“A robot didn’t do this.”
I said it with flat certainty, though I knew it was the last thing the boss wanted to hear. I flipped through the last couple pics of oil paintings on Nathan’s slate. “But whoever did has decent technique and obviously understands the trends of the last couple decades.” We sat in the gallery’s cramped office; it was actually my office, but when the owner stopped by it became his (as his feet on the desk made clear). “Nathan,” I said, “why didn’t you just send these to me? Hate for you to waste a trip over here.”
I looked up and realized he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. Nathan had that feral, hungry stare I’d seen a hundred times, looking past me through the glass door into the gallery’s showcase area. I didn’t have to turn and look to know there was an attractive female wandering about. Some billionaires buy stretches of Thai beach property to get women. Some buy Hong Kong movie houses. Nathan Pendergast, hot shot investor, bought a Soho gallery. He once told me he had a thing for artsy pussy.
He turned his attention back to me. “So they’re good, right, Alex? I want to show them right away.”
“What? Why? They look pretty fucking good to me.” Always dogged and overbearing, Nathan never tolerated the word no for more than a few seconds. His face abruptly changed into what I called stage one anger: eyes widened into a hot, incredulous stare that said how could you possibly not see it my way?
At this point I had to be careful—stage two was explosive: screams, threats, fists pounding the desk. “It’s not that they’re bad,” I said. “They’re actually pretty decent. But there’s no way a robot did this, trust me.” He seemed to grasp the confidence of my appraisal; I was relieved to see the frustration fade into contemplation.
“All right, Alex, I suppose you’re the expert. But check it out in person anyway. You never know when a good play might present itself.” His eyes again wandered past me to the showcase area. He gave me a quick wink, stood and exited the office for what would surely be a more stimulating conversation.
Managing a third-rate gallery is the kind of gig you’re lucky to get when you have a black mark on your career as an art dealer. In this business a black mark is a black mark, and it lasts forever no matter what the circumstances were. It doesn’t matter that you were fooled by the phony Nieuwenhuys collection as much as the Nepalese zillionaire you sold it to; it doesn’t matter that you had a spotless fifteen-year run and a solid reputation; all that matters is that your name is attached to one of the biggest art frauds of the last couple decades. Overnight you become toxic and the people you’ve known and trusted for years—friends, lovers, professional contacts—all suddenly act like they never even knew you. And when the money runs out (and Jesus it runs out fast) you take whatever work you can get—even running a joke of a gallery for a sex-crazed billionaire dilettante, so far removed from the real action you might as well be working at a Thomas Kinkade shop in a Pennsylvania mall.
The lawyers said I was lucky to have avoided jail, but as my car drove me to Jersey to interview the robot’s owner I didn’t feel terribly fortunate. A robot painter, for Christ’s sake. Ninety-nine out of a hundred gallery owners would laugh it off, but mine sends me to check it out. Lucky me.
“The problem isn’t replicating the logical functions of the human brain: pattern recognition, basic problem-solving, and so on—we cracked that nut years ago. It’s the creative process that none of the so-called experts have ever been able to reproduce. Until now, that is.”
I sat on the well-worn sofa of Dr. Marcus Cotner’s modest Passaic home and listened to the scientist immodestly explain—as best he could in layman’s terms—his self-described breakthroughs of the past few years. He was in his late seventies, but still spry and fiery-eyed. And he seemed to have a bone to pick with the AI establishment, whoever they were.
I’d read his bio on the drive out. Before he retired Cotner was one of the top minds in artificial intelligence of the past quarter century, a celebrity scientist of sorts. He gave me the prima donna vibe, a bit annoyed I wasn’t aware of his work or awestruck by his presence.
“Can I show you some of the other paintings, the earlier works? Perhaps you’d like to see the sketches? They’re quite good.” The doctor seemed just a bit too eager. I decided to cut straight to it—I hated spending time in Jersey.
“Dr. Cotner, I’m going to be honest with you. Robot painters are considered a fairly common scam in the art world.”
Cotner seemed genuinely surprised. “Oh, is that so? I had no idea.” He glanced over at the trashcan-shaped bot sitting hiber in the corner of the room. It had paint-stained articulated digits; I nearly laughed when I saw it. He actually wanted me to believe this was the artist—a jerry-rigged domestic. Jesus, how sharp could this guy really be?
I said, “Every couple of years or so some software engineer thinks he can bang out some code that will fool the experts, but it’s fairly easy to test creative authenticity.”
“Test? What test?” Nathan asked a few minutes later in unmistakable stage one tone. I sat in my car outside Cotner’s house talking to Nathan’s (as small as I could make it) head superimposed on the windshield.
“Works like this,” I said. “You take a photograph and give the robot some time to interpret it into a sketch, painting, sculpture, whatever. The result always betrays the coder’s programming. The smarter nerds try to avoid detection by combining styles—Picasso perspective with Lichtenstein textures and Pollock brush strokes. A trained eye can spot it in about five seconds.”
“And you think this one’s a scam?”
“I think this Cotner wants to send a big fuck you to his ex-colleagues—show them he’s smarter than they are, that he was right all along, that kind of thing. Don’t get your hopes up, Nathan.”
After a few silent moments Nathan said, “Screw it. All right, whatever. Let me know how it turns out.” Just as he disconnected I jumped in my seat as Cotner knocked on the driver’s side window. I lowered the glass and he handed me a painting, still shiny and wet. A chill ran down my spine and I shuddered. The work appeared to be an original piece—and only five minutes had passed since I’d given Cotner the photo.
After the initial surprise it only took a second or two for skepticism to kick in; I insisted on actually watching the robot paint another piece. I gave Cotner a second photo and he led me back into the house, happy, smug and almost floating on air. He handed the photo to the paint-stained domestic and I watched the little robot create another work in just under four minutes. I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“Where is it, Alex? I want to see it!” Nathan boomed as he burst into the gallery office with a beaming, victorious grin. He walked over and gave me a light punch on the shoulder. “And you didn’t even want to go out there, you moody fuck.” He pulled out a couple cigars and handed me one.
I’d been looking at the painting for the last couple hours, searching every inch of the work for anything that would betray a faker’s trick. I’d given Cotner a photo of my ex, and on such a familiar subject I would have recognized a pre-programmed emulation of any major painter, living or dead. I may run a third-rate gallery, but I’m still a first-rate appraiser, and this looked like the real thing, no doubt about it. For a human painter it was good, not gallery quality but definitely better than average—but for a robot the piece was simply miraculous. The implications of the work and the talent that created it were huge. Creativity and artistic interpretation were supposed to be unique to the human brain.
Robots were not supposed to be able to do things like this.
Nathan barely glanced at the painting; he seemed more interested in the immediate future. “We sign this Cotner to an exclusive deal—which he just told me on the phone he’ll be happy to do—and it changes everything. A find like this one makes this dump legit, doesn’t it?” It was my second surprise of the day—nearly four years working here and I’d always assumed Nathan was blissfully unaware of his gallery’s lowly status. “And then you’ll be back in the middle of things again, won’t you, Alex?” He lit his cigar and appeared quite satisfied with himself. “Not a bad day’s work, eh? Like I said, you never know when a good play will present itself.”
Nathan was dead on. That trash can-shaped domestic bot with the paint-stained digits was a once in a lifetime find, the kind that instantly gives an unknown gallery big time credibility. And it’s cred that matters more than anything in this business. If you have it, the big names come to you, and everyone wants to show at your gallery; if you don’t have it, you’re out in the cold, just another nobody in a sea of nobodies.
For Nathan, discovering Cotner’s bot was going to be a huge ego stroke, granting him the I’m-more-than-a-greedy-suit social standing that high-end Wall Street types always look for but rarely find. But for me, Mr. Black Mark, it was nothing less than a ticket out of the gutter, a second chance. No more lame sales pitches to tightfisted tourists, no more swearing some student’s horrendous watercolor is inspired genius. Maybe there was light at the end of the tunnel after all.
“It’s quite a find, Nathan,” I said. “So how did you cross paths with this Cotner?”
Nathan smiled. “Charity dinner of all places, something for autism if memory serves. Those events are crawling with high-end tail, you have no idea.” He chuckled and said, “I remember being pissed at first when the old codger sat down right next to me—I mean, a room full of movie stars and models and I get the place next to grandfather time. Then he goes and bends my ear for nearly an hour—total sob story about being a retired single dad with a grown disabled son, and how he used to be this famous, underappreciated researcher and—“
“Wait,” I interrupted. “A son? What son?”
“Cotner has an adult son with severe autism who lives with him, didn’t you see him?”
The car rolled to a stop in Cotner’s driveway and I cursed myself again for not being thorough enough, for believing this sham for even a second. Dumb. I’d bolted out of the gallery minutes earlier without a word to Nathan and hadn’t answered his multiple calls during the drive to Jersey.
No one answered the bell, but I could see the door slightly ajar so I let myself in. The house was still and quiet and I saw the domestic bot with the paint stains sitting in the corner. I went down the hall and opened the door to a bedroom, finding what I dreaded I would. The small room had a long twin bed, one side against the wall and the other with a safety rail—a bed for a disabled adult.
Canvasses covered the walls and most of the floor, all oil paintings with the same style and color palette as the one hanging in the gallery office, the one supposedly painted by Cotner’s robot. As if I even needed any more proof of the fraud, I finally noticed a pair of remote-control gloves (paint-stained) on the floor and a small monitor that I didn’t have to turn on to know that it was fed by the robot’s camera eye. Cotner’s son was the puppeteer, the Oz behind the curtain.
The light at the end of the tunnel blinked out.
“His son? Alex, are you sure?” Nathan asked over the phone as my car pulled away from Cotner’s house. After a couple seconds of silence he shouted, “How the fuck do you miss something like that?”
“I’m sorry, Nathan. The son must be some kind of savant—and it’s definitely his work, no doubt about it.”
“But the son’s autistic, surely we can work that angle, right? They make movies about that shit all the time.”
I sighed and said, “For a robot, those paintings would be phenomenal, a total game changer so to speak. But for a human being, they’re just good, and not the kind of good that would get us any real attention.” Nathan disconnected the line without another word; I decided it was a good idea to take the rest of the day off.
Not only did I take the rest of the day off, but I arrived at work two hours later than normal the next morning to make sure I avoided Nathan until he completely cooled off. As I walked the last couple blocks to the gallery I tortured myself thinking about how close I was—or at least how close I thought I was—to a second chance. Fucking hell, I could see it right in front of me, almost touch it.
Back in the game, back in the middle of the vortex, that insane, ridiculous, unimaginably exciting vortex at the high-end of the art world. Private jets shuttling you to Dubai for an appraisal; hundred thousand dollar commissions for doing nothing more than making an introduction; the unbelievable food; the women; the lifestyle. I’d been out of the big time for years now, and I’d hated every minute of it.
Nothing to do now but keep looking for that needle in a haystack, for that lottery ticket of a painter that’ll get me out of this shithole. The odds were against it, of course, but it’s not like I had other options.
I entered the gallery to find canvasses scattered everywhere and a fortyish man sitting on the floor busily painting; he didn’t acknowledge my presence in any way. I knew in an instant it was Cotner’s son, the resemblance to his father and the dozen or so finished paintings around him left no doubt. Through the office door I saw Cotner and Nathan, both smiling and apparently engaged in friendly conversation. What?
“Alex!” Nathan shouted, opening the door and motioning me in. “About time you got here. I’ve got great news.” Nathan positively beamed, but Cotner’s smile disappeared as he turned and recognized me. He shifted his gaze to the floor, avoiding my eyes.
“Dr. Cotner just signed with us. We’re looking forward to a long, successful relationship.”
“But Nathan, I told you yesterday, his son is the one—“
“The advances in robotic cognition,” Nathan interrupted, “that Dr. Cotner has made are truly astounding. Robotic cognition is the term, isn’t it, Dr. Cotner?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Cotner replied, still looking at the floor like a kid who’d been caught cheating on a test.
“But Nathan,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Are you considering passing off these works as—“
“Listen to me, Alex.” Nathan took a deep breath, fixed his eyes on me in a steely stare and spoke in an cool, lowered, deliberate tone. Listen very carefully to what I’m about to say, the tone said.
“You know as well as I do what these paintings, the robot’s paintings, can mean for the people in this room. What they can mean for the long overdue recognition of Dr. Cotner’s life’s work, for your professional standing in the art world, and for the future of this gallery.” He smiled faintly and said, “Not to mention the financial windfall.”
“But we’re risking—“
“Well, now there’s risk in just about everything, isn’t there? But if the people in this room work together and stay on the same page, I’m confident we can manage that risk. And then great things can happen, Alex. Great things.”
Nathan slid a piece of paper across the desk and held out a pen. I recognized the document, a nondisclosure agreement, and I didn’t have to read it to know that signing it meant I would play along, keep the secret, perpetuate the robot painter lie.
I thought for a moment about what Alex always said—you never know when a good play will present itself. I’d been out of the action for a long time, and sometimes risks, even big ones, were worth taking. I took the pen and signed.
I was back in the game.