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November 17 2011

Nat Tate and the art of satire

It takes a little subtlety and a lot of bare-faced cheek to lampoon the art world properly – just ask the novelist William Boyd

Satirising modern art is more difficult that it looks. I recently got conned into appearing on BBC Somerset radio to comment on the Turnip prize, a parody of the Turner prize staged every year at a west country pub. The Turnip prize assumes such contempt for its subject that it doesn't really satirise anything except, perhaps, cliched pub talk about modern art. But one satire has stood the test of time.

The successful sale at auction recently of a work by Nat Tate, a great American artist who died young and was rediscovered in the 1990s, was a reminder of one of the best and most deadpan mockeries of the art world. Tate (each of his names bears a resemblance to a major London gallery) was invented by the novelist William Boyd, in a book published by David Bowie. Tate was completely made up. The hoax took in several art-world types who claimed to have met him. Because Boyd is a novelist, the joke was a bit richer than the lumpen efforts of the Turnip prize.

In fact, it succeeded because you can't quite see where deadpan pastiche ends and vicious satire begins. Boyd is quoted in Maev Kennedy's story about the auction in today's Guardian as saying he didn't think the Young British Artist making so much noise when the book came out were very good. Could he write a follow-up today? Some of them are making even more noise now. When Tracey Emin meets the Queen it's a national event. The Cultural Olympiad next year will star Shakespeare, Dickens and Damien Hirst. Meanwhile, Martin Creed's project to ring all the country's bells has run into opposition from campanologists.

Ridiculous or sublime? The artfulness of Nat Tate was to keep clear of crass condemnation and, instead, beat modern art at its own game. Invented identities have been part of artistic life since Marcel Duchamp became Rrose Sélavy. The artist Karen Eliot is a fiction invented by artists themselves.

Michel Houellebecq's novel The Map and the Territory is another art-world satire that works through deadpan irony rather than clumsy aggression. The art scene is nothing if not sophisticated. As a satirist, if you want to take it on and win you need to make like Boyd and Houellebecq and armour yourself with irony. Throwing turnips won't do it.


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October 16 2011

If you want to distinguish art's hoaxes from its frauds, ask a metadadaist | Tim Williams

The motives guiding the likes of Nat Tate and Rrose Sélavy diverge fundamentally from those of the sinister Pietro Psaier

For some time I've been contemplating the difference between hoax and fraud, and I've yet to establish solid parameters for which to define either, which is problematic. I remember as a 15-year-old watching the first broadcast of Peter Jackson's Forgotten Silver on New Zealand television and being completely taken in (having few critical faculties at such a tender age) – as was a large percentage of the country's population, one viewer even writing to the New Zealand Listener claiming to have discovered a historical link to the mocumentary's protagonist, the fictional film pioneer Colin McKenzie. Of course there have been many similar hoaxes, the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast springs to mind, and recently William Boyd discussed his invented artist Nat Tate. We might deem these "celebrated hoaxes", as sometimes it's entertaining for the perpetrator, the victim and the observer, but not always.

I suppose one could claim a distinction between hoax and fraud as the subversion of systems and institutions v deceit for financial (even emotional) gain — though I'm not even certain the two can be separated so distinctly. The agenda and vehicle of a hoax often take the form of parody and satire.

In January 2006 a friend and I exchanged a number of amusing emails that resulted in the invention of a new art movement we called metadadaism. Intended as affectionate satire on contemporary art, at the core of metadadaism was a fictional exhibition titled Nothing — an empty art gallery.

We added metadadaism to Wikipedia, where it remained for a number of years unchallenged, additionally picked up by various other encyclopaedic websites. To our amusement, later that year an exhibition titled Gallery Space Recall – an empty gallery – took place at the Chapel Arts Centre in Wales. Although I may fantasise about it being the first metadadaist exhibition, any concrete link is surely spurious: an empty gallery was obvious evolution for the art world.

Of course William Boyd was not the first to invent an artist complete with biography and art works – there are hundreds of examples, the motives of which could perhaps be deemed as pseudonym, alter ego, propaganda, satire, homage, fraud and others. Many artists were and are tied to exclusivity agreements with art galleries and sign works with a pseudonym in order to earn extra revenue on the side; others have used pseudonyms to create distinction between their primary "creative" artworks and those that pandered to say a "tourist" market.

Marcel Duchamp used alter ego in the guises of R. Mutt and Rrose Sélavy for purposes of subversion, humour and critique. I'm unsure what the motives were for the Spanish/Mexican writer Max Aub who invented Jusep Torres Campalans, perhaps a number of the above, but the fictitious artist is in most cases allied to a celebrated master (Campalans was associated with Picasso) as well as historic events (Colin McKenzie at Gallipoli and the Spanish civil war); by these associations the fictitious artist is seeded in reality and gains kudos.

One invented artist I'm certain falls into the category of fraud is Pietro Psaier. Apparently Psaier lived some kind of global traveller's existence; according to various biographies he originated in Italy, later living in Spain, the US and lastly Sri Lanka, where he "died" in the tsunami. Psaier conveniently collaborated with famed artists such as Andy Warhol, Mel Ramos, Rupert Jasen Smith, John Lennon, hobnobbed with celebrities, and must have spent a fortune lugging around the thousands of artworks he never exhibited, as well as all the essential printing equipment.

Psaier artworks started appearing on the market in the late 1990s and have been sold at every major UK auction house, most provincial auction rooms, and others across the globe. Not just a few either: by my estimation approximately 5,000 Psaier works have been sold in the past 10 or so years, ranging in price from £50 to £14,000 – easily well over a million pounds' worth.

You could view Psaier as altar ego, in the same way as Aub's Campalans or Boyd's Tate, but the absence of an "in joke", or indeed any joke or agenda apart from intent to defraud monies by deception, is for me a vital distinction. As with Forgotten Silver and Tate, people have claimed to have known Psaier, including Uri Geller (who later backtracked) as well as the Madrid-based psychiatrist Carlos Langelaan Alvarez.

At least six Psaier works were marketed as collaborations with Mel Ramos – these works were copies of Ramos works and signed with both artists' signatures. Ramos himself told me they were (and I quote) "knock-offs" and that he'd never heard of Psaier. As yet there have been no investigations and the work still appears regularly in auction houses. (Don't even get me started on the ethics of some auctioneers.)

The naivety of the art world is oft exposed and curiously celebrated, with hoaxers and fraudsters gaining the celebrated status of the anti-hero, perceptively beating the establishment at its own game. I can take pleasure from a good hoax, but more sinister applications leave you contemptuous, resentful and out of pocket. I'm not exactly sure where the line is, but there must be one, surely? As for the people who claim to know these fictitious characters: well, some people apparently talk to aliens, others to God.


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October 14 2011

Nat Tate: my part in his art

William Boyd explains the origins of his fictional artist, Nat Tate, and why one of 'his' paintings is going on sale

"All history is the history of unintended consequences," so the old saying goes, and the validity of the assumption is particularly well exemplified in the case of the fictional artist, Nat Tate (1928-60). I deliberately didn't use the possessive pronoun there – it was no Freudian slip – not "my" fictional artist but "the" fictional artist. Yet, Nat Tate is my invention – Nat is my creature; however, a long time ago, he seemed to slip free of my imagination and take on a life of his own.

It all started in 1998. I was on the editorial board of Modern Painters magazine, then a very classy and influential art quarterly, and one day in a meeting the editor of the magazine, Karen Wright, wondered out loud if there was a way we could introduce some fiction into the mix of artists' profiles, exhibition reviews and general essays in which the magazine specialised. I don't know what made me speak out but I said, without really thinking: "Why don't I invent an artist?" And so Nat Tate was born.

Much play has been made over the years that I deliberately appropriated the names of the two pre-eminent London public galleries – the National and the Tate – for this artist's name. But, if I did so – and perhaps I did – it was done completely unconsciously. When I write fiction the names of the characters I create are extremely important to me – if the name sounds right then I feel that the character already begins to live and breathe on the page. "Nat Tate" seemed to me both punchily memorable and American – this fictional artist was to be American, I had decided, not British – and, it's worth remembering that at this embryonic stage of his existence there wasn't the remotest idea of developing a hoax – I was thinking only of a long short story, perhaps. A long short story with illustrations.

In 1987 I had published a novel called The New Confessions that took the form of a fictional autobiography, notionally "written" by its subject, a maverick film director called John James Todd, and that covered the first 75 years or so of the 20th century. One of my main ideas was to write a fiction that blurred into the world of fact – the world of documentary, reportage, history – to such an extent that the reader would be confused: was this made up, or was it real? Should I have heard of John James Todd and seen some of the films he had directed? In one of the reviews of the book the reviewer confessed to being thus hoodwinked – and claimed he had riffled through the pages of the novel "looking for the photographs". At the time, I already had a follow-up novel planned that would take this fiction/fact experiment a step further (and that turned out to be Any Human Heart) and I thought – yes, photographs, I'd missed a trick there. And so I began to collect photos from junk shops and car boot sales – photos of anonymous people taken by anonymous photographers that had been discarded and were therefore free for use. The minute I had my idea for Nat Tate I was already thinking of what photos I could use in the depiction of his short and unhappy life.

So I duly wrote Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960 – copiously illustrated with found anonymous pictures of Nat and his foster parents, his friends, his lovers, his colleagues, his dealers and his patrons. And there were also some reproductions of his art – a couple of drawings. The drawings were done by me.

I put together the details of Nat Tate's life fairly swiftly. Born in New Jersey in 1928, he had been orphaned as a young boy and adopted by a rich couple who lived in Long Island. Showing some aptitude for art, he went to art school and then – funded by his doting father – set himself up as an artist in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. New York was becoming the centre of all that was fashionable in modern painting and Nat began to enjoy some acclaim in the 1950s as a young painter, and was linked with the artists who formed part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. But as the decade ended Nat Tate was in a bad way. He was drinking too much and he had been profoundly shaken by two encounters with unequivocal artistic genius – namely Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Nat had met them both in France – the one trip he took abroad in his life.

Disturbed and made insecure by the meeting with these two contemporary giants of the art world, Nat had looked again at his own art and whatever talent it displayed and had found it seriously wanting. Depressed by this self-knowledge, he gathered together everything he could find of his paintings and drawings – some 99% of his output – and burned them in a fervid auto da fé over one weekend. He then committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island ferry as it crossed the Hudson River from New York towards New Jersey. It was 12 January 1960. His body was never found.

Another member of the Modern Painters editorial board was David Bowie (we had joined the board at the same time). Bowie, with some collaborators, had set up a small publishing company called 21 Publishing and he suggested we publish the story I had written about Nat Tate as a small, beautifully produced, coffee-table art-monograph. I agreed, unhesitatingly.

With hindsight, I now see that this was the beginning of my loss of control – the autonomy was passing from author to character. The book was printed – it looked perfect, beautifully authentic. Bowie suggested two launch parties – one in Manhattan, one in London. We would present Nat Tate straight – no tongue in cheek, no nod and wink – and see what happened. Bowie wrote the blurb. Gore Vidal – who was in on the conceit – provided a cover quote. The first launch party was scheduled for Manhattan on April Fools' Day, 1998. A week later, London would follow.

This is where the Nat Tate "hoax" was born. A British journalist from the Independent newspaper (who was one of the conspirators) toured the crowded party in Manhattan – it took place in Jeff Koons's studio and was full of the glitterati of the art world – asking leading questions. The guests responded, guilelessly and not so guilelessly, assuming Nat Tate was a genuine forgotten painter, just rediscovered. Poor Nat. What a tragedy. A truly interesting artist. The work was fascinating. A real loss.

It was all about to be repeated in London – and many people in London by then believed that Nat was genuine. However, a few days after the New York launch, the Independent ran their story on the front page. "British novelist hoaxes Manhattan art world." I was in France on a book tour. What? A hoax? It was never meant to be a hoax! But it was out of my hands. Nat was stirring, my benign Frankenstein's monster had risen to his feet and had shaken off his authorial chains. Like it or not, I was now a hoaxer and I had hoaxed everyone. It became a 24-hour news event. The New York Times ran the story on the front of their arts pages; Jeremy Paxman interviewed me for Newsnight. I gave further interviews to magazines and radio stations throughout Europe, the United States, South Africa and Australia.

I kept waiting for it to die down but it never did. Over the next 10 years we made three television documentaries about Nat Tate and the hoax. Nat Tate joined the abominable snowman, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster and the alien autopsies as among the most famous hoaxes of the 20th century. Every time there was a hoax I was approached to comment. PhD students wrote to me asking for permission to quote Nat in their theses. When Banksy was outed I was asked to describe what it was like to be similarly exposed. I had letters from deluded souls actually claiming to be Nat Tate and offers from artists suggesting we create more Nat artworks.

Last year it all reached a kind of climax. My novel Any Human Heart was dramatised by Channel 4, and Nat – who appears briefly in the book – was played in the film by the actor Theo Cross. Bloomsbury, my British publishers, and Berlin Verlag, my German publishers, reissued the book in handsome new editions. In November 2010 I found myself on stage in a notable Berlin art gallery – Sprüth Magers – in front of an audience of hundreds talking about Nat Tate, his face a hundred times life-size projected on the wall behind the podium, with the editor of the German art magazine Monopol. I was filmed and interviewed about Nat. His picture was everywhere – and often juxtaposed with a photo of me – this picture that I had found in a junk shop of an anonymous man and presented to the world as the only surviving photographic image of the artist. It was all getting out of hand, I felt. The unintended consequences of the history of Nat Tate were out of my control. Some sort of decent termination had to be found.

And so I came up with an idea. Perhaps the circle could be closed if a Nat Tate drawing came on the open market. If this fictional artist could sell an artwork for real money then the Nat Tate story would have reached some kind of apotheosis and consummation. So I "found" another Nat Tate drawing – one from his famous bridge sequence, a series of drawings inspired by Hart Crane's poem "The Bridge"Bridge No 114 (the sequence runs to more than 200 drawings). I had it elegantly framed and took it into Sotheby's and showed it to Philip Hook, senior director of the Impressionist and Modern Art department. Sotheby's had form when it came to selling art by fictional artists, having successfully auctioned a Bruno Hat painting some years previously. Hat was a spoof artist that a group of bright young things had invented in 1929 and staged an exhibition of his work in a London town-house. (Evelyn Waugh wrote the catalogue essay, Brian Howard and John Banting did the paintings.) Hook consulted with colleagues and in due course I was told the sale was on – Nat Tate's Bridge No 114 will be sold at auction at Sotheby's on 16 November. It was a strange moment – both exciting and oddly melancholy. Will this be an end to Nat Tate's curious "life"? Is his 13-year existence about to achieve a definitive full-stop? I find myself wondering if Nat's ghost will be laid to rest and some sort of quietus will ensue – for fictional character and author alike.

A key factor in the whole enterprise is that all proceeds from the sale are going to charity – to the Artists' General Benevolent Institution, which provides financial aid "for artists who are in difficulties". I'm convinced that Nat would approve.

The Modern & Post-War British Art sale is at Sotheby's, London W1, on 16 November 2011.


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