The Master

His inspired passion made him a favorite in the art world. Now Marcel Salinas is stuck in St. Louis, where hardly anybody knows his name.

Trying to appear immersed in his own thoughts, the gynecologist from Arkansas keeps just within earshot as the old man expounds on colors in the still life by Lodewik Susi, a seventeenth-century Flemish painter.

The yellows and greens, you see, are subtle, the old man points out. Yet they bring out other hues, adding a richness that would not otherwise be there. And the placement of the plate and knife, which overhang the table, adds dimension to the work. He brings his fingers within an inch or two of the canvas, pointing out details. He smiles slightly, his eyes bright, as if gazing at a newborn son or receiving an unexpected visit from Ed McMahon.

As always, he lingers, oblivious to the hovering doctor. This is the sixth painting he's stopped at since entering the St. Louis Art Museum three hours ago. At 90 and with bum legs, he's in no condition to dash from painting to painting, and he wouldn't do that even if he could. No, he picks his spots, disappointed that impressionist works have been put away to make room for a joint exhibition of plant drawings by Henri Matisse and Ellsworth Kelly.

Jennifer Silverberg
Marcel Salinas: "I was not Picasso's friend; I worked for him. It was artist-to-artist."
Jennifer Silverberg
Marcel Salinas: "I was not Picasso's friend; I worked for him. It was artist-to-artist."

Still, there is much to see, and the old man knows just where to look, making his way among paintings as if they were hung in his own living room. With a cane for support, he moves across the room from the still life to a religious scene by Jacob Jordaens. He's just starting to break it down when the gynecologist approaches.

"Excuse me," says Dr. Sia Shahriari. "I couldn't help but overhear. You're the most brilliant art critic I've ever heard.

"Who are you?"

Introductions are made.

Though never formally educated in the arts, Shahriari spends evenings leafing through art books in his study -- he owns more than 200 -- and goes to art museums every chance he gets. He drove to St. Louis specifically to see paintings. While his wife shops at the Galleria, he's here for the second day in a row. Tomorrow he will fly to Washington, D.C., to tour the National Gallery of Art. Right now, he is in rapture.

"This man, you know what we should do to him?" Shahriari asks. "We should take him and squeeze him like a sponge." The doctor raises his Nikon digital camera and begins snapping pictures, suddenly more interested in capturing this living encyclopedia of art than the masterpieces on the walls.

Accepting a business card from the doctor, Marcel Salinas reaches into his appointment book and hands over a small slip of paper on which he has already written his name, address and phone number -- this is not the first time a stranger has interrupted him in an art museum. He tries to keep his voice down but nonetheless knows what it's like to be followed around by tourists who ditch their headphones, abandoning official tours in favor of a more personal approach from a man who has known and worked with some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

Picasso. Lhote. Vasarely. Ernst. Erte. Lebadang. Castellon. Bledsoe. Bemelmans. Some household names, some known only to the closest students of fine art. Salinas has met them all. With knowledge gleaned from countless books, he also speaks as if a compatriot of painters who died centuries ago. He knows which of them were drunks, which were spendthrifts, which died penniless, which fought with art dealers, which chased women and which chased boys. And when the call came to reproduce masterpieces, Salinas was there, a self-taught lithographer whose portfolio placed him among the world's finest printmakers back when it was done by hand instead of with computers and digital cameras.

But that was a long time ago, in cities far, far away. Today Salinas flies beneath the radar of the modern art world.

"Do you have a few minutes?" the doctor asks. "I would like you to look at a painting I admire." Salinas obliges, walking to a nearby room to critique a 1916 painting of a dancer by American artist Robert Henri. Yes, it's a brilliant work, Salinas agrees. "You know where he had the problem?" he asks in an accent at once Parisian and Mediterranean. The doctor shrugs. "The shadow," Salinas answers. "It should have been dark-blue, cool. But when he put in the blue shadow, the balance was disrupted. You couldn't make a Spanish dancer with a sad color." And so Henri exercised artistic license with the laws of nature and included red, he explains.

The doctor is silent for a moment. "I have seen this painting many times," he says quietly, his eyes locked on a familiar work that he now sees in an entirely different way. "I have never seen the red shadow."

The men chat for more than an hour, everything from the relationship between Paul Cézanne and Emile Zola to the poetry of Walt Whitman. The doctor pumps Salinas for information. Were you married? "Like everybody -- twice," Salinas quips. Do you have any children? No. Where did you come from? Egypt.

Inevitably there is the obvious: Why are you living here in St. Louis?

Next Page »