Sometime in the spring, I got an e-mail from an artist I'd never heard of. It began, "I have always appreciated your arts coverage and wanted to tell you about my first Seattle art show ever... I am new at this so forgive me if this isn't the right way to contact a reporter, but I'm excited and want to share!!" I clicked to her website.
The people in the paintings seemed to have all gone crazy, like they had been irradiated or poisoned or drugged. The works looked like classic vernacular art: obsessively patterned, highly irregular, and patently handmade. I made a mental note to go to the show when it came around, and I moved on to the next two dozen press releases I got that day.
A few weeks later, this artist—whose name I'm withholding for a reason—sent an equally enthusiastic letter in the mail that said she had a gallery show coming up and "I really really really really really hope you'd like to write about it." The same day I got that letter, the artist's name appeared on the short list for a high-profile local art award. It seemed like she'd come out of nowhere and was everywhere I looked. I had an opening right then for a story: If the timing could work out to visit her studio, see the works in person, and interview her, and if the results were interesting enough, then maybe I would write a profile prior to her show opening. If I was curious, other people probably were, too.
She lived 80 miles outside of Seattle on a horse farm. I drove. When I got there, she told me she had never had a studio visit before and wasn't sure what to do. She said she had first picked up a paintbrush less than a year before that and had always "been artistic" but never made any "art," just a few screen prints. Then, in 2012, she got depressed, she said. She began painting. After seeing these paintings, her husband told her she might want to google "outsider art," she said. So she did, and found galleries that showed things that looked similar to what she'd made, set up her own website, and sent those galleries links and pitches. Immediately she found herself with at least two dealers, one in Texas and one on the East Coast. Soon she found one in Seattle.
As we looked at her paintings spread on the bed and the floor of her bedroom, she mentioned the East Coast dealer by name and said, "He's—is he my dealer?" I wrote that quote down because I thought: My God, she's so new to this. I might use that in my story.
I left refreshed. A conversation about art without any tired jargon! Earlier that day, on my way out of town, I had stopped for a brief interview with a more pedigreed young artist who was in the process of constructing a large installation. She had previously shown at a prestigious East Coast museum. Inside of 30 seconds, she'd slung at me the ubiquitous art buzzwords "relational aesthetics" and "social practice." At this point, when I hear those overused words, I hear the Charlie Brown teacher voice. I pulled out of there like I was burning rubber. Up at the horse farm, it was like this: Here is what I made. I was depressed and it seemed to help. Some sad and dramatic stuff happened when I was a kid, and it relates to why everyone in the paintings has lost their minds. I'm new to all this.
The next morning, preparing to write, I did what I always do: Google. I typed in the horse-farm artist's name to find any last bits that might be useful. The story was mostly written in my head.
Google scrambled everything. I kept seeing references to earlier shows she'd had. She had shown lots of times. She had shown in Seattle. She had shown in spots whose names I knew. Her work from the past looked nothing like these vernacular paintings. It was neo-pop. It was Warholian with bright streaks. She'd exhibited text paintings on canvas, silk screens with acrylic on canvas, and pen-and-ink drawings on paper. Multiple writers had interviewed her. In 2008, she name-checked Henry Darger, the legendary late outsider artist, whose traveling exhibition she'd seen—and loved—at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle in 2006.
Contrary to her statement "I am new at this so forgive me if this isn't the right way to contact a reporter," she had been a freelance arts reporter herself.
Her other words came back to me, too: "My first Seattle art show ever." "I'm new at this." "Is he my dealer?"
Regardless of what you might imagine about the ugly inner workings of the art world, there's a basic code when it comes to PR: Anything's fair game in interpreting work, but artists don't get to answer direct factual questions with bald-faced lies.
I confronted her. She didn't agree that she'd lied. She said it was no big deal, that I was overreacting, and that she was sticking to her story—so what if she'd omitted things? Surely I understood.
I asked her East Coast and Seattle dealers whether they knew about earlier shows. They didn't. "We're framing it as her introduction to Seattle, which I guess isn't true," an employee of the Seattle gallery told me. They were displeased to be learning this from me instead of from the artist. But it's not a career-killing deception—just strange and unnecessary. After I talked to the dealers, her innocent tone toward me changed. She sent me and her Seattle dealer an unsolicited résumé dotted with irrelevant minutiae and sarcastic footnotes, like a Kmart coloring contest she'd won as a child. She included, "FOR SELECT SUPER SLEUTHS," the home phone number of her parents. I stopped engaging. I didn't write about her.
The dealers kept representing her. She kept selling well. At press time, the front page of her website featured 40 paintings, and 20 of them were marked "SOLD." She does good business.
One last thing about the horse-farm artist: The reason I'm withholding her name now is the same reason I didn't write about her then—to avoid handing a pile of free PR to somebody who was blatantly lying to get it. Every artist wants distance from her early work. There wasn't any reason to lie. Except if one wants a sexier story. There are plenty of artists out there who don't lie to get publicity, and plenty who would sell better if they were better con artists. That's nothing new, nothing interesting, and nothing worth getting a spotlight for.
On the other hand, it wasn't exactly a big con. It was a fabrication, and art is all about fabrication. So when I started talking to other artists, curators, writers, and historians about the horse-farm artist, the thing I wanted to write became less a story about one dumb little con and more about the bigger, darker issues that tickle around its edges. For instance, how are artists pressured to massage their biographies? What are the lies artists are most tempted to tell? Does anyone think they can get away with pure reinvention in the internet age? Is having such a permanent trail a loss or a gain for an artist?
"Yeahhhh," Susie Lee moaned when she heard the story, because she immediately thought of work of hers that she would love to pretend never happened. "I wish I hadn't made that Pig on Parade. But I did."
Lee's résumé is pretty impressive all the way until the line that says, "Pigs on Parade: Pike Place Market Public Art, Seattle WA, 2001."
Why be so thorough?
"There is a code," said Greg Kucera. He's the elder statesman among Seattle dealers representing contemporary artists. "Creepy things happen from time to time, but no, if I was going to show an artist and I found out that a self-taught artist wasn't self-taught, or a never-exposed artist had shown several times, I'd say, 'Look, we're not meant to work together.' I would know, basically, that's just the tip of the iceberg. I would absolutely just walk away."
Kucera told me a story. He once had two clients who fell in love with a gleaming stainless-steel sculpture at an art fair in California. They both were high-powered attorneys. They'd bought a little art before, not too much, just a couple of Guy Andersons and a Helen Frankenthaler, keeping to the established art of the recent past. But when they ran into this shiny piece of stainless steel, they had to have it. They talked to the artist, looked at his materials, and signed on the spot to buy it for $20,000.
Back at home, they called Kucera and told him about their purchase of a major work by an important artist. They wanted to know what he thought of the artist, but Kucera had to say he'd never heard of him. But he recently had a one-person show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, they said. Kucera looked at an image, but it didn't ring any bells, so he called the registrar at the Whitney, who was very nice. She didn't remember that name, so she checked their records going all the way back in the museum's history. Nothing. "I had to go back to my clients and say, 'The Whitney has never heard of this person, ever.'
"So upon quizzing further, they were told, 'Well, I mean, it was a one-person exhibition.' Here's what happened. The artist was really close friends with the person who owns the Killington Ski Resort in Vermont. Mr. Killington, at a charity auction, bought an evening cocktail party in the lobby at the Whitney Museum. For the party, they brought down one of the ski gondolas from Killington. 'And one of my sculptures was positioned inside that gondola,' the artist said. For this cocktail party one evening for two hours—and this becomes the top line of the artist's résumé, probably never to be dislodged.
"And even though that perfect little bit of fraud had occurred, these top-notch litigators could not get out of that contract. So they bring it to their house and they make themselves believe they love it. And it's hideous. It's just so much shiny bad art."
There have to be stories like this all over the place. Once, about a decade ago, I interviewed an artist whose website and résumé heavily relied on the fact that his work was in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I went a long distance to visit him, too, at his sculpture park of a home near La Conner. When I contacted MoMA, they'd never heard of him. His work wasn't even Trojan-horsed in by gondola.
The money-and-status-obsessed art world often has only itself to blame. I was once interviewing a museum director in her office, which was tastefully outfitted with cleverly designed objects and contained by just- daring-enough bright walls, perfectly painted, not a smudge out of place. She was telling me about some artists she was excited to be showing the following year. She mentioned one I didn't know, so I asked who she was. The museum director's face tightened, as if to say that she now believed she was speaking to someone who no longer deserved her time. "She's very well-known," was her entire answer. Her entire answer. I sat there blinking, and then I was sent off into the night. It had been deemed more important to deliver haughtiness than information. Actual substance was not a priority.
Maybe the horse-farm artist was onto something positioning herself as an "outsider artist." This year's Venice Biennale, coincidentally enough, is deliberately outsiderish. There are several artists included who are complete unknowns, and some who never thought of themselves as artists at all. There are even a bunch of rocks on display. In talking to Seattle Art Museum curator Chiyo Ishikawa about the biennale recently, she mentioned a conversation she had with a couple of Seattle collectors who'd gone to Venice to see the show. They didn't like it, they told her. Why? Because they didn't know any of the artists. In other words: They'd traveled all that way, and all they really wanted was to have their insider status validated by seeing names they recognized, by being in-the-know. In my experience, this is far from the exception.
So if artists are running around pretending to be naïfs or, frankly, anything other than whatever unclassifiable thing it is that human beings actually are—and that art usually is—well, they have cause. Michelangelo is beloved by history for his authenticity. For making marble into real flesh, not godlike and remote, but real. Yet one of the ways he made his name as a young man was by forging antiquities. Old, Roman, grand "treasures" were all the rage. So he did like Restoration Hardware and artificially aged things to look antique, and to convince people he had skills. The market has its demands. Until you get to a certain level, how else can you make it except to turn them to your advantage?
Then, once you establish yourself as an artist, heaven forbid you change the formula too much. Paradoxically, this goes even for artists who "broke molds" on the way up. The German powerhouse painter Gerhard Richter has gotten away with working in many different styles. But the case of 20th-century French chameleon Francis Picabia is a warning. He's been dead since 1953, and he's still paying for the fact that his art didn't look the same from decade to decade. He was widely accused of opportunism, and his work did seem to be the product of a roving, detached sensibility at best. Sometimes he was an avant-gardist, and other times a classicist. Writing in 2011 on GalleristNY.com, critic Andrew Russeth quotes a dealer promoting a show by saying that Picabia was "absolutely tireless in experimentation in ways that few artists are." But, Russeth continues, Picabia's "rapid evolution through styles, and his willingness to work in many at once in his late years, has also historically opened Picabia to charges of dilettantism, or a willingness to chase notoriety by any means necessary—which are also, of course, key aspects of today's contemporary art world. One is tempted, in short, to question his sincerity."
In order to be seen as sincere, authentic, meaning it, artists destroy works all the time. They also just don't want to look bad, or to have to explain some wrong turn or another. The American artist Chuck Close is known for his hyperrealistic pointillist portraits, but he is reputed to have made some early abstract expressionists that only a Motherwell could love. (Kucera says Tacoma Art Museum has one of them.) Close has disposed of many of them. But knowing he doesn't necessarily want them out there, dealers who handle his work—like Kucera—look out for those early paintings, and report back to Close when they see one.
"We, from time to time, get offered abstract expressionist things by Chuck [for resale]," Kucera said. "I've been sending him images of them to say, 'Do you want to buy this to have control of what happens to it?' He's consistently said in response to us, 'No, I don't want this one, but keep me posted.' They're either not good enough or not bad enough, I'm not sure."
Who knows the real reasons behind all the edits? The artists themselves might not even know why they despise something they've made or done, or it won't be revealed until much later. Agnes Martin, the notoriously reclusive American painter of stripped-down lines and grids, destroyed many of her early figurative paintings. So it was shocking to come across one, a garish female nude—it was so bad!—in the traveling National Portrait Gallery exhibition Hide/Seek, which featured depictions of same-sex desire and longing. "Maybe," during her lifetime, Kucera said, "those paintings told too much about her as a woman, and as a lover."
Artists feel the same social pressures as anybody, from homophobia or fat bias to the basic cool/uncool divide. But here's another weird one: Do they look like they make the work they make? Do they wear the right pants and glasses and shirts and jewelry?
"Everybody wants an authentic story in the public eye," said Victoria Haven, the only local female artist featured alongside the all-women Elles exhibition at Seattle Art Museum this year. (She also has a Stranger Genius Award.) "This is an ongoing conversation I've had with many other artists many times."
Haven's drawings, paintings, and sculptures are stripped-back, refined, and geometric. In recent years, she's gone in a new direction by beginning to include text that refers to her own life, referencing music she's listened to or mountains or trails she's explored. People still refer to her as a "geometric abstractionist," even though she says she's unsure whether anything can be abstract. Her work was always about her life; it just didn't look like it was.
"I even had one of my dealers at one point say to me, 'Can you give me a story? I don't really know how to talk about this work,'" Haven recalled. "I was like, 'No, I don't have a story. I just made this abstract work, deal with it or don't.' A story is often a sales pitch, right? Or maybe it's always a sales pitch? I don't think so, actually. I think it can become a sales pitch."
Applying for grants, writing artist statements, showing up to openings—artists have to do far more than just make art if they want to find an audience for it. They have to write and rewrite their biographies constantly. When it comes to writing grants, "we talk about, 'Oh, god, it would be so great to apply under, say, two different bodies of work, like just my text stuff or just my abstraction," hiding one or the other to present a more coherent front, Haven said. "Or apply under a different name. Apply as a man. Apply as a 25-year-old. Apply as somebody fresh out of grad school. Or maybe I'm 80. Is that better? Everybody wants to imagine what kind of scam we could pull."
And that pressure to look like your work, almost like wearing it as a costume? Haven has that. People who see her art before meeting her say she's not what they expected, and vice versa. "They think I'm going to be like an archetypal architect, like, 'I would think you'd be really severe and austere and only wear a geometric dress or something.'" Same scenario in reverse, too: Her neighbor who only sees her digging up plants and having beers on the patio did not expect to discover there were tight linear web matrixes on the walls of her mind.
But take a closer look at Haven's art and you see immediately that the geometry is all slightly off. Her pieces are handmade, and the imperfections in the midst of the ideals are the point. It's only the surface appearance of her art that makes it seem so different from the rest of her. That's a problem bedeviling artists, too—basic shallowness, most people focusing on anything but art itself. At a dinner party years ago, a group of local collectors discussed their recent visit with Seattle dealer Linda Farris to the studio of hot New York artist John Currin. (Currin paints super-sexualized naked ladies in a style that may or may not be okay, which of course is why people like him.) Haven was at the dinner.
"They were describing their trip, and all they could talk about was that he had a mistress. That he had a wife and a mistress. And I was like, 'What was his work like?'" she said. "It was all about personality. I can't compete with that. And then you get demoralized about the whole structure you're in. I never came up with a solution of how to deal with it. I just don't have the energy to create a persona that's not just actually who I am."
Wealth and comfort can be problems for artists. Some commit their low-level fraud by hiding that they have a trust fund or they're married to money. Ruthie V. is a painter who recently moved out of a raggedy trailer in the unincorporated wilds of Bow, in Skagit County, to live with her new fiancé in Shoreline. While her happiness just went way up, her biography just got seriously downgraded.
"People love the trailer in Bow," she said. "It's a romantic story. Everybody my whole life has encouraged me to be an artist, and they know it's a financially difficult thing to do. But they love it. They love that I'm living the dream, they love watching me blossom, they love sharing it with me. But nobody's paying for it. It's really complicated to have people living vicariously through you. It's like, you're really happy that I'm an artist, but I have no running water, and I just lost my house again, and I'm exhausted because the rats kept me up all night chewing the wires."
She emphasizes how easy it is, as an artist, to fall into bitterness. And that she's grateful and lucky—that this is no dis to her supporters. But the romantic life isn't what she was after when she decided to become a painter: She just wanted to paint.
The lies, exaggerations, and myths we tell about artists were written right into the origins of European art.
"If you go way back to Vasari, he modeled The Lives of the Artists after The Lives of the Saints," said Naomi Hume, an art historian at Seattle University.
The Lives of the Artists, written in the 16th century, essentially invents written art history and specifically the genre of artist biography. And it's full of tall tales and unverifiable, unbelievable "observations," stories too good to be true. This is the beginning of artists themselves being talked about—not just their art. And "since he's modeling it after The Lives of the Saints, there's a certain sense in which the miraculous has to come into play," Hume pointed out. "There are all these origin stories for artists that talk about them not having any training, or having these natural talents, or having something innate. But in the Renaissance, being an artist is all about being trained."
No wonder an artist looking for a way into the market wants to come across as either a magical unicorn emerging out of a deep fog or a veteran of the Whitney who'd never have to stoop to showing his art inside a ski gondola. Here's a classic story from The Lives of the Artists, about the plucking of the untrained artist Giotto from out of the middle of a herd of animals by the older artist Cimabue:
One day Cimabue, going on business from Florence to Vespignano, found Giotto, while his sheep were feeding, drawing a sheep from nature upon a smooth and solid rock with a pointed stone, having never learnt from any one but nature. Cimabue, marveling at him, stopped and asked him if he would go and be with him...
The boy went to Florence and, sure enough, "brought back to life the true art of painting." Just like that!
Artist Trust, a wonderful organization in Seattle that supports individual artists and provides a great network, a place where artists don't have to feel so alone, is also, quite naturally, part of the insane Alex P. Keaton–ization of art that's taken place in the last 40 years. The professionalization of art has meant that a ton of an artist's energy now has to be spent on marketing. Go to the Artist Trust homepage and you'll find a link to EDGE, a "professional development program" that boasts of having trained 512 literary, film, and visual artists in "the relevant and necessary entrepreneurial skills to achieve their personal career goals." There are links to articles with titles including "Does Your Message POP?" and "Sports and the Arts: Joined at the Marketing Hip."
Being lied to by the horse-farm artist felt gross. But so does this marketing advice. And why do we put so much emphasis on the stories artists tell about themselves? Doesn't that invite them to lie at least a little? A little self-invention might make all the difference in paying the bills. Let's say this may even be an exaggerated tendency in the American character. Wouldn't we lead the world medal count in bald-faced self-inventors? Gatsbys and Blanche DuBoises and the "self-made men" of American individualism and all the rest of them/us?
Where I Was From by the eminent American antifabulist Joan Didion—she's always slyly unraveling fictions as much as detailing facts—presents a highly sympathetic reason for why certain forms of American self-invention happen. She starts with the premise that every non-native American is tied to the story of immigration, and all immigrants are in need of a story that justifies having left the place where they were from. Her ancestors made the treacherous trek to the "pioneer" West, and they left out certain parts of their own stories out of need, out of survival. "Children who died of cholera got buried on the trail," Didion writes. "Women who believed they could keep some token of their mother's house (the rosewood chest, the flat silver) learned to jettison memory and keep moving. Sentiment, like grief and dissent, cost time. A hesitation, a moment spent looking back, and the grail was forfeited."
There's a certain way of relating to history—erasing parts of it in the hopes of a brighter future, making it so that you're a brand-new artist who has never painted before and doesn't know anything about anything—that replays again and again in American history. Anyone who's ever signed a lease on a studio apartment has brushed up against this strain of myth-making. As Caroline A. Jones points out in Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist, the real-estate term was inspired by the mythical, private, solo artist's studio of New York in the 1940s and '50s—the place where the magic of art happens, a place that's pure and lonely and not located anywhere specific or with any specific history except the one that gets created there. In New York in the middle of the 20th century, the only way to be modern was to work alone in your studio, in that place where everything is born again. (Hence, the much-decried/tittered-about shock of Warhol's Factory in the 1960s, despite that an art factory was nothing new.)
But if artists are supposed to be so free—if creativity means freedom to create anew—then can we let them be a little freer, please? Rather than asking them to be myths?
Because this whole lying thing demeans artists. And art.
I caught Chiyo Ishikawa and Nicholas Dorman, Seattle Art Museum's chief curator and conservator, by phone to tell them the horse-farm story. They were on their way to a meeting at the Getty Center, a Valhalla-like place high on a hill overlooking Los Angeles, white and shining and removed. Located in the relative outpost of Seattle but working in a vast realm of money, prestige, creative people, stylish people, and the bare facts of the art objects that few people in the world get to actually touch with their hands, Ishikawa and Dorman know that art is a funny place. About the horse-farm artist, they felt that her defensiveness was awkward. If she hadn't wanted to talk about her earlier work, well, she'd be just like every other artist. Or if her work were positioned in a certain way by a dealer, critic, or writer—that happens all the time. "But outright prevarication or invention, that's kind of hard in this age of the internet, isn't it?" Ishikawa said. "You can't hide anything anymore." Maybe that's the only lesson to be found here.
There's one last detail that's too good not to share. The horse-farm artist plays in a band, and in this band, she performs with what looks like an electric guitar, but is actually a hollowed-out instrument with an MP3 player inside. She's a karaoke instrumentalist. That's not lying, it's a performance of fakeness. The thought of it makes me smile. It's hard out here for an artist.