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Since news broke that Jasper Johns's assistant, James Meyer, was arrested for stealing 22 paintings, those familiar with the situation have been speculating on his motivation. The money — over $3 million — was probably a key factor, but Peter Applebome and Graham Bowley at The New York Times speculate otherwise, suggesting Meyer's pride pushed him over the edge.

“Everyone is shocked, because they know him to be someone of integrity,” said one friend, who did not want to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the situation. He added: “It’s got to be a complicated psychological thing, working with an artist for so long. Who knows, maybe Jim felt entitled.”

Meyer worked for Johns for 27 years performing various clerical tasks and, sometimes, helping to draw lines on Johns's creations. In return, he received the tutelage of a master. Meyer spoke several times of what Johns taught him, including how to paint with hot wax, how to construct works and how "to think about what I'm making before I make it," according to Patricia Cohen at The Times. William Morrison, a gallery owner in Kent, Conn., told The Times, "if it’s true, I’m shocked about it and disgusted. It’s crazy. Isn’t being Jasper Johns’s assistant enough?"

Apparently not. Whereas, for example, Johns' "Flag" painting sold for more than $28 million, Meyers works earned somewhere between $788 and $3,000. That kind of difference could easily breed contempt. But it also highlights the role of artists' assistants, who have been necessary to painters since at least the Renaissance.

An anonymous source and former artist's assistant noted that those in Meyer's position "risk losing their own artistic identities and identifying to a dangerous degree with someone else’s success." He told The Times:

“I’m sure that many, many years ago, there were a few guys running around the Sistine Chapel trying to pick up girls or impress a potential patron by saying things like: This thing would be a mess if it weren’t for me. You see the way those hands are almost touching? Mike wanted them further apart.”

But to the local community, at least, Meyer didn't quite exhibit that kind of bravado. Some people told The Times he was "too quick to traffic on his association with Mr. Johns," but he was also a contributing community member who created an after school art program for high schoolers. For his part, Meyer plead not guilty to the charges against him. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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