Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

The painter, the landlord, and the $80,000 dispute over a life's work

About 10 blocks separated the lives of Christopher Lane. In Life v.1, Lane was an oil painter and art teacher who lived and created in an airy, light-flooded 2,200-square-foot studio on Florida Street in the Mission District. His paintings — ranging from semisurreal portraiture to über-minimalist geometric riffs — hung on walls around the globe, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the New York Museum of Modern Art, and galleries in Paris and London.

Today, in Life v.2, the frizzy-haired 69-year-old is getting by on Social Security checks and dwelling on South Van Ness with three others in a city-funded home for people grappling with mental illness. Clad in a T-shirt and jeans, he sits on the home's couch, surrounded by a blizzard of legal briefs documenting the unraveling of his first life. He hasn't painted, drawn, pasteled, or done anything else arty for a good four years.

The tale of the artist who ends up destitute and forgotten has been told many, many times, but Lane has a story with a singularly poignant plot twist. He owes a mountainous pile of money to a millionaire landlord — who intends to settle the debt by taking the only thing of value Lane has left: more than 80 of the paintings he's created over the past 45 years. "I want my paintings to be a legacy of what I've done," Lane says. "I want to leave them to my children."

After a lifetime in the arts, Lane is wrestling with poverty, mental illness, and a massive debt.
Gabriela Hasbun
After a lifetime in the arts, Lane is wrestling with poverty, mental illness, and a massive debt.
Lane's paintings are crammed into a storage space on Marin Street.
Gabriela Hasbun
Lane's paintings are crammed into a storage space on Marin Street.

Early in his career, Lane, a native of New York, developed a strategy for capturing the attention of art-world gatekeepers. Unlike other painters, he refused to provide the gallery owners and curators with slides of his work. Instead he toted around a satchel stuffed with tiny canvases that mimicked his full-sized — as large as 5 by 6 feet — paintings. The shtick worked with MOMA assistant curator (and well-known poet) Frank O'Hara, who in 1964 tapped Lane for a traveling exhibition entitled "Recent Landscapes by Nine Americans," which showed in Italy before circulating through the United States. With a loose, color-drenched style — one particularly memorable piece depicted a trio of human heads on dinner plates — the young artist scored solo shows in small venues, as well as group shows at Yale and the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris.

After stints living in Mexico, France, and Holland, Lane arrived in San Francisco with his second wife, Eline, in the early '70s, and settled in the Haight. His painting style morphed. He abandoned landscapes and figurative renderings in favor of pure abstraction — imposing monochromatic grids, bars of pulsing color. In 1982, SFMOMA hosted a show of these minimalist productions.

In addition to painting, Lane helped raise his three children, and taught art all over the Bay Area, mentoring everyone from college students at S.F. State University to teens in juvenile hall. Mark Roller, a sculptor and painter, met Lane in "either 1978 or 1979" while taking one of Lane's painting classes. "He had the rare gift of being able to see what the student was trying to do and helping them to do it," Roller says. The two became tight and have remained friends.

After splitting with his wife, Lane moved into the live-work studio on Florida Street in 1988. The wide-open space, on the second floor of a hulking, wood-framed building, was a perfect place to paint. "It was beautiful," he recalls. But it was also a financial stretch for a guy who'd never pulled in huge amounts of money. At first Lane and the landlord — a lawyer, real estate developer, and art collector named Allan Cadgene — were chummy. Cadgene, the artist says, would drop by to chat about jazz while the men sipped cappuccinos. Over the years, however, the relationship grew toxic. Both men had grievances: Lane was angry about a persistent leak around the skylights, a problem he blamed for the ruination of several of his works; Cadgene could not have been happy that Lane called the Department of Building Inspection about the leak (inspectors cited the landlord for several code violations).

"For the last seven years [Lane] kept falling behind on rent," recalls Cadgene, who describes their multiyear beef as "emotionally draining."

The conflict's subtext was obvious to the painter's friends and family. Bipolar disorder had afflicted Lane for much of his life. His behavior was, at least in part, a product of untamed illness. "My dad was a very sick man," says his son, Yuri Lane, an actor and beatbox performer who lives in Chicago. "He was not making decisions of sound mind."

Wrestling with a deep depression, Lane quit his teaching jobs in early 2002. He had no income and no way to cover the $2,100 monthly rent. "He became very subdued," recalls his friend Roller. "It was hard to have a conversation with him. He could barely talk. At some point during this the landlord began to make threats, of course, because he hadn't been paid in months." Understandably, Cadgene went to court to boot Lane and collect the unpaid rent.

"I feel sorry for the guy," Cadgene says. Still, "I couldn't carry him forever. I had mortgages to pay. I had no choice but start legal proceedings."

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