off the gurney and crashed on the floor with a sound that rolled through the whole building. And later through the whole country.
We ran to the room. Nothing serious seemed to have happened. Bronze is tough. There was just a tiny hairline crack running through one side of the thing, one of those abstract figures that always seemed to be something and were nothing, but Leifcrown blew like a landmine. He threw himself against one of the burly men who were carrying the sculptures, but the man gingerly pushed him away and Moreland intervened. I tried to talk with Leifcrown, but he left hurriedly.
He never came back. That night he was dead, to be found the next morning by the cleaning woman who took care of his apartment. There was no suicide note, but the circumstances were evident, and many concluded that his inordinate love for his sculptures had detonated every little problem that had been slowly building inside him. Seeing one of them fractured had made him go over the edge.
That was when we all wrote the eulogies that sang his praises to the world. Long‑winded pieces, careful analyses, academic considerations and loving articles. As he lay in state, as he was buried, as the decision was made to open the exhibit as a posthumous homage to Leifcrown, newspapers and magazines ran thousands, maybe millions of words about the late sculptor.
A gloomy atmosphere pervaded the opening of the exhibit. When I arrived, the whispering that had taken the place of the loud conversation usually found in openings subsided even more. Many of those present knew that Leifcrown and I were close.
I remember going over to the small room where the damnable injured sculpture remained, guiltily showing the world the tiny crack through which Leifcrown had fallen along with his talent. I questioned Henry Moreland's judgement, but the family of our late genius had agreed to let the sculpture be shown. After all, the circumstances surrounding his death were widely known, in part because of me.
The bronze piece stood there as if it had no regrets.
Then I smelled the faint, piquant, camphory hint of an odor. It was unlike anything I knew. Peppermint? A man next to me looked worried. He recognized me.
"Phenol," he said with a hint of accusation in his voice.
So it finally happened: the discovery of the body of a teenage girl inside the piece, and the sculpture bashing that ensued. Literally. All of Leifcrown's works were ripped apart.
In all, there were maybe twelve bodies. Some limbs or organs appearing in this or that sculpture. Certainly not every bronze by Leifcrown was an urn, indeed a minority, but his work was tainted. His monumental work, notably Broken Hands, was torn down hastily and melted away.
The police were able to piece together the image of a 'classic' serial murderer, whatever that is. They found incriminating bits and pieces in his studio which had been overlooked while they were only investigating the suicide of an artist, thinking that suicide is the proper exit for eccentrics such as Leifcrown. They solved a good number of mysterious disappearances, missing people reports that were answered by the contents of so many heretofore beautiful pieces, although they are still trying to figure out his M.O.
I really don't care about that. What he did, he did. We have believed that a man's work must be separated from his personal life, but that is hard to do in Leifcrown's case. No one has even tried to defend the artistic value of his sculptures ever since.
But I do care about what we are to do, we, those of us who praised Leifcrown, who helped along his rise to fame and fortune. What are we to think about any and every work of art from this day on? Can we ever forgive ourselves?
And perhaps there is nothing to forgive. Just regret our words. Regret his work. Regret the world that bore Conrad Leifcrown. And wonder...