Life as a rigamarole — in acrylics


By Jerry Tallmer

The odalisque — recumbent female figure — on one wall of Annie Shaver-Crandell’s big rambling loft in Noho shows a good deal of leg and thigh as she stretches out on a sofa, but is otherwise not anywhere as naked as the odalisques of, say, Manet and Ingres. The recumbent figure on the wall also has graying hair. In fact she looks quite a bit like Annie Shaver-Crandell, as does another female figure who is getting some news from the unidentified male with whom she shares a loveseat in “The Annunciation to the Matron,” on a facing wall.

The full title of the first painting is “Odalisque With Heirlooms.” Ms. Shaver-Crandell did it in acrylics rather than oils so it would dry in time for her recent show at the Paula Barr Gallery in Chelsea. “You’re sitting on the sofa that’s in the painting,” says Ms. Shaver-Crandell. “It was my parents’ davenport in Oberlin. When my mother was breaking up the house in 1993 — she was in that house 55 years — Keith said: ‘I want that!’ ”

Drying time is not why Ms. Shaver-Crandell did not use oils when painting in this loft during the last few years of her husband’s life. Rather, it was dying time — and oils are toxic, unlike acrylics or watercolors.

She brings forth some bread, butter, and Lifethyme peanut butter for a starving interviewer. “Peanut butter and raisin toast was Keith’s breakfast. I couldn’t bear to see peanut butter after he died. Then I realized I like it too.” The subtitle of her Chelsea exhibit was “Living Well Is the Best Revenge: Views From a Life Under Way.”

Keith Crandell, Villager columnist, political and community activist, all-around buzz saw, left Annie and the rest of us on May 28, 2005, after a clinically harrowing 77-year existence stamped by grand-mal epileptic seizures (from age 17), leaking blood vessels, destruction of nervous tissue, stroke, heart attacks, pneumonia, and, finally, lung cancer. From December 2002 to the end he was pretty much confined to a motorized wheelchair, but confined isn’t exactly the word to apply to the guy who took himself, alone, in that wheelchair, everywhere he wanted to go, in or out of this town.

You don’t have to have been an art historian at City College — a medievalist — as Annie Shaver was for 32 years, to know that what the Angel Gabriel is usually announcing to the Virgin is her pregnancy.

“She’s usually in ultramarine blue [as here on this wall], with white lilies somewhere in the background. I made them red,” says Annie. “I get my flowers from Tim Faoru at Union Square Green Market. She’s been around the block a few times; that’s the idea.”

The male figure on that loveseat has his back to us, so we do not see his face, don’t know who he is, don’t even know if he’s an angel. “The news he’s delivering is unknown, and under discussion. But it’s definitely not that she’s pregnant,” says the Annie Shaver-Crandell whose own roots are Congregationalist, not Roman Catholic.

These two and other recent paintings by Ms. Shaver-Crandell are something of a departure, in that they hint at narrative. So do her collages and watercolors and her hand-wrought quilts, in another way.

“When I was small, back there in Ohio, my father and I had a game.” He was Chester L. Shaver, a Wordsworth scholar and professor of English at Oberlin College. “We called it Rigamarole. I associate it with my not being older than 5. We’d just sit with one another, and one would start a story, and the other add to it, and then the other, and so on. Yes, like [the Surrealists’] cadavre exqise [where each artist or poet would supply a sentence and then fold over the paper].

“I lost my fiction partner when my father died, and never since then have felt confident in inventing a story or inventing a picture. Though I love detective novels, I have no confidence in inventing plot. This painting [her “Annunciation”] is a start toward that.”

Plot or no plot, she has turned out two highly regarded books: “Cambridge Introduction to the History of Art: The Middle Ages” (Cambridge University Press, 1981), and — with Paula Gerson and Alison Storos — “The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostella” (Harvey Miller, 1995).

Life with Keith — the other partner she has lost — was always colorful and never easy. They first met in 1968 — that traumatic year of war, Chicago, the assassinations — “when Keith was up on a ladder, a block from where I lived, painting peace on earth, in Dutch, on a building on Sixth Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets.”

Two years later they ran into one another on the sidewalk, and four years after that, after his third wife had left him “and he was a mess,” Annie got a phone call from him. “I was invited to be a sort of interim girl.” She remembers the date well: April 28, 1974, two days before the final deposit of her Ph.D. in Art History at Columbia University, when, as she put it in these pages a couple of years ago, “I was afraid that nobody would want to sleep with me if I got my degree.”

She moved into the loft — this loft — and one fine day some months later Keith said he was thinking of getting married. “I said: ‘Do you mean in general, or to me?’ He said: ‘Well, uh ,,, you.’ It was so Keith.”

On New Year’s Day 1976, at the kitchen table, she pressed the point home. “Keith said: ‘I keep looking out there and seeing this big Number 4.’ I said: ‘I keep looking out there and seeing this big Zero.’  ” She became Keith Crandell’s wife Number 4 that June.

In October 1977, a day or two after he’d begged off going to the Amato Opera because of exhaustion, Keith went out running and didn’t come home. A frantic scouring of sites and hospitals finally found him at Cabrini Hospital on East 19th Street, where he remained for the next nine days. He’d had a seizure, and fallen, and broken his jaw, which was now wired together — Keith Crandell, of all people to have a jaw wired shut.

“Yes,” says Annie Shaver-Crandell, “and it was that event that made me feel forever that our marriage was on quicksand. There was no time after that that I didn’t expect the worst.”

In the autumn of 1999 she retired from her art-history job at City College. “I picked up my early-retirement paper — and the next week learned I had breast cancer.”


 A shrug. “So far, I’m fine. But you never lose the sense of a Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. I’m now at a crossroads. I just don’t know about my painting life. I need to get more competent in acrylic.”

One of these days, maybe she’ll do a portrait of Keith. There’s no reason now not to do it in oils. It wouldn’t be looking backward. It would just be one more step in a life under way.