The Way We Live Now: Questions for Jonathan Santlofer – The New York Times Magazine


By Marcelle Clements

Q: You’ve been an artist for more than 20 years. This fall you have two shows, plus a novel about a serial killer in the art world, ”The Death Artist,” that has just come out. What inspired you to write the book?

Let me just say that the death artist may have killed five or six people in my book, but he happened to have saved my life, truly. I had lost several years of work in a fire. I had an exhibition in Chicago, which I had actually postponed twice because I didn’t want to have it. It opened on a Friday, and it burned down on Saturday. I came back to my studio and there was nothing, just ghosts on the wall where the outline of the paintings had been.

What did you do?

I hadn’t smoked in 15 years. Within a week I was smoking a pack and a half a day. I went to Rome to work, but I was having a lot of trouble. But in Rome I started a novel. And it’s writing that ultimately led me back into my work — and it really, really changed it too. I used to paint abstractly, and what I am doing now is representational.

How is it that suddenly, artists seem to have gone from abstraction to representation?
Because people became more interested in themselves. You know, all the interest in self-actualization — the whole personal rather than the ideal.
Why did you want to write an art-world thriller?

I wanted to show all the different archetypes — artists, curators, critics — at their best and at their worst. Something or someone who threatened them all enabled me to show all of them in turn.
Also, to be completely honest, I had lost my work; my career was a wreck. And so, you know, it was great fun to create a lunatic running amok in the art world.

Is this a roman à clef?

No. I don’t think anybody is a recognizable character. The great thing about writing about the art world is that it’s already a parody. It’s unintentionally hilarious. There’s a scene in a gallery where the artist makes drawings out of her menstrual blood. And people will think that’s a joke, but I’ve seen several shows where women artists have made drawings out of their menstrual blood.

Is the art world as nasty as people say?

You go off to be an artist because you’re idealistic and because you love art, and I don’t think anybody is prepared for the fact of the art world, which is very small. Of course, it can be vicious and back-stabbing, and there are many little worlds that play together — the same juries and the same artists. But many of my friends are artists and curators, so it must be that at least some of them are O.K.

Some of your characters are real horrors. Do you think you were fair to people in the art world?
I was absolutely fair. And you’ll notice that I was an equal-opportunity monster. Nobody can say I just took it out on curators. I killed an artist, a dealer, a critic.

Was it creepy to have this serial murderer inside your head?

Yes. Because I’m a big scaredy-cat. Sometimes I put on the television with no sound so I could look over and be comforted, because writing the scary scenes scared me so much. But they were fun too.
As much fun as writing the sex scenes?

Oh, writing about sex is much better.

Is the art world all that sexy?

The art world is a sexy-ish place, but it’s only sexy in certain ways. It’s sexy if you’re a new, young, hot artist or if you’re a 90-year-old artist. But a mid-career, 50-year-old artist like me? No.

No? Because there’s a lot of sex in your book. 

Oh, well, I think about sex all the time. Painting is so physical, it’s sexy. And the whole materiality. I mean, paint is sexy, brushes are. When you’re writing, you can’t think about sex as much, because the words are interrupting the fantasy stuff.

How else do art and literature compare?

The literary world seems kinder and gentler, but the people don’t look as good.