[Editor’s Note: removed August 14th, and reinstated August 17th, at Jeff Wheelwright’s request]
By Jeff Wheelwright
I think it was the early ‘80s when all of a sudden young Senegalese men appeared on the streets of Manhattan. I never understood why there had been a migration, or flight, from Senegal—is that in West or East Africa?—during that time in New York. But there they were on the sidewalks, tall rakish guys hawking all kinds of stuff. They seemed to have popped up overnight, like colorful mushrooms. It must have been legal, because the police didn’t bother them. This was of course before Giuliani was mayor.
I liked to leave the office early on Friday afternoons and visit the Museum of Modern Art. You know, to rinse out the hassles of my day job and prepare my higher (!) perceptions for the weekend. These Senegalese guys had figured out that the people who went in and out of MOMA represented a higher class of mark than the rest of la foule. A half a dozen or more set up shop on West 53d St, as close to the museum entrance as they could get without being obstructionists.
For a while I didn’t pay attention to the Senegalese. I couldn’t have told one from the other. Don’t all Senegalese men look alike to you? (Laugh). I stepped around them, ignoring their light singsong pleas to have a look at their wares. Which were tawdry, I needn’t add.
After paying the entrance fee—I don’t know why I never bought an annual pass—I’d usually go straight to Braque’s Still Life with Fan. I don’t like Braque’s drab color scheme, but something about the crosscutting planes really stimulates me. Then I’d take pot luck and browse the rooms at random. I always left MOMA feeling uplifted, and I might have gleaned an insight or two for my own painting. I do watercolors, small, mignon watercolors, if I say so myself. They aren’t at all cubist though.
One winter afternoon when I emerged, I heard one of the Senegalese guys shouting. When I turned to look, I saw he wasn’t yelling at anyone particular, just ranting at the world. Other people stopped and stared at him as well. But I soon picked up that the man wasn’t crazy after all, or not totally crazy, because this Senegalese guy abruptly stopped yelling and grinned at the nearest onlooker. He said something clever, evidently, because the other person came over and soon they were chatting. A sales technique, I decided—and not bad.
The next Friday before going into the museum, I found myself looking for the Senegalese guy. He was wearing a tie-dye T-shirt. And guess what, I realized he was a painter. He was selling large canvases—two or three laid out on the sidewalk, and more in a crate leaning on a parked car. He had this staccato yell, a kind of yip-yip-yip that he used to provoke attention. Maybe a tribal chant, I don’t know. He was about six feet tall, with an ample belly, and his face was cobalt black.
OK, so we started talking, this guy and I. I remember on that first day I was wearing my new Paul Stuart shoes and a Burberry raincoat. He feigned a wide-eyed smile and fingered my corduroy pants, touching me briefly on the hip. “Are you a big art collector? Nice threads, man.”
It turned out this fellow from Senegal had a lot of opinions about European art. When he asked me who I liked inside, my answer—older classics like Braque and Cêzanne—caused him to break out laughing. “That fits, man,” he said. His English was much better than I expected.
He asked my name. “Peter,” I said. “What’s yours?” I believe he said “Roger,” for that’s what I began to call him afterward, but I never was sure. He had kind of mumbled a name and looked away.
I couldn’t warm up to Roger’s artworks. Though vivid and arresting, they seemed incomplete somehow. They were undisciplined and smug. I kept that opinion to myself, however. He had talent, I told him, and that was not a fib. Well, Roger didn’t care what I thought because I immediately learned and to my surprise that he wasn’t selling his pieces. He was just putting them out on the sidewalk, take it or leave it, Jack. If you don’t get my art, I feel sorry for you, was his message to the people heading in and out of the museum.
I told Roger I was a painter too. In short order he found out, I don’t know how, that I’d had an exhibition of my little watercolors at a gallery in East Hampton. I actually sold a few. So a few weeks later, when we were talking, he lit into my work. The paintings were of mesas and buttes in the Southwest. He sneered that they made him gag and I had been reading too much Willa Cather. How did a Senegalese guy know Cather?
OK, I let that go. Whenever we talked about MOMA, an obvious topic, he would tell me I was a dope for arguing that the curators must know what they were doing. “Sure,” I’d allow, “I don’t care for every artist who they exhibit [whom, I know, Steve], but I always discover paintings I like.”
Roger just shook his head. “Philistine.” I don’t know why I kept dealing with the guy. We bantered, not exactly banter, every week.
One day in the spring when I came out of the museum, I heard Roger shouting much louder than normally. He wasn’t making that inviting yip-yip sound. He was cursing, and at no one in particular. I went over to see what was wrong. The other people were steering clear. I noticed that his hair was nappy, his eyes bloodshot. He didn’t look great. I was concerned, but he whirled on me and told me to back off.
“Roger,” I said. “What gives?”
“Don’t call me Roger,” he snarled. “My name is Richard. Richard Cummings.”
–to be continued