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Excerpt: 'The American Painter Emma Dial'

When I turned away from the painting on the wall, Michael stood right behind me, hands on his hips, at the base of the wooden scaffold, watching me add a coat of glossy blue to a corner of the sea. Perched four feet in the air, a row of warm incandescent lights over my head and the remains of a cheese sandwich at my knees, I felt like a pet bird. A red-footed falcon or a hooded crow. Or a gull. An unlikely pet. I made the painting from a collage of photographs Michael took on a trip to France. Leaden darkness blankets the horizon and there is no land in sight.

A pair of Los Angeles collectors had been watching us for half an hour, leaning against the radiator in their fur-trimmed down parkas. They were in New York to celebrate Christmas and ring in 2006. The Breslauers owned five Michael Freiburg paintings, three that I made, one painted by a previous assistant, and an early one, from 1978, that Michael did himself.

Unobserved, my postprandial painting could get downright languid, so the Breslauers' presence kept me alert, hustling along, swigging coffee and dangling a cigarette between my lips like an old master.

Michael was in the midst of a cunning performance. He had cleaned himself up: an expensive cut to tidy his gray hair and loose black clothes I had not seen him wear before.

He looked sleek and handsome chain — smoking my cigarettes and giving me a piece of direction each time I loaded the brush with paint. I obeyed beautifully, reverently, at moments overzealously brandishing the brush as if a giant feather quivered at its end: my own performance. Michael oozed appreciation.

"Think of gliding below the surface of the water, like a fish. Emma, apply the paint as though you were a fish."

"A barracuda."

"Emma, a piranha. Loads of piranha in Corsica."

I thought the piranha was a South American fish but did not want to correct him, or even hazard a contradictory guess, in front of the Breslauers, who were charmed by everything he said and did, though they were uncertain how to react, if at all.

"How about a cormorant? Or a goat." My job was to keep the talk jocular, fleshly, skidding between oblique associations.

Catherine Breslauer looked ready to jump in but remained quiet. She and Lewis behaved so carefully with Michael, which was too bad because I had seen them be quite funny on their own.

"No goats." Michael frowned. "No."

We both felt the picture was special, the spooky 96-by-111-inch seascape had consumed us for nearly three months, though for entirely different reasons. The picture held me personally, it contained sensations of my own physical and mental effort; Michael knew it was a hit. I often imagined gently tipping into the vast two-dimensional Mediterranean water, swimming lazily, turning my body over and over, neither coming nor going. Last week Michael thought the sea was finished but then decided to exert some last-minute control in front of the Breslauers. They would probably buy it, or another painting from this new series.

Michael's wife Gerda kept calling the studio and his cell as she approached the building in a cab but neither of us picked up the phone.

"Emma, just a little tiny, tiny bit heavier. Right?"

"Okay."

I continued with the same brushstrokes, moving my hand more deliberately. The Breslauers salivated over Sea-shadow, its austere colors and monumentality, the lack of human presence.

"Emma, we brought you a little holiday cheer," said Catherine. She placed a gold box on the glass-topped table beside the colors I had mixed for Sea-shadow. They gave me vintage Krug each year, which I saved in a cabinet above my fridge.

Lewis Breslauer moved the gift to the ratty yellow recliner where Michael often sat and oversaw my work.

"Why don't we wait for you in the office?" he said.

The Breslauers had seen enough to feel proprietary about the picture, which was the purpose of allowing them to spend the afternoon in the studio.

I paused so the door opening and closing did not jog my hand. No mistakes. Not even tiny ones. Michael took the gold present from his chair.

"Stop, thief. That's mine."

"It's in the way, Emma. I'll bring it up front for you. While I'm on vacation the lawyer is going to deliver some papers. You have to sign for me."

"As me or you?"

I did a perfect forgery of his signature, incorporating the inconsistencies of his letters, the way he gripped a pen with his fist. I could copy any mark made by a human hand, though I never let on how proud I was of it.

"As me. It's my will, Emma. Don't forget."

Gerda had threatened to hide his passport until Michael updated his will.

"I'll try to remember: I'm you."

"It needs to get notarized too. Send it all back by messenger. Also, don't let anyone from the gallery in while I'm away. Don't climb off that scaffold unless it's someone hugely important."

If Michael could have his way, I would spend all my conscious hours up high, painting something enormous on his behalf. Six and a half years ago he hired me straight off the scaffold of a commercial studio in Chelsea where I worked for a few years after art school, painting displays in department stores and trompe l'oeils in townhouse foyers, and a ceiling mural of an African sky in the American Museum of Natural History. I loved that one still. Michael's previous assistant had walked out after a fight that came to blows over stolen materials. I was on the top rung, painting a hundred yards of Greek key pattern on sheets of plywood for a construction barricade on Forty-second and Fifth. Michael shook one of the legs to call me down. He said he had seen the museum sky, another mural in Bloomingdale's of Montparnasse in 1965, and watched me whip a brush across the plywood for a few minutes while he negotiated the fee he would pay my employer if he took me on. I met him at his studio the following morning and showed him slides of my own work-views of my grandmother's house on Cape Cod, the hummingbird feeders filled with dyed red sugar water, my mother's old bedroom that was turned into a TV room where I had spent millions of hours playing video games — as well as art school reproductions and studies. He stood with his feet planted shoulder- width apart, bending over the light box to look through a loupe. My mother, a professor of art history specializing in nineteenth-century painting and sculpture, railed against Michael Freiburg. She pronounced his work soulless and market-driven and it maddened her that so many of her students at the Maryland Institute were smitten with him and his celebrity. That her daughter would paint for the man was more proof that my impulses to work were wrongheaded, because I had to be activated by someone else, to use her parlance. At that time, I refused to see her point on the topic of me not being self-motivated. I would improve the work, I had thought, no matter what it was. And how could the company of Michael's genius not do me some personal good? He gave me a test: to copy one of his pencil drawings, a decently rendered portrait of the painter Therese Oller, his first wife, and then a detail of Velázquez's portrait of Philip IV. He sat at his desk reading travel magazines and talking on the phone while I worked for seven hours. Right away we were not in any hurry to get away from each other.

From The American Painter Emma Dial by Samantha Peale. Copyright © 2009 by Samantha Peale. Published by W.W. Norton & Co. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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