Visual Art Sep 11, 2013 at 4:00 am

The Unbelievable Pressure Artists Are Under to Just Completely Make Some Stuff Up

The notoriously reclusive American painter of stripped-down lines and grids (like this one on the left, owned by Seattle Art Museum) destroyed many of her early figurative paintings. So it was shocking to come across this one (on the right)­­—a garish female nude by Martin that was included in the traveling National Portrait Gallery exhibition Hide/Seek. “Maybe,” during her lifetime, speculated Seattle dealer Greg Kucera, her figurative paintings “told too much about her as a woman, and as a lover.” Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum (left); Courtesy of the Harwood Museum of art (right)


Wait... Is this another article about Charles Kraft? How does that adage go- Fool me once...
Your comment about Vasari's sourcing in saints' lives points to the pervasiveness of mythology about creativity in our society. Because creative work is mysterious, tied to the divine, may look like mental illness, there's no way artists can be depicted as workers. It's no surprise that marketing is advised not only as our primary activity, but as part of our creative work in the context of a Madison Avenue world and a key identifier of professionalism. Would that we could focus on our labor, ideas, techniques (what are you selling here, paint?). Thanks for exploring some of what's keeping Seattle's creative community from building on its conceptual and environmental heritage.
America, the mother of invention. It's been a while since I came to this country, but I remember my bewilderment seeing artists' statements positioned beside their work, the "editorial" I thought of hitherto as part of the curator or critic's duty.
On another note, the above mentioned ArtistTrust organization offered a workshop "estate planning for artists" geared toward the aging members of the Arts community. "Destroy what you don't want to be known for," was one of the messages. And not just for your reputation, but also because heirs will be taxed over each and every piece, even those you wouldn't have cared to keep.
You're right, it's hard to edit your existence, or past in the age of Internet. Perhaps artists would benefit from the literary tradition of publishing a variety of works under different pseudonyms. The girl in the band aka outsider aka what'sherface. Still, even Paul Auster hates to admit he published crime novels under another name.
After reading your excellent post, what remains is a sense of disappointment, and regret that the artist didn't think her performance through better.
You might have made such a great accomplish of the farce —presented as a mystery.
In the Netherlands a young author kept jury and readers in suspense, not showing up to collect literary prizes. Finally it turned out he had won all the prizes as debutante —with an at the time known name— before.
Showmanship is forgivable, acting LIKE an outsider, only makes an artist seem an amateur.
Fabrication has always been a part of art. The dealer's for the horse farm artist should just admit that they'd been taken in too, because it's a great story and they liked the art. That's what they sold: a good story and good art. And that's what the customer received. Where's the problem?
The pot calling the kettle black.
This reads like a smear campaign hidden in sort of psuedo-academia. Yuck.
If Art is supposed to be appreciated, interpreted and comprehended visually, then what matter that the associated narratives are lacking in verifiable truths? Did the horse-farm artist's works materially change from your original assessment?

We appreciate the Abstract Expressionists work as a group, largely because they were the first American Moderns to be catapulted into international acclaim. "American Triumphalism" was a catchword of the day. The fact that their international success was largely bankrolled in secret by the C.I.A., working through wealthy intermediaries that laundered the cash, has been a story largely ignored. It surfaced fairly early, in a 1974 Artforum article written by Eva Cockcroft, based on FOIA requests. A more recent book by Frances Stonor Saunders, with accompanying BBC documentary, deals with much of the same material uncovered by Cockcroft so many years ago.

The problem is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate much contemporary work without an accompanying explicative narrative. Tom Wolfe pointed this out in "The Painted Word" many years ago. Does this then make the work itself, as instantiation of the narrative, a form of illustration? Or is it that the work isn't really that interesting, intrinsically valuable or worth considering? The narrative provides a gloss of cultural significance that is absent from the work in and of itself.
Great essay. Very thoughtful. Thanks.
While this is a thoughtful essay about an important topic, I can't help but feel you fall at times into the same trap you're critiquing: privileging the artist's "story" over the art they create. The whole inspiration for the essay came about because you found the artist's naivete intriguing -- it's given as much space in the first paragraph as her work. Intriguing enough to drive eighty miles into the country expecting to find her hanging out like Giotto, perhaps, with her flock of sheep. You can substitute "depression" for flock of sheep; mental illness has done service as the sheep's modern stand-in when critics (and the public) are searching for pure, untutored talent to romanticize. While being pissed at the artist's deception is completely understandable, it's unclear if or how that actually changed your assessment of the paintings themselves, since your inital interest seemed to be all about discovering an unknown as much as about the work.

It's also hard to feel sympathy for the buyers of the shiny ugly art, and not just because they're rich. And lawyers. Did they really fall in love with the piece, or with the fact the guy was in the Whitney? Did the sculpture just suddenly become ugly like the painting of Dorian Gray when they found out he hadn't? Also, don't they know how to use Google?

Finally, why is it so bothersome that Artist Trust aims to turn artists into reasonably adult, self-sufficient business-people? Is untutored naivete and, presumably, a willingness to leave the dirty work of marketing and money entirely to someone else, the sign of a "real" artist? While a previous commenter correctly points out that the necessity of accompanying text to understand contemporary art is out of control (and "The Painted Word" hold up quite well sixty years later), I don't think it's unreasonable to expect artists to be able to compose a literate paragraph or two about the work they spend their lives making.

Good job in spite of my quibbles. Also I ordered "Machine in the Studio"; it sounds right up my alley. Thanks for that!
Gosh...that artist sounds possibly pathological in her lying; she might not be able to control herself. And here it is time for me to write another artist's statement and work on my "brand". Sometimes I wish I were a bit less honest. The closest I have come to dissembling is a fantasy I used to have of sending out slides of small paintings claiming they were 6 feet wide, to fit in with the fashion of the past few decades.
I googled all of the finalists for one of the recent big grants, as I always do--to see if there is a web presence for each finalist and to educate myself on their work--and there was this person's work. I chocked it up to the "bad" art that is lately winning grants and went back to my studio. I like what Alice and LouiseB say--let's try to figure out the paint, with efforts at grant applications thrown in, and tell the truth as we know it.
Ah, me. I can't help but admire the web this artist weaves. She is so privileged from the get-go, what with her horse farm. People, a horse farm is not cheap. This artist is from a class that has the leisure to weave such deceits: we who work 40 hours per week at abysmal wages have little time and advantage to make work. Whatever naive quality is here is immediately rendered irrelevant and disgusting by the money trail and any reasonable conscience.
The lives of artists are very artful indeed. Creating visual or musical or sculptural or literary work is artifice. Something from nothing, or a nothing that's jaundiced or rarefied or filtered, tinctured, framed, edited and repositioned. Let me ask you this: Aren't all folks doing this by nature? Isn't the truth subjective? (Yes, it is; there is no objective truth). Aren't we all purposefully repositioning our past to influence our present and future? And an artist like Close hiding or destroying his past – why? It's stupid. Like denying he was once an infant who crapped in his pampers.

Keep everything. That's the story – a visual (or object) story peppered with self-flattering, occasionally self-aggrandizing narratives (or just perfectly chosen words) to get people to think – and think again. My "early" works I've always thought were part of an interesting story of gestation (for me and perhaps for others). I often write my own press releases for my shows. In my last one, The Letters, I called my 333 works on paper and canvas – all mailed to the gallery – an important body of work. It is. We also joke that the best career move an artist can make is to drink a glass of bleach, slit wrists, pull the trigger or jump off a bridge.

Artists live "extraordinary" lives. I live in Paris, France and for many of my "collectors" that's romantic enough. My work soaks up the Parisian vibe – my collages are littered with French texts (structuralism!)... Yes, it's straight true and yes, it's a curve.

History you might remember is really written by the winners scavenging the carcasses of the losers for good copy. Matthew Rose / Paris, France
Nicely done article. You took a tough topic, and presented it in a very kind, careful and complex way. I think it's really important to talk about the dark side of artists and industry if anyone is going to have a clear understanding of the artwork.

Many artists invented a persona, and then become that for better or worse, they play a character, and they say the words that character should say. Narcissists, for example, are very skilled at this, so it is very lucky that we have so many of them as practicing artists. When galleries, fans and writers engage or present that artist, they generally embrace the illusion.

I worked as an editor for Sculpture Review magazine for over 13 years. One of the interesting little lies that you touched on is the artists’ claim to be self-taught-- even when they have an MFA from a prestigious university. My red pen goes through those words every time. Self-taught is code for “individual” or “gifted by god.” We all learn about images and image relationships in our culture, because we swim in them. We all stand on the shoulders of others, and others have generously shared insight and knowledge even if the artist makes something new from that knowledge, so it is just plain rude do disrespect those gifts. Almost no one can claim to be self-taught any more than the other. I have taught sculpture at the university level, yet I have never actually taken a sculpture class, and I would never call myself “self-taught.”

Honest expression is a foundational concept.
I am so reminded here of Tom Wolfe's classic piece on contemporary art, 'The Painted Word'.

I am fascinated by bit about the lawyers that bought the steel sculpture. Were they buying the art because they loved the art or because they loved the 'story' behind the art? Did the artwork become less appealing when its story became less appealing? How does that work?

The rest of the article seems to be examples of more of the same kind of thinking.

Nobody likes to lied to, nobody likes to be fooled, but the upper echelons of the art world seem to be made up of people who -want- to be lied to and like to tell interesting lies to each other. But they have to be really *interesting* and very sincere sounding lies, or they don't have real value.

The 'myth building' that successful artists (and others) have to participate in to achieve success seems to look a lot -like- lying, at least until enough people (or the *right* people) buy into and invest in the myth enough that they want it to -be- the truth and aren't interested in anything else.

To paraphrase the Bertie Stone character from one of my favorite movies about art, "The Moderns", "Art has value because I'm willing to pay for it." Today it seems that people are only willing to pay for art with the right story.
Two-word summary: cargo cult.
Artists are like fruit trees.
Great writing. Thank you.
careerism ...always brings out the bullshit in people...why should art be any different?
Great Job Jen! You should really write a "Miss Manners Book for Starving Artists!" You could be a kind of "Hegemony Cricket" - for all the Pinocchio artists out their!
I found the article fascinating for a three reasons. First, that someone would go to those lengths to reinvent herself as an artist, without any idea that people might do a Google search. Secondly, the idea that "outsider art" is the new thing.

There are so many artists who are in fact real outsiders but will never get anywhere because they don't fit in the Eurocentric construct of the art world, especially with "wonderful arts organizations that fund Washington artists."

Finally it's fascinating that the eurocentric art world is all about endless insecure, validation circles where the haughty art critic is validated only if you knew the artist to which she was referring, or the guys had to be validated if the Venice artists were well-known.

Contemporary Native American artists, as an example are often left to market their own works because they don't fit the folk and traditional construct. Those artists have to out of necessity, market themselves outside of the usual avenues.

The artist not mentioned reminds me of the hipster music scene and some other scenes. When something new is forming, the number of people who fight, lie, believe they were there before most others is funny. To be authentic, pure and innovative are the dreams of many artists and to get a piece of the golden ticket is great!
Let me take you down, 'cause I'm go-ing to...Strawberry Fields.....
where nothing is real........

Thanks, Jen, for another great article!

However modest or successful a life I live, I do indeed need to live my passion of music.
As someone who has been on the jury for grants from "wonderful arts organizations that fund Washington Artists", several times, I can tell you that it is NOT true that "outsider" artists, or Native American artists, are somehow rejected.
Artist Trust, for example, gives it jurors guidelines telling them that the quality of the work is first and foremost, and on the Juries I have been on, we gave grants to both "outsider" (which, I guess, means no college degree?) and Native American artists.

I am somewhat dubious of the actual existence of true "outsider" artists outside of say, mental institutions- I mean, you really believe Howard Finster never looked at an Art in America magazine? Even Henry Darger could easily have taken the L to the Art Institute of Chicago museum. So any "outsiderness" today is almost always a career choice, not a natural, pre-existing condition. There are naive artists, sure. But the public library in any town in America has Art Books- so unless you CHOOSE to not know about other artists, its hard to claim true "outsiderness" is anything but just another self selected genre.
This does not surprise me. In Canadian academia, universities often encourage their faculty members in the sciences to make the most of their CVs. Plagiarism and fraud are endemic and it is not unheard of for senior scientists to claim invited talks given at other universities by their employees, even when they have never been to those places. Any ideas that the junior scientists produce become theirs, but they cannot write the papers or grants. Keeping up appearances is the name of the game. They even have unwritten rules preventing you from being offered another academic job locally, thus protecting their research effort. So many secret rules exist and you are powerless to do anything about them unless they screw up and leave a paper trail. Then the university has a series of null responses with the belief that if they do nothing about it the problem will go away. Codes of conduct do not apply it seems, they only exist to meet the guidelines set out by granting agencies. When large sums of money are involved, anything goes.
Thoughtful article. I'm an artist with a brother recently deceased who was also an artist. His resume was an unfortunate mixture of truth and fabrication obvious to anyone well informed in the art world. With some exceptions most artist's resumes could be 100 word or less, the right exhibition or collection can tell it all.
Wow, what a terrific article! Jen, I really responded and it hit me on so many levels, things I actually think about all the time; ploys to get noticed and represented, I have definitely tried a few myself. When I lived in Tacoma, I even had work in an exhibition under a fake name, because I really needed to experiment. And It was fun. To this day I still have a erge to do it again!!

Oh, man. I wouldn't have had a clue who the mystery artist in this piece was, if not for that last paragraph. Then it hit me like a sledgehammer.

It's a pretty huge hint, and should probably be removed if you don't want people to know who the horse-farm artist is.

Excellent article, though.
Thanks for this! I'm reminded of an experience with a dealer- I was approached by a gallery dealer and sent him 8 or so paintings. He told me they would exhibit my work at AAF in NY, which to me is a pretty big deal. I looked on the website- and there I was on the AAF website! Or, at least, a picture of one of my paintings was featured. But only my first name was given- so no one looking me up would ever find my website or anything about me. I emailed AAF and they told me all my work had been submitted via the gallery under my first name only. I should have confronted him, but in the end I didn't, as I couldn't really blame him. He was asking 2-3 times my usual prices (as far as I know), and my website still shows a mostly unexceptional list of cafes and emerging artist galleries- nothing really prestigious. They wound up selling a few and returning the rest, and to this day I have no idea if those buyers know my last name, or care. I've been meaning to remove my modest little list of shows from online; at my age it's starting to feel more detrimental than helpful- I'm starting to think the less said, the better.
I also appreciate what you wrote about artists and experimentation, and possible negative repercussions for them. These are all things I've pondered a lot and it's refreshing to see it written about in such a thoughtful way.
After reading this I find myself thinking about how you visited the young pedigreed artist on the way and couldn't get away fast enough, and how much you wanted to embrace the story of the horse-farm artist. When I think of myself and the thousands of other artists who fall somewhere in the middle... "I just don't have the energy to create a persona that's not just actually who I am." I relate to that statement completely. I both admire and despise the artists that do have the energy.
I have no idea who the artist is Jen is referring to. If anyone knows their name do tell. The curiosity is killing me.
We bought a relatively large outsider art work at an art show, which the "artist" brought to our home, helped us hang it, signed it after hanging it, explaining that he never signed his work until it was sold (hmmmm) and posed in front of it at his own request, for a photo. A few years later, my wife saw an article about a debate concerning the same "artist" we bought the work from, where he was being accused by another artist, after winning a festival contest, that he had copied the complaining artist's style. After some investigation we found evidence pointing to the conclusion that the artist we purchased the work from wasn't actually the artist of the work, but had secured "ownership" of a group of paintings by the actual outsider artist who had lived on his property for a period of time.
lots to chew on thanks. really. (not really really really!)

i think it's a matter of -- which came first...the chicken or the egg... do artists make up stuff so people take notice of them in a new light or is it to hide something they wish to recede into shadow? Either way, it's a deep need to seen differently I guess -- it reminds me of the world of physical beauty --cosmetics give us a way to change ourselves into something more/better-- to hide blemishes... that's why it's called makeup!
lots to chew on thanks. really. (not really really really!)

i think it's a matter of -- which came first...the chicken or the egg... do artists make up stuff so people take notice of them in a new light or is it to hide something they wish to recede into shadow? Either way, it's a deep need to seen differently I guess -- it reminds me of the world of physical beauty --cosmetics give us a way to change ourselves into something more/better-- to hide blemishes... that's why it's called makeup!
i really enjoyed reading this article. i have to agree with earlier comments criticising the author's initial enthusiasm about the horse-lady's paintings simply because of the story surrounding them, instead of a genuine response to the work itself. i'm wondering how a hard-working, traditionally-trained, moderately-shown artist who is neither "emerging" nor "established" would hope to gain the attention of an arts writer, or god knows, someone like Kucera. i like the fact that you've highlighted the temptation many artists feel to exaggerate or embellish, however, i think that more directness is in order for the arts audience to encourage them to look at art in more honest ways.
Artists create. And the most intimate creation is their own identity. Some artists even modify their face or physique. Changing a biography is less expensive and painful. Since everything changes, why be surprised if the past does too?
Maybe Agnes Martin woke up one day and thought she could paint a study. Maybe she’d been looking at work by Cézanne and Gauguin. I'm pretty sure she wasn't contemplating an art critic, decades later, referring to her effort and experiment as "garish." This whole article seems to emanate from a heightened awareness of self, both precious and overt. Most artists don't need to con dealers or critics. It's entirely arguable that artists have never needed dealers and critics as much as dealers and critics need artists.
I rarely read art stories anymore because they generally make me feel ill. This one did too, but in a different way. Do I really want to be an 'artist'? I just want to make stuff that I dig - that other people dig and want to live with. I don't have the desire to deal with the rest of it - certainly not enough to lie about who I am and what I've done. Will that hinder my career? I don't know, but better that than be horse-farm artist.
i liked this article a great deal, regarding the artspeak and the rampant faux naif in hipster culture and art world poseurs.
i cringed with the resume bit about susie lee, and the pigs on parade bit. i submitted an idea, that was also made by another artist and sold for 26,000 dollars. my other ones made considerable cash for the charity, where is there something lacking in credibility in that? many of the 'cool' artists of the day, written up in the stranger, and elsewhere, their work didn't even come close to getting 500 dollars. so what? it's the intention of the event like this to bring some fun, raise some money, sure there was lots of amateurish work, so what? plus, artists were paid, whats wrong with that? it's like there is this this arrogance about community, getting paid, and helping others with ones creativity, thats pretty sad.
Ha, great PR indeed! You should post this everywhere. This article actually accomplishes only one thing, and that's to expose the real fraud here... the writer herself!! All she managed to say in just under 1 million words was that she doesn't get how this whole art thing works, and that she is more interested in cute background stories of "innocent artists" she can exploit, and whether or not SHE is the first person to write about them.

It is made very clear that the writer is a "naif" herself if she is so absolutely flabbergasted to find out that artists fuck with their past a little or a lot, it's part of what we do, and most importantly it's an extension of the art itself. If a collector, dealer, gallerist, fan, or critic thinks less of the art she has discovered because of the artist's history than she clearly hasn't taken the time to appreciate the work and this writer is clearly just looking to be the first to write about "horse-farm artist." When she discovered this wasn't the case and that she is in fact an idiot who wasn't in on the joke she felt like she had to punish the artist instead of just stepping back and using that muscle between her ears to consider that maybe this approach is intentional...

Since she discovered that "horse farm artist" is actually intelligent and not a dribbling simpleton "outsider" how come she couldn't conclude that the artist might also understand how the "internets wurks" and that she may be "unmasked" eventually. I would think any reasonable person would have gotten to that point in the writing process and stopped and said.... "oh wait, shit" laughed, scrapped the article and sent the artist a quick e-mail saying "aw shucks, you scallywag!" But no, that might be too honest.

I think horse farm artist should print this off, frame each page and hang it as art next to her regular works in her next show. It says more about the shallowness of the art world than I ever could and reminds us that the gaping void between "inner artworld"critics and underground artists is the greatest thing to ever happen to the artists themselves. Would any of us ever really want to be part of a social circle that would have this writer or her kin as members? Not I certainly.

I know an artist who acts like two people all the time, writing and responding to letters as both artists and even going to the extent of photoshopping this fictional artist into photographs he himself is in. Just wait until the critics discover the fraud and all his previous sales become worthless because the background check didn't add up.

I'm a big fan of "HFA" and I was forwarded to this article from the artist herself through her facebook fan page. The article appeared with a large duuuhhh above it. Duh indeed.

Leigh Cooney
First off, you'll find people who lie about who they are, who lie on their resumes, who post 10-year-old photos on dating sites, and are generally dishonest people who lie to get ahead. It shouldn't be made to sound like a special art-world affliction. There are plenty of honest artists, and trimming your resume hardly counts as a lie. If a status collector falls for the lie, I'm not wasting any time caring about it or them.

Second, the whole story takes place in the upper echelon of the local art world - people who get written about in articles that actually get read, who show in downtown galleries, who depend on some art Fairy Godmother to swoop down and bestow her blessing on them. I understand that many artists have bought into the notion that this is what success looks like, but those who haven't do things like write their own artists' statements. Maybe they don't want to treat the people who make their money from their work as stepping-stones to the next, better thing. Maybe they don't want some artspeak-spewing insider speaking for them. Maybe they recognize that for every artist who exhibits at Kucina there are hundreds who are every bit as interesting and accomplished.

Charles Saachi's recent essay in The Guardian is an example of just one insider who has distanced or completely divorced himself from the high-stakes world of billionaire collectors and their sycophants. It's a mystery to me why more artists don't join them.

"My dark little secret is that I don't actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art and simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one, until the artist has enjoyed the validation of others – a received pronunciation." - Charles Saachi
Well, you gave away Andrea Heimer once you mentioned the band-bit.
It reads like a now personal vendetta against the artist who duped Graves, cloaked in some hypocrisy about how insular and shallow the art world can be: while Graves writes "it was so bad!" The dupe is art itself.
Great article! But no Arshile Gorky reference???
The role of self-taught, independent artists in modern art is growing, as recognized in the article, and on resources like this site.

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