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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rikers' Dali

There is little doubt that New York City is the art capital of the world. If you were prowling the streets of New York in search of works of art you might head for the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, The Museum of Modern Art, or perhaps one of the dozens or so trendy little galleries in the Soho district. Or, you could get arrested. Huh? No, you wouldn't be likely to find much art in the 23rd precinct station house, but if the crime were serious enough, you would stand a chance of being sent to Rikers Island prison in the middle of the East River where you might be startled to walk down a hall and note unexpectedly the work of the surrealist showman extraordinaire', Salvadore Dali.   
What's a Dali doing in a prison? Well, in 1965, Dali was visiting New York and had planned to make what was undoubtedly a publicity sojourn to Rikers Island in support of the Art in Prison program. The morning of the visit, he unexpectedly took sick. His visit was canceled. But unwilling to disappoint the artist-inmates who were undoubtedly looking forward to meeting an artist who had, himself, spent some time in jail during his college years, Dali went upstairs to his studio in his St. Regis Hotel penthouse suite and took out a 4-foot by 5-foot sheet of paper. He began slashing away at it with his paint-laden brushes. A little more than an hour later it was finished and Dali sent his assistant trekking to Rikers with his gift in hand.   
The Rikers Island Dali, 1965,
Salvadore Dali
The watercolor and charcoal work is startlingly different from Dali's usually highly refined color surrealism. This painting depicts a crucifixion, somewhat indistinctly visible through a web of dark lines. The cross is apparent after a moment's study. It is strong, powerful, and rectilinear. Then you see a bloodshot eye, peering through matted strands of hair, or perhaps thorns, blood dripping down over a spent body. For years, the painting hung in the dining hall. It yellowed with age and became suspect as an inmate copy of a Dali original. Eventually it was moved to a hallway between a vending machine and some pay phones.  In 1980, an appraiser was called in to authenticate the image. It was valued at between $15,000 and $175,000. In March, 2003, the drawing was stolen and replaced by a fake. Three corrections officers and a deputy warden were charged with the crime.  Three plead guilty, one was acquitted. The original drawing, now valued at around $500,000, was never recovered. Dali died in 1989, but the message he sent to the artists of Rikers Island continues to inspire. "You are artists. Don't think of your life as finished for you. With art, you have always to feel free."

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