A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mango – Tim Warren

It was a brief spell in his life, one of which most people are none the wiser, one that passed largely without incident. That is if any period of time in which one lives as a mango can be described as passing largely without incident. In truth, it can’t. Not that Kermit Lansbury can be persuaded:

“No, it passed largely without incident,” he told me once, quite firmly. It was September 1977, the first time I’d heard about it — this Mango Period. I tried to argue, but each time my mouth opened so did his: “Nuh-uh,” he would say, raising an eyebrow and a forbidding finger, that mischievous gleam in his eye. But on this occasion, as has so often proved the way, argument would get me nowhere.

Kermit Lansbury, even back in ’77, was already a highly regarded artist — in fact, perhaps you recognised the name? At the very least you’d probably know some of his more famous works: Untitled #111; Untitled #40; and perhaps his best work yet Untitled #86. Or perhaps you would if he’d given them proper titles. Or even created them; at least in the conventional sense. You see, Kermit’s reputation has been founded on taking abstract conceptual art to audacious and previously unimagined new levels (new depths, say his critics): his works exist only in his imagination; only as concepts. As he puts it:

“To make the concept concrete is merely to make concrete. And what fun is concrete?”

It goes almost without saying, then, that his works are quite unusually brilliant. Indeed, Kermit himself has assured me of their brilliance on many an occasion.

“Oh, they’re brilliant!” he always tells me, rolling his eyes in apparent rapture. I wish I could somehow walk around that internal, mental gallery of yours, I tell him — that everyone could. “But that’s just it,” he enthuses, all expansive hand gestures and wide animated eyes. “There is no need. Of course my works could not possibly be more personal, yet what could be more universal than subjectivity? We all have that in common. The simultaneously personal and universal — a beautiful paradox! Already they are somewhere inside of you. Inside of everyone. People need only look!”

Nonetheless, I did once ask him: if your works are just lying around inside of everyone, waiting to be found, then what makes you so special? “Me? I just found them first!” he laughed. Perhaps, that is something that all great artists can say of their works?

But to anyone unfamiliar with the world of Kermit Lansbury no doubt this all sounds much like the Emperor and his new clothes, and his claims to have lived as a mango perhaps no more than a cultivated eccentricity. Let me describe, then, one of the pieces he once described to me; it is not something he is in the habit of doing, and took much persuasion on my part, but I’m sure he will forgive me — after all, it has already been exhibited all around the world. The piece in question is very simple, and like all Kermit’s work unnamed: it consists only of a huge black expanse and in the bottom right-hand corner a tiny white dot. It is in the interpretation that complexity arises:

“To you, a pessimist,” he told me, “it will mean optimism, perhaps, this dot. And from moment to moment you will see a different dot: smaller, larger, in a different position, maybe even sometimes no dot, according to your mood. Everyone will see it differently. Me, I see a negative of the image — I call the dot Pessimism. But, of course, I am blessed with innate optimism. Someone else may call the image Solitude; another, Hope. How to name it, then? It is much that way with all my work.”

How to name it, indeed? But even more so, as we have already touched on, how to render it? How to render any of his works? Ever changing, endlessly interpretable, so personal as to be universal: the only possible medium, the only possible gallery space for Kermit’s works, indeed the only place that would not rob them of their essential subjectivity is certainly in his head; and at the same time, perhaps, in all our heads. To commit such works to canvas would not only compromise them, it would be impossible.

Exhibiting Kermit Lansbury, needless to say, is not without its challenges.

The stunned face of the girl who first opened a gallery to Kermit’s works was itself a picture. After many weeks of assuring her not to worry, that everything would arrive in time, just go ahead with the invites, he had turned up just an hour before the opening entirely empty-handed. “But where are they?” she had asked. “Your works? We can’t open to an empty gallery!”

“Why not? It’s a perfectly lovely gallery. All the more so for the lack of clutter,” he had deadpanned. The poor woman was frantic. It was her first exhibition. A young heiress, at this stage merely dabbling in the arts, Portia Teversham had never owned a gallery before. Which is not to say that she wasn’t taking the whole thing entirely seriously.

“We have press coming! We can’t— “

“For an unknown? You have done me a great service.”

“But— “

“Don’t worry. I’m here. That’s all you need. Every one of my pieces, even some I have yet to create — they are all here,” he had smiled, tapping his temple. I remember her just staring at the madman, open-mouthed. “I was once a mango, you know,” he had then whispered in her ear, as she would tell me many years later. I don’t think he could resist.

It is to her eternal credit, then, that she finally went ahead with the event. Kermit had, of course, talked her round:

“If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then let them come and behold beauty. What need have they of artworks? Interpretation too. Is that not the critical thing? If that is of their own making — the public, the critics — then my work need not be involved.

“Don’t misunderstand me, there are, of course, artworks in my mind, many of them — I have spent countless hours over each — but how can I render them as I see them? Only in my mind are they as I see them. The instant they leave my mind they have failed. Were I instead to describe them it would be just the same.

“Nevertheless, they are undoubtedly worthy of exhibition. And so, here we are. I have my twenty works and each of the audience will be asked to leave with their twenty interpretations. Would that not also be the case if my works had simply been placed on the walls? When you think about it, where is the problem?” The poor girl hadn’t been sure, although she’d been quite sure that there was one.

But it was too late, by now — and not just to cancel the show — she had fallen for him…

More or less the same speech Kermit later gave to the assembled press and public. Some critics enthused wildly, if inaccurately, about the event as “a profound and unique comment on the impossibility of Art.” Others decried Kermit as a “charlatan” pulling a “cheap stunt.” While others were merely curious to see what he might do next. The reviews of that first show, it’s safe to say, were decidedly mixed. But there was one in particular that pleased him enormously:

“The images I saw ranged from the oddly comforting and vaguely pastoral, to ones so perverted and disturbing I can’t even begin to relate them. Whether these in fact corresponded in any way whatsoever to those that Lansbury had brought to the gallery, I have no idea. But, why not? Kermit Lansbury’s images are subjective, as were mine. And what do we all have in common? Our subjectivity. Thus, as subjective images are they not somehow universal? Frankly, I don’t know, and it’s making my head hurt. But that’s no reason to suppose that tonight I didn’t meet a genius.” It was nice, Kermit told me, that at least one person had understood.

It might seem odd to think nowadays, when Lansburys quite regularly change hands for hundreds of thousands, but Kermit was unable to sell a single piece at that first show. But bear in mind, back then his particular brand of conceptual art was unheard of; much less, widely understood. Collectors were baffled. Not that it’s ever been unusual for an audience not to be able to touch great works of art — museum guards are generally quite insistent on it — but in 1969, not even to be able to see what you were buying, it was unprecedented.

How times have changed!

We have Kermit to thank, of course. For it was he who first pointed out the obvious: many art collections already go unseen, gracing only the bank vaults of the rich. To these people, that they will never see what they have purchased is — aptly enough where Kermit’s work is concerned — entirely immaterial: all that matters is ownership; investment. To Kermit, then, his works may as well remain in his head.

Of course, widespread acceptance that a Lansbury might be no more than a deed of ownership was, as you’ll imagine, far from instantaneous. So it was perhaps a great fortune that a certain young heiress fell for my dear friend when she did (but in the career of which successful artist has luck not played a hand).

Within months of meeting, the pair had announced their engagement, unveiling to some of the richest people in Britain what may still be Kermit’s most stunning creation, even surpassing Untitled #86: Portia’s engagement ring. Quite unique, and near impossible to copy, its transparent magnificence — as you’ll doubtless imagine — left all in attendance breathless. Soon, a Lansbury was near impossible to obtain. Yes, it was a very happy union, in so many ways.

Granted, not a marriage without its difficulties — Kermit’s frequent alcoholic excesses down the years are well documented, and thus not recounted here; ditto the incident with the sturgeon and the dentist — but neither he nor Portia have regrets, and even as Kermit’s life sadly now nears its end, their devotion to each other remains as simple and tender a portrait of love as you could ever hope to see.

Yet, even in death — and may its scythe turn rusty — old Kermit will blaze a unique and distinctive trail: as perhaps the only artist who has ever taken his each and every work to the grave (how this will affect the collectors market, goodness only knows). But I say ‘perhaps’, for here a contradiction lies: are Kermit’s works not, as he has so often suggested, just waiting to be found in all our heads?

To Kermit there is no problem here, of course, nor with any contradiction: “So both things are true,” he will always shrug. “What can I say? I didn’t create the world!”

True — but he did make it that bit more interesting.

But let us return to the beginning now, and that little documented period before his great artistic success. I recently asked him again — had it informed his work?

“How could it?” he replied. “I was a mango! I was not conscious. My work has thus been informed entirely by not being a mango.” As he was of course aware, that wasn’t really what I wanted to know. He sighed. “People buy things that exist only in my head, yet that they have problems with? OK, I will tell you what happened when I was a mango.” What? I asked, thinking finally I might get to the bottom of it. “Nothing,” he laughed, “I was a mango, of course!”

Like I said, sometimes there’s just no arguing.

Tim Warren is a writer of mostly very short things. His microfictions and flash can be found most recently in Serious Flash Fiction Anthology: Vols. 5 & 6, Paragraph Planet, Overheard, Pendemic and the VSS365 Anthology. The rest you can find on Twitter. He lives in Cornwall, UK.

Image via Pixabay

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