Wednesday, November 4, 2015


My uncle, Micah Carpentier, was a Latin lover with the heart of a Russian Jew.

He adored women.

He loved their delicate proportions. He used to say that even women of what he used to gallantly call “broad bone” possessed a frangible precision that echoed the music of the spheres. 

“Look at the ribcage,” he used to say, “we men, bulky like pianos, are beasts. Our chests are spread with brutal geometry, engineered like a machine at 90 degrees. Women, by contrast, crown their milky abdomens with a sweet 60 degree coronet, their tenth rib is discreetly extended like the wings of a blue throated thrush.”

Carpentier had many lovers but foolishly married a casual friend. My aunt Antonella was beautiful and cold. She ran the Carpentier household like a floor captain. She used index cards the way others use memory, and therefore denied herself the luxuries of poetic self-deception. 

At first Uncle Micah tried to love her, bathing her with adoring asides and lavish appreciations. Their home simmered under the small flames of his uxorious attentiveness. He venerated her and she knew it.

But his efforts were wasted on Aunt Antonella. The daughter of a Jesuit missionary from Valladolid and a bossy and strangely masculine Bavarian seamstress, her childhood was an ice chest of inhibition and restraint. At first she saw my uncle as an opportunity. With the famously sybaritic artist, Antonella foolishly believed she could rise to his level of feeling. But feeling was never available to her so she hid her heart behind a wall of efficiency. 

Everyone marveled at the orderly cogs and methodical wheels of the Carpentier studio and home.

But poor Uncle Micah. 

One could sooner remove his healthy liver than deny him the pleasure of staring into a woman’s eyes and telling her how much he loved her. He tried to pry a pulse that he was certain lay entombed inside his bride’s snowy soul but it was to no avail.

Denying Carpentier this lifeblood of sensual expression was a personal crucifixion.

As an art student, Carpentier was not a gifted draftsperson. His gifts were of the cruder sort. A chiseler, a pounder, a man of thick fingers and powerful arms. He started as a sculptor in the manner of Brancusi  but soon began to draw in order to gaze again at the lyric of the female form. He could not draw a woman without falling in love with her and his models delighted in his gratitude. He was always respectful and protective but he was also unmistakably moved. 

Every one of his drawings is an ode to pleasure. In the end, Micah found Artemis Llevar, the woman with whom he would finally summon to his voluptuary calling. Like a man half starved by the meager rations of a sadistic jailer, Carpentier gorged on Llevar’s genuine tenderness and warmth.

His Blue Drawings could be seen as the diadem with which he crowned his last lover as his queen.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


For a very brief period in the late 1960's my uncle, the great Cuban artist Micah Carpentier, was an official cultural emissary of the Castro regime. As part of his mandate, Carpentier traveled to what was then referred to as 'third-world countries' and extolled the virtues of socialist aesthetics.

Micah Carpentier in Pyongyang, North Korea, 1968

From Luanda to Tirana Carpentier spread the gospel of utility and pedagogy while mocking the Western bourgeois ideals of beauty and form. That his own work at the time was perfectly at home within the European avant-garde was of little consequence since the one thing Communism had in common with the art world was that intellectual consistency was totally optional.

The Song of Degrees,(detail), Micah Carpentier, 1968
The way my uncle saw things, he was given a rare opportunity to travel and although most of the places he visited were rather bleak at least he was able to extend his diet beyond frijoles negros and fried plantains.

Things came to a head in the spring of 1970 when the small French periodical Texte Obscur included Carpentier among the world's 100 most influential contemporary artists. (He came in at 77, right after Barnett Newman and just before Currado Malaspina). This quickly disqualified him from any future diplomatic postings.

The remaining three years of his life were a living hell. Under constant governmental surveillance and suffering from chronic gastrointestinal discomfort, Carpentier fell into a bottomless morass of melancholic listlessness.  

He longed for the casinos of Cairo, the racetracks of Tallin, the whores of Hanoi and the poets of Pyongyang. He missed the perfumed aroma of sweet Cantonese hairy gourd, the exotic spices of Yemeni mutton fahsa and the flaming fir tree moonshine of northern Estonia.

He had become the consummate communist flâneur, a non-aligned bon-vivant who was just as at home among the smokestacks of Yakutsk as he was on the breadlines of Bulgaria and Benin.

I still carry around his dogeared copy of Moldova on 5 Rubles a Day with all his notes and markings. On a fold-out street map of Chișinău he wrote the following jewel of timeless wisdom:

"Better to live like a cockroach in Bessarabia than like a shah in an East-Prussian Schönberg shithole dreaming of rum, rhumba and summer nights in La Palma."

Saturday, May 10, 2014


Micah Carpentier, 1972
In 1973 my uncle, the great Cuban visionary Micah Carpentier was killed under mysterious circumstances. I was nineteen at the time and I petitioned the United States Department of the Treasury for an embargo waiver in order to travel to Havana and set my uncle's affairs in order. (And to attempt to rescue as much of his work as I could from the indifferent clutches of the Castro cultural claque).

Roberto Carpentier-Katz at the Malecón, 1979
To my great astonishment, permission was granted and reciprocated in Cuba (with the proviso that I bring hard currency and agree to spend at least one-hundred dollars in cash a day - no small feat for a nineteen year-old college drop-out).

Emboldened with righteous consanguineal zeal the probity of the mission all but quashed my well-founded fears.

In my uncle's studio, Havana 1979
Micah Carpentier's studio was a vast (by Cuban Communist standards) airy space a few blocks south of Avenida de Maceo. A fastidious man, his work was stacked neatly in racks and rows built to his precise specifications. I was totally unprepared for both the quantity and the range of what I found.

Para Llevar a Cabo IV, Micah Carpentier, 1967
The family in North America, like the rest of the world, knew my uncle exclusively for his paper bag and Chinese take-out drawings. I had no idea that in addition to this he made large paintings, massive sculptures, elaborate theatrical sets and subliminally ironic propaganda posters. 

Sofia Abulafia-Carpentier
Carpentier's ex-wife, Sofia Abulafia, was the biggest surprise of my trip. After my uncle's death she promptly claimed his Miramar apartment (where she lives to this day). Over fresh minty mojitos and purple onion plantains she regaled me with stories of their storied courtship and their dramatically acrimonious rupture. 

Tutu Daddah
Her published memoirs (De las Bolsas a la Riqueza, Libros Andrajos, Madrid) has recently been made into a twelve-part docudrama for Spanish cable TV with the role of Carpentier played by  the famous Mauritanian hearthrob Tutu Daddah. 

My dear, glorious uncle Micah Carpentier lives on!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


My dear departed uncle, the Cuban artist Micah Carpentier had a great talent for idleness.

Dolce far niente was his cris de coeur lourd and he insisted that his inactivity should never be confused with listless indifference.

As the jóvenes say, whatever ...
The fact is that despite an oeuvre that boasts over four-thousand paper bag drawings, old-man Carpentier loved nothing better than to play dominoes.
For 35 years he lived in a cramped two-bedroom flat in a nondescript housing project at 23 Puerta Cerrada. Most days he would position himself on a beige canvas beach chair in the vacant lot in front of his building and listen to broadcasts from North Korea on his tinny transistor radio. As a Cuban cultural treasure he was always flush with Mexican cigarettes and even the more severely rationed Russian Korkunov chocolates that my aunt Adelgonda loved so much. 

As an artist, what he did would never be considered by today's standards as anything resembling a practice much less a praxis. Yet he mastered the art of living well and living slowly and up until the day he died I believe he was a contented man.
He never wished to emigrate and always felt fortunate to be an artist living in a place that was far, both geographically and temperamentally, from Paris or New York.
"My work is my life and not my profesión," was how he used to put it. Beach chair, chocolate and the customary paper cup of his Havana Club not withstanding no one would ever accuse my uncle of being an amateur. 


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Plus ça change

Around the same time Fidel launched his fateful attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 my uncle Micah Carpentier boarded a Pan Am World Airways DC-6 from Jose Marti Airport on his way to visit his brother Isak in a place called Ingelwood. Untouched by ideology it was the bright southern California sunshine and not the forbidding slopes of the Sierra Madre that captivated the young adventurer's imagination.

He had only vaguely heard of Central Avenue and though Buddy Collette and Big Jay McNeely were far from the clave rhythms he was accustomed to, upon arriving in L.A. he made a B-line for the Dunbar Hotel.

It is no small irony that half a century later and barely three miles due north on the same but radically different Central Avenue my uncle's work would be prominently displayed in what in 1953 was the Union Hardware building and what is now the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Another landmark of my uncle's California sojourn was 741 S Grand Ave, the original site of the Chouinard Art Institute. It was there that he attended lectures by the painter Emerson Woelffer and was first exposed to the exotic ideas of Abstract Expressionism (albeit of a west coast variety). Completely unpersuaded, Carpentier was drawn toward making small botanical renderings of the region's various succulents.

La Planta Carnosa, watercolor, Micah Carpentier, 1953

All told Micah Carpentier spent six months in Los Angeles before returning to Havana. Though he loved the music he hated the food and he desperately missed his beloved mother Beatriz.

It's hard to say how his experiences in Los Angeles influenced the development of his work but if he was like most visitors at the time he probably left disappointed that he never managed to meet an actual movie star.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


I recently watched The Glad Philanderer again, that penetrating 1959 film by Witold Khanken about the life of the Hungarian dramatist Tolbin Roth. When I first saw it in college I was puzzled by its grainy, poorly focused cinematography, mistaking this well-reasoned aesthetic choice for the rank incompetence of an amateur. Arguing through the night with my roommates, I reached the conclusion that Modern Art was a hoax - a snide, treacherous folly imposed upon us by a privileged class of well-connected powerful snobs.

Now, of course, I can fully appreciate Khanken's masterpiece for what it is but recalling my initial reaction to the film I am struck, once again by the tremendous personal risks great artists assume while communicating in a prophetic diction.

Still from The Glad Philanderer, Witold Khanken 1959
Like Khanken and his subject Tolbin Roth, my uncle Micah Carpentier was naturally and inevitably drawn to the visionary tropes of the solitary genius. He, like they, were scorned at first. Not only were they mocked and misunderstood but were regarded as downright fraudulent by a public too lazy and opaque to be receptive to revelation. And just as Roth went on to become a household name so too did Carpentier yet both paid a steep price for their success. 

Marel Szolnoky
The actor Marel Szolnoky who played Roth in Khanken's epic film was revered in his native Hungary. People of a certain age still  
speak solemnly of his portrayal of Lear in Szabó's stage adaptation of the Shakespeare classic. And like my uncle, Szolnoky came to the United States to widen his audience and to chase the American Dream. When Szolnoky came to Hollywood in the late 1960s his frustrated attempts to break into the business led him to the brink of despair. Aside from the few small roles given to him out of pity by Roman Polanski, he ended up working for a tailor in downtown Los Angeles. 

When Carpentier came to the States he wisely chose New York to stake his claim. He quickly fell in with a group of artists and writers that included the likes of Leland Bell, Ad Reinhardt, Kenneth Koch and Kenny Pauta. He regularly showed his work at the Green Gallery on 57th Street and received, for the most part, favorable reviews. Drawn to the ideals of the Cuban Revolution, Carpentier returned to Havana in 1968 on the same Air France flight as Eldridge Cleaver.

It is so easy in life to make the wrong decision. Some blame fate but I believe the truth is much colder than that. I have devoted myself to curating the legacy of my brilliant uncle because I feel duty-bound to rectify his failure of agency, his folly and his short-sighted infatuation with a corrupted ideology.

I also need to figure out what to do with all of these bags.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013


During auction season, the fate of the Latin American modernists has always been a marginal sideshow to the more glitzy mainstream marquee players like Rothko, Warhol and Bacon. Within the orgy of over-sexed, overpriced artworks, a painting fetching over 100 million dollars has become as commonplace as a Hong Kong after-party. 
Micah Carpentier
Well, to the astonishment of that jaded jet-set of gilded galleries and moneyed museum boardrooms, a few records were set last night for our impecunious cousins south of the border. Chilean sculptor Juan-Bolsa de Papel's 1954 Mondogo Sin Valor, formally the centerpiece of hedge fund executive Stu W. Fine's modest collection was sold for an impressive 7 million dollars. Hector Bobadas, known dismissively as the Caravaggio of Costa Rica had two pieces unexpectedly exceed their modest, pre-auction estimates of 1.2 million and 1.4 million successively.
But the spectacular event that sent dystonic tremors throughout the fine art arteries of mid-town Manhattan was the sale to an undisclosed telephone bidder of Micah Carpentier's seminal 1969 paper bag Yo Llevo la Cerveza en Este. Appraised only a few years ago in the low seven figures (full disclosure: I am the executor of the Micah Carpentier Trust), this early work from The Song of Degrees was always a sentimental favorite of the great Cuban master.
Micah Carpentier with Yo Llevo la Cerveza en Este, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba 1973 (courtesy of the Micah Carpentier Trust)
One hopes that the anonymous buyer will make the work accessible to the general public but if experience is any guide this will probably not be the case. Collectors of Carpentier become so smitten by the flimsy vulnerability of his feeble brittle bags that they become belligerently disobliging to scholars, curators and museum directors.
But then again, I too would be overly protective of a bag I bought for 101.2 million.