The fictional artist
Rrose Sélavy, Vern Blosum, John Dogg: Why do artists create alter egos or hide as collectives behind made-up characters? Martin Herbert traces the figure of the fictional artist over the last hundred years and discovers a reflection of the art world’s changing face. Sometimes one identity just isn’t enough.
In 2013, New York’s Essex Street gallery exhibited eight paintings, dating from 1961–64 and loaned by their credited maker, Vern Blosum. These squeaky-clean graphic works, mostly affectless copies from a spotter’s guide to wildflowers were joined by a painted Stop sign and image-text paintings pairing cats and pigeons with disjunctive phrases like Planned Obsolescence. Aptly, since placing cats among pigeons was precisely what, in the early 1960s, Blosum’s artworks aimed to do. Collectors bought his work, which also included deskilled depictions of parking meters, fire hydrants, post boxes, and alarm boxes; so, via the usually gimlet-eyed dealer Leo Castelli, did the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Blosum was featured in Artforum and Lucy Lippard’s 1966 anthology Pop Art. There was only one problem: he didn’t exist. Echoing the botanical phrase, “Vernal Blossom”, Vern Blosum was the alias of an abstract expressionist, former student of Adolph Gottlieb, who to this day remains anonymous. Believing Pop Art to be an affront to painterly skill, he made some cantankerous faux-Pop, proved his point, then vanished. Meanwhile, his work, like a time-bomb, blew up in his wake.
After buying Blosum’s parking meter painting Time Expired (1962), MoMA tried to attain credible biographical information about its maker from Castelli. Not satisfied (part of his bio reads, “I had a plane but lost it when I decided to devote my full time to painting and couldn’t make the payments”), they decided they’d been hoodwinked and, in 1973, placed the work into permanent storage. Probably they should revisit it, given how persuasive and prescient Blosum’s fakery now appears. Time Expired has a sharp structural- conceptual bent that reads – like Blosum’s attention to instruments of order, classification, and control – as meta. His discordant linguistic games anticipate John Baldessari or Joseph Kosuth. Additionally, Blosum’s practice speaks not only to the mutability of art’s meaning in shifting contexts, but also to a periodic tendency throughout the last century for artists to assume false identities in relation, particularly, to market dictates: breaking themselves in two.
Unsurprisingly, Duchamp, the great dethroner, is a pioneer here.
The meaning of the signature “R. Mutt” on Duchamp’s Fountain (1915) has frequently been picked over by Duchampian scholars. The artist himself left various trails, stating that “Mutt” derived from the cartoon “Jeff and Mutt” and the urinal’s alleged source, the JL Mott Iron Works in New Jersey. The point, though, seems to be less about an encoding than an ungraspable exploding of authorship. This can be seen in Duchamp’s hermaphroditic alter ego Rose/Rrose Sélavy, whose name (a French pun on “Eros is Life”) appears on Fresh Widow (1920), who “signed” works including Anémic Cinema (1926) and Duchamp’s correspondence, andwho was famously photographed by Man Ray.
Here, the alter ego becomes an escape route, casting a jaundiced eye on the art world’s baleful categorising. It is a deputy-self predicated on slipperiness and difficulty. This is also the fine distinction between Elaine Sturtevant and the self-dissolving “Sturtevant” (who performed, as Bruce Hainley has written, “her own appearance as difference – somewhat Rrose Sélavy-like – in certain of her works”). Neither the artist nor her comprehensible negative, this other is liminal and eluding; it is a moving target. Like Lutz Bacher, whose pseudonym is part of a thorough deranging of specific identity, or Bruce Conner, who, announcing his own death twice and officially quitting art in 1999, worked before and after his “retirement” under several aliases, including Anonymous, Emily Feather, BOMBHEAD, Diogenes Lucero, and The Dennis Hopper One Man Show. What remains, gratifyingly, is a fossil field that art historians and curators still trawl. (There is, of course, also anonymity for purely pragmatic reasons, for example Guerrilla Girls’ three decades’ worth of agitation. “Anonymous free speech is protected by the constitution. You’d be surprised what comes out of your mouth when you wear a mask”, they noted recently.)
R. Mutt would beget John Dogg, the fictional, Beat-flavoured artist invented by Richard Prince and the late New York dealer Colin de Land. His handful of shows in the 80s essay a blank neo-geo of car- and truck tyres and tyre covers, ostensibly made by a figure who, as a text in Prince’s 2008 Guggenheim catalogue suggests, formerly drove across America, bringing cars to their buyers. De Land would reprise this gadfly approach in 1992 with Art Club 2000: seven Cooper Union art students, their group photographs exploring market-driven cultural identity and the gentrification of Manhattan. That sniping false front, in turn, anticipates latter-day artist groups operating under single-name pseudonyms. This includes Bruce High Quality, again Cooper Union graduates, anonymously running the Foundation of a late, fictional “social sculptor” who ostensibly died on 9/11; Claire Fontaine, the Paris-based British/Italian pair who style themselves as “assistants” of a readymade artist, their work’s empty centre; and Reena Spaulings, the faux writer, artist, and gallerist dreamed up by another front, Bernadette Corporation.
It’s natural that false selves rise up alongside dismaying market tumescence: 80s New York for Dogg, the early 2000s for the last-mentioned. Reena Spaulings (2004), a novel credited to Bernadette Corporation – whose evolving line-up since 1994 has centred on Bernadette Van-Huy, John Kelsey and Antek Walczak, was written, à la the open-use name Luther Blissett set up by Italian activists in 1994, collectively and anonymously by 150 people.Its title figure is a floating signifier in a picaresque New York. The preface notes that “its primary content is the desire to do two things at once: to take something back and to get rid of ourselves”.
Spaulings’ name suggests “sprawling”, which fits. In 2004 she also became the proprietor of a Lower East Side gallery, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, set up by Kelsey and his then-partner Emily Sundblad – and, in 2005, an artist, whose work is collaboratively made. For a 2012 exhibition at Chantal Crousel in Paris, she exhibited, alongside etchings of drones, paintings on pizza boxes of the type seen at Occupy’s occupation of Zuccotti Park. “It’s a political position, definitely, to assume this authorless function”, Sundblad told The New York Times in 2014, and the problems her phantasmagoric presence confronts – celebritization, a consuming market – have lasted. Reena Spaulings features one Henry Codax, a maker of expensive monochromes, and exhibitions by a reclusive minimalist artist of that name have appeared since 2011. (He’s also been “interviewed” online by his gallerist, who told his interviewee that he didn’t quite exist.) Despite rumours that Codax is Oliver Mosset and Jacob Kassay, the mask remains in place; it’s just widely assumed that the work is a fictive front for someone gaming with value.
Yet despite the rationality behind the process, the idea of the collectively authored single figure feels recherché today – mannerist, even, when a novelistic artist starts painting IRL. It recalls the heady moment a decade or so ago, when art bedded down with literature, particularly experimental literature. In 2006, this lead to a peak moment for the pseudonym. The New York gallery Triple Candie exhibited the 1962–75 works of the late black post-minimalist Lester Hayes, investigating failure and race within the artworld, and the Whitney Biennial featured a fictional curator, Toni Burlap, invented by curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne. These tricks go dead, and they have. In 2014, Joe Scanlan’s black female alter ego, Donelle Woolford, also appeared in the Whitney Biennial. Curator Michelle Grabner has recalled that Woolford accepted entry; Scanlan turned it down. He’d invented Woolford more than a decade earlier, deciding that the collages he was making at the time would be more interesting if created by someone else. At the Whitney, Woolford, played by a female actor, made identity even more slippery by performing a Richard Pryor routine in which the legendary comedian played someone else – his long-standing character Mudbone. The inclusion of this work led to the withdrawal of the YAMS collective from the Biennial on the grounds of racial insensitivity.
If the fictional artist feels like more of a problem than a solution in 2015, this is related to the obvious fact that self-creation is now the norm.
Thanks to ubiquitous social media, we’re all arimchitects of frontages now. Avatar- as-medium is exemplified by Jayson Musson, the trained painter whose popular, gold-chain-sporting Hennessy Youngman character addresses serious issues like race, gender, and precarity behind a comedic façade in his Art Thoughtz YouTube tutorials. The flipside of the Internet as enabler, obviously, is that it is a giant surveillance device, in which a “real” self – measurable via activities – is a liability. Thus a supernumerary self becomes not just advantageous within the art world’s pernicious economy but within a larger society of control. This is why the paradigmatic use of artistic fictionalising today might be Curtis Wallen’s “Aaron Brown” project. In early 2013, Wallen began building a person online – creating a composite photographic face from five people, getting a fake driver’s license, Comcast account, insurance card, sailing license – to see what kind of trail he left. He then attempted to make his fake friend disappear, submerging himself in Bitcoin and the anti- surveillance Tor browser while noting how Brown retained ineradicable visibility. “Brown” has a Twitter account, but anyone can post using it; there’s a proxy server through which anyone can browse the web “as” Aaron Brown, creating a search history for him. He falls apart, vexingly, as he falls together.
The structural complication of the fictional figure, then, is that he/she is a short-term deal, constantly requiring renovation and evolution-from-without, such that this phenomenon has necessarily glimmered, faded, and shape-shifted over the last century, even as domineering conditions that necessitate it (constrictions of the normative, the art market, and the surveillance state) only entrench. Reena Spaulings’ latest move, in their recent show at Berlin’s Galerie Neu, was to pastiche zombie abstraction by using the floor-cleaning iRobot Scooba 450 to make swirly paintings. If it’s a one-liner, blame Reena: a fictional gallerist in a real gallery, handing agency to a machine that mindlessly mimics the expressive. What a tangled web – with puppet strings – we weave.
Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Berlin. His collection of essays The Uncertainty Principle was published in 2014 by Sternberg Press.