Brown moth sitting on a blade of grass


The Psychedelic Moth

by Tony Oswick

Competition theme: 'Perspective'

I know a secret. Well, I think it's a secret but I can't be sure. I tried to find out about Agostina O'Neill but no-one seemed to know who she was. So had she told me the truth?  

          I met her only once, for less than half-an-hour. I was holidaying in the States and my wife, having decided she'd prefer shopping in New York's finest department stores, left me to spend the morning at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite having dropped out of Art College in Liverpool, I still had a fondness for contemporary art and I knew there were a number of interesting exhibits at The Met.

          Several of the galleries contained works by American artists I'd not heard of. Then I came to the gallery devoted to post-war contemporary British artists.

          "What do you think of it?"

          I turned and there she was, sitting on the bench, the woman who later introduced herself as Agostina O'Neill. Although it was the middle of summer, she had a fur coat wrapped around her, with a maroon beret perched on top of greying hair. She wore heavy make-up but blue eyes sparkled through her wrinkles.   

          "This one?" I pointed at the painting in front of me, Jack Sizer's final work titled 'The Psychedelic Moth'. It was a mass of vivid colour, swirls of paint applied thickly without inhibition to the canvas, with not a straight line in sight. I was fairly certain I could identify a moth motif within it.

          "You've been staring at it for ages. I've been watching you." I detected an Irish-Americanism in her accent, something I'd become familiar with during my short stay in New York.

          "It's so atmospheric. I almost feel the tension in the artist, don't you?" Somehow I felt the need to impress her with my knowledge. "And it's so redolent of the 1960s. Sizer had such a pragmatic approach. It's the antithesis of the standard conceptualisation." I turned back to admire the painting.  

          "Baloney. Absolute baloney."

          "I'm sorry?" Had these words come from the mouth of this apparently cultured woman? Had I heard right? Then I saw her grinning.

          "Yes, you heard correctly, young man. It's rot and rubbish from top to bottom." She let out a stifled guffaw. "That was Jack's last painting and he hated it. And I hate it for what it did to him."

          "You knew Jack Sizer? But how can you denigrate his talent? This is a wonderful painting."

          She nodded.

          "I was around when Jack painted it. He was staying in Tonabrocky, back in the summer of '67. He'd rented a cottage on the farm my parents owned."

          "I still can't believe you knew Jack Sizer."

          The woman flashed me a look of disdain.

          "Jack was disenchanted with London life. Wanted to get away from it all. Chose the wilds of Galway. He was fifty-three and one of the few people at the time who were repelled by the hedonism of hippies and flower-power. Pollock and Rothko were his true inspiration. He painted 'The Psychedelic Moth' while he was at Tonabrocky. He considered it his absurd paradox."

          "Absurd paradox? I don't understand. Do you mind?" I indicated the space beside her on the bench and she patted it gently. I wanted to know more.

          "Jack was a well-respected artist so he knew people would sit up and take notice. 'The Psychedelic Moth' was an antidote to the credo of the time. He considered Andy Warhol and Bridget Riley drug-induced frauds. Jack never needed drugs to be creative - you could see that from his previous body of work."

          "But Warhol and Riley were two of the greats of their time."

          "Not in Jack's mind. He decided to play a trick on the so-called artistic establishment. He wanted to create something which would expose the hypocrisy of those contemporary artists. But Jack, being Jack, went the whole hog and decided he could only truly replicate 1960s' artistic hog-wash if he was under the influence of drugs."  

          "So 'The Psychedelic Moth' was produced while he was in a drug-induced state?"

          The woman laughed again.

          "He told me he'd seen all sorts of things. There were dragons with alligator heads and leopards ten-feet tall in a hall of mirrors where everyone could see everyone's else's reflection but not their own. But towering over them all was a massive butterfly in bright rainbow colours. It became the central feature of his painting but he wasn't going to glorify its title with the name 'butterfly'. That would've been too grand - so he chose 'moth' instead."

          "But you say he didn't like it?"

          "Detested it with a ferocious horror. When he saw what he'd produced, he was even more convinced 1960s' pop-art and psychedelia was a sham. 'Genuine artists don't need drugs to fuel their talent,' he told me afterwards. He wanted to trash the painting. I was only nineteen and, although he was over thirty years older than me, we'd become friends, close friends. So I asked him if I could keep it."

          "Jack Sizer gave it away? To you? So this painting is - yours?"

          "It certainly is, young man. Or was. It's a long story but I got married to an American serviceman whose family was in real estate. I'd kept the painting and had no need for the money - I was comfortably-off. So I donated the painting to The Met. After all, that's where it belongs."

          I couldn't believe my ears. This woman, Agostina O'Neil, had once owned 'The Psychedelic Moth'.

          "I often come here to see it. Reminds me of Jack." She was talking to herself as much as me now. "He would've enjoyed the joke. It was his two-fingers to the pretension of the1960s. Except it all turned sour. The experiment twisted his mind. When he returned to London, he became hooked. Not just LSD this time. More serious stuff. His art went out of the window. Became a shadow of his old self. Do you know he was dead within eighteen months? So sad." She rummaged inside her handbag and dabbed a handkerchief against her eyes.

          I thought I remembered reading somewhere Jack Sizer had died from an overdose but I couldn't be certain.

          "Yes, Jack would've liked this." She turned her head to one side. "When I gave them the painting, they were so pleased. To have a Sizer - and his final work, at that - was a coup for The Met. Of course, I didn't let on it was just Jack playing one huge artistic trick."

          "That's a great story. But why tell me?"

          "Well, why not? You seem to appreciate art. Anyway, no-one would believe you if you told them, would they? They'd say it was the ramblings of an old woman who was as mad as a skunk." She tapped her nose. "But it's all true. And it gets even better."

          "Even better? How?"

          She stood up and put her hands on her hips, staring directly at the painting.

          "See that there? When they hung 'The Psychedelic Moth', they hung it upside down. It's been like that for the last twenty years. No-one's noticed and I'm not going to tell them. Can you believe it?" And she laughed so loudly that everyone in the gallery turned to her with withering looks.

          She ignored them. "Jack would've loved it. That's the icing on the cake." Smirking to herself she picked up her handbag and waved as she wandered out of the gallery. I watched, open-mouthed, as she left. Had I just been let in on one of the great art secrets of the 21st century or was it, as she said, just the ramblings of a mad old woman?

          I sat there gazing at the painting. I turned my head around and down, this way and that, trying to see it from different angles. As I did so, I noticed my contortions getting contemptuous looks from the people around me. Had it been hung upside down or not? I couldn't tell.

          I needed to find out more and rushed after the old woman. I wanted to find her, sit her down again, buy her a coffee, discover more about Jack Sizer and his final painting. But she seemed to have disappeared into thin air.

          Before leaving New York, I twice went back to The Met to try to find Agostina O'Neill but she was never there. Had what she told me been true or not? I've no idea. Perhaps the secret of 'The Psychedelic Moth' will remain a secret forever.