Artist Geoffrey Raymond did not have much luck soliciting signatures on his portrait of ousted AIG Chairman Hank Greenberg when he displayed it outside the firm’s Wall Street headquarters last week.
When Mr. Raymond first unfurled “The Annotated Spitzer” outside of the New York Stock Exchange 15 minutes after the governor resigned on March 12, over 100 passersby reveled in the schadenfreude, scrawling messages like “Spitzer or Swallow” around the head of Wall Street’s disgraced nemesis. Mr. Raymond went on to collect 350 comments on the Spitzer portrait, less than a dozen of which were encouraging, setting the still-unsurpassed record in his nine-piece “Annotated” series.
The day after News Corp. bought The Wall Street Journal last July, he displayed “The Annotated Murdoch” outside The Journal‘s Lower Manhattan headquarters, and 150 people, including the newspaper’s employees, wrote comments like “News is Sacred”–Mr. Raymond’s personal “all-time favorite.”
There are few rules. The 55-year-old former PR executive-cum-painter simply asks passersby if they would like a sharpie–in this case, AIG staff wrote in blue and everyone else got black–and directs them to “stay off the face.”
Typically, he manages to collect between 75 to 100 signatures during an average sunny lunch break on images of even the most uncontroversial of public figures.
BUT THINGS ARE ANYTHING but typical on Wall Street these days. After three hours standing outside 70 Pine Street last Monday, less than a week after the government announced plans for an $85 billion bailout of AIG, Mr. Raymond rolled up the portrait of Mr. Greenberg with only 25 signatures. “Really a pretty pathetic showing from AIG people,” he later wrote on his blog, The Year of Magical Painting. “Big Hank sets the all-time record for least annotations Day 1,” the entry read.
Undaunted, Mr. Raymond returned to Pine Street last Tuesday, and, by 1 p.m., a halo of compliments from AIG employees and pleasantries from the general public framed Mr. Greenberg’s head. “The company went into the shitter after you left,” one staffer wrote. “Please, please come back,” entreated another. “Good Luck,” scribbled street-cleaner Michael Love.
“Wanna sign,” Mr. Raymond shouted to one passerby.
“No, thanks,” he called over his shoulder. “I still have a job. Maybe in a week, though.”
“Can’t do it,” said another. “I’ll lose my job.”
The initial skittish public reception to “The Annotated Greenberg” was partly due to the portrait’s position, “acutely, right, smack in front” of the AIG entrance on a narrow street, Mr. Raymond said, but also mainly because Wall Street is still reeling from recent events.
“There is a level of corporate paranoia that I don’t usually see,” Mr. Raymond said. “Also, at Lehman and Bear, the people signing had already lost their jobs, so there is less of a risk. AIG just got bailed out, so people are probably focused on [not getting laid-off].”
It could also have been the retinue of reporters trailing him, including myself; a photographer and a reporter from Fortune magazine; and a two-man French TV crew.
One AIG employee started to write on the canvas with a blue sharpie, but got spooked as the cameraman got closer, and closed the marker.
Though dozens of suited workers and tourists snapped photos of the portrait on their BlackBerries or chuckled as they passed, many seemed not amused. One woman rolled her eyes and shot Mr. Raymond a scalding glare of rebuke, before walking inside the building.
Even those who have not been swept aside by the financial crisis said that “The Annotated Greenberg” has assumed a very different meaning when reflected under the light of the financial crisis.
“Normally, I would brush it off as funny,” said Deutsche Bank employee Stanley, who has worked on Wall Street for over a decade. “After the past two weeks, I think it’s serious. Now a lot of people are looking for answers. There is an environment of fear everywhere. It’s the constant daily topic of conversation in the elevators and on the street.”
The comments on Mr. Greenberg’s portrait reflect the shifting mood.
“Please keep sending that pension check,” read one blue comment.
“I think you painted the wrong guy,” wrote another employee.
“Thanks for the cheap stock,” a third wrote.
In contrast to the annotations on other paintings in the series, the ones Mr. Raymond collected outside of AIG over the course of two days were overwhelmingly supportive, as if people were banding together behind the skeleton of the financial sector as we know it, and the CEOs who built it, such as Mr. Greenberg.
ALSO ABSENT WAS THE hostility Mr. Raymond has occasionally encountered when feasting off the spoils of Wall Street.
On Sept. 15, he said he almost got beaten up outside of Lehman Brothers by a “drunk, angry” employee wearing one of the firm’s corporate softball league jerseys.
“He was yelling at me, and getting in my face about kicking someone when they’re down,” he recalled with a chuckle. “We diffused it and there were a million police officers, so I wasn’t too concerned.”
At least one Lehman Brothers employee had enough of a sense of humor to buy “The Annotated Fuld,” named after Lehman Chairman Richard Fuld, from Mr. Raymond off the street for $10,000.
The AIG employees we spoke with believe that if Mr. Greenberg was still around none of this would have happened. “Back when Greenberg was here it was a stable company,” said one five-year AIG employee who did not want his name to appear in the article. “Back then some people were not sure how much it was an insurance business, but all I can say is that it was a stable business.”
Another passerby agreed. “If he were here, he would have been ahead of the curve.”
Mr. Raymond reported that things picked up when he moved “The Annotated Greenberg” over to Goldman Sachs on Wednesday. He amassed 160 annotations.
On Wednesday he cheerfully read the standout comment of the afternoon over the phone: “Snarling rat bastard die! You suck. Love, Kim.”