It's this talent that has earned Margaret Keane and her waifs cult status. By AMY M. SPINDLER
t's Keane! It's pure Keane," Diane Keaton squeals when presented with a big-eyed painting in Woody Allen's 1973 futuristic comedy, "Sleeper." "No, no! It's greater than Keane -- it's Cugat!"
If it was Allen's suggestion that, by the year 2173, Keane paintings would be appreciated by the cultural elite, along with Rod McKuen's poetry and Xavier Cugat's music, well, he was only about 174 years off.
Margaret Keane's work is now being collected by the likes of Tim Burton, the director, and Matthew Sweet, the rocker. It is being stockpiled by the hip designers at Roxy/Quiksilver surf wear and regularly referenced in the teen magazines otherwise devoted to "Dawson's Creek." The iconic eyes have been appropriated by cutting-edge photographers like David LaChapelle, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. But if the photographers, in making their computer-generated saucer eyes, are paying homage to a touchstone of their childhoods, Keane has always seen those eyes as expressions of exactly how she was feeling at the time she was painting them. "A lot of people don't like the sad ones," she says. "They walk in and say, 'Oh! I can't stand those eyes,' and run out. That happens lots of times. But other people just love them. There's no in between."
Keane, 71, became one of the most popular artists of the 1960's, along with her second husband, Walter Keane. The painterly pair were featured in Life magazine and did portraits of the luminaries of the day: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Kim Novak, Adlai Stevenson, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Jerry Lewis and, of course, Liberace. Renderings of a young John Jr. and Caroline Kennedy were sent to the White House. (Talk about a collectible!) But there was only one problem: Walter couldn't paint. What began as nocturnal bragging at San Francisco's bohemian nightspot the Hungry i -- Nobody could paint eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane," he once boasted -- became a full-scale lie that Margaret, soft-spoken and shy, was forced to live. "I'd have to lock the door of the paint room," she says. "He wouldn't allow anyone in. I was like a prisoner."
And domineering Walter was out doing his own brand of promotion. "He got in a fight with the owner of the Hungry i over some woman," Margaret recalls, "which made the front page and made the paintings known. Then there was a trial." Posters for their gallery, amid the frenzy, became collectibles. "People were coming in begging for the posters, stealing them off the walls!"
But her paintings kept getting sadder and sadder. "Gradually it dawned on me that I was painting my own inner emotions. Those children were asking: 'Why are we here? What is life all about? Why is there sadness and injustice?' All those deep questions. Those children were sad because they didn't have the answers. They were searching."
It wasn't until five years after she left Walter, happy in a new marriage, that she set the record straight. First, a paint-out was staged at high noon in San Francisco's Union Square. ("It was very dramatic because I didn't know if I was going to be shot in the middle of it or what.") Then, in 1986, she sued Walter and USA Today for an article claiming he did the work. To prove it, she whipped up a painting in front of the jury. "They gave me an hour," she says. "It was the fastest I ever painted in my life." (Walter skipped the paint-out and pleaded a shoulder injury at the trial.)
Now, though she still draws a signature tear or two on the canvas, her paintings have a happier patina. The work on these pages, inspired by the spring fashion collections, is woven with her symbolism and beliefs. "A lot of art today doesn't convey much hope, and I hope mine does," she says. "I try to paint what I think the future holds and my innermost feelings about God's promise for the future."
Her paintings may be a perennial punch line for the Woody Allens of the world, but they sell at auction and at the Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco for as high as six figures. As Andy Warhol said to Life in 1965: "I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it."
MARGARET KEANE'S FAVORITE PEEPERS
• "My daughter Jane Ulbrich's -- she was my first model."
• "Natalie Wood had real Keane eyes."
• "Zsa Zsa has beautiful eyes."
• "With Liberace it wasn't his eyes, it was his teeth."