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How Nat Tate Made The Art World Look Like Fools

Words:

Edd Norval
September 27, 2019

Have you seen those videos where pompously eager YouTube celebrities interview 'hipsters' about a new musician that doesn't actually exist and the people answer that they know the person? Well it's not that funny, just kind of a sad way to spend your time. But it was funny once - when David Bowie was in on it and the whole art world fell for it.

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It didn't begin with an artist though, but with a writer. It was 1998 and William Boyd didn't like the art that was coming out at the time, the Young British Artist movement that included Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin didn't do it for him, so he decided to direct his frustration with his lack of art right back at the art world.


A lot of people look at the work of artists and think they could do it themselves, how hard can it be? Harder than it looks is usually the realisation. To make any impact on the art landscape you need a patron who will buy your work, thus deeming you 'worthy' or at least giving you some market value. If you don't sell anything - it's just a hobby. Boyd thought about doing trying his hand at it, just to fool them all - that would teach them, right? Who would buy his work though? He wasn't an artist and if he created a book, being a writer, it would take significant sales to make any impact at all. He was friends with David Bowie though and it was Bowie that convinced him that such a 'hoax' would be best realised through a book - but how?

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He created a person, sort of. He wrote the autobiography of Nat Tate - an idea-become-flesh, straight out of Boyd's imagination. Boyd's artist lived and worked in New York and created a summable output of abstract expressionist work, before rounding it all up and setting it on fire in a state of depression, before committing suicide only days later.


None of this actually happened, but it's how the story goes and if the art world is going to embrace anything, it's an enigmatic and tortured genius. The book documents the life of the fictionalised character as he becomes an artist, closely detailing his work process and inner philosophies of life and how it relates to his work. Although these extra details may seem initially inane, they become heartbreakingly significant as the story draws to a raging and violent conclusion.


It's not only the words that make this story compelling (and most importantly, believable), but the photographs littered throughout, borrowed from old postcards add a solemn dimension to the character of Nat Tate. If you were to consider the book as art unto itself, then releasing the book into the wild, bound to be scrutinised, would have seen the idea quickly fall apart. They had to make their plot come to life before it was killed off by the eagle-eyed.


Lucky for Boyd then that he had connections (Bowie helped). Art is all about knowing the right people - so a soiree for the launch was in order. He called up David Bowie and Gore Vidal to see if they wanted to attend and perhaps more importantly, vouch for Nat Tate's authenticity. Bowie went as far as to write a testimonial for the book and suggested hosting it at Jeff Koons studio in Manhattan. It had all the clout it needed to run in the media.


Was it enough for the tricksters to simple fool the crowd and no more? No, they also offered the crowd one last chance - they brazenly hosted it on April Fool's Day. Those in attendance recalled stories of the late artist fondly as they ate canopies and rubbed shoulders with other well-known faces from the art world. The journalists and press in attendance of the glamorous gathering were blissfully unaware that they'd be reporting a non-story back to their readers around the world.

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The story was movingly embraced by hushed conversations of the deceased, and poignant speeches throughout the evening of people drunkenly remembering their good friend Nat Tate. All the while Boyd was looking on, feeling less guilty for not 'getting' certain parts of the art world. In fact the whole room of people, from all realms of culture, were too scared to concede their lack of knowledge of Nat Tate so instead pretended to know exactly who he was - they were here for his memory after all.


If it wasn't for one eagle-eyed reporter from England who looked deeper into some of the addresses given of New York's 'old galleries' in the book, the hoax perhaps would have endured for a while longer. When that night ended and the true story eventually broke, the embarrassment of gallerists and critics were quickly swept under the rug, but there was an unexpected consequence of Boy'd actions. But contrary to his intentions, he had actually created his own artist through sheer will of an idea. Even when the had entered the history books as one of the art industry's greatest 'hoaxes', there were still the matter of the paintings Boyd created as Nat Tate.


In 2011, Tate (but really Boyd's) 'Bridge nO. 114' went up for sale at Sotheby's auction house. The painting is a gloomy representation of a bridge, something that the fictionalised Tate had become obsessed with after reading the Hart Crane's famous 1930 poem 'The Bridge'. The imaginary artist was so enamoured with the poem that more than simply painting it, he chose it as the location to end his life - by jumping off a boat into the Hudson River.


The painting sold for well above the high-end speculative price, going for £7,250. William Boyd managed to sell the artworld an idea, a joke, and then the products of that - twice. both the book and in turn, the painting. The thing is, in selling the painting, Boyd ironically became part of that art-world he set out to mock.


Clearly no one was bigger than the 'hype' that the whole charade had created. Not the buyer, the art-world, nor Boyd himself.

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