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Lost & Found: David Lehman on Charles Willefort

Tin House’s new book Hot Art examinesthe shady underworld of art theft; today’s Lost & Found from David Lehman raises the question of how to steal art that’s naught but air. Here’s Lehman on Charles Willefort’s The Burnt Orange Heresy.

You can read The Burnt Orange Heresy as either a murder mystery or a parable about the hoax element in modern art. Charles Willeford’s 1971 novel—which Carroll & Graf [reissued] in January 2000—gives satisfaction on both counts. It is an inverted detective story in the approved noir manner: the first-person narration takes us into the killer’s mind.  Yet not until digesting most of the book does the fallible reader guess who is to be murdered and why. The plot centers on a painter named Jacques Debierue, avatar of “Nihilistic Surrealism,” whose most famous work is “No. One.”—meaning both “number one” and “nobody.” Debierue, a European transplant, lives in Willeford country: Palm Beach, Florida. James Figueras, an art critic with his eye on the main chance, obtains an interview with the great recluse. To ingratiate himself with an influential collector, he agrees to steal one of Debierue’s paintings.

The catch is that there are no paintings to steal. Like a character in a Borges fable embodying the aesthetics of Mallarme, Debierue is convinced his ideas are so far superior to any possible execution that in logical consequence he does not paint. Instead he has committed his life to the “unfulfilled preparation for painting.” He puts in his four hours daily, “a slave to hope,” yet always refuses in the end to violate “the virgin canvas.” Figueras has no such compunction. After breaking into Debierue’s pristine studio and discovering there is nothing to pilfer, he sets fire to the place, counterfeits a painting by Debierue, forges his signature, then writes the article that offers the definitive interpretation of works that never existed. In a curious way it is as if painter and writer have colluded in invent Debierue’s “American period.” Willeford, highly esteemed for his Hoke Moseley novels, weaves the aesthetic theory and the criminal mischief expertly together. The Burnt Orange Heresy is a rich enigma: a monument to “a qualified Nothing,” suggestive of “deep despair” on the one hand and total “dedication to artistic expression” on the other. It is noir not only in the sense of, say, Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black canvases, but also in the violent romantic sense of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past.”

David Lehman’s books include Yeshiva Boys, When a Woman Loves a Man, and A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. He is the founder and series editor of The Best American Poetry, as well as the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry. He serves as poetry coordinator of the MFA writing program of The New School.

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