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.

It is a query Salinas hears often. He gives a Reader's Digest version of the last ten years of an extraordinary life, explaining that he moved here in 1995, never expecting to stay more than a year. But he couldn't afford to return to Paris or New York.

"So," he says simply, "I'm stuck."

Salinas in the 1940s
Salinas in the 1940s
Portraits of Ellis Island immigrants are a favorite subject of Salinas'.
Jennifer Silverberg
Portraits of Ellis Island immigrants are a favorite subject of Salinas'.

Barely five-foot-seven, stooped by scoliosis, the fingers of his right hand bent inward from decades of holding brushes, Marcel Salinas is still plenty tough.

His legs, broken by a hit-and-run driver in Denver thirteen years ago, are held together with rods and screws. He spent one month in a hospital and eight more on crutches but now spends entire days at art museums, exhausting companions less than half his age. He uses glasses only occasionally and paints daily, wearing out brushes in a week's time and prompting mild complaints about expenses. His closest friends say that's typical.

"He's able to accept dreadful things that have happened to him, but if he loses a Kleenex, he gets irritated," says Judith Bledsoe, a painter who lives in Paris but speaks with Salinas at least once a week. "If he's knocked down by a car, he takes it on the chin."

Salinas has bounced around the world, from Egypt to Paris to New York and, finally, to St. Louis. He is far from rich. His cot-width bed in his cluttered Central West End apartment tells you that much. Everywhere there are books, canvases, brushes, paint, mail, art periodicals and paintings stacked on their sides in bare metal racks. A couple dozen classical-music albums sit below a small stereo. The turntable is covered with a cloth to ward away dust. There is no television. His first lithograph of his own artwork, a scene of an Egyptian fisherman and his wife, hangs behind his futon sofa. It is numbered 62 of 83. Frugal to the core, Salinas skimped and didn't buy enough paper for a series of 100.

He was once lithographer to Pablo Picasso, who insisted that Salinas' name appear alongside his own on reproductions of the famed artist's "Imaginary Portraits" series that Salinas remembers as the most challenging printmaking of his life. As a painter, Salinas is old-school, and he makes no apologies, which has cost him in a world that constantly craves the new. A Christie's spokeswoman in New York says two of Salinas' paintings were valued at $500 and $1,000 in recent auctions but that neither sold. A signed lithograph on eBay can be had for as little as $100.

"Someone once described him as marching boldly forward into the nineteenth century," says Jack Solomon, former owner of America's largest private-gallery corporation and a friend since 1964. "His art is original, it's him, but it's derivative of some of the greatest artists who ever lived. The critics today who write in places like Artforum and Art in America and ARTnews, they would find him an anomaly. They would term him an anachronism. But he's right: Why do we have to have the rush of the new, which is what contemporary art does? Oh, Jeff Koons is a genius because he's making porcelain dolls or making pornographic paintings with his wife. This stuff really makes Marcel sick to his stomach, and should make a lot of people.

"Why can't art be beautiful and uplifting?"

Salinas professes little use for the critics. "Art critics, they always want to be smart," he says. "They detach themselves from art. They're not interested in art, they're interested in going to what is fashionable. People are suckers. How many people know art really well? People look at a piece of shit and they say it's a progress, it's a step forward. Art, there's never a step forward in art. You can make a progression in engineering, not in art. We don't do better than the cave painters. Do you know a new way to make love? A new way to eat?"

Although Salinas loves America, he also sees a dark side. "The hardest thing on earth is to sell art," he says. "Selling, that's an American idea. You buy art like stock. America is very important in the field of art because they have the power to buy. And when they buy wrong, it's a catastrophe for the world."

In his prime, Salinas had one-man shows at top galleries in Europe and America. Armand Hammer purchased one of his paintings during a 1957 exhibition at the Hammer Gallery in New York. It was Salinas' first taste of the United States. He stayed at the home of Hammer's brother Victor on Fifth Avenue, a short walk from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But those days are long past. His largest-ever exhibition, a few years ago in St. Louis, featured 81 works but drew no mention in newspapers or magazines.

"He's just sort of faded through the cracks, really," says Charles Edelman, an art teacher at St. Louis Community College who met Salinas at local art show about six years ago. "He's also not the kind of guy who goes out and promotes himself. He's very much of a workman and very much down to earth. He sort of feels like he's a missionary for art. If he can get one or two people to understand something in a different way, it's worth it for him."

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