In Jonathan Santlofer’s latest novel, no
one is safe from a madman bearing a matte knife - not the museum
curator or an elderly artist in her Tarrytown studio. Santlofer,
an author and a painter, writes about what he knows best - New
York’s art world - so obviously, that’s where his charmingly
idiosyncratic characters must be slain.
"The Killing Art" was inspired by Santlofer’s stint as an assistant to painter George McNeil while he was a graduate student at Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill. The author told GO Brooklyn that he maintained his friendship with McNeil (1908-1995) after he’d earned his master’s of fine arts and moved to Park Slope.
In this book - Santlofer’s third starring ex-cop-turned art historian Kate McKinnon - the heroine is rebuilding her life after the murder of her husband by researching a book and documentary about New York’s Abstract Expressionists of the 1930s.
But when one of her friends is slashed - along with his valuable Franz Kline painting - McKinnon offers to help the New York Police Department’s Art Squad.
Real artists of the New York School - like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock in addition to Kline - make an appearance in both Santlofer’s and McKinnon’s work, but fictional artists are also woven in.
The character of Phillip Zander, for example, was inspired in part by McNeil, particularly "the kindly aspect of him."
"I loved him," said Santlofer. "I think there is a whole generation of [Pratt] artists who feel similarly. I run into them from time to time. George was an extraordinary teacher and person.
"He died a few years ago, and I was close to him, so I think he would have thought it was a hoot [that he inspired Zander]. He had a great outlook on the world, and he would have thought [the depiction] was really funny - especially that he was a grand old man of success. He would have liked it.
"At the end of the book, I thank him for his inspiration and paraphrased him telling me to ’put the insanity into my artwork and keep my life sane.’"
In fact, Santlofer says that he modeled Zander’s young, mustachioed assistant, Jules, on himself and the paternal relationship he had with McNeil more than two decades ago.
But the autobiographical elements end there. McKinnon, after all, is "a woman, rich and tall - all the things I am not," Santlofer laughed. (Much of his research in establishing McKinnon’s metamorphosis from cashmere-wearing high-society girl to downtown hipster was supplied by his daughter, Doria.)
Like Dan Brown’s blockbuster "The DaVinci Code," Santlofer’s novels fold art history into their storylines. Brown’s novel so skillfully wove together fact and fiction that some readers found it difficult to remember that the book was entertainment only - not history.
But Santlofer sets the record straight about "The Killing Art" in his acknowledgments: "There are many wonderful books about the early years of New York’s art world which have been helpful, and I recommend them for a deeper (and factual) understanding of the period."
He told GO Brooklyn, "It’s kind of a split responsibility. [Novelists] are telling you off the bat it’s not all true. If [readers] want to be informed, they have to do research. At the end of my book, I write ’read the following books,’ so I kind of wiggled out of it. But Dan Brown doesn’t say it, and it was really smart of him to do that."
Santlofer asserts that many of the most outlandish aspects of the art world that he chronicles in "The Killing Art" are too crazy to be fiction. There really is, for example, a secret club of women who adopt the names of famous female painters, like Georgia O’Keeffe, and disguise themselves with gorilla masks to protest museums that don’t give female artists a fair shake. In "The Killing Art," visitors to an exhibition are tagged with "Guerilla Girls" stickers, which makes the activists suspects when a costly painting is slashed.
Here again, the lines between McKinnon and her creator are blurred.
Santlofer said that since the book was released last month, he has been contacted by one of the Guerilla Girls. She has asked to meet with him, and he has agreed.
"But she will only meet me in her gorilla mask," he said.
Further helping the reader suspend disbelief in "The Killing Art," are reproductions of Santlofer’s real paintings. In the book, the killer sends a painting as a calling card to his intended victim. McKinnon scrutinizes the paintings for clues to the killer’s identity and to predict where he might strike next. Santlofer painted the black and white works that are reproduced in the book so that the reader can interpret the symbols along with McKinnon.
"Seeing is believing," said Santlofer. "I made the paintings to confirm [the story] was true."
The exercise proved to be so enjoyable for Santlofer that his next book will also weave together "prose and graphics." But the book, which he’s working on now at the Saratoga Springs artists’ colony, Yaddo, won’t have Kate McKinnon.
"I’ve given her a vacation," said Santlofer, quickly assuring the fans of his suspenseful trilogy that "she’s alive and well.".
"The Killing Art" by Jonathan Santlofer (William Morrow, $24.95) is available, or can be ordered, at these bookstores: The Bookmark Shoppe [6906 11th Ave. at 69th Street in Dyker Heights (718) 680-3680], BookCourt [163 Court St. at Dean Street in Cobble Hill, (718) 875-3677] and Barnes & Noble [267 Seventh Ave. at Sixth Street in Park Slope, (718) 832-9066].