Faking It: Real Monographs, Fake Artists, Part 1
Everybody knows what it means to forge a work of art, to create a Salvador Dali print that Salvador Dali never touched. Or to try to create and pass off a fake Rembrandt. There’s a real incentive for all of the effort it takes to forge artworks: money. But what’s the incentive for inventing an artist out of whole cloth?
The classic case of an invented artist is Nat Tate, who was dreamed up by the British novelist William Boyd. Tate was said to be an American Abstract Expressionist painter who burned all of his artworks one day in 1960 and shortly thereafter committed suicide. Boyd wrote his “biography” and illustrated it with snapshots from a collection he had built through flea market purchases. He painted all of Tate’s artworks himself. David Bowie published Nat Tate: American Artist in 1998 through his own small art publishing house called 21, and he wrote the Preface, guaranteeing attention to the book, which is still in print today. Boyd claimed he never intended to create a hoax, that he simply wanted to “introduce some fiction into the mix of artists’ profiles, exhibition reviews and general essays” of the art magazine on whose board he sat (Modern Painters). But after the book launch, a British newspaper called his project a hoax and it has been a label he has never been able to live down. In 2011, Boyd put one of his Nat Tate paintings up for sale at Sotheby’s, London, with the proceeds going to a charity. According to Wikipedia, the winning bid was a handsome £7,250.
An earlier, now-half-forgotten group of paintings by a made-up artist actually was a deliberate hoax. In 1929, the British brewery heir Bryan Guinness and some friends “discovered” an unknown artist working in a tiny village. Bruno Hat, a German immigrant, was said to be a naif who painted on cheap bath mats and framed his paintings with nautical rope. Guinness held an exhibition of Hat’s paintings at his house, accompanied with a catalog written by the novelist Evelyn Waugh. In 2009, Hat’s “Still Life with Pears” was sold at auction at Sotheby’s, London, having been given an estimate of £15,000 – 20,000.
In a somewhat similar vein, writer Lance Olsen and his wife the artist Andi Olsen have created a fictional video artist named Alana Olsen and have created her first exhibition catalog, There’s No Place like Time: A Retrospective (Lake Forest, IL: &NOW Books, 2016), which has been curated by her fictional daughter Aila Olsen. The first clue that a mystery is afoot is the date for the exhibition on the front cover of the catalog—December 2018—which was two years after the book was published. The catalog included essays, still images from her videos, and reminiscences about Alana Olsen (a character who first appeared in Lance Olsen’s 2014 novel Theories of Forgetting). Curiously, the publisher reports that the Olsens actually exhibited Alana’s video art in galleries in Berlin and elsewhere. The videos were presumably been made by Andi Olsen, who is a filmmaker.
Now there are two new entrants to the rarefied circle of fictional artists, each of whom has earned his own monograph: Allun Evans, a British Conceptual artist, and Bernard Taylor, an American photographer. We’ll look at these two books in the two parts of “Faking It.”
Typos: The Story of a Reluctant Art Work (Peculiarity Press, 2021) purports to be a retrospective of the art of one Allun Evans (1950- ), a British artist whose life was changed when he saw Jenny Holzer’s famous “Truisms” series at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1977, while he was an MA student at the famous Saint Martins School of Art. Holzer’s “Truisms” are nearly 300 brief aphorisms or slogans, such as “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” or “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE,” which she has deployed in any number of ways—as posters, on t-shirts or fake postage stamps, etched on marble benches, etc. In Allun Evans’ “Typos,” each aphorism is the result either of a typographic error, such as “THE FAMILY IS LIVING ON BORROWED WINE” (instead of “borrowed time”) or it is an aphoristic near miss, such as “INHERITANCE MUST BE POLISHED.”
In physical manifestations “Typos” were not made to be exhibited in galleries or museums. They existed “only beyond the boundaries of the art world,” most frequently taking the form of throwaway signs or everyday objects left in public spaces to be randomly encountered by unsuspecting people and either taken away or eventually destroyed by the elements. Thus, for the most part, they apparently exist now only through the various ways in which they happen to have been photographically documented at the time they were made.
Typos is a substantial monograph—8 by 10 inches and 148 pages, with scores of color photographs that reproduce the many works of art by Evans. There are several essays on his work and two interviews with him, in which he is utterly evasive about himself. There is no photograph of the artist included in the monograph. One of the many ingenious aspects of Typos is the sheer variety of ways in which Evans’ cryptic or humorous aphorisms have been turned into signs or other objects. The creators of Typos (Jane Glennie and John Clark) have also done a very convincing job of making the “documentation” of Evans’ work look as if it really does span a four decade career. This documentation includes some faded earlier color images, grainy b&w images, Polaroid photographs, faked newspaper articles, sketchbook and notebook pages, images of emails, and crisp contemporary color photographs.
The blurb on the back cover of Typos concludes with this statement: “In setting out to produce a book about the enigmatic in art, the publisher and authors inadvertently raise questions about the nature of fiction and the nature of art.” They have certainly proven how easy it is to mimic/rip off/forge the work of conceptual artists like Jenny Holzer. But if Jenny Holzer and her artwork didn’t exist, what would we think of Typos? Would we even understand Allun Evans’ work as art? Typos can be seen as a kind of homage to Holzer, but it can also be thought of as a cheeky way of prompting us to ask ourselves What is really so original about dreaming up some catchy phrases and printing them on t-shirts and such?
Nevertheless, every artwork attributed to Evans shown in the book’s many images seems to have been actually created by one or both of the book’s real authors. These aren’t forgeries, since forgeries are copies and these are originals (assuming they still exist). We can admire them with our own eyes and consider them in aesthetic terms, even though we know the artist to whom they are attributed is non-existent. Considered as a whole, they represent a sizeable body of work with a consistent aesthetic—an oeuvre, in short. Not only that, a critical monograph has been written to provide the necessary underpinnings. Perhaps, reluctantly, the creators of this artworld Frankenstein realized that they really had, after all, made art.
Allun Evans is a fiction; Long live Allun Evans!