This story was first published in the Guardian in Christmas 2013, keeping with the Christmas ghost story tradition established in Victorian England. If anyone still remembers it today it is thanks to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843 and enjoyed so many adaptations. So what do ghosts have to do with Christmas? The matter is probably related to the date established as Jesus’ birth, the 25th of December, the morning on which the protagonist of Beauman’s story stands with a an axe raised over his head in front of a monumental work of art at the MoMA in New York. These days are the shortest of the year, the longest nights; and, in pagan tradition, the days the sun disappears – days in which the dead can cross to the land of the living and resolve unsettled matters. In Ned Beauman’s story, the attempt to bring the ghost works of the fictional artist Conroy Glasser back to life turns out to be dangerous and catastrophic. In this story everyone is haunted: curators, artists, their offspring, art scholars and their successors – all are haunted by a ghost that takes on a very real and surprising guise in this brilliant story. What begins as a ghost story that focuses on the power of art turns out to be a droll cherchez la femme mystery tale.
The object is a pillar of resin, 10 feet in height, four feet in diameter. It is glossy enough that if the light is at your back, you can see your reflection, but also translucent enough that if someone’s standing on the opposite side, their shape may blur into sight. It has three ridges, which do not twist for long across its surface before fading back down into the curve. It is Feretory (1969), by Conroy Glasser, and it is on permanent display on the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, just across from some drawings from earlier in that decade by Agnes Martin. Shortly after midnight on Christmas morning, a night watchman discovered me standing by Feretory with a fire axe held over my head. I am, or was, a senior member of MoMA’s curatorial staff, with a special interest in the Light and Space movement of the 1960s, and so naturally I’ve been called upon to give an account of why I should wish to destroy such an important work. My only reply is that in fact I wanted nothing less than to destroy it. Even after all that’s happened, I still recognise Feretory as a masterpiece. Destroying it would have been no more than an unavoidable consequence of what I really hoped to achieve with the axe that night.
For Glasser, it was essential to the visual effect of his late-career sculptures that they should have no visible joins or seams. He needed a translucent polyester resin that would cool at a slow enough rate to fill a mould of that size in a single marathon pour – eight barrels over eight hours – without any cracking or misting. However, no such resin was commercially available at the time, and so in 1968, with the help of a sympathetic polymer salesman from Hudson Plastics called Leslie Ketban, Glasser undertook to develop his own. After many months of trial and error in his studio, he hit upon the catalyst ratio that would make possible Feretory, Seventeen Sections and several smaller works of the same period. His formula was even advertised in the special orders section of the following year’s Hudson Plastics catalogue under the name Hudson-Glasser 11, recommended for bar tops and room dividers – a minor accolade in some respects, but one without direct parallel, as far as I’m aware, in the history of 20th-century art.
We were five months away from the opening of Before Downtown: Four New York Artists Of The Late 1960s when Andrea Wooney came to see me in my office. It was one of those perfect weeks in late September, so intoxicating to a Londoner, when New York lets its summer stretch on and on like the most extraordinarily indulgent host, and you learn to rejoice at every cold drip down the back of your collar from the air conditioner over a bodega doorway because it means at least one more week of beers on the roof. Wooney, however, was huddled inside a truck tarpaulin of a parka, and she had the same scribbly, hunted look in her eyes that I’ve now come to recognise every morning in the bathroom mirror. Rather uncharitably, my first reaction to her appearance was to regret agreeing to see her. Wooney’s work had commanded high prices for a short time in the early 2000s, and many reviews of the 2002 Whitney Biennial had compared her contribution to the work of Conroy Glasser. From what I recalled, this was a comparison she’d been prepared to accept, describing herself as “in rancorous dialogue” with the Light and Space artists, nearly every one of whom had been male. Since then, however, she’d dropped from sight. Without sitting down, without introducing herself, without any preamble, she said to me, “You have to cancel the show. You have to stop what you’re doing.”
I don’t want to be the sort of guy who uses a phrase like “standard feminist argument” just so he can carry on to dismiss that argument. But there is a standard feminist argument (SFA) about Conroy Glasser: that any public institution that shows his work becomes an accomplice to domestic violence, serving up his tainted meat on the unspoken basis that if a man is enough of a genius, it doesn’t matter what he does to women. Back then, I felt that Glasser’s work slipped the grasp of the SFA not once but twice. First of all, no one truly knew whether Glasser had been responsible for his wife’s disappearance, and like anyone else he had the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Second, even if Glasser himself was indeed a murderer, as the SFA always chose to assume, the sculptures themselves had never done any harm to anyone. Every work of art was free of its creator from the instant of its birth. Feretory may have been the twin of Jillian Glasser’s vanishing, but it wasn’t Nazi medical data or a vice baron’s charitable endowment, it was an autonomous and untethered being. Send Glasser’s work down into the cellar of disgrace, and where would we stop? Would we turn away from Caravaggio’s Madonnas because he once killed a man in Rome? And so on and so forth. I could carry on for hours. This was what I was once naive enough to believe.
If you didn’t know anything about Glasser – and most people still don’t – you’d naturally assume that Feretory had been created in California. But one of the reasons the piece is so important is that it complicates the rather facile connection that’s often made between the art of the Light and Space movement and the environmental conditions of its production. The unwavering light from that infinite Pacific sky, and the little piece of it snapped off in the polished hood of your hot rod: yes, all that stuff can be an advanced seminar in perception, schooling you not so much in what is seen – because there’s nothing to see in that cloudless blue – but in the act of seeing. Yet it’s absurd to suggest that New York doesn’t matriculate its own bachelors of phenomenology, observing their shadows doubled on the midtown sidewalk when the sun grazes a glass tower at just the right angle, or peering down a subway tunnel with such fond hopes for a 3.30am G train that they almost make themselves believe they can make out the predawn of its headlights. To me, Feretory is quintessentially a New York work. But then, of course, it’s a nowhere work, too, an almost a priori work. Anywhere that human beings reach out into the world with their eyes, it could have been conceived.
Andrea Wooney didn’t give me the SFA for why we shouldn’t show a room full of Glasser’s resin sculptures in Before Downtown. In fact, she didn’t give me any argument at all that I could comprehend. “I read the story in the New York Times,” she said. “About making those new pieces in China. You have to stop them if it’s not already too late. I know you think you’re the only ones with the formula, but you’re not. I had it, too, once, so I know what’s going to happen. I’m telling you this for your own good. I didn’t have to come here. How far away from it are we right now? From Feretory? A few hundred feet? Too close. Too close. I never wanted to be this close to it again. I didn’t have to come here, and after I go out of that door, it’s not my problem. If you’re stupid enough to carry on with what you’re doing, I won’t be in New York to see the consequences. I’ll be a long way off. So I’m just telling you this once. I had the formula, so I know.”
When Conroy Glasser’s studio on Great Jones Street was flushed following his suicide, all of his notebooks were lost. Lower Manhattan, after all, is a place perfectly capable of swallowing five cardboard boxes – we know the number from a police report – like so much krill. (On the other hand: if Glasser did kill his wife, I used to ask, how did he dispose of the body? He had no car. He had no friends with cars. He could hardly schlep it down to the East River in a cab.) Also, the headquarters of Hudson Plastics were destroyed by a suspected act of arson around the same time it fell into the bankruptcy in 1970. So, as far as anyone knew, Hudson-Glasser 11 had left no more trace in the pungent archives of organic chemistry than Greek Fire. Then, one day in March 2011, I got a call from a man who introduced himself as Bob Ketban, the grandson of the polymer salesman Leslie Ketban. Instead of coming to my office at MoMA, he insisted on meeting at a dingy sports bar on 48th Street, and although it was only six o’clock, he was already maudlin drunk. He kept poking my chest, grabbing my forearm, shaking my shoulder like a man trying to find a handhold halfway up a cliff, and every so often he would rap out some brittle giggles for no reason I could detect.
‘My father passed a lot down from my grandfather to me,” he said that evening. “Starting with the family business. Not plastics. That was just my grandfather’s line. No, I mean bad fucking luck. That’s the family business. That’s the family trade. Calamity Inc. The old shop! Otherwise why would I be sitting here trying to sell you a box of… Anyway, that’s not all. A lot of wisdom, too. A lot of good sense! One day, back when he still lived with us, my father sat me down and he told me the most important piece of advice his father gave him. ‘When you look hard,’ he said, ‘harder than maybe you ought to, when you really, really stare the eyes out of your head, what you see is’…”
Bob Ketban tailed off again. “Well, there’s no need for that now. No use spoiling a nice evening! And in any case I don’t believe it. You can’t blame my grandfather, though. Glasser got most of the credit for Hudson-Glasser 11. They always give the credit to the famous ‘genius’, but people don’t know how much my grandfather brought along. Hudson Plastics had a lot of government contracts in those days. He was invited to a lot of labs. He got to know a lot of scientists. They needed to talk to somebody about what they were doing, and of course they weren’t allowed to talk to their wives. I know all this from my father. Poor son of a bitch. Listen, I’ll take 10 grand for it. It’s priceless, this stuff, and it’s all there. Just 10 grand is all I’m asking.”
I spent five thousand dollars of my own money to buy a water-stained accordion file that contained, among plenty of Leslie Ketban’s other papers, the complete formula for Hudson-Glasser 11. After that, I got ready to pitch the fabrication project to my department at MoMA. Back in 1998, upon the death of the financier Stephen Zduriencik, the museum had received its promised share of Zduriencik’s estate: his entire collection of 20th-century art, all the way from a seminal Rauschenberg to a creased Samaras Polaroid. Almost incidentally, this also included three “ghost works”, as they’re sometimes known. Zduriencik had been a patron of Glasser’s in the late 1960s, and when Glasser ran out of money during the development of Hudson-Glasser 11, the financier agreed to pay in advance for three works that he planned to install in the grounds of his summer house upstate. However, Glasser hanged himself in between making the moulds for the three sculptures and casting them in resin, so Zduriencik was left with only the deeds he’d had drawn up, the design specifications that he’d already passed on to his landscape gardener, and the virgin moulds. After their accession, these items languished in MoMA’s study collection, abstract, almost valueless, rooms without doors, until reunited with the Hudson-Glasser 11 formula years later.
In other circumstances, we would have sought the permission of the estate, but Glasser had no estate, or at least no functioning one. When I spoke to the New York Times reporter about the fabrication project, I argued that it was no more audacious than the French Chambre des Députés exercising their right to make new bronze casts from old Rodin plasters, cf Benjamin’s The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction, cf Krauss’s The Originality Of The Avant-Garde. And that brought me back to the SFA, which was basically an assertion of pagan faith in the aura of the artwork. Well, how better to exorcise that aura, if you believed in it, than to exhibit works the artist himself never even touched? By the time Andrea Wooney came to see me, the process of testing, casting and polishing was well under way at the factory in Shenzhen where we’d sent the moulds (no firm in Europe or the US could do it for a reasonable price). Every so often, I would receive emails from the factory that seemed upbeat in so far as they were decipherable, or sometimes Megan, an eager Chinese-American publications intern, would get up early to speak to a manager there on Skype.
‘You’re wondering how I got the formula,” Andrea Wooney said. “You’re wondering who gave it to me. But no one gave it to me. I had to rediscover it for myself. They hardly use any of those polymers now, or any of those catalysts – thank God – so all the expertise is gone. It took three years of work. All the money I’d ever made. I used to come here day after day to look at Feretory, to try and understand what I was still doing wrong. No one could spend that long watching it without knowing that they ought to get away, leave it alone, just forget it all. If you haven’t realised that yourself yet you haven’t looked hard enough. Curators never do. But I kept going. The fumes were toxic, so at first I used to wear a mask when I was working, but as I got closer to finding the ratio, I started to take the mask off sometimes and work by smell. Sometimes, if I inhaled enough, I would see unspeakable things. I had three studio assistants – Cleo, Nick and Paddy. Before long, we were all huffing it. Afterwards, we’d be dry heaving in the bathroom, coughing up blood sometimes, but I was getting closer to the formula and we were all getting closer to some sort of truth. Back then, I was sleeping with Paddy. One day, an injection sprue cracked for no reason at all, and before any of us could do anything, he was up to his shins in molten resin. That was the day I knew I had the formula. He lost both feet. No more than that, though. Of the four of us, he was the lucky one.” She took an index card from the pocket of her parka and put it on the desk. “If you don’t believe me, talk to Marlon Rayle.” As she scurried out, I picked up the card. It didn’t have contact details for Marlon Rayle himself. It had contact details for a psychiatric hospital in Philadelphia.
Conroy Glasser may have been a monstrous husband, but no one ever mistook Jillian Glasser for an angel. Even her defenders would admit that the couple were much alike: vindictive, conniving, drenched in vodka and sex and rage. The joke back then was that the great city of New York had brought them together in holy matrimony the same way the CIA had tried to play the Cosa Nostra off against Fidel Castro, or the same way you could neutralise jellyfish venom with fresh piss. And yet I don’t believe that Conroy and Jillian were in quite the same weight class. When news got out that Conroy Glasser had hanged himself only two weeks after informing the NYPD that his wife had gone out for cigarettes one day and never come back, rumour had it that he wasn’t the first of Jillian’s lovers to have cut short his own life. Back at Vassar, Jillian’s quarterback boyfriend had been seen kissing another girl at a dance, and she’d decided that without ever actually breaking things off she was going to destroy him. A month later, while Jillian was at classes, he walked into the Casperkill creek, leaving no note. That was what she was like, this willowy violinist from the Upper East Side.
“The guy murdered his wife,” a lot of people might say, “and you’re making him sound like the victim in the relationship.” All I can reply is that if going through with a murder is a test of character, it’s not a very thorough one. There are many personal qualities for which it’s no test at all, qualities which, in fact, Conroy Glasser lacked – or showed only in the practice of his art – but which Jillian Glasser had all the way through her: an ungodly determination, a cold and mirthless whimsy, an unshakeable, two-handed grip on the throat of the world. Conroy’s few friends, the ones who didn’t believe that he’d killed her and then hanged himself out of remorse, contended instead that after her disappearance he’d done it out of grief. I think we all hope, or fear, that romantic love is such a powerful and mindless force that someone could really feel suicidal despair when a woman like Jillian Glasser went out of his life.
I’d never met Marlon Rayle, the man Andrea Wooney had told me to talk to, but I recognised the name. In my office I maintained an obsessively thorough bibliographic archive of the Light and Space movement, and it included several of Rayle’s reviews of relevant exhibitions from Artforum, as well as a few articles about shows that Rayle himself had curated, mostly in the Philadelphia area. There were no clippings after 1998. I knew it would be most sensible to throw the index card away. Andrea Wooney was a mentally troubled woman who’d told me an incoherent non-story. If I have to explain why, on the contrary, I picked up the phone and called the psychiatric hospital, I can only propose that her warnings must have resonated with me on some dreadful subsonic frequency, like the underfoot shudder of a subway train running all the way from Avenue A to the mouth of hell; deep down, very deep down, I must already have understood what she was talking about. When I got through to a registrar at the hospital, I was told that Mr Rayle no longer had telephone privileges, but I could visit him in person if I was willing to sign a waiver. As a private excuse, I reminded myself that I’d been meaning to see the Jason Rhoades show at the Institute of Contemporary Art there anyway, and gave the registrar my number so that they could confirm the appointment if Rayle agreed to it. Afterwards, with an almost furtive hunch to my shoulders because I felt so silly about it, I sent a quick email to the factory in Shenzhen, just to check that everything was all right.
‘I didn’t used to mind it so much here,” Rayle said to me. “The patients put on an art show every year and they used to let me curate it. But I’m not allowed to any more. I forgot myself once or twice last year and I’m not really allowed to see anyone. So I really appreciate you coming.” To get to the visiting room, I’d been escorted through half a dozen locked doors by an orderly who now stood in the corner scratching at a scuff of psoriasis on his neck. I’d also given up my phone, my wallet, my keys and even my hand sanitiser. Rayle was so polite, soft-spoken and meticulously groomed – what kind of mental patient wears a boutonnière? – that I kept having to remind myself of the warnings his doctor had given me about him.
‘I don’t know how much Andrea told you, so I’ll start from the beginning,” he said. “Back in ’98, I had the idea to put on a show of Glasser’s late stuff – smaller pieces from the Feretory period. Glasser was still so out of fashion then, but I thought I could change that. I sent out some requests and I got lucky with a few private collections. I even persuaded Zduriencik to loan me a piece, and Zduriencik never used to loan anything to anybody outside New York. It was going to be a great show. But then I had this weird thing with the interns. They kept quitting. If they had to spend any time at all in the basement storage room with all those Glassers, they’d call the next day to say they weren’t coming in again, or sometimes they wouldn’t even call. I went through so many that I started to get a reputation around town – everyone thought I was a tyrant or a creep or something. Finally, I found an intern who lasted more than a week. But then one day she went down into the storage room and after a few hours she still hadn’t come back up. I went down there and found her – I mean, I didn’t know it was her at first, but later on they proved it from the DNA. There was a security camera out in the corridor, and no one else had gone down there that day but her and me. So, of course, they blamed me for it. And the truth is, they were right to blame me. I kept sending those kids down there on their own even after I started to understand what I was seeing in the resin. Zduriencik died a few months later. Do you know why? After the show was cancelled, the gallery shipped all the work back to the collectors who’d loaned them to us. I guess Zduriencik had almost forgotten about that piece of his, but he happened to see it getting unpacked, and liked it so much he decided to move it up to his bedroom.”
After my visit to Marlon Rayle, I tried the number I had in my contacts database for Bob Ketban, but it had been disconnected. Back when I purchased his grandfather’s papers, I’d barely even glanced at the contract he drew up before I passed it on to MoMA’s legal department. But upon dredging the document out of my filing cabinet, I discovered that it gave his home address, which astonished me when I recognised it. Today, the neo‑Romanesque building on Great Jones Street that used to house Conroy Glasser’s studio is four floors of office suites above a Hawaiian restaurant that’s popular with the fashion industry. All those of us who believed Glasser was innocent of murder felt some relief when that restaurant opened – I’d be lying if I pretended otherwise – because it meant that the gutting of the building had not excavated Jillian Glasser’s bones from a wall cavity or a septic tank. Opposite, there is one of the last remaining single-room-occupancy hotels in New York, which would also have been redeveloped years ago if a long-running ownership dispute hadn’t left it in limbo. The address on the contract was the address of the hotel. Bob Ketban, so rueful about “the family business, Calamity Inc”, had chosen to live directly opposite the former studio of his grandfather’s collaborator. On my way out, I checked my email one last time. Still nothing from Shenzhen. They’d been out of contact for over a week.
For reasons that nobody but the lawyers understood, it was important that the family who’d operated the SRO hotel on Great Jones Street for 60 years should continue to do so if they were to maintain their legal position. The result was that they hadn’t evicted any of the elderly tenants who still lived there, but they also never bothered to fill the vacancies or maintain the rooms, and the place was now a fungal palace, a sagging wreck. This was what I learned from the superintendent when I went to look for Bob Ketban. Bob Ketban, he told me, had been found dead in his room in May 2011, or in other words no more than a couple of months after we met for the first time. When the superintendent took a cardboard box full of Ketban’s personal items down from a high shelf in his office, I suspected he was hoping that if I’d come there to claim it, he might finally get the shelf space back.
I don’t think anyone could have looked at that box, so dispiritingly similar to the old accordion file in which Leslie Ketban’s papers had been coffined, without picturing their own death. And the first object I took out of it was, as it happens, not really one of Bob Ketban’s effects, but rather one of his grandfather’s: a sort of rectangular trophy or plaque engraved with the words “Leslie Ketban, Hudson Plastics Salesman of the Year, 1969”. It was moulded, unmistakably, from Hudson-Glasser 11. My surprise at the greasy, almost amphibian texture of its surface made me realise that in all my years as a curator, all my hours in front of Feretory, I’d never actually touched anything made of that resin with my own hands – and in the instant of that realisation, it slipped from my grasp and cracked on the floor. I should emphasise that the trophy was translucent, like the pillar in MoMA, but very much thinner. You could see right through it. And yet when I bent down, mortified, to pick up the two broken halves, I saw that they had split just at the point where something was embedded in the resin, something that had been invisible until now. A baby rat, perfectly preserved.
‘Look, you’re thinking about this the wrong way,” said Marlon Rayle the second time I went to see him. “You’re thinking about it like a stain on a skirting board or a germ in a handshake. Just because Jillian Glasser was killed in the building on Great Jones Street, you want to know why those models don’t run screaming out of the restaurant every night. That’s not how it works. Andrea Wooney’s studio was over in Williamsburg, and she never had anything to do with Conroy Glasser directly. Your fabricators are on the other side of the world, and they’ve never even set eyes on Feretory. But when you find out that everybody in that factory in Shenzhen is dead, or worse, I hope you’ll start to understand. Why do you think Hudson Plastics failed in 1970? Why do you think those buildings burned down? It’s about the formula. It’s about Hudson-Glasser 11. That’s where she lives. She lives in the resin, no matter who’s mixing it.”
I glanced at the orderly in the corner, whose psoriasis had now spread as far as his left earlobe. “OK, but now you’re wondering about MoMA. You’ve had Feretory there for decades. Why is the place still standing? Why is everyone still alive?”
Rayle leaned forward. “Look at the layout of the gallery on the fourth floor. Look at what’s on the walls. There are three Agnes Martin drawings positioned in direct opposition to Feretory. I think those drawings are all that’s been keeping you safe from her all this time. What was it Boethius said? ‘The devil hates bounds and limits, so fear not dark corners. Madness hides in light and space.'”
The scenario that now seems most plausible to me is this: that Leslie Ketban became sexually entangled with Conroy Glasser’s wife, but instead of turning the two friends against each other, it brought them closer together, plotting against a common enemy. In those years, downtown Manhattan had a lot of stray cats and dogs, and that, surely, is how they tested the formula on a reduced scale. They wanted the resin to bend light in such a way that you could look straight through to the other side of the sculpture without seeing the carcass that was sealed inside like the proverbial mosquito in amber. But when they adapted certain innovations from the work of Leslie Ketban’s government contacts, they can’t have guessed that in the process they would also be introducing quite unanticipated potentialities into the substance.
Even after my “indefinite suspension” from the curatorial staff, and the baffling discoveries in Shenzhen, MoMA are going ahead with a modified version of Before Downtown, which means that Feretory will be moved into a different gallery, not only unbound from the divine grace of those Agnes Martin grids, but also multiplied in its power by the presence of several of the smaller works that Marlon Rayle once planned to show in Philadelphia. The SFA was closer to the literal truth than any of those campaigners ever realised: stare hard enough into the sculpture, “stare the eyes out of your head”, and you will see that it still contains Conroy Glasser’s crime.
As I tiptoed towards Feretory with that fire axe on Christmas morning, I told myself that I was there to destroy the resin empress. But Hudson-Glasser 11 is mightier than a will as weak as mine. When Conroy Glasser hung a noose from a ceiling pipe in 1969, he was following orders he couldn’t disobey, just like Marlon Rayle years later, and Andrea Wooney, and Bob Ketban, and maybe Steven Zduriencik, too – all dead now, except Rayle. How much of my work on Before Downtown was really of my own accord? I don’t know. But the truth is that I stood paralysed for many minutes with the axe raised over my head before that night watchman found me. Yes, at that moment I wanted to destroy Jillian Glasser. But not nearly so much as I wanted to set her free.
*© Ned Beauman 2013, First published in The Guardian in 2013.
Want to listen to audio editions?
Purchase a subscription and enjoy unlimited access to all features.
By subscribing you contribute and support authors, translators and editors.