Every Angel Is Terrifying
By Nia Stephens
10 April 2006
The Angel of Accidents speaks with the voice of deforming metal, the tone of breaking glass, though Reece swore he never heard. "Call her the Angel of Right Destiny," he offered. "Call her Fate. God expresses his will in accidents." And I guess Reece would know.
He served the Angel of Beauty. An artist of the highest caliber, Reece was also a thing of beauty himself. You probably saw him on the cover of Artforum: a huge white room full of huge white paintings, paintings of birches and snow and baby's breath, paintings of clouds, the artist himself in a white suit, with hair black as ebony and lips red as blood. His eyes were a deep and peculiar blue, though you can't tell that from the photograph. We used to call him Snow White at school, and later the Snow Queen, though that was unfair. Reece was never cruel, or even cold, not really, though he always slept alone. "I live to work," he would explain, pouring coffee down his throat between sketches.
"Everyone needs love," we would remind him.
"I am loved." This was certainly true. There wasn't a soul at school who didn't want Reece to sit for a portrait. He had the most perfectly symmetrical features I have ever seen, save for a dimple in one smooth white cheek, and the longest, blackest eyelashes. Even in New York, Reece stood out.
"Everyone needs to love, too," we pointed out.
"I love everyone," Reece would insist. Then he went back to work.
The Angel of Beauty is demanding.
"Now you're just being silly," he said, when I first described the Angel of Categories. He replaced the Angel of Centuries: it was the mid-eighties then, and no one wanted to think about time. Reece was painting, of course, while I watched. He was preparing for his first solo show.
"It's perfectly reasonable," I insisted. "He's the one who taps souls on the head and says, black, white, gay, straight, pretty, ugly, whatever. But what did he say about you?"
"Artist?" he guessed.
He laughed. "Busy, I think, is what he said."
"No one is too busy for sex, Reece."
"Some of us are." He scratched, absently, with the end of his paintbrush, his left collarbone peeking from the neck of his white Oxford shirt. You could see there the beginning of a scar, even whiter than the rest of him, stretching all the way to his right hip socket. Sometime before he came to New York Reece flew through a windshield and landed on a knife of glass. We had all seen the scar during Reece's brief turn as a model in Life Drawing, compared it to the abdominal scars of Warhol and Basquiat. There were two other long, wide scars on either side of his spine. We almost envied him; as scars go, his were admirably aesthetic, and we believed that suffering was good for a young artist.
"You could make time, if you wanted to."
"The one thing we can't do is make time." He gave me a smile full of tiny teeth. On anyone else they would have been appalling, but they were scaled to his face, doll teeth in a doll mouth. "If you're not busy, want to stretch a canvas for me?"
The Angel of Death was everywhere in those days. At first we attended a lot of funerals, though our tolerance for them tapered off. The hospital vigils wore us down as well. Reece was good about visiting, and brought nice gifts he never seemed to shop for, and he always went to the funeral. He wore white to the funerals though, white suits, and to the burials little blue Lennon sunglasses that made him look Californian, as we teased him at a wake. He would shake his head—no, not Californian—though none of us were ever quite sure where he had come from. Certainly when he lay dying no oddly-dressed relatives turned up at the hospital, calling him by outdated pet names or quietly hating him. He seemed very comfortable in his hospital bed, surrounded by white flowers sent by friends.
He said, "I love the idea of the Angel of Death. I wish Cecil B. DeMille was right, and she'd come as a cloud, like in The Ten Commandments, and float me away."
The Angel of Hearth and Home had nothing to do with Reece. He lived and worked in a loft in the meatpacking district. It was spacious and windowed on four sides, so hot in the summer that he painted in just a wife-beater and threadbare khakis. In the winter he painted in gloves with the fingertips cut off. Still, he liked winter best. Sometimes he would stop painting for hours to watch snowstorms swirl outside the loft.
He slept on an old army cot that was always neatly made and cooked up ramen noodles on a hotplate. Even after he started making some money, he stayed there, in a fourth-floor walk-up above a butcher and two floors of tanneries. After the colors and smells of the trek up, his apartment was always a relief, all that whiteness like a movie screen on which you could project whatever you wanted, with the smell of turpentine like a forest distilled.
Reece argued with me about the Angel of January.
"January has a god, not an angel: Janus the two-faced, lord of thresholds. Angels predate the Julian calendar."
"So what? It's a completely different mythical system."
"I thought you really believed," he said, startled enough to put down his paintbrush. Then again, we had been discussing angels for nearly ten years; I had curated three different shows on the subject at the Cloisters.
"I do believe in angels," I said. "Sort of. I mean, I believe that there's something out there that's interested in human well-being."
"That's not the same thing as believing in angels."
"And what about you? Do you believe?"
"Then why do you argue with me over every one? What sort of angels do you believe in?
"The angels I believe in have no interest in human well-being."
"Then what are they interested in?"
"Getting their work done."
Reece had little to do with the Angel of Kinship. There were no photographs of family members tacked to the walls in his studio, no stories about life before New York to share over ramen noodles. He visited his friends in hospitals, but otherwise never left his loft. Occasionally we could drag him to Mr. Chow's for dinner, and to other people's shows now and again. At his own show he stood in a corner near an exit, sipping Perrier for an hour and fifteen minutes, then went home.
He had a remarkable number of friends for a recluse, but then, his best quality was his ability to listen without judgment. People came by the studio at all hours, to use the toilet, for a cup of tea, to see what he was doing. He never locked the door. When he was by himself he kept an AM radio tuned to no station and listened to white noise while he painted or stared at the ceiling, trying to sleep.
If there's an Angel of Lamentation, Reece wasn't interested in her either. He never cried, not at other people's funerals, not when contemplating his own. At the hospice where he died of pneumonia at twenty-eight, he wasn't allowed to paint: the ventilation wasn't good enough, and he was having enough trouble breathing as it was. He compromised with charcoal—not good for his lungs, but not as bad as turpentine. The sketches dating from those days are primarily architectural, a cross between Piranesi's imaginary prison and Christopher Wren's plans for a better London, carved from marble. The Metropolitan Museum eventually bought the sketchbooks, just before MOMA hosted the Reece McGowan Retrospective, but they are currently available only to scholars. God knows I'd like to get my hands on them.
Among the arches, towers, libraries, and labyrinths of Reece's dream palace, no one lurks. The drawings are highly detailed, shockingly complete, especially for a man about to die. Occasionally a black mark careens across an otherwise perfect drawing; occasionally Reece would drop the charcoal to cover his face, to cough up wads of phlegm like wet silk handkerchiefs. He would turn blue while he coughed, his lips lavender. Still, he was in fine spirits for most of the two months it took him to die. His cheer bordered on inhuman, like a martyr's laughter on the rack.
Michael is the Angel of Insomnia; Michael wields a flaming sword. I don't know if Reece drank bitter, black tea from dawn to dusk because he couldn't sleep, or because he was afraid to. Luke Armstrong, the printmaker who was Reece's roommate during their first year at school, said that Reece almost never slept, and woke up screaming when he did.
"It was a funny scream, too. Not shrill or anything, but really low, almost a growl. Most nights he would lie in bed for about twenty minutes, then stare out the windows for a while, then go back to the studio."
We wondered if he was dreaming about the car accident, or something worse. We wondered if there had even been a car accident, or something worse.
The Angel of Nature must have smiled on Reece; for a man who never left his apartment, he painted flora with a precision that bordered on the supernatural.
For the "White Flowers" series, he did work from life. Soren Miller, a schoolmate turned photographer turned florist, sent bouquet after bouquet when he heard about the project: Digitalis 'Alba', the white foxglove, creamy sweet peas, poppies and peonies, Iceberg roses, calla and Casablanca lilies. For months, Reece's apartment was like a fragrant snow drift.
He did it to piss off the critics. They hated the Cloud Period, complaining that cloudy skies are cloudy skies, whether painted from below by Turner or above by Reece McGowan. So Reece had to paint the only thing more cliched than clouds. Of course, being perverse, the critics loved "White Flowers"; they said Reece "reinvented the floral still life," a compliment that made Reece snicker.
Today everyone loves Reece's cloud paintings. I go to see them at MOMA now and then, and there's always a crowd. Part of it must be the size—the smallest is six by ten feet—and part of it is the precision. Seeing them always makes me wish airplanes had bigger windows, big enough to see miles and miles of clouds up close. Kids always run around saying, "It's a castle—no, no, a ship with three sails," or, "No, it's a turtle standing on a box," and I love that.
But here's the mystery: Reece may have flown to New York from wherever he came from, but he didn't ride in a plane after that, not once. Yet each of the cloud paintings is a perfectly detailed view of cumulus clouds seen from above.
However, it's also true that Reece had a prodigious memory. For a man who never picked up a book, he knew a lot of things, and his memory was nearly eidetic. Once when he was visiting Juniper, a friend of ours who was dying, June complained that he didn't even remember what he'd looked like before AIDS carved all the flesh from his body and painted him with KS lesions. Reece frowned, then sketched on the back of a hospital menu: Juniper at twenty-two, laughing, on one of the stools in Reece's apartment. Then he drew June a little older, smiling at someone; in the background he added the wallpaper at Mr. Chow's.
He stole a notebook from my briefcase and drew June at thirty, at forty, at fifty.
"Oh, I'd never get that fat," June complained, smiling and crying a little.
Reece kept going. Sixty, seventy, with June's partner George, who was already dead. At eighty Reece stopped and chewed on his pen.
"That's the best I can do."
"That's pretty amazing," June answered.
Reece shrugged. "Just a matter of paying attention."
You might expect a man as chaste as Reece to appreciate the Angel of Onanism, or, at the very least, believe in him: not so. In fact, when I mentioned him for the first time, Reece actually blushed. I couldn't see his face, since he was painting, but his ears went red.
"If there were such a celestial being, which there isn't, it would be a demon. Lilith's brood, an incubus or succubus."
"I suppose you sleep with a crucifix in your lap?" asked William, the man with whom I was sleeping at the time. Will felt threatened by Reece, as did a number of the men I slept with.
"Of course not. I don't think masturbation is evil per se, but it's a waste of time."
"For God's sake," said Will. "Do you think everything but art's a waste of time?"
"I think everything but your calling is a waste of time."
"Because time is passing and you can't get it back."
"Everyone's time is passing, and the rest of us make time to have a life."
"I do have a life. Just a very small one." The doll smile flashed over his shoulder.
"About nine hundred square feet," Michael said, glancing around the room. But nine hundred square feet isn't bad for an artist in New York.
When we were sophomores, Reece drew a cartoon of me as the Angel of Penury; I wear threadbare robes and clutch a portfolio held together with duct tape. That was just before I switched from studio art to the Art History major. If he were really paying attention he would have drawn me as the Angel of Patience, because I waited for him, and waited for him, and waited for him.
And what about the Angel of Yesterdays, who winds up time like string? Or Zakkiel, Angel of Storms? Zachriel, the Angel of Memory, or Zeffar, the Angel of Irrevocable Choice? Did Reece believe in any of these? I think he did.
Reece's ashes were scattered on the Hudson during an April blizzard in 1991. I sifted the ashes for the anvil and stirrup, the tiny bones of the inner ear, which never burn, but I couldn't find them. And his were odd ashes, fine as sand and white, white, white, when most cremains have the color and consistency of kitty litter.
"Probably from surviving on Top Ramen for ten years," Lydia said, examining her handful of ashes.
"Early-onset osteoporosis," said Jane. "Poor Reece."
We wondered if it was some opportunistic infection we had never seen before—we all thought it was odd that he had only one, when everyone else we knew with AIDS suffered from three or four at least. But with Reece, it was like he just lost his talent for breathing. One day he was painting, then he was choking on air. Then he was at the hospice, sketching in bed. And then he was dead.
We were freezing, so each of us, at least sixty people, took a bit of ashes, a bit of Reece, then let the wind take the ashes away, mixing freely with tiny snowflakes to disappear into the river or float off God knows where.