Last Saturday afternoon I sat in the back room of a library and watched as major collector leafed through scores and scores of photos from the 1960s of scantily clad women taken by an old Czechoslovakian coot named Miroslav Tichy. A show of Tichy's work was to open that night at Chelsea's Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.
The artist's representative, whom I shall call "the Roman," had just arrived by boat from Europe with the photos, which he had collected from Tichy's filthy, detritus-ridden studio over the years and first exhibited with Harold Szeemann at the Seville Biennale in 2004. I asked the Roman how much the Tichys were going for at Bonakdar that night. "They start at €4,500," he answered, for a unique 40-year-old black-and-white print, partially decorated by the artist and the size of your palm.
As the collector deposited 20 or 30 prints in a folder for perusal and purchase, the Roman described Tichy, a self-described Tarzan, still strong, if out of it, at 91. The Roman, who has known Tichy since his own boyhood 45 years ago, has constructed an outsider narrative portraying him as a victim of Communist domination. Tichy was a Peeping Tom, forbidden to go near the town swimming pool, in and out of jail and the psychiatric ward, harassed by the Commie fuzz in the public square, all the while furtively taking as many as 100 photos a day of local lasses in various stages of unwitting undress. He never bathed or changed his clothes and constructed his cameras -- and just about everything else he used, including a washing machine -- out of wood and rubber bands.
"It seemed to be a canny survival strategy, reminiscent of Joseph Cornell," I speculated. The Roman replied, "I am not so familiar with Cornell," and preferred to style Tichy as some sort of political resister. If this were true, Tichy would have been shot long ago. He was more like the Genovese crime family member who used to walk the West Village for years in his pajamas, convincing various judges that he was too crazy to go to court.
What is undeniable about Tichy's work is the eros and innocence of his unknowing subjects, as poor and politically oppressed as he, simply trying to have some fun on a summer's day, as the Tichy eye pries and pries. We can probably assume that old Miroslav has but one hand on the camera, if you know what I mean.
Now, as the bundle of "dirty pictures" in the hands of the Roman's collector attests, a market is to be made from those long ago summer days. I'll leave it to you to figure out who is the perv in this story. It could even be me, for telling it!CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).