How much is art worth? Artists’ sale prices fluctuate wildly depending on precedent, trajectory, mortality, felony and liberty. Up in Clinton, where Michael Alig was incarcerated for 3 of his 17 years, Richard Matt’s paintings sold for contraband tools and food. Michael sent his work home; he wasn’t planning to escape. He’s been out for more than a year, and last Thursday night at Castle Fitzjohns, Michael Alig, "Party Monster," unleashed his work on society.
Just as he would have done as club godling of the '90s, before the prison sentence he served for the death of Angel (Melendez; manslaughter 10 to 20, 1997), Alig did it big and in style.
The tickets were keepers. Three cardboard puzzle pieces, one issued at each stop. Assembled they spell MICHAEL ALIG. However, Alig paid for the puzzle pieces himself, even though he lives modestly in the Bronx and remains on parole. To keep it all meta, original party advertisements from his events, aggressive and sexual images of cynicism, ennui and angst, were on sale at the second leg at the ‘Aligmart’ held in LESpace. Most of the exotically dressed guests were too young to have partied with Mike, but love his story and his art and the whiff of danger around it.
Art’s more valuable than Correctional Officer Gene Palmer realized. It was worth freedom for Matt and Sweat, and a fortune in rupees to the Indian gentlemen attending Alig’s opening. One of them explained that the t-shirts his factory is churning out depicting children medicated into green monsters are expected to do very well. A painting with the same zombie girl skipping rope next to the word "ZOLOFT" went for $1,800.
When Mike painted it in prison, he wisely sent it down to New York with the others. The most that one of the bright, Warholian canvases with a notorious "MALIG" signature in the corner cost was $5,800. Mike was finishing it up as the party started. But since Michael was unlike Andy, having been the perp instead of victim, he has amends to make. A portion of the proceeds is going to a non-profit charity that uses art to fight addiction.
All of the people who hate Michael Alig stayed on the Internet, but James St. James showed up. Sober and cheerful, the two were genuinely happy to see each other. The animosity we all saw chronicled in Party Monster is barely a memory. James’ exploitation of his privileged view of a tragedy that he wrote (well) into Disco Bloodbath is forgiven. The book is now published under the movie’s name; Macauley Culkin was in it!
My own run-ins with Alig, in Eastern Correctional Facility and Coxsackie Correctional Facility, were less than fabulous. I went from publishing to prison thanks to heroin and amateur robbery; I was dubbed "the Apologetic Bandit." I was happy to see Michael, who is intelligent and witty. I could talk to him; he was from my world. But the drugs appeared and ruined things. After another dirty urine sample, Michael attempted to snitch his way out of trouble. I heard the tape: he ‘revealed’ a conspiracy starring the facility doctor and myself. We were selling prescriptions for a grand. Thank God it wasn’t true. [Editor's note: Contacted by the author for comment, Alig says "The past is done."]
By the time I saw him again, a few years and joints down, forgiving Michael Alig was easy. I liked his writing. I like his paintings too.
Would these color explosions, memorabilia and cynical remixes of medication ads sell as well without the death of Angel Melendez? It’s impossible to answer, though easy to speculate. I asked Alig a hard question. Since many of the paintings were portraits, would Mike do one of Angel? It would be fascinating; his work reveals inner character; in a particularly successful piece, James St. James is depicted with a huge faux smile tied on his bald head.
“Some might say it would be in poor taste.” Mike answered. I wondered if a portrait wouldn’t be a monument to his memory. Considering that the proceeds are going to charity, could it be an appropriate gesture?
“My sins and I will eventually be eradicated by time; death is so permanent—something to remember when talking about Angel. In the past, painting and writing kept me sane. Today I am an artist again, instead of a number. Tomorrow? These works might survive me. Probably not. But I couldn’t not paint them anyway.”
It’s true that Mike continued to create even when stripped of everything during his eight trips to solitary confinement; before finally cleaning up, he failed many urine tests. Overcoming punitive restrictions, he used the law library to make ink out of pilfered typewriter ribbon. Michael constructed a brush made out of broom bristles and painted on a shower curtain.
There is a specific market for the work of the notorious; I watched Ronnie DeFeo, the Amityville Horror, ship out awful paintings to eager buyers. John Wayne Gacy’s provocative clown canvases have no value without their gruesome creator’s signature. However, Michael was an artist before he was Party Monster, before he even came to New York to help Peter Gatien rule the night. If anything, his work can be faulted for being Warhol plagiarism rather than homage. However, the insight and harsh cynicism Alig expresses is rescued from the typical ‘dark work from a dark mind’ criticism because it’s very funny. Playful monsters everywhere. Some were on the guest list.
Live painting was done by Basquiat as well, something I whispered in Mike’s ear as he was finishing the last one. It had a neon sign but not enough white. Alig denied posing.
“But it’s really not done. I don’t care if other artists did it. I have to finish, it has to be perfect. Everything I do does. Because they’re watching, and they have not forgiven anything.” Alig shuts up for a moment, a rare sight. “If I haven’t, why should they? Only art lets me live with it.”
It’s easy to interpret this as the sociopath’s "right answer," mimicking human emotion. Only I recognize the emotion all too well. I wrote like mad to live with my shame for a decade. The value of my output was almost nothing then, but valuable to me. It’s thrilling to learn I’m not the only one saved by art. I hope it’s true; Mike’s art was priceless to him inside and costs thousands today. I'd guess they’re only going up.
Some will not approve. Michael Musto may attack. But the charity that the profits go to doesn’t mind where they come from. The non-profit forgives Michael. So do the guests, so does Ernie Glam, who shares a show with Mike. So do I.
Some never will, and they would be surprised to find Michael among them.
Daniel Genis, free since February of 2014, is making up for a decade lost to his prison sentence for robbery; the ‘Apologetic Bandit’ was motivated by drug addiction. Penguin is releasing Daniel's memoir of incarcerated pain, laughs and literature next year.