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.

"I thought a lot," he says. "It was very difficult. Every piece was different. I had to take a chance and make a brushstroke like him. You work for two days on a plate, and after that you have to make two or three brushstrokes, and you can destroy the plate." Picasso, who was staying in the south of France, wasn't around to give advice. "He was very far from Paris," Salinas says. "He wanted to be in peace -- he wanted to be left alone and do his work. He was very old. I could not go there. I had to make a living."

And so Salinas did his best, producing two lithographs to send to Picasso for the artist's approval. He risked working for free. "'If he likes the work, I will do it,'" he recalls of the deal he struck. "'If he doesn't like it, pay the print shop for the proofs; you don't pay me.' Picasso said the corrections he wanted. There were only two. When they looked at my correction sheet, I had the same two corrections. He said, 'Carte blanche.'" The respect Salinas earned went beyond Picasso's insistence that their names appear together on the finished works. After his death, Picasso's heirs chose Salinas to supervise the creation of dozens of additional lithographs.

Only after the "Imaginary Portraits" lithographs were complete did Salinas meet Picasso. Their time alone was brief, he recalls, and Picasso lamented the celebrity that had turned him into a recluse.

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."

"I was not Picasso's friend; I worked for him," he says. "It was artist-to-artist. He told me, 'I don't wish my worst enemy to be as famous as me.'"

Lithography exploded during the 1960s, fueled by a surging market for fine-art prints. The best were produced in Paris. And Salinas was in the center of it all.

Solomon was just starting Circle Fine Art Galleries, a chain of American showrooms that eventually grew into one of the nation's largest, with more than $40 million in annual sales and a Nasdaq listing. Salinas became Solomon's talent scout in France.

"Through mutual acquaintances, I met Marcel back in 1964," Solomon recalls. "Marcel was just delighted to see me. He was the friend and supporter of the entire brigade of starving artists in Paris -- there were lots of them. He took me to flats where there were no toilets or running water and no heat, and we were there in the wintertime, my wife and I. He was interested in having us do the lithographs of the young artists, the ones he thought had a lot of talent. All the museum-quality artists that we wanted to deal with he would know on a first-name basis. He essentially became my voice in Paris."

And a teacher for other artists.

Ludwig Bemelmans, famous for his New Yorker cover illustrations and series of children's books featuring a Parisian schoolgirl named Madeline, credited Salinas with teaching him how to paint with oils. In his 1958 book My Life in Art, Bemelmans calls Salinas a savant and describes him as a Zen master of sorts, a man who made his own India inks because the ones sold in shops weren't sufficiently intense. "As intense as his ink are his eyes and his spirit," Bemelmans wrote. "He does a kind of sorcerer's cuisine with his thin fingers, using ancient formulas, and during this process a constant recitation goes on which covers the whole history of art from the caveman to the present."

Bemelmans, a friend of Armand Hammer's who helped arrange Salinas' 1957 show in New York, was known for watercolors. Oils had always confounded him. But not after a lesson from Salinas.

Salinas came to Bemelmans' studio with small bottles of paint and an instant realization that his student was like a horse eager to bolt. Salinas told him to shut up and watch -- and beware Prussian blue, which takes forever to dry. "It is very simple," Bemelmans remembers Salinas saying. "I know you are not listening to a word I say to you, but just the same, just look how I do it, it is childishly easy, it won't hurt. Now just watch me, a tiny little of bit this and a little bit of that -- and always use Mars black. Watch me."

Bemelmans' world changed as he watched Salinas mix paint to produce the exact shade of green he had been seeking. "Ah, you see now you are interested," Salinas observed. "Now, just a little on this small brush. Now take it to the canvas and now paint." Salinas handed Bemelmans the brush. "To my great surprise, at once and without smelling badly, or at least no longer offending me, the picture was there in oil," Bemelmans writes. "This was a moment of great liberation."

And great satisfaction for Salinas. "Voilà, you have it, that is all I can tell you," Salinas said. "That is the complete lesson. Now let yourself go."

Some of Bemelman's details are embellishments, Salinas insists, but the thrust was true. The challenge with Bemelmans, he says, was to accept the artist's impatience at the easel and point him toward paints and techniques that wouldn't alter his basic approach to painting, which was get it done in a hurry. "He never wanted to let things dry, so the paints would mix together and turn out a mess," he says.

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