Monday, March 08, 2004


The Library of Congress subject heading for Nat Tate, an American Artist: 1928-1960 is Literary forgeries and mystifications. I love a good literary forgery as much as the next bibliophile, but I think, when considering the mystifying case of Nat Tate, a more apt subject heading might be Modern art--hoaxes.

Admittedly, the subject heading issue is less interesting than the manner in which William Boyd tricked the New York art world into believing that Nat Tate was a real, living, breathing wunderkind of an artist whose brief and explosive career was prematurely extinguished, and that the revival of interest in his work, as well as its celebration, was necessary and overdue. Nat Tate, of course, didn't exist. Well, he did, but he wasn't who everybody thought he was. Boyd, with the help of Gore Vidal, David Bowie, and Picasso's biographer, convinced art critics that the biography of the abstract expressionist was nothing but genuine, to the degree that some of them made this claim: "Yes, I 've heard of him".

Logan Mountstuart [the protagonist in Boyd's Any Human Heart] has also heard of him. Indeed, Mountstuart owned several works by Tate, which were taken back by the artist on the pretense that he was going to revise them. What he really did with them was set them ablaze, along with all of his other works [procured in the same manner]. The next day he killed himself, jumping from the Staten Island Ferry to his watery death.

All fiction, of course. Except the part about Nat Tate taking the New York art world by storm. He did do that, if only for a very short while. Not bad for someone who, in the words of Gore Vidal, was "drunk with nothing to say". Tate's biographer, on the other hand, has plenty to say. Those art critics never had a chance, presumably not knowing about Boyd's penchant for dropping the names of all manner of literary and artistic cognoscenti, both real and imagined [my single frame of reference is Any Human Heart].

And in case you're wondering what Nat looked like, here he is as he appeared on the cover of the biography, ironically standing before what was to become his watery grave. Eerie.

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