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.”
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.”
The artist's state deteriorated further, and in May 2003 he was taken to UCSF's Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute after an overdose of prescription pills. His therapist, Dr. David Frankel, says, “He was in a major depression, with, I'd say, psychotic features. He was hospitalized and was pretty incapacitated for a number of months.” (Lane gave Frankel permission to speak with SF Weekly.) Stowing Lane's paintings in a storage locker, Roller and other friends emptied out the studio and handed the keys to Cadgene.
Not long after that the landlord won a judgment in Superior Court: $25,000 for a year's worth of back rent, plus $54,260 for his legal expenses. (At one juncture during the legal proceedings, Cadgene's lawyers billed the landlord $31,243 for work performed over just 16 days.)
Paying off an $80,000 bill is challenging when you're subsisting on government checks and charity. Court records show that Lane survives on $800 monthly Social Security payments and the shelter provided by the city-funded home, which is run by Progress Foundation, a local nonprofit agency. The only real asset the painter possesses is his life's work — the several dozen canvases his friends packed away in the storage space.
Cadgene inhabits the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Lane. A search of public records suggests that the landlord, who at one time owned a chunk of the massive Hamm's Brewery building on Bryant Street, has some serious cash flow: Since the mid-1990s he's purchased millions of dollars worth of real estate, buying at least 18 properties scattered across California and Virginia, including a collection of buildings worth $1.5 million in the heart of Charlottesville, Va. He's also unloaded a fair amount of property in recent years, selling one San Francisco duplex for $1.7 million in 2004. According to state records, Cadgene helped launch a number of real estate-oriented businesses, notably a construction firm, a property management company, and several real estate development outfits.
Until recently, neither man had done a hell of a lot to resolve the overdue rent matter. However, in April of this year, Lane cut off a $25,000 slice of the debt by giving Cadgene a 16-panel painting entitled Tintel. Days later, Cadgene's attorney, Peter Brewer, sent a letter to Lane's then-lawyer, who was representing Lane pro bono. “Mr. Cadgene is willing to settle the judgment against your client, in full, in exchange for several pieces of Mr. Lane's artwork,” the lawyer wrote. “Enclosed please find a list of the specific pieces.” If Lane didn't hand over the art within two weeks, the letter continued, Cadgene would get a court order to “seize every piece of artwork in the storage space.”
While not every piece of Lane's art made it onto the list (Lane's unsure exactly how many he has), most of them — some 82 paintings and etched slate tablets — did.
Lane balked. Now, two months later, he still hasn't relinquished the art, and Cadgene still hasn't seized it. Cadgene and his lawyers have “dragged this out for so long, I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't weeks and weeks before we heard from them again,” says Roller. At this point, though, it looks increasingly likely that Lane will be parted from his paintings. He's got no lawyer (he fired his pro bono attorney, and has spent many fruitless days on the phone hunting for a new one willing to take his case on a cheap or free basis). And Cadgene's got a standing — and long overdue — judgment in his favor (which will be exceedingly difficult to reverse or modify).
Lane, who got served with another round of legal documents on June 14, is apoplectic about the situation. “He sent me the list, and I just could not believe it,” he says. “A lot of these are major works I've shown in museums. I think this is a form of extortion.” While Lane acknowledges that the works in his last show, at a now-defunct gallery in Los Angeles in 2002, didn't sell particularly well, he figures the artworks he has are worth far more than $55,000, and is hoping to hire an appraiser to put a dollar value on the collection, though he's not sure he can afford the appraisal. (According to Peter Fairbanks, owner of the Montgomery Gallery and president of the San Francisco Art Dealers Association, it could easily cost Lane $2,500 to $5,000 to get a full evaluation.) No one else is around to assess what the pieces are worth.
Lane “values his artwork more than I do,” acknowledges the landlord, who admits he's “angry” about shelling out tens of thousands in legal fees.
Yuri Lane can understand Cadgene's anger at his father, but thinks the landlord “has gone way overboard” in his bid to collect the debt. Meanwhile, Yuri is hoping his dad can craft Life v.3 for himself. “What's sad to me is that my dad hasn't painted in several years. … I want him to pick up the brush again.