A Life in Art – and Fiction

by David Lister / The Independent

7th April 1998

David Lister went to the New York launch of a book about a little-known painter. But all was not as it seemed…

It was a mini heatwave in New York. But on the corner of Broadway and East Houston Street, the cream of the city’s art world was looking decidedly cool and chic as they darted smiles at the photographers and made their way into one of the most exclusive and glitziest launches of the year.

Rock star turned publisher David Bowie was presiding. His wife, the supermodel Iman, was at his side. The venue was the cavernous studio of pop artist Jeff Koons, complete with his large, kitsch sculptures of kittens. Among the guests were fellow artists Frank Stella and Julian Schnabel, Bill Bruford, deputy editor of the New Yorker, hip New York novelist Jay McInerney, fellow writers Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, collectors, dealers, art groupies, press and TV.

The buzz in Koons’s studio last Tuesday evening was almost deafening, as New York society swapped gossip and enjoyed the whisky provided by the evening’s sponsors.

But everyone went respectfully quiet as Bowie read an extract from his publishing company’s latest venture, a biography by the best-selling British author William Boyd of the doomed New York artist Nat Tate. It was a sad story and, as Bowie read from the page where Boyd poignantly detailed Tate’s tragic suicide, the fixed smiles at the party turned fittingly into reflective frowns. Tate drowned himself at the age of 31. His body was never found and almost none of his work survives.

My shirt was as wringing wet as everyone else’s. It was too hot for whisky and I shared the thirsty annoyance of David Bowie, who only drinks water and had dispatched an assistant to buy some. Perhaps it was the mixture of the heat and the sight of Koons’s incomprehensibly expensive sculptures that made me irritated enough to be a true Englishman in New York and show my ignorance.

I had never heard (I was admitting at least to myself) of Nat Tate. “Is he very well-known?”, I asked a folly of art critics next to me (bearing in mind what was to become apparent, folly seems a reasonable collective noun). They nodded their heads sagely and murmured: “Not terribly well known… not hugely… didn’t have much of a reputation outside New York… the abstract expressionists, you know, there were a lot of hangers on…”

It was all very odd. Bowie had that afternoon been on an hour-long TV special to publicise his latest publishing ventures. A separate launch was planed for the UK at a London restaurant on 8 April. The Sunday Telegraph was running a full-page extract at the weekend. The Observer was writing a report of the New York launch party. Yet no one seemed to have more than a passing acquaintance with the brief, tragic history of Nat Tate, the abstract expressionist, lover of museum founder Peggy Guggenheim, friend of Braque and Picasso and a depressive genius who at the age of 31 leapt to his untimely death from the Staten Island Ferry.

Perhaps because I had stuck to water I was beginning to have my doubts about the life and death of Nat Tate. Nobody else appeared to smell a rat, perhaps because of William Boyd’s evocative account of the story. I went the next day to ask about Tate at Alice Singer’s 57th St gallery, where Boyd first saw a drawing by Tate. 57th Street was there all right. But Alice Singer’s gallery was not. Nor were the other galleries mentioned in the book.

Boyd had pulled off one of the great literary ruses. His account of Nat Tate was a work of fiction, a fiction that had fooled the New York art world, struggling in a city which clearly contains not just more artists than they can keep up with, but clearly more art galleries too.

Jeff Koons, who hosted the launch, was unaware of the truth. His fellow New York artists present also failed to blink at the sad story of Nat Tate.

Those associated with publishing the book panicked at first when I said The Independent would be revealing the secret. It was not meant to leak out until well after the London launch tomorrow, and then only very gradually.

At least one of the paintings in the book ascribed to Tate was by William Boyd himself and the photographs of Tate are simply photos picked up by Boyd at various locations over the years.

Karen Wright, a director of 21 publishing, along with Bowie, Sir Timothy Sainsbury and London gallery-owner Bernard Jacobson, explained to me: “Will and I were both aware it was a scam, but we never meant it maliciously. Part of it was we were very amused that people kept saying ‘yes, I’ve heard of him’. There is a willingness not to appear foolish. No one wants to admit they’ve never heard of him. No one can have heard of every artist. But critics are too proud to admit that.”

And to be fair the book has convincing endorsements. Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, is quoted in it. He was one of the few in on the secret, as was Gore Vidal, who describes the book on its jacket as “a moving account of an artist too well understood by his time”.

David Bowie almost, but not quite, goes too far in expounding on the jacket that “William Boyd’s description of Tate’s working procedure is so vivid that it convinces me that the small oil I picked up on Prince Street, New York, in the late 60s must indeed be one of the lost Third Panel Triptychs. The great sadness of this quiet and moving monograph is that the artist’s most profound dread – that God will make you an artist but only a mediocre artist – did not in retrospect apply to Nat Tate.”

William Boyd could not be in New York (though he will be at the London launch tomorrow). Last week he was in Europe promoting his new novel, Armadillo. And his publicist assured guests at the launch party that “William became interested in this extremely talented and almost wholly forgotten young artist while he was on assignment in New York for the art quarterly Modern Painters, on whose editorial board he sits. Boyd discovered a drawing by Tate and that single work intrigued him.”

Tate’s body has indeed never been found. The critics, artists, gallery owners and collectors who have been taken in by one of the best literary scams in years must be wishing that they could disappear as effectively as Nat Tate – and, like him, resurface with their reputations dramatically enhanced.

 

WILLIAM BOYD ON NAT TATE 

“I still don’t know what made me climb the stairs to Alice Singer’s 57th Street gallery. It was June 1997, New York City… It was late afternoon, I was hot and I was tired and I wandered past dozens of unremarkable drawings and sketches – a Feininger, a Warhol shoe, a Twombly doodle caught my eye – before I was held and shocked by something I had never expected to see. It was a drawing, 12×8 in ink, mixed media and collage: Bridge no. 122. I did not need to read the printed label beside it to know it was by Nat Tate.”

“He recalled to Mountstuart that he learnt of his mother’s death when a boy leaned out of a window overlooking the schoolyard where he was playing and bawled, ‘Hey, Tate, your mom’s been run over by a truck.’ He thought it was a cruel joke, shrugged and carried on with his softball game. It was only when he saw the headmaster grimly crossing the playground towards him that he realised he was an orphan.”

“None of the rampant cross-fertilisation currently taking place in the New York art scene of the early Fifties could be applied to him. Indeed, while Tate was notionally a member of the ‘New York School’ and at the end of his life what might be termed an abstract expressionist, his pictures are always sidelined, or differentiated, by their idiosyncrasies. However, what caused most astonishment was that all of Tate’s drawings were sold before the show officially opened.”

“Gore Vidal met him at this time and remembered him as an ‘essentially dignified drunk with nothing to say’. Unlike most American painters, he was unverbal. ‘He was a great lover,’ Peggy Guggenheim told me years later.

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