Nat Tate, The Greatest Artist Who Never Really Lived

Earlier this week I wrote about Peggy Guggenheim. In her autobiography, she claims to have had affairs with numerous artists and in return, many others including artists, have claimed affairs with her. She is even mentioned as having had affairs with fictional characters, for example William Boyd’s Nat Tate.

Which made me wonder..

Who is(n’t) Nat Tate?

(The work of “Nat Tate”)

“Nat Tate was a short-lived member of the famous New York School, which flourished in the late 1940s and 1950s and included such luminaries as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. Tate committed suicide in 1960 by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry (his body was never found) after having burned 99 percent of his life’s work during the last weekend of his life. Hence the artistic oblivion he found himself in almost 40 years later; only a few works remained to testify to his intriguing talent.”

Oh, one minor detail..he isn’t real.

William Boyd published the book, Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 as a hoax/experiment and presented it as a real biography.

Gore Vidal, John Richardson (Picasso’s biographer), and David Bowie (a board member of Modern Painters magazine and director of 21 Publishing, which published the book) were all participants in the hoax. Nat Tate’s name is a combination of two London art galleries, the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery. Boyd and his co-conspirators set about convincing the New York glitterati (social elites) that the reputation of this influential abstract expressionist needed to be re-evaluated.

(Bowie & Boyd)

On the evening of April 1, 1998, David Bowie hosted a party at Jeff Koons’s Manhattan studio and read extracts from the book, while Richardson talked about Tate’s friendships with both Picasso and Braque.

Some of the biggest names in the Arts world (including artists, collectors, art historians, art dealers, New York based writers like Paul Auster, and editors of literary journals) eventually realized that Nat Tate was a complete fake and that they had been the victims of an elaborate set up. Some of the paintings featured in the book were reportedly painted by Boyd and the hoax was made more believable by Gore Vidal’s endorsement on the book’s dust cover. Also, the photographs of Nat Tate that feature in the ‘biography’ are of unknown people from Boyd’s own photographic collection.

(Photographs of a young “Nat Tate”)

The literary editor of The Independent, who was at the New York launch, said that no one he spoke to claimed to know Tate well, but no one claimed not to have heard of him. Lister stated that he sniffed something fishy, since he appeared to be the only person in the room who had never heard of Tate. His suspicions were confirmed when he discovered that none of the galleries mentioned in the book actually existed.

Karen Wright, one of Bowie’s co-directors at 21 Publishing said the hoax was not meant to be malicious.

‘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. Critics are too proud for that.

(William Boyd)

In April of 2011, William Boyd spoke to Harper’s Bazaar about the elaborate hoax which transpired 13 years prior.

‘It just goes to show that everybody loves a hoax, even one as relatively short term and confined as the Nat Tate hoax. Something about people being hoodwinked–being tricked and bamboozled–is endlessly alluring, I suppose. Something deep in our nature responds to these kinds of stories. It’s the only way I can really explain Tate’s extraordinary longevity and renown.’

Read the full article in Harper’s here.

Information from this post was gathered from Wikipedia, and Dangerous Minds.

“I can tell you everything about Nat Tate that you want to know, and it’s true because I made it up” -William Boyd ♥

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