The forger’s art
I travelled to New York last week, like I do every Fall, to see the latest exhibitions. While there, I stayed with my old friend, Charlie Stuckey, controversialist, and former curator extraordinaire at the Art Institute of Chicago, National Gallery, and Kimbell Art Museum. Now in his late 70s and retired from the museum game, he’s a gentler man than the one I first met in 1986, but still funny and independent of thought. These days, he makes his living by his keen eyes, advising wealthy collectors on acquisitions, and matching galleries and auction houses with clients. It’s a side of the art world many scholars scoff at but few resist – the money is too good.
The evening I arrived, we sipped cocktails in his modest apartment on the Upper West Side and talked about connoisseurship, especially in the field we know best – Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. Charlie curated (with two others) the great Gauguin retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987, and the biggest ever Monet show at the same museum in 1994. He also assisted me on a Gauguin exhibition I curated in Rome in 2007. As we talked, we scanned online auction catalogues, stopping from time to time to focus on unusual results. He noted the low prices for some Degas pastels at the Ann and Gordon Getty sale at Christie’s, and a surprisingly high price for a Gauguin still life, Flowers and Books (1882), that sold for more than $1.6 million, three times the pre-sale estimate.
I agreed that the picture was especially freely painted for just 5 x 7 inches. At that scale, Gauguin or his contemporaries would more likely have concentrated on a few details than broadly sketched the whole composition. Moreover, the flowers are incoherent, which is uncharacteristic of the artist. The authors of the Gauguin Catalogue Raisonne (the scholarly assessment of the artist’s complete works) saw no reason to doubt the attribution, but we wondered if they were unduly swayed by the inscription to Bertaux, who was known to be a friend of the artist during these years. Could somebody else have written “a mon ami Bertaux”?
This was mere speculation. We hadn’t examined the picture out of its frame, or carefully compared it to other Gauguin still-lives of those years. Nor had we looked at conservation reports or checked to see if the published provenance of the picture was accurate. (The gold standard of the latter is an unbroken record of ownership back to the artist’s own easel.) In all likelihood, Flowers and Books was a genuine Gauguin, though perhaps not a very good one. The thing that bedevils connoisseurs most is the fact that great painters sometimes produce not-so-great paintings.
In recent years, Gauguin’s legacy has been bedeviled by fakes and supposed fakes, what I call fake-fakes. In the first category is the now infamous sculpture acquired in 1997 by the Art Institute of Chicago, The Faun. The ceramic depicts a faun (half-man, half goat) with breasts, seated on an orb. The carving is crude, but it was accepted as a genuine Gauguin by Art Institute curators Douglas Druick and Ian Wardropper, as well as by Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, a Danish museum director and the world’s leading authority on Gauguin’s ceramics. When I first saw it at the Art Institute in 1997, I was sure it was phony, and I suggested as much to Druick. His reply was that any doubts I had should be allayed by the work’s sterling provenance; it was owned by the artist’s good friend, the Irish painter Roderick O’Connor.
As it turns out, the documentation was faked and so was the sculpture. They are both the product of a single, prodigious art forger named Shaun Greenhalgh who was also the creator of the Amarna Princess, a supposed Egyptian, alabaster torso from c. 1350 BCE. That work was authenticated by experts at the British Museum and Christie’s and purchased in 2003 by the Bolton Museum (U.K.) for almost $500,000. The fraud was discovered three years later by Scotland Yard when Greenhalgh tried to sell a clumsily faked Assyrian relief. It turns out the forger knocked out the Amarna torso in just a few weeks out of calcite (not alabaster) and made it look old by the application of clay and tea stains; his elderly dad and mum were fronts for the whole deal. All very English.
Gauguin’s ceramic faun in Chicago was based upon a known sketch by the artist. The forger also knew of a reference to a sculpture of a faun by Gauguin (now lost) in an old exhibition catalogue. These are typical tricks of the forger’s trade: Find references to a lost work, and then magically conjure it into existence! Faking provenance is easier than faking an artwork: it often requires nothing more than composing a letter on old stationary, or (more complicated) inserting a name or date into an actual historical archive or file. Because the cost of art forging is low, and the payoff can be very high, there is a lot of it. Nobody knows – obviously – how many works in museums are fakes. Those of us who consider ourselves connoisseurs think the number is high; we see them in museums all the time; but then, we could be wrong.
Why it matters
The art market is relatively small – about $65 billion in worldwide revenue compared to $110 trillion for the financial industry. But it commands the attention of global elites – including billionaire financiers — and is a leading indicator of national wealth and prestige; China recently surpassed the U.S. in art auction sales and will soon become the world’s biggest economy. The reason the Muslim businessman, Prince Badr bin ʿAbdullāh bin Moḥammed spent $450 million for a painting of Jesus Christ (Salvator Mundi, c. 1490-1500) is not because he loves Christian art or even Leonardo da Vinci. (In fact, the painting is almost certainly not by Leonardo.) It’s because the picture was for him a hedge – like real estate securities – to protect his other investments and cement his relationship with the notably volatile Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, (aka Prince Sawbones) who is reportedly building a museum to house the painting. Nobody knows which of them actually paid for the picture.
The worlds other major art investors, including Ken Griffin, Steven A. Cohen, and Francois Pinault, have more or less the same motivation. Art-as-hedge buys social prestige and public respect, thereby protecting business empires from economic and political downturns. To such collectors, discovery that a major art acquisition is a forgery would be a small disaster, akin to turning gold into straw. That’s why they hire people like my friend Charlie to advise them. The fact that a connoisseur’s advice may be wrong – and fakes get purchased anyway — is not a problem so long as it’s never discovered. Not surprisingly, there is little incentive in the art world to identify forgeries once they enter major public or private collections.
But works of art, including very expensive ones, are not only financial hedges. They are the expressive product of a person (or persons) working at a particular place and time; and they are the manifestation of ideological, political, and aesthetic tendencies of which the artist-producer may be unaware. Together, these comprise artworks’ use value, the ultimate basis for their exchange value. And that‘s why a forged work of art is so distressing – it’s literally useless. Any knowledge, insight, sensation, or emotion elicited by it is false or misleading. Even the subtle, historical wisdom imparted by simply being in the presence of an artwork from a particular place and time is a deceit if the work in question is inauthentic or a reproduction. In “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” the philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote:
“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art–its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence–and nothing else–that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. This history includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership.
However, the difference between a genuine work and a forgery or reproduction, according to Benjamin, is more than simply the sum of its physical characteristics and provenance. The authentic artwork possesses an “aura…the unique experience of a distance however close it may be” — meaning it projects a moral or emotional unapproachability. For the Berlin critic, writing in 1935, the loss of the aura due to the rise of film, photography, and other reproductive media, was no bad thing. It meant the overthrow of an oppressive and elitist kultur and the rise of a more democratic and socialist popular culture made for the masses.
But Benjamin’s confidence that technological reproducibility would foster a rich and affective democratic culture was already farfetched in his lifetime; Nazi domination of radio, photography, film, and mass circulation newspapers made sure of that. Today, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Trump, and Murdoch, the idea of a democratic mass culture is equally implausible, and for that reason, unique, hand-made artworks — relatively unmediated by capital — are even more essential. To be sure, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, suffused by the aura of money, is not the most likely pace to go to escape the political and moral vise of late capitalism. But an earnest art lover, possessed of sufficient cash to pay the museum entrance fee, some prior knowledge, and the willpower to bypass the mediation of both acoustiguides and gift shops, can still have a worthwhile experience in the presence of historic or contemporary paintings, sculptures, drawings, ceramics, textiles, and the rest. Some viewers are emotionally liberated by their encounters with art and begin to nurse the desire for a wider emancipation.
After our discussion of the Gauguin’s Flowers and Books, I confessed to Charlie something that had bothered me for some time.
“How did we ever allow that mis-attributed Gauguin, the Getty Museum’s Head with Horns into our 2007 exhibition in Rome? I’m so embarrassed.”
Charlie replied nonchalantly: “There’s nothing wrong with that sculpture.”
“But Charlie, everybody else agrees it was by some unknown Tahitian artist and simply appropriated by Gauguin as his own.”
“They only say that,” Charlie said, “because of a single document: a photograph by Jules Agostini from 1894 with a caption describing the sculpture as “a Marquesan idol.” That’s before Gauguin ever met Agostini. But there’s a simple explanation for the anomaly.”
“So,” I said after a long pause.” what is it?
“The date on the photograph is wrong.”
“Really?” I said, “that’s it? You still think it is genuine?”
“Of course. Do you think anybody except Gauguin could have made it? It’s brilliant. And it has nothing to do with either tourist or indigenous art of the period. Besides, Gauguin loved representing severed heads. And those narrow lips are European. What Marquesan would have made that? And what Western artist living in Tahiti would have made an imitation “Marquesan idol” with thin lips? In addition, the horns are clearly the result of the artist’s recognition that a pair of branches attached to the wooden slab looked like horns — like those on a faun or satyr. That’s just the sort of thing Gauguin loved – making use of the pre-existing condition of a block; he does that in a lot of his Polynesian sculptures. Take a look at the horned figure in Father Lechery, his sculpture from 1898. No Stephen, Head with Horns is by Gauguin.”
I couldn’t tell if Charlie was completly in earnest, but I didn’t admit my uncertainty.
“But doesn’t this violate your usual rule about fakes or misattributed works, that if something seems wrong – style, chronology, provenance — it probably is?
Charlie smiled and quickly replied: “Yes, but there an important catch to that rule: ‘If the thing looks like it was made by the artist in question, it probably was, regardless of the documentation. And if it doesn’t, then it probably wasn’t.’”
I replied just as quickly: “That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”
The art party
The exhibition at the old post office building in Industry City, Brooklyn, was mounted by staff of the art magazine, The Brooklyn Rail. Called “Singing in Unison,” it was intended both as an homage to the Rail on its 22nd birthday and as a broad celebration of “the art of joining, an essential gesture to heal our divided social and political life.” As the anodyne title suggests, the exhibition was varied, and included painting, sculpture, assemblage, photography, and installation art. Far from being “in unison,” the artists sang acapella. I went there as Charlie’s
companion and guest. A sit-down dinner for about 100 would follow the opening.
As we entered the gallery, Charlie greeted people he knew – some young, but others my age (mid 60s) or older. None said a word to me, even after we were introduced. That’s not surprising. While I used to write reviews and features for New York based art magazines – I still do on rare occasions – I never wrote for The Brooklyn Rail. Plus, my visits to NYC are now infrequent. It’s the way of the art world that if you don’t offer its denizens any tangible benefit – money, publicity, prestige, sex – you are invisible. Academia is the same. As a former art critic and emeritus professor, I am the Invisible Man!
After stopping at the bar for a very respectable gin and tonic, I wandered through the austere gallery spaces and looked at the art, much of it by very well-known figures, including Sean Scully and David Reed (both abstract painters), Dorothea Rockburne (painter, sculptor), Tony Oursler (video installation), Kiki Smith (sculpture and drawing), and Mark Dion (sculpture and drawings). The illustrated checklist is more impressive than the exhibition turned out to be. Maybe the artists’ best efforts were already committed for shows elsewhere.
After seeing most of the exhibition, I looked for Charlie again and saw him standing against a wall near the entrance. He was engaged in an animated discussion with an elderly woman seated on a folding chair and holding a cane. The crowd was thick, and it took me a few minutes to reach them. When I did, Charlie grabbed my arm and said:
“Hey Stephen, let me introduce you to…. [name unheard due to the din]”.
“Very glad to meet you,” I shouted as I leaned down. The woman cupped her left hand behind her ear to better hear me. She looked very fit but was clearly in her late 80s or 90s.
“Stephen’s an art historian, curator and critic,” Charlie added.
“Have you seen my work in the show?” the woman asked loudly.
“No, I am very much looking forward to it, Charlie has told me all about it,” I lied.
“Well, go ahead then, it’s just over there.” I didn’t actually hear those words but saw them mouthed as she gestured broadly with her right hand.
I assumed the artist was Janet Ruttenberg, with whom Charlie has a close, personal, and professional relationship. Janet is 91 and a painter of large landscapes, often views of Central Park, where she has worked, en plein air, for decades. Long uninterested in exhibiting or selling her pictures – she possesses a large fortune — she experienced a kind of rebirth in 2013 following a retrospective at the Museum of the City of New York, and the publication of a sumptuous catalogue.
“Over there,” she shouted again, “around the corner.”
I duly walked around the corner and saw a big, red neon, text-based work displaying the words: “Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society has the Capacity to Destroy.” I thought it
an odd change of pace for Janet – neon tubes are remote from watercolors of Central Park – but artists sometimes change their work, even in their later career; it’s funny though, that Charlie never mentioned it.
I looked again at the neon and confessed to myself I disagreed with its sentiment. If artists produced works on that scale, they’d be destroying the world too. Isn’t gigantism – massive warehouses and distribution centers, the petrochemical industry, commercial and residential towers, factory farms and agribusiness – responsible for the climate crisis, pandemics, and mass extinctions? But knowing Janet was Charlie’s friend, I was determined to say something positive.
“Oh my, that’s certainly a powerful sentiment,” I shouted to them both. “It reminds me of Bruce Nauman’s neon spiral that says: ‘The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.’ But I must confess,” I continued, “that the idea in your sculpture flies in the face of the Romantic notion, implicit in your landscape watercolors, that artists possess only ‘negative capability,’ as Keat’s called it, the capacity to explore and understand what is near to hand and…”
Before I could finish the sentence, my new acquaintance banged her stick on the floor to cut me off: “What on earth are you talking about?” she demanded.
“That’s not my work! Go back, AROUND THE CORNER. Look again!”
I blushed and spun on my heels, like a chastened schoolboy, and pushed through the crowed. Passing the neon, I confronted a pile of chairs and mirror glass that I earlier assumed was left over from the dinner set up. Then I noticed the chairs were placed on top of a pair of car tires bound with a thick hemp rope. A bell rang: That’s art! It’s an example of Neo-Dada, inspired by Marcel Duchamp and perhaps Robert Rauschenberg whose famous assemblage Monogram contains a taxidermied angora goat with a car tire wrapped around its middle. After a respectable length of time, I reported back to my elders:
“Ah, I’m so sorry. Yes, I saw it. Marvelous. It reminds me of Meret Oppenheim [the great Surrealist] by virtue of its juxtaposition of unlike, and unartistic materials: the Thonet chairs, mirrors, tires, and rope. And of course, Rauschenberg who used that tire in Monogram in order to…”
Another sharp rap of the stick: “Dada? Surrealism? You understand nothing of my work. And Rauschenberg was hardly the first person to use tires in art.”
“Oh, sorry, I just thought…” I fumbled.
“My work is about knots. It is based on Knot Theory.”
In the racket, I heard her say “not theory.”
I resumed: “Oh, you mean it eschews theory. Yes, of course, now I understand. It is all about the nominative case, the here and now, the matter of fact, the punctum – what Jasper Johns called “things the mind already knows…”
“No! [did I really hear her say “you idiot!”?], K-N-O-T theory, a branch of topology and combinatorial group theory. The un-knot, the knot that cannot be untied, the n-dimensional sphere of Euclidian space. I have always been engaged in mathematics, ever since my studies with Max Dehn at Black Mountain College in 1950; it is the entire basis of my art!”
By now I was shaken, and relieved when someone announced it was time for dinner. As we walked to our seats, Charlie said to me:
“Sorry, I’ve never seen Dorothea so agitated. She was a bit rude to you!”
“Dorothea? That wasn’t Janet Ruttenberg?”
“No, Janet never comes to these events. That was Dorothea Rockburne, who danced with Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain, studied painting with Franz Kline and Jack Tworkov, and was close friends with Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly.”
“Yeah, I know her work well, or thought I did. I remember her exquisite, folded papers – like origami – and her minimalist line drawings and use of colored transparencies. How was I supposed to know she now made sculptures out of chairs and mirrors and that you were friends with two 92 y.o. women in the same exhibition!”
“That’s the most important lesson of all for any critic and connoisseur,” Charlie said: “Assume nothing.”
Note: I was wrong about the neon artist. Lauren Bon/Metabolic Studio is a sculptor and performance artists who creates self-regenerating environments including urban gardens and restored waterways. She is currently engaged in efforts to replenish the L.A. River floodplain. There is no gigantism in her work, only a gracious and informed embrace of ecology and natural systems. Also, Janet Ruttenberg’s painting in the exhibition is called General Sherman, a mural sized landscape with ghostly figures inspired by Manet via Marcantonio Raimondi. It’s framed by tiny video screens. Striding figures are projected onto the middle of the scene. It’s a complex work.