The Woody Allen Paintings
I first heard about the Allen paintings from a friend at a dinner party. “Paintings of Woody Allen?” I asked. “No,” she whispered. “I’m talking about paintings by Woody Allen. You can’t even see them. They’re under wraps.”
Two days later, a woman I’ll call Mrs Purdy greeted me with a conspiratorial smile at the door of her large Upper East Side apartment. “It just arrived yesterday,” she glowed. The Purdys own Allen Number Nine, the ninth in a series of 18 original oil paintings by the septuagenarian auteur. She led me into the living room, where it was hanging above the couch. I should say it was installed over the couch, using four quarter-inch steel bolts.
Allen #9 measures 56” by 42” and is completely wrapped in brushed stainless steel sheet metal. According to Mrs Purdy, it weighs over 180 pounds. Two stainless steel belts cross at the center, where they are secured by a polished stainless steel lock, which is the work’s visual center of attention. The lock’s keyhole is sealed with red sealing wax. The enclosure is so well made and finished that it looks stunning above the black suede couch (and the faux-zebra rug Mrs Purdy confesses to having bought over the weekend). A nearby stainless-steel binder contains the painting’s documents.
According to the Purdys’ agreement with the Mind/Field gallery in Chelsea, the painting is to remain locked in its protective case as long as the artist is alive. The Purdys cannot attempt to open or discover what the paintings look like using “any technology either now known or unknown,” according to the contract. There is no mention of the colors or content of the painting, other than to say that Mr Allen himself painted every brushstroke and his signature is in the bottom right corner. There is a certificate of ownership, signed by Mr Allen, but it’s been torn in half. Upon notification of Mr Allen’s death, the gallery will confirm that the painting is still under wraps, after which it will present the Purdys with the key, instructions for removing the covering, the other half of the document (conferring legal title), their $300,000 deposit (with interest, less a management fee), and a statement for tax purposes. They lose the deposit if they break the seal or expose the painting before Allen expires.
Mrs Purdy explains how they acquired the piece: “It was a private Internet auction. We had no idea who we were bidding against. The first painting went for $2.7 million. That surprised us. Number three went for $1.9 million. By number eight, the prices became more reasonable, so we started bidding. These are the only paintings he’ll ever paint, you know. That’s part of the agreement.”
The next day, I met Jordan Field at his gallery in Chelsea. He reported that the auction had brought in a total of $17.8 million. I asked if he had seen the paintings. “Absolutely not,” he huffed. “No one has seen them. That’s the point. This series is very personal, private, and introspective. More than any other paintings I’ve ever sold, these paintings make you think. They stretch your imagination, blurring the line between life and death as they blur the line between painting and sculpture. Woody Allen is the one person in America who truly represents our collective fear of death. This is as close to true salvation as you can buy and hang on the wall.”
Allen Number One, wrapped in black Kevlar fiber, is already nicknamed “Darth Vader.” It’s a graphite box that weighs a scant 80 pounds, with a black box on one side. The black box contains an electronic lock that will release the Kevlar front and rear plates, exposing the painting. Opening the box requires the entry of a password kept by the gallery. The lithium-ion battery is good for another twenty years.
Allen Number Two is encased in rare Bubinga and Sapele woods, using no nails or glue. It has a clever traditional Japanese fastening system that uses handmade cords to secure the wooden pin. The cords are woven around a steel cable and lock, hiding them from view.
Allen Number Three is cast in concrete the way you would encase a body before sliding it into the East River, just a stone’s throw from Mr Allen’s apartment on 5th Avenue. It’s a full block, not unlike a wide tombstone, that holds a painting – entirely cast in Qwik Crete – set at a gentle angle for viewing. After Allen’s death, a small crew will come chisel the concrete away from the front of the painting, exposing the precious (yet protected) painting buried within. At just over 1800 pounds, Allen Number Three is by far the heaviest of all the Allen Paintings.
Allen Number Four is covered in copper with two large belts criss-crossing the front and a hand-hammered copper lock. As the painting ages, the copper will turn green. It comes with a copper spray bottle to help the process along.
Allen Number Five is a large square painting with a painted gray metal box around it. The box has ridges that suggest the language of the kind of box used to store reels of film. The square reel box, secured with nylon seat-belt webbing around its perimeter, is itself a piece of pop art.
Allen Number Six is wrapped entirely in fire-retardant linen, hand-sewn in minute detail. The release on the back is a set of cabled metal “claws” that radiate out from the center in a semi-circle, holding the fabric together in back, leaving a smooth, crisp, light-green finish across the front. It comes with a four-ounce bottle of “Irish Linen” perfume from Creed (a $400 value).
Allen Number Seven is covered in shiny black Astroturf.
Allen Number Eight is the second heaviest, at 610 pounds. It’s encased entirely in quarter-inch-thick steel plates that have already begun to rust. The contract says it must be mounted to a masonry or concrete wall by a crew using hammer drills, drop-in steel anchors, and a suspension lift.
“Why eighteen paintings?” I asked Mr Field. “I have no idea,” he puffed, smoking a cigar and typing away on a manual typewriter. “You’ll have to ask Horowitz.”
Nathan Horowitz is a 30-year-old genius who spends most of his time playing bridge on the Internet. He’s tall and wiry, with a nest of brown hair and boyish, prep-school looks. He invited me to his estate in East Hampton, where I found him in a room surrounded by computers, playing bridge as he talked to me. There were chess trophies on the wall, along with what seemed to be several shelves of screenplays, each one photocopied with its title scrawled across its spine using a colored Sharpie.
Horowitz got his PhD in astrophysics at Princeton. After graduating, he was recruited to help start a hedge fund that became quite successful. Four years later, at the age of 30, he retired to pursue other projects. Besides playing bridge, he is currently building the world’s largest terrestrial optical telescope using a huge dish of spinning liquid mercury as a mirror. “Takes a perfect parabolic shape when spinning,” he explained without using any pronouns. “Avoids the lens-grinding imperfections that plague most large telescope mirrors. Uses six hundred tons of mercury! Superconducting bearings, fuzzy-logic software, atmospheric telemetry on a sixty-seven foot thick base of solid concrete. Writing the software now – controllable from any browser, if you have the right password. A total nightmare, but should be able to resolve a golf ball on the surface of Mars.” He won’t say where his telescope is located but says he has a team of 12 working around the clock. He even showed me live images from the construction site on his computer screen, which he monitored as he continued to play bridge. I will add that the cup of coffee his house staff brought me was the best I have ever tasted.
Nathan Horowitz is the only person to have seen any of the Woody Allen paintings. They were his brainchild.
“Always been a huge fan of Woody Allen” he bid, looking up from a glowing screenful of cards. “Take the Money and Run – hah! Called his manager, said we could make a few million bucks together. She hung up on me. Finally offered him two thousand bucks for a fifteen-minute phone conversation, paid in advance. Two days later, assistant called and said where to send the check.” After an hour of listening to Horowitz, I almost asked: “Said what?”
“Phone con took place while on a movie set last fall,” he giggled, as he managed to force an ace from one of his on-screen opponents. “Explained the concept. Rent a flat, hire a painting coach, set everything up, pay all expenses. Split profits fifty fifty. Told him – paint anything – no one will know the difference. Heard a loud coughing noise, then silence. Finally, offered a suggestion for who the caterer would be. Did the trick. Shook hands over the phone.” And so the unlikely deal was struck, with pastrami and caviar as the tipping point, and no one – not even Allen’s latest muse, would be allowed in to see the work.
I asked Horowitz to explain the process. “Sessions took place over six weeks last April. Rented a studio in the East Village and filled it with a couple grand worth of paints, canvases, tools. Made sure there was plenty of natural light and an iPod setup for music. Not good enough. Had to bring in a Yamaha piano that played itself from a computer – know how much those damn things cost? Then had to find the music program to play on it. Allen insisted on Rachmaninov.
“Had some artists work on concepts for the boxes. Went back and saw three paintings. Blew me away. Very cool shit. Showed him the cover comps. Allen hated ‘em. Said the project is over and walked out. It was cold that afternoon – he forgot his coat. Chased him down the street. Proposed a compromise – split the boxes. Took an extra twenty grand, but Allen said okay. Square film box idea was mine, but he hated it. Final nine were all his.”
Allen Number Ten is a shiny black lacquer-coated box with a long chrome-plated piano hinge creating a door that will swing open once the padlock is removed. It has the feeling of having been made by Steinway. Its padlock, finished in gloss black enamel, with a dark red wax seal, hangs neatly in the center toward the bottom, above a gold “10” in italic numerals about an inch high. I’m told the font is by Robert Granjon. Except for their sizes and numerals, the rest are all identical.
Horowitz recalls the day he went to see all 18 paintings completed: “Allen put his brush down. Said, ‘Chagall, I’m not.’ Loved that. Loved the paintings. Helped him wrap them in linen to breathe while boxes were being constructed. Closed each one with thread and a crimped lead seal, to remain unseen while locked in the studio for six months, curing. Then ate pastrami sandwiches and celery tonic. Told me celery tonic is the only civilized thing to drink with pastrami. Made me laugh.” I left Horowitz to his bridge buddies and his instant messages, imagining how the food, or perhaps the coffee, may have influenced the paintings.
Curious about the market, I called a few of the owners and asked if they planned to open their boxes when the time came. And this is the interesting part: six of the owners of paintings from the first group of nine paintings said they would open them as soon as they got the word (and their deposit). And the five owners I contacted who had bought paintings in the second group all said they planned to keep their paintings just the way they were, at least until they themselves passed on, leaving the deposit – and the mystery – to their heirs. Bruce Willis, who bought number 8, agreed to let me quote him, saying, “I wish I’d thought of this. It’s a great idea. I can’t paint worth shit.”
I asked the gallery owner if he had kept one of the paintings – perhaps number nineteen? He said no, and neither had Allen or Horowitz – both of whom had done it for the money, to finance more films and more telescope scientists. I asked whether Field thinks anyone will remember this project when it comes time to send out the eighteen keys, the certificates of ownership, and $5.4 million worth of deposit money (plus interest). “Both these guys are building mirrors,” he chomped, as he lit a cigar and blew out the match. I watched as the smoke from the match faded into the air we were both breathing. “For the owners of those eighteen paintings, that day will be a day of especially deep reflection. What our customers are really paying for is a small piece of the big puzzle.”