When I first met Nico, he was in his waning prime. Cavafy and others he had known as a young man in Greece were long gone. His Paris friends, Breton, Artaud, Eluard, Crevel, Dali, Aragon, Duchamp, Max Ernst, among others were dead. And the circles in which he enjoyed more recent celebrity, including Arshile Gorky, Peggy Guggenheim , Jasper Johns, Raushenberg had also died or were fading away. His poetry was still admired in Greece, but the Village Voice, Art Forum and other magazines had less and less use for his essays on contemporary art. With the disappearance of the contexts in which he’d flourished, his ways of thinking seemed somehow less penetrating. Still, with his great height, strong nose and glittering black eyes, he looked like an aging eagle stranded on a mountaintop. His orator’s voice, with the plosive accents of his native Greek, was still commanding, and his erudite wit was still part of an imposing display.
At a dinner in the early seventies given by fellow art critic and sometimes rival, Lawrence Alloway, the conversation turned to the late paintings of Giorgio De Chirico. Alloway maintained they were utterly trivial.
“Trivial like Fragonard?” asked Nico.
“Well to paint trivially in a manner such as that, in an age such as this is an act of profound stoicism.” And he surveyed the table with a gleam of unrepentant self-satisfaction at his turn of phrase.
At tea one afternoon, he proclaimed: “The accomplishment of Freud is that he renewed the compact of Abraham.”
And later: “I like John Ashberry. I love how he turns Henry James into prose.”
One afternoon when he was ill, he took especial pains to tell me the story of an Austrian Prime Minister who had been famous for his cleverness but who, in a speech, had made some kind of gaffe. “Ah, intelligence ages,” twitted some young wag. “Stupidity never,”
The Prime Minister spat back.
Circumstances took me away from New York for almost eight years, and when I returned, I began my regular visits to Nico once more. He had abandoned all interest in current or even recent art, and was devoting himself to a commentary that would solve all the “riddles” in the painting of Heironymous Bosch. Like his other remaining friends and also his wife, I found his assertions on this painter both perverse and wantonly obscure.
He contended, without the support of historical evidence, that Bosch’s phantasmagoria embodied controversies debated by Saint Augustine, Porphyry, Origen and other great figures of the early Eastern church. This was, in Nico’s view, the only way in which the complexities of the paintings could be explained. On each visit, he would repeat the same argument: a section of the Odyssey refers to a cave in which naiads weave cloth on looms made from or resembling jars. Porphyry had commented on this passage and had been refuted by Augustine. The eggs or testicular shapes in the paintings, according to Nico, referred to the jars in Homer and were thus clear references to this theological disagreement. Nico would point a long finger at various images in a book of reproductions and proclaim:”See! See! It’s right there.”
I told him I simply didn’t see it and I tried to suggest other ways of exploring his otherwise opaque assertion. He didn’t care. He felt the truth of his assertions was self-evident.
“My wife believes my researches on Bosch have ruined my career. She even says they have ruined her life,” he would say with a mixture of complacency and defiance.
Nico and I had this exact conversation many times. Eventually I came to feel that his absorption in Bosch was his way of circumventing a life-long commitment to his Marx-tinged Surrealism and coming to terms with the last things. I also realized that his wife’s bitterness came not just from her hard-headed opposition to looniness in general, but because she saw that this project was Nico’s vehicle for withdrawing from life altogether.
Nico’s three invariant questions in the after the Bosch business subsided were : “Have you seen X?” (an art dealer I hadn’t seen in ten years); “Have you seen Y?” (An artist and his wife whom I saw often.); and “Have you been to any galleries? (which I rarely had).
“How are you?” I ask. Though it is late afternoon, Nico is seated on his unmade bed, unshaven and not yet fully dressed.
“And how is that?”
“I have reached another stage.”
We sit together and drank tea out of not very clean cups. Nico makes no effort at conversation, and somehow, I feel as if the two of us are at the seaside, looking out on a gray exhausted sea whose feeble oily waves still manage to lap the shore.
Nico’s wife tells me that every morning he comes into her room before she wakes and in a loud voice announces either: “Today I am going to die.” Or “Today we are going back to Greece.”
The business of going to Greece is an absolute medical impossibility that has nonetheless obsessed him for some months. It dwells deep in his mind, and he is anxious to visit a commune of young Russian poets who he imagines are living there. The fact is however that he has no living relatives or friends in Greece, no home or place to stay and no one to help him except his wife who is herself unwell and utterly unwilling. But Nico becomes so persistent that finally she actually considers putting him on an airplane by himself. She knows that should she do so, it is unlikely she will ever see him again, but feels since he is so desperate to go, perhaps he should. She insists I speak to him about this.
“If you go, don’t you think you might die there?” I ask.
“No. That’s not the point.”
“Then it’s some kind of renewal?”
“I’m completely bored,” says Nico.
“I’ve spent a lot of time becoming accustomed to that,” I reply.
“Is that a Buddhist thing?”
“We have more in common than I thought.”
Nico is now sitting in a wheelchair, looking disordered and out of it. His wife is also in the room ignoring him as she drinks a cup of tea.
Nico says in a combative tone: “I feel as if I died already.”
“Me too.” I say a bit too randomly.
Nico gives a cracked smile. “Why then, we’re having a post-mortem conversation.”
I then tell a long story from Saint Simon’s memoires about the Prince de Conde who had a scientific but fundamentally weird turn of mind. This prince, by weighing his excrement and urine and comparing that to the weight of his food and drink, concluded, since there was no difference between the two, that he was dead. Quite logically he saw no further reason to continue eating and began slowly to starve to death.
His doctor was distressed, but solved the problem by hiring a troupe of actors who would sit down to dinner with the Prince and explain that, while they too were dead, they ate. The Prince accepted their contention, and the ensuing table talk about their shared post-mortem condition was a cause of great hilarity to the ingenious doctor.
Nico and his wife both laughed, and this was one of the few occasions when they seemed to share any pleasure.
“What are you thinking about these days?” I ask Nico.
“I am in the process of losing all interest in things.”
“Does that feel dull or bright?”
He waves his large gnarled hand in a gesture of vague dismissal. A little later he says:
“I am dying.”
“I know.” We look at each other for a while until he turns away.
“Are you apprehensive?” I ask.
“Somewhat.” Another long pause. “You see, I’ve made a mistake.”
“What I told you before.”
“The losing interest?”
When Nico’s wife fell and had to be hospitalized, he became deranged and violent, and he had to be institutionalized. The place was modern, clean and well run, but as I walked down the waxed gray linoleum of the halls, it seemed all the residents had sunk into a distressing similarity. Pasty, slack jawed, in faded bathrobes, those not actively dying sat parked in wheel chairs and stared intently into air. Two asked for candy, another for his wallet. Whoever these people had been, all that remained were the flotsam of character, tossed up randomly on this scrubbed anonymous shore, relics of some unimaginable catastrophe.
Nico was lying in a dark room next to a comatose man. A Doctor, in the shadows was talking softly to him, explaining where he was and why he was there. Nico said nothing but wept silently. I interrupted the Doctor, told him Nico understood and, and in an effort to provide some measure of individuality, explained that his patient was an eminent man.
The Doctor nodded and left. Nico finally fell asleep.
The day before he died, Nico was mumbling urgently in broken Greek. I said: “Nico, you know I can’t speak Greek.” He sat up and looked blankly at me. If he had been lying down, I would have thought he was dead. His skin was a waxy gray-green; his nose had receded at the bridge and looked even more beak-like; his cheeks had sunk and his dark eyes were lusterless and opaque. But I had brought him a box of cookies. He grabbed them and shoved them into his mouth two at a time. Crumbs flew everywhere.
He subsided into stupor, and suddenly lay back down. Now a fluttering liquid rasp was the only evidence he was alive.