The Fingertips of Atlas


When Alex was a boy, he was terrorized by a reoccurring vision which he would, only later, blame on art. On the cover of his World History book was a gold embossed line drawing of Atlas supporting the world on his shoulder. It was the scale that bothered him: compared to Atlas’s height, the entire planet was no bigger than a beach ball. This drawing made Alex extremely anxious. If Atlas were to loose his balance, and needed to steady the ball so the whole thing didn’t fall and completely shatter, or at least dent, the thing to do would be to reach out and touch it somewhere, preferably south of the equator. But if it was winter, and the globe were tilted, the way it was in the picture, there was a small chance that one of his fingers would touch down somewhere on North America.

Often while sitting in the back seat of his mother’s car, looking up at the sky through the windshield between the two front seats (this was before seat belts), he would imagine what it would look like to see one of those huge fingers coming down. It was almost incomprehensible but still, he tried to imagine it. He wasn’t sure just how much of the sky was visible to him, but he bet he couldn’t even see the postage-stamp-sized piece that spanned across the smallest New England State. One of Atlas’s fingerprints could pretty much blot out half of the country.

What would that oncoming finger look like, from below?

The sun would be blotted out, so there wouldn’t be any light with which to see, but before that, when the mighty hand was coming down, there would be this large dark infinite thing with no discernible edges, suddenly crushing everything. Was the planet squishy on that scale, like a rubber ball, or would the fingers stop at the mountains, and lightly touch its brittle surface?

The trees and telephone poles would be goners, that was for sure. Maybe the Big-Bad-Wolf-proof houses would stay up, but his wooden stick-frame job would be dust. At the time, Alex knew this awesome destructive potential to be the power of God. Later he would realize that it wasn’t so much the sky falling which terrified Alex, it was the power of the artist who had made that picture, setting in motion the panic which preoccupied his daydreams. Early on in his career, Alex blamed artists for the ideas they expressed.

He gave up painting entirely after noticing that people would spend more time reading what the museum curators wrote about the art than looking at the actual work itself. Often labels would contain the piece’s collection history, or pity quotes by the artists and critics. These labels condescended to their readers as if comprehending the art firsthand were so beyond them, only understood from a plane held far above them and out of reach, like that little toy beach ball-sized globe Atlas held aloft. It was all one could do just to try to comprehend the monstrous structure which held it all up.

His master’s thesis works were the last paintings he made. His next artworks consisted of a series of wall labels meant to appropriate entire shows. He would print up a wall label and glue it to matt board to match the gallery’s format with his name on it and the title: Untitled. Below were listed the materials: “Fingerprints on Found Artwork”. He would surreptitiously stick them, uninvited, on gallery walls with double-stick tape at the openings.

Alex’s labels were almost never removed until the shows came down. Few people even noticed them, but it brought Alex a little secret pleasure to think that he had one-upped the scene without having to get his hands dirty. In his small and invisible way he was trying to have the impact of that Atlas, to place his fingerprint over entire galleries and all they showed. He claimed the whole spectacle as his found object. Being unnoticed was better than being squashed like a bug.

Nevertheless, Alex still kept an eye out for Atlas’s steadying hand.

                                                                             copyright 2005 Bill Wheelock