An Artistic Mystery – New York City Daily News

by Deidre Stein Greben

Breezing down the LIE with no traffic may sound like the stuff of fiction, and in Jonathan Santlofer’s new thriller, “The Killing Art,” it is.

The road trip in question, from Manhattan to the tony hamlets of the East End, occurs a little past daybreak in the dead of winter. It is one of several taken by the novel’s protagonist, Kate McKinnon, a Queens cop turned art historian, to visit the Springs studio of the fictional artist Phillip Zander, the last surviving member of the New York School’s “Ab-Ex Big Boys.” Long Island topography is a prominent motif in “clue paintings” created specifically for the new book by author and artist Santlofer, 58, whose works are in collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Painting hints
The black-and-white illustrations serve up hints for McKinnon (and Santlofer’s readers) to decipher about a series of murders and the slashings of Abstract Expressionist paintings. The elements in these collaged canvases foretell impending crimes, their cryptic quotes from pop culture and art history echoing Santlofer’s other paintings, such as those on view through Nov. 12 at the Pavel Zoubok Gallery in Chelsea.

“When I started the novel, the paintings were made by the villain,” said Santlofer, who kicks off the promotional tour for this final installment of his Kate McKinnon trilogy (also including “The Death Artist” and “Color Blind”) at 8 p.m. Saturday with a reading at BookHampton in East Hampton. “I never thought for a moment they had anything to do with my art, but then I realized they did.”

Typewritten text and pictorial fragments, including iconic images of Marilyn Monroe and fictitious scenarios involving such modernist artists as Piet Mondrian and Man Ray, typify the 20-odd artworks in the Pavel Zoubok show. “Becoming a novelist, language crept unexpectedly into my paintings,” Santlofer said.

The mild-mannered artist, who grew up in Jericho in central Long Island, was prompted to paint grisly pictures in book form after a 1989 fire in a Chicago gallery destroyed a half-dozen years’ worth of his work. Though he has knocked off quite a few characters in his mysteries, writing them “saved my life,” he said.

Artists’ cliques build plot
The backstabbing that occurs in the art world, as in other high-stakes competitive circles, also incited him to spin his murderous tales. Santlofer was particularly fascinated with an incident the painter Milton Resnick related to him during a 1993 interview for ARTnews magazine. It involved a meeting in 1950 at Ad Reinhardt’s studio, where a group of
artists known as the Irascibles got together to decide who was in and who was out. George McNeil, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist who had been Santlofer’s painting teacher at the Pratt Institute, confirmed Resnick’s account.

“It was shocking,” Santlofer recalled. “It percolated in my mind and became the basis for the story.”

Santlofer weaves bits of history and present-day life throughout his fiction. In one flashback, the imaginary Zander recounts the boozy camaraderie at Cedar Tavern, a notorious Greenwich Village watering hole frequented in the 1950s by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

Get a glimpse of Long Island
The Green River Cemetery in East Hampton also makes an appearance in “The Killing Art” (William Morrow, $24.95), when McKinnon visits the graves and contemplates the lives of the artists buried there: Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, Reinhardt, Jimmy Ernst.

Readers also get a glimpse, through wind-whipped snow, of Jerry Seinfeld’s oceanfront home, with its private baseball diamond, and designer Helmut Lang’s summer getaway. “I actually drove from Amagansett to the Springs in a blizzard with a friend of mine,” said Santlofer. “I was almost finished with the book when it started to snow, and he insisted we go. We went twice back and forth. It was a harrowing ride.”

Though he has drawn from real experiences and even vaguely modeled some characters from people he knows, Santlofer believes he shares little in common with his heroine. “She’s not me, that’s for sure,” he said of the street-smart, sultry cop. “I started writing in the first person and hated that it was me – so I murdered myself on the page and created someone completely opposite.” With this latest book, Santlofer extends his penchant for reinvention to his audience. In an online sweepstakes (visit
es/killingart), fans could win one of his original clue paintings. “I came up with the idea,” says Santlofer, “because I wanted to turn my readers into art collectors somehow.”

Deidre Stein Greben is a freelance writer.
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