The Crime of Saul Fletcher

Adam Lehrer on Saul Fletcher, murder, and the memory-holing of contemporary history

I have, in my lifetime, known five murderers (that is, five that I know of), two of them documented serial killers. With one exception, I knew these people either before they killed or before their crimes were discovered – in other words, knew them as normal people in the world rather than as murderers, and although I have lived a rangier life than some, it’s my suspicion that it’s not such a bizarre circumstance – Gary Indiana [1]

It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late – Emil Cioran [2]

Frankie Teardrop
Frankie put the gun to his head
Frankie’s dead

Frankie’s lying in hell
– Alan Vega

2020 was not the first year that a talented and revered artist committed murder. Does this surprise you? Are volatility and emotional instability not among the characteristics that we have long considered to be consistent with creativity and artistic talent? Did Van Gogh not sever off his own ear? Did Kurt Cobain not blow his own fucking head off with a shotgun? It appears that that kind of violence is less easy to mythologize when it’s directed at others and not at the self. It’s harder for us to rationalize, perhaps.

The Renaissance painter Caravaggio – an artist historicized for his violent behavior and anti-establishment criminal activity – was eventually put to death for killing Ranuccio Tommassoni. The Victorian era English painter Richard Dadd was convicted of killing his own father; the artist had become convinced that his old man was Satan incarnate and brutally stabbed him. Philosopher Louis Althusser, a diagnosed schizophrenic, tragically strangled his own wife Hélène Rytmann during a manic episode. William S. Burroughs, drunk and living hard in Mexico, accidentally blew his wife Joan Vollmer’s brains out during a misguided attempt at demonstrating the accuracy of his marksmanship (or not). And Varg Vikernes, one of black metal’s most important pioneers for the records he composed and recorded under the name Burzum, murdered his friend and Mayhem bandmate Euronymous, believing that Euronymous was a “sell out” and uncommitted to the black metal principles that they together had conceptualized. Murder and art, it would seem, are consummate, if unstable, partners. Mental derangement and creativity so often coexist in the same mind, and we know this. But we tend to look away from it, especially when that derangement results in real violence and tragedy. Should we sanitize this troubling reality? Or, should we look at it, and learn from it? Is it possible to close yourself off from the ugliness of our society without closing yourself off entirely? Artists are sometimes killers. This truth is inescapable.

But, do you even know the name “Saul Fletcher?” For those of you that do, and who have looked at or maybe even been seduced by his singularly beautiful, formally experimental photography, are you aware that he’s dead? And that he’s been dead for almost a year? If you happened to come across Fletcher’s images — had the ethereal uncanny qualities that pervaded them imprinted themselves onto your mind via a powerful subjective aesthetic experience — would you be shocked if I told you that the artist who made them was a murderer?

“A murderer?” you ask. “What happened to Saul Fletcher, and why is no one talking about it?”

I’m glad you asked. Brace yourself. This is not a good story.

Saul Fletcher lived in Berlin. He was a successful fine art photographer represented by major galleries, including Alison Jacques in London and Anton Kern in New York. While he was far from the most famous photographer in the art world, he was admired by enthusiasts with certain aesthetic sensibilities – tastes for enhancive alienation, perhaps. Personally, he was one of my favorite photographers. While Fletcher’s work could be considered close to someone like Roger Ballen’s in the way that he combined photographic technology with assemblage, set design, sculpture, and drawing, Fletcher’s images are far more ambiguous than Ballen’s – and because of this, more unsettling. Ballen has zest for spectacle; his work is like a Grand Guignol of subconscious anxiety and terror. Fletcher’s photography, while far less outwardly horrific, wielded a lingering sense of tension and irresolution that buried the images deep within your psyche, where the memories hurt. Fletcher’s work, when immersed in, often gave one the sense of its creator’s deeply troubled mind. On some level, it shouldn’t have been overtly surprising that the creator of these images was driven by obsession, madness, pain and a repressed violence. This was partly the beauty and allure of Fletcher’s work. And yet the mere idea that beauty could be created by not just a sick man, but a dangerously sick man, was one that the average art world denizen could simply not tolerate. This inability to reconcile with darkness merits critique.

Fletcher grew up working class in Lincolnshire and spent early adulthood ferrying coal on cargo ships. His earliest photos – taken as part of an amateur photography club – were shot around the docs where he worked. He moved to London in the 1990s to pursue art, supporting himself working as an assistant in Juergen Teller’s studio. He migrated to Berlin in the early 2000s, where he met and fell in love with the curator Rebeccah Blum. Blum grew up near Philadelphia, but moved to Germany in 1992 and Berlin specifically in 1995, “where she co-founded the non-profit arts organization Base e.V. and the independent publishing platform txt.de [3].”

Fletcher and Blum had been seeing each other on and off for eight years. Friends of Fletcher’s report that he was mostly jovial and warm, but prone to shocking fits of depression in which he could barely leave the confines of his studio. Blum is remembered as a joyous and brilliant woman with a multifaceted career, and a wonderful mother to her daughter Emma Blum, now in her early ‘20s. It is impossible to know the details of the couple’s life together, but reports would lead me to believe that people around them must have known that there was something deeply wrong. Friends and family of the couple were worried.

What we do know is that Fletcher arrived at his own apartment on July 22, 2020. Assumedly, Fletcher went there to confront her. Was he off his meds? Was he in a manic fit of jealous paranoia? Or, was this simply an act of “femicide” committed by a “powerful, white, cisgendered male” (more on that later)? One’s imagination here can run wild, because from what I can tell we never actually learned the cause of Blum’s death. I’ve found no reports that indicate specifically how Fletcher murdered the woman that he loved. All we know is that Fletcher killed Blum, before calling a friend in distress. He then fled the city to the country home that he shared with his victim. Fletcher killed himself before he was arrested. A truly horrific story of domestic violence, mental illness, and, inevitably – a typically grotesque media circus.

The media, admittedly, made some really bad judgement calls in the early reports of the crime. In addition to some factual errors made (like stating that the phone call was made to Fletcher’s daughter, and not another friend), there was far more acknowledgement of Fletcher’s life, his work, and his apparent friendship with Brad Pitt than any mentions of Blum’s life or career. There was a sensationalist tendency to the early reporting of the crime, using Fletcher’s status as an art star murderer to boost traffic and clicks. Given that curators typically receive less attention than the artists, there was an absence of memorializing Blum, the actual victim of the crime. However, is outright erasure preferable to sensationalism? Because that’s what came next.

What followed those early reporting mishaps was even more predictable, and from my perspective, more appalling. Some prominent art world figures lashed out at the coverage, and started making the claim that Fletcher’s crime was so irredeemably evil that he should no longer be mentioned at all. Alison Jacques, Fletcher’s dealer, wrote on Instagram to suggest that all traces of Fletcher be deleted from archives, and an article in The Observer said that this kind of erasure was perfectly warranted given the situation. How is this any different than the family who sweeps their traumas under the rug? When has repressing violence and abuse ever been a healthy way of dealing with it? Because that’s what happened here. They swept Fletcher and his crime under the rug, and the situation has become the uncomfortable silence at the dinner table. The thing on everyone’s mind always left unsaid.

They were also shocked and enraged that the coverage of the crime did not come attached at face with their preferred ideological leanings. What first seemed like a crime and horrible tragedy of complexity and nuance was reduced to a simpler tale of a man’s hatred for women. But how can anyone know this situation was that simple? How can they be so sure that Fletcher was innately misogynistic? Given his subsequent suicide, it’s clear that whatever maliciousness he carried within him was complicated by serious mental illness. Gleeful sadistic murderers don’t typically kill themselves in remorse for their crimes.

This is the problem with interpreting the world through arguably narrow ideological lenses. When you can’t see beyond your own biases, you inevitably whitewash the world around you. You construct a narrative that least threatens your beliefs, and even more so when that narrative doesn’t align with harsh reality. A New York-based conceptual artist used the story to boost her own social media campaign, “The Women Supporting Women Challenge”, that was apparently initially used as a way to “commemorate Turkish women who had been killed by domestic violence.” The writer Jillian McManemin was even less obfuscated in her political statement: “The reporting of this tragedy speaks to all women and marginalized peoples,” she writes. “It communicates that we are not subjects, even in the stories of our violent deaths. It communicates that men will always take up more space [4].”

Later, an Art Newspaper headline demanded that we remember Blum’s name, but no one else’s. And this was the art world’s recommendation: forget Saul Fletcher. And forget him we did. Though you can find his work online, his galleries have vanished mention of him from their pages. He’s no longer shown in museums, sold at galleries, or written about. This is probably correct, at least financially. It would be vulgar to profit off of the work of a murderer. However, there is something new happening here. Something insidious. I already mentioned the countless artists who have committed murder in the past, and all of them are artists whose work we still celebrate. But with Fletcher, I didn’t even know that the photographer was dead or that he had killed anyone until six months after the crime transpired, and I was a fucking fan. What happened to us that we have lost the capacity all together to see the world with the complexity that it warrants?

There is something deeply disturbing about contemporary culture’s ability to delete the life of anyone, let alone an artist of some renown, all together. The aforementioned Vikernes – an artist whose avowed white nationalism and inability to express remorse about the crime he committed make him much more obviously contemptible than the mentally ill Fletcher (at least according to the logic of those that tend to agree with this deletion of “morally impure” artists) – continues recording, releasing and selling his music to a cult audience of adoring fans. He recorded two of those albums while he was still incarcerated. He’s free now, making music, living off the grid, and until recently was occasionally releasing videos on Youtube in which he sermonized on topics like Nietzsche, Odinism, and his often troubling political views (he’s now been banned from the platform). Many of his fans are not comfortable with his politics or his criminal history, and yet they allow themselves to enjoy the overwhelmingly ferocious beauty of his music (there was a time in the early 2010s when wearing Burzum t-shirts was a Brooklyn hipster trend).

So, something has changed. It’s nearly impossible to understand what exactly, but culture has absorbed an intolerant and reactive tendency. We have seen how this plays out in the sphere of politics; recall that Ariel Pink was just kicked off his record label when it was falsely reported that the musician was involved with the storming of the Capitol Building on January 6. In reality, Pink was in Washington D.C. to attend the Trump rally alone and had no involvement with the riots (the implication being that any support for Donald Trump is grounds for losing any and all artistic support). Similarly, if perhaps more ludicrously, the artist Mathieu Malouf was dropped by his gallery Greene Naftali for daring to troll an Instagram call-out account that uses anonymous stories from users to smear people within the art world. There’s an atmosphere of fear and paranoia in the arts that has left even most of its dissidents silent and unwilling to speak out even when they do fall outside the culture industry’s narrow window of ideological acceptability. As a result, cowardice and conformity are the spiritual malaises of the contemporary arts.

Here’s the problem: by having forgotten Fletcher, we’ve also forgotten Blum. This is what happens when you neutralize the world of its complexity. A sterilized world will always be one built atop a mountain of lies. The art world is imbued with the logic of neoliberalism to the extent that its morally compromising narratives are totally memory-holed. Fletcher’s crime and Blum’s death presented it with a problem. How to handle this? When the news first dropped, it defaulted to tabloid spectacle. “Famous Artist Kills Curator Girlfriend.” Ironically, in an earlier stage of its existence, the art world probably would have used the sensational spectacle to profiteer off of Fletcher’s infamy, perhaps even using the crime as a way to fortify the legitimacy of Fletcher’s manic and tortured creative vision. Instead of tempering this tendency with a more measured response to the realities of alienated human beings and troubled lives, the art world opted to pretend none of this ever happened and absolve itself of anything less than infallible goodness. Infallible goodness, moral purity – they are abstractions. They are lies. I reject lies, and I fucking hate liars.

Anyone who is familiar with the photography of 20th Century outsider artist Miroslav Tichý might know that the photographs he shot of women around his home city with a shabbily constructed handmade camera were taken without his subjects’ consent or knowledge. The voyeurism, perversion, and pseudo-criminality of his creative process is the primary allure and even marketability of the work itself (it’s not murder, but it’s certainly not moral either). The rumors about sculptor Carl Andre concerning the mysterious death of his wife Ana Mendieta and his possible role in it (that is, allegedly throwing her out a window) sure haven’t slowed down Andre’s career in any meaningful way (though that’s not to say that his exhibitions aren’t met with some outrage periodically). And as aforementioned, Burroughs’ accidental killing of his wife Joan has in no way diminished the titanic legacy of his artistic and literary contributions, Conversely, the killing of Joan has been fundamentally interwoven into the mythos of Burroughs and his legacy. Hell, there is even a whole cottage industry of art made by serial killers! Is this right? Is this proper? Who cares? Probably not, but who should get to decide?

In Pierre Klossowski's essay on Marquis de Sade, the surrealist philosopher writes about a “moral nihilism” that tends to “suppress awareness of oneself and the other [5].” The efforts to erase Fletcher from art history are consistent with Klossowski’s “moral nihilism”: based on a very limited and contemporary notion of what morality is, we’ve decided to stop engaging with this troubling story all together, and consequently have exonerated ourselves of having to actually think. Should we not try to transcend this moral nihilism and engage with art and ideas that negate how we typically see the world? So, given all of this — coupled with the fact that Fletcher had a known history of mental illness — we have to conclude that culture is becoming more rigid, more repressive, and less capable of dealing with realities that negate inculcated ideological views. This should be troubling to anyone that believes in creative and intellectual freedom.

Something is darker about the art world now. It took but one day for the Fletcher case to be reduced to the all-too-simplistic narrative of “femicide,” which some art world figures then used as a method of promoting their own politics. How can a rich artist killing his rich girlfriend in a crime of passion function as a stand-in for oppression and inequality experienced by ordinary and poor people elsewhere? It doesn’t, of course. And this is the most terrifying aspect of all of this. The art world in late capitalism needs to appear that it's at the forefront of equality and justice while at the same time benefiting from the exact system that creates inequality; the same art institutions that make spectacles of their diversity initiatives, social-justice-themed exhibitions and support of Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and the like are also those that are directly financially entangled with some of the most powerful factions of the bourgeoisie (who benefit from the structures of inequality these movements supposedly rebuke). Everything that happens within the art world is somehow subsumed back into the propaganda narratives that it uses to reproduce this logic. Does anyone really think that the erasure of Fletcher and his work from the art world is going to help some working class woman trapped in a relationship with an abusive husband? Of course not, but it feels satisfying to clean our front yard without ever having to venture beyond the gate and into the unknown. What should have been a moment for reflecting on mental illness and its role in artistic production, or the ever-complicated dynamics of male-female relations, was briefly reduced to a tawdry spectacle. Then, a grievance politicking spectacle. Then, nothing.

Does Fletcher’s story really have nothing more to offer than the tabloid tale of a misogynistic killer who killed his lover solely because he hated her (and all women)? I doubt it. Fletcher hardly seems like he was some kind of a modern day Maldoror or Patrick Bateman type, luxuriating in crime and malignancy. No, he was unwell; a sick and troubled man who committed a shocking crime. The crime sounds much closer to the circumstances of Althusser’s aforementioned strangling of his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann, during a bout of intense schizophrenic psychosis. A healthy culture should be able to soberly analyze the complexity in the Fletcher-Blum case, and understand that surely this is a situation where we can empathize with both the victim and the killer. The culture that forgave Althusser was a healthier one than this sick one that has erased Fletcher. Courage. Commitment. Gentility. These are all values that we’ve lost, but none more so than forgiveness. A society that can’t forgive is a society that can’t move forward. We’re stuck, and Fletcher’s erasure is an embodiment of the spiritual prison we’re locked up in.

But we live through a time of moral black and white, good and evil. The binaural thinking of the art world and the broader culture is brutally indoctrinating: you’re anti-Trump or evil, you’re feminist or evil, you’re anti-racist or evil, you never mention the name Saul Fletcher again or you’re evil. The socioeconomic contradictions that drive this shocking polarization that saturates politics, culture, the media and our day to day lives are so vast and complex that I could fill several more pages simply outlining them. But narrowly, they’re class contradictions. They’re the contradictions of an elite enforcing a restrictive cultural hegemony beneath the veneer of social justice signifiers. Zizek has shown that the old political binary of a right wing support and upholding of the capitalist mode of production versus a left wing light critique of it has collapsed in favor of a political economic singularity that’s given legitimacy by the culture war surrounding that singularity: “There is now one predominant centrist party that stands for global capitalism, usually with a liberal cultural agenda (for example, tolerance towards abortion, gay rights, religious and ethnic minorities),” he says, “Opposing this party is an increasingly strong anti-immigrant populist party which, on its fringes, is accompanied by overtly racist neofascist groups [6].”

Zizek said this 10 years ago, and the culture war has only grown more inescapably depressing in the subsequent decade (no one observed these trends better than Irish academic Angela Nagle in her 2017 book Kill All Normies). When politics is reduced to culture, then culture will inevitably suffer as well. The tendency to erase Fletcher from art history, I believe, is locked into these dynamics. No one believes in freedom, or even thinks that it’s possible. They instead resign themselves to fighting culture wars and convincing themselves that these battles are worthwhile. To “cancel” or erase Fletcher gives one the illusion that they’re doing something that matters. It feels like progress, perhaps, and it appeals to our moral vanity. But Fletcher and Blum are still dead, and the world is still riddled in decay. Nothing has changed. Acknowledging Fletcher’s work, the full extent of who he was, and the complexity of human relations should not be written off as callous. On the contrary, it should be the bare minimum of what’s expected of us as thinking human beings.

Jean Baudrillard said that “The Perfect Crime” was one in which, “Truth would forever have withdrawn from it and its secret would never be revealed. But the fact is that the crime is never perfect, for the world betrays itself by appearances, which are the clues to its non-existence, the traces of the continuity of the nothing. For nothingness itself leaves traces [7].” Saul Fletcher’s crime was “A Perfect Crime.” No, not so perfect in its execution. In the clinical sense, it was a sloppily carried out murder of passion that Fletcher was, as the longtime partner of Blum, likely to be the first and only suspect in. But in everything that has followed the crime itself, the crime has been elevated to a Baudrillardian perfection. In the erasure of Fletcher from art world history and contemporary discourse, we see the traces of reality as shaped by ideology. Tragedies can’t occur in our world unless they fulfill some political narrative. Everything that happens is reshaped and structured to suit the political purposes and agendas of those that might not even have anything to do with the tragedy at face. The point is that it’s all deleted now. It’s gone, and it’s gone because culture in neoliberalism can’t abide unadulterated truth, and ideology as inculcated as those that pervade the art world can’t adjust themselves to narratives that negate them. The erasure is what suited the agendas that it found itself brushing up against. The erasure of Fletcher’s murder of Blum is what makes it “perfect.”

Are we children? Are we not thinking adults perfectly capable of contextualizing the darker aspects of our world? Why should Saul Fletcher be erased solely because he died a murderer? Why is no one asking these questions? If we had erased the career of Althusser after he strangled his wife, we would have no way to identify an Ideological State Apparatus (or, ironically, that the art world is itself one of those apparatuses). If Burroughs had been driven out of literature after shooting Joan, we would have lost so much work that broadens our understanding of the control society. When you sanitize the world of its ugliness, you often inadvertently erase important ideas and truths. Saul Fletcher was a troubled man, and a brilliant artist. Both things are true at the same time. Rebeccah Blum didn’t deserve to die, and she shouldn’t be forgotten. But Fletcher’s crime isn't necessarily evidence of his evil or misogyny, because we simply don't know what was in his heart. It’s impossible to know, but people made that assumption anyways. The tendency to treat innate mysteries as irrefutable facts is evidence of a kind of conservatism rising to the fore in our culture.

What the story should show us is that sometimes people do horrible things to the people that they love. It shows us that the world is full of despair, horror and tragedy. That mental illness is real. Instead, it’s simply deleted. A life of work deleted, a crime erased. The erasure of Saul Fletcher is not evidence of an “oh-so-morally superior” art world that should be lauded for its distinguishing right from wrong. It’s indicative of a decadent and arrogant culture industry that morally launders itself to square itself with the political ideologies that it endorses and sells to various ends. Bataille said that human nature is guilty to the degree that it “opposes nature [8].” Crime, passion, and–yes, even murder, are intrinsic to human nature. From this position then, one can conclude that in the Fletcher-Blum case, the art world is guilty. We’re all guilty. “The only way to reach innocence is to be firmly rooted in crime,” wrote Bataille. And to reclaim that innocence, we have to acknowledge that crime exists. That tragedies occur. And that we are not perfect. To reclaim innocence, we must revel in our most malignant tendencies, understand them, and write them into history.

[1] Gary Indiana, Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story (Semiotext(e) Native Agents Series, 1999)

[2] Emil Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born (Arcade, 2013)

[3] Tom Seymour, “‘remember her name and nobody else’s’: shock at suspected murder of curator Rebecca Blum,” The Art Newspaper, July 31 2020

[4] Jillian McManemin and Matthew Post, “Remembering Rebeccah Blum,” Art Agenda Reports, July 30, 2020

[5] Pierre Klossowski, “A Destructive Philosophy,” Sade: Sex and Death (The Divine Marquis and the Surrealists) (Solar Books, 2010)

[6] Slavoj Zizek, “Liberal multiculturalism masks an old barbarism with a human face,” The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/oct/03/immigration-policy-roma-rightwing-europe, Oct 3, 2010

[7] Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime (Verso, 2002)

[8] Georges Bataille, Guilty (SUNY Press, 2002)

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. Photo by Saul Fletcher

2. Photo by Saul Fletcher

3. Photo by Saul Fletcher

4. Photo by Roger Ballen

5. Photo by Saul Fletcher

6. Photo by Saul Fletcher

7. Burzum Filosofem

8. Photo by Miroslav Tichý

9. Photo by Saul Fletcher

10. Photo by Saul Fletcher