The painting hangs on a wall between a soda machine and a trio of pay phones. Guards hurry past to the water fountain or the bathroom. Down the hall, behind locked doors, thieves and drug dealers clamor in their cells.
This is no art gallery. It's a place for hard time. But there it is, a forgotten footnote in the art world.
Capt. Anthony Bianchi, a Rikers Island jailer for 18 years, stared at the painting recently, pointing out features sketched in a tangle of dark lines: a man on a cross, his arms stretched out, his right eye glaring. And there, at the bottom, the signature: Dali.
"I would never have believed it would have been in a prison. I would think it would be in a museum," said Bianchi, bearded and barrel-chested. "Now that it's here, it's our treasure."
How does an original work by Salvador Dali--the surrealist master whose paintings have sold for millions--come to be at a rough and crowded jail on an island in New York City's East River?
The story begins in February 1965, when Dali scheduled a visit to Rikers while living at the St. Regis Hotel just off Fifth Avenue.
The boat trip to the jail was to be signature Dali, another spectacle for an artist already renowned for his mix of surrealism and self-promotion. Inmate artists would get to visit with the mustachioed Spaniard, who spent a few weeks behind bars himself as a rebellious art student in the 1920s. Accompanying him would be an array of reporters, his pet ocelot and his wife, Gala.
But the visit never happened. Dali awoke feeling feverish on the morning of Feb. 26. Outside, the temperature was dropping from the 50s to a bitter 25, the wind blowing hard down the city streets.
"The maestro is very sick," Gala said on the phone to Dali's associate, Nico Yperifanos, who had organized the trip to benefit the jail's inmate arts program.
But Dali didn't want to disappoint. Still in his bedclothes when Yperifanos rushed over to his 10th-floor suite, he ordered a message delivered: "Go down and tell them Dali is sick. But in one hour, an hour and a half, there will be a wonderful gift for the prisoners of Rikers Island."
Yperifanos, now 84 and still sharp in his dress, his conversation and his memories, recalls Dali's whispered instructions as they walked to the artist's third-floor studio: No talking.
Still in slippers, the master took up his brush. An hour and 15 minutes later, it was finished, and Yperifanos went alone to the jail and the waiting inmates, gift in hand.
"He'd like to give a message to the prisoners that you are artists. Don't think your life is finished for you. With art, you have to always feel free," Yperifanos recalls telling the prisoners.
Dali's most celebrated paintings are complex and unsettling, with the intense, irrational reality of a dream. Think of the rich colors, melting watches and stunted tree in "The Persistence of Memory."
By contrast, his untitled piece for Rikers, a version of the Crucifixion, is simple, quick, harsh.
The watercolor-and-charcoal work, on a 4-by-5-foot sheet of paper, is now yellowing with age. It is a bird's nest of dark lines, indecipherable at first glance. Then the cross comes clear, strong and clean and square. Then a man's bloodshot eye, glaring through a tangle of hair, possibly thorns. Then blood or maybe just a stain dripping down the long, ravaged body.
The painting was hung in the cafeteria of the Correctional Institution for Men, the main prison on Rikers, and promptly forgotten. No newspaper articles that week recorded the nonevent. No memos from the time remain in Corrections Department files. There is no longer an arts program.
As years passed, tales of the painting's origin came under increasing suspicion. When Alexander Jenkins became warden in 1981, he was skeptical but intrigued.
"There weren't any records on the painting, and for all I know it could have been an inmate's copy of a Dali," Jenkins told reporters at the time.
An appraiser confirmed that it was the real thing, worth up to $100,000. Other appraisals later ranged from $15,000 to $175,000.
The painting was taken down, and jail officials considered cleaning it or selling it. There was talk of making prints to raise funds for the jail. The painting toured the country in an art show.
For years, it was locked away in an office. A 3-inch-thick file details bureaucratic efforts to decide a course of action and tracks the painting's slow disintegration. "There's an acidic odor when I opened the crate," reads one 1986 memo.
The piece was rehung in the late 1980s, back on Rikers, alongside a plaque authenticating it.
Dali died in 1989. Always a contrarian, it's hard to know what the surrealist might have thought of the strange ambience where his painting now hangs, just off the jail's entryway. The flat light there is broken by chain link that lines the thick windows. One recent morning, a guard stood by a pay phone, calling home, "Hey, honey." A can of Pepsi fell with a thunk from the soda machine.
"I know it's worth a lot of money," said Officer Victor Guzman, stopping to answer a reporter's question. He looked again at a wall he passes uncounted times each day. "I know it's by Salvador Dali."
At the bottom of the painting is a message from the artist, for whom proper English or spelling was never a priority: "For the inmates dinning room on Rikers Island. Dali."
But only officers and visitors pass through this hallway. Prisoners are locked behind doors a hundred feet away from Dali's gift. They never see it.