The author has written a new afterword that you can read here:
“All history is the history of unintended consequences,” so the old saying goes, and the validity of the assumption is particularly well exemplified in the case of the fictional artist, Nat Tate (1928-1960). I deliberately didn’t use the possessive pronoun there – it was no Freudian slip – not “my” fictional artist but “the” fictional artist. Yet, Nat Tate is my invention – Nat Tate is my creature – however, a long time ago, he seemed to slip free of my imagination and take on a life of his own.
The origins of Nat Tate go back a fair distance. In 1987 I published my novel THE NEW CONFESSIONS which took the form of a fictional autobiography. Reviewing it at the time, the critic Bernard Levin said, “hypnotised by its autobiographical form I found myself riffling through the pages for the photographs”. Photographs?… I thought: “I’ve missed a trick there.” Then some years later I was invited to contribute to a book called DAVID HOCKNEY’S ALPHABET, in which twenty-six writers were asked to provide a short text — of any sort — to accompany Hockney’s graphic depictions of each letter. I was given the letter “N” and wrote a biographical memoir of a wholly fictional francophone Laotian writer called Nguyen N, who had briefly flourished in Paris between the wars. I quoted a letter from N to André Gide and I cited his celebrated work of aphoristic philosophy, Les Analects de Nguyen N (Monnier, Toulon 1928). At the launch party for the book I was engaged in protracted conversation with a guest who claimed to remember reading about N, and indeed had a French bookseller searching for a first edition of Les Analects. It was an awkward few minutes and I thought it best to leave enlightenment for another day.
In both cases it was not the idea of a hoax that intrigued me so much as the ability to make something entirely invented seem astonishingly real. I began vaguely to formulate the idea of taking the fictional-biography mode even further into the area of verisimilitude and, steadily over a few years, started collecting discarded photographs – anonymous photographs from junk shops, house clearance sales, brocantes in France — with a view to one day writing a “life” tricked out with all the artefacts of a real biography — illustrations, notes, bibliography, index and so on.
By now it was 1998. I was on the editorial board of Modern Painters magazine, then a very classy and influential art quarterly, and, one day in a meeting, the editor of the magazine, Karen Wright, wondered out loud if there was a way we could introduce some fiction into the mix of artists’ profiles, exhibition reviews and general essays that the magazine specialized in. I don’t know what made me speak out but I said, without really thinking: “Why don’t I invent an artist?” And so Nat Tate was born.
Much play has been made over the years that I deliberately appropriated the names of the two pre-eminent London public galleries – the National and the Tate – for this artist’s name. But, if I did so — and perhaps I did — it was done completely unconsciously. When I write fiction the names of the characters I create are extremely important to me – if the name sounds right then I feel that the character already begins to live and breathe on the page. “Nat Tate” seemed to me both punchily memorable and American – this fictional artist was to be American, I had decided, not British — and, it’s worth remembering that at this embryonic stage of his existence there wasn’t the remotest idea of developing a hoax. I was thinking only of a long short story, perhaps. A long short story with illustrations.
I placed Tate in a period of 20th century artistic history that I was already fascinated by — namely the 1950s in New York, which saw the emergence of the New York School of artists and the birth of Abstract Expressionism. This was the era of Jackson Pollock and Action Painting, of de Kooning, Kline and Motherwell. It was the first time that the full glare of hype and media interest transformed a group of impoverished, unknown artists, almost overnight, into national and international celebrities, and with that renown came the more destructive elements of sudden wealth, notoriety, groupies, drugs, booze, jealousies, acrimony, and premature death. This background had everything I needed for Nat Tate and as I began to evolve the details of his brief life I began to invent characters — his foster parents, fellow artists, gallery owners — whose personalities would fit the photographs I had collected. It was a complex process — but hugely enjoyable — and as it enlarged I started factoring real people into the Nat Tate story: the poet Frank O’Hara, Georges Braque, Franz Kline, Picasso and Larry Rivers amongst others. I began to feel like Dr Frankenstein. Nat Tate became my benign, doomed monster. I had his photo in front of me (that I had found in a junk shop in France); I had put together all the ingredients of his short tragic life; he seemed, even in manuscript stage, almost to live and breathe. The search for authenticity went further — some of Nat Tate’s surviving drawings were reproduced. I approached Gore Vidal and John Richardson (Picasso’s friend and biographer), and asked them to “reminisce” about meeting Nat in the 1950s — which they sportingly and readily agreed to do.
But at the same time as I worked to provoke immediate credulity I knew that the story could not withstand sustained analysis — far too much was invented. Indeed, one of the key witnesses to Nat’s life — an English writer called Logan Mountstuart — was a character taken from one of my short stories, published in my collection The Destiny of Nathalie X in 1995, and who was later to become the protagonist of my novel ANY HUMAN HEART (2002). Nat Tate, the biography, was in the end studded with covert and cryptic clues and hints as to its real, fictive status. For me, the author, this was part of the pleasure — a form of Nabokovian relish in the sheer play and artifice — and the fundamental aim of the book, it became clear to me, was to destabilise, to challenge our notions of authenticity. First would come belief — the narrative of Nat Tate’s life looked so wonderfully genuine, so rich and detailed, full of photographs — then doubts would set in, alarm bells would begin distantly to ring. But then the reader would come across, say, Gore Vidal’s recollections, and then there would be a picture of Frank O’Hara and a Frank O’Hara poem mentioning Tate (another fake) and credulity would be established again for a while — before suspicions crept back in. What was created was a form of reverse propaganda. Not truth disguised by lies, but “Truth” peeled away to reveal the true lie at the centre.
So I duly wrote Nat Tate: an American Artist 1928-1960 – copiously illustrated with found anonymous pictures of Nat and his foster parents, his friends, his lovers, his colleagues, his dealers and his patrons. And, crucially, there were also some reproductions of his art – a couple of drawings from his famous “Bridge” sequence. The drawings were done by me.
I put together the details of Nat Tate’s life fairly swiftly. Born in New Jersey in 1928, he had been orphaned as a young boy and adopted by a rich couple who lived in Long Island. Showing some aptitude for art, he went to art school and then – funded by his doting father – set himself up as an artist in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. New York was becoming the centre of all that was fashionable in modern painting and Nat began to enjoy some acclaim in the 1950s as a young painter and was linked with the artists who formed part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. But as the decade ended Nat Tate was in a bad way. He was drinking far too much and he had been profoundly shaken by two encounters with unequivocal artistic genius – namely Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Nat had met them both in France – the one trip he took abroad in his life.
Disturbed and made insecure by the meeting with these two contemporary giants of the art world, Nat had looked again at his own art and whatever talent it displayed and had found it seriously wanting. Very depressed by this self-knowledge, he gathered together everything he could find of his paintings and drawings — some 99 percent of his output — and burned them in a fervid auto da fé over one weekend. He then committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island ferry as it crossed the Hudson River from New York towards New Jersey. It was January 12th 1960. His body was never found.
Another member of the Modern Painters editorial board was the rock-music icon David Bowie (we had joined the board at the same time and came to know each other as a result). Bowie, with some collaborators, had set up a small publishing company called 21 Publishing and he suggested we publish the story I had written about Nat Tate as a small, beautifully produced, coffee-table art-monograph. I agreed, unhesitatingly.
With hindsight, I now see that this was the beginning of my loss of control – the autonomy was passing from author to character. The book was printed – it looked perfect, beautifully authentic. Bowie suggested two launch parties – one in Manhattan, one in London, a week apart. We would present Nat Tate straight – no tongue in cheek, no nod and wink – and see what happened. Bowie wrote the blurb. Gore Vidal provided a perfect cover quote. The first launch party was scheduled for Manhattan on April Fools’ Day, 1998. A week later, London would follow.
This is where the Nat Tate “hoax” was born. A British journalist from the Independent newspaper (David Lister, who had become one of the conspirators) toured the crowded party in Manhattan – it took place in Jeff Koons’s studio and was full of the glitterati of the art world – asking leading questions. The guests responded, guilelessly and not so guilelessly, assuming Nat Tate was a genuine forgotten painter, just rediscovered. Poor Nat. What a tragedy. A truly interesting artist. The work was fascinating. A real loss. They dug holes for themselves and jumped in.
It was all about to be repeated in London a week later and many people in London already believed that Nat was genuine – I had given several interviews announcing my “discovery”. However, a few days after the New York launch, the Independent decided that their scoop was too valuable to sit on and they ran their story on the front page of the newspaper. “British Novelist hoaxes Manhattan Art World.” I was in France on a book tour. What? A hoax? It was never meant to be a hoax! But it was out of my hands. Nat was stirring, my benign Frankenstein’s monster had risen to his feet and had shaken off his authorial chains. Like it or not, I was now a hoaxer and I had hoaxed everyone. It became a 24-hour global news event. The New York Times ran the story on the front of their arts pages; Jeremy Paxman interviewed me at length for Newsnight. I gave further interviews to magazines and radio stations throughout Europe, USA, South Africa and Australia.
I kept waiting for it to die down but it never did. Over the next ten years three television documentaries were made about Nat Tate and the hoax. Nat Tate joined the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and the Alien Autopsies as amongst the most famous hoaxes of the 20th century. Every time there was a hoax I was approached to comment. PhD students wrote to me asking for permission to quote Nat Tate in their theses. When Banksy was outed I was asked to describe what it was like to be similarly exposed. I had letters from deluded souls actually claiming to be Nat Tate and offers from artists suggesting that together we create more Nat Tate artworks.
Then in 2010 it all reached a kind of climax. My novel Any Human Heart was dramatized by Channel 4, and Nat – who appears briefly in the book – was played in the film by the actor Theo Cross. Bloomsbury, my British publishers, and Berlin Verlag, my German publishers, reissued the book in handsome new editions. In November 2010 I found myself on stage in a notable Berlin art gallery, Sprüth Magers, in front of an audience of hundreds, talking about Nat Tate – his face, a hundred times life-size, projected on the wall behind the podium — with the editor of the German art magazine Monopol. I was filmed and interviewed about Nat. His picture was everywhere – and often juxtaposed with a photo of myself — this picture that I had found in a junk shop of an anonymous man and presented to the world as the only surviving photographic image of the artist. It was all getting out of hand, I felt. The unintended consequences of the history of Nat Tate were out of my control. Some sort of decent termination had to be found.
And so I came up with an idea. Perhaps the circle could be closed if a Nat Tate drawing came on the open market. If this fictional artist could sell an artwork for real money then the Nat Tate story would have reached some kind of perfect apotheosis and consummation. So I “found” another Nat Tate drawing, another one from his famous Bridge Sequence, a series of drawings inspired by Hart Crane’s poem, “The Bridge”. The drawing was entitled “Bridge No. 114” (the sequence runs to over two hundred). I had it elegantly framed and took it into Sotheby’s and showed it to Philip Hook, senior director of the Impressionist and Modern Art department. Sotheby’s had form when it came to selling art by fictional artists, having successfully auctioned a Bruno Hat painting some years previously. Bruno Hat was a spoof artist that a group of bright young things had invented in 1929 and staged an exhibition of his work in a London town-house. (Evelyn Waugh wrote the catalogue essay, Brian Howard and John Banting did the paintings). Philip Hook consulted with colleagues and in due course I was told the sale was on.
It was a strange moment – both exciting and oddly melancholy. Would this be an end to Nat Tate’s curious “life”? Was his thirteen-year existence about to achieve a definitive full-stop? I found myself wondering if Nat’s ghost would be laid to rest and some sort of quietus would ensue – for fictional character and author alike.
Nat Tate’s “Bridge no.114” was sold at auction at Sotheby’s on 16th November 2011 to considerable fanfare (interviews, articles, TV appearances by the biographer). A key factor in the whole enterprise was that all proceeds from the sale were going to charity – to the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution – a charity that provides financial aid “for artists who are in difficulties”. It would be a vicariously apt moment for me, I thought, the author in “difficulties” with his creation. But it was not to be. Instead of closure, the Nat Tate myth received another boost when it turned out that the buyer of the drawing (it sold for £7250, over twice its estimate) was in fact Anthony McPartlin, otherwise known as Ant in the legendary TV presenter duo “Ant and Dec”. “Ant” of course is an anagram of “Nat” so another curious harmony was born and another chapter added to the extra-literary story.
However, a sadder concluding chapter occurred when Nat Tate’s publisher and prime booster, David Bowie, died in 2016. There was a resurgence of interest in Bowie’s less-known roles as an artist, collector and publisher. The contribution he had made to the Nat Tate legend was repeatedly acknowledged and praised by me in talks that I gave around the sale of his art collection and in articles I wrote at the time. With hindsight, I think it’s fair to say that without Bowie’s presence as publisher, blurb-writer and host of the 1998 party the Nat Tate hoax would have been consigned to a small footnote in literary history. Bowie’s huge fame, his glamour, his love of subterfuge and his air of perfectly curated, effortless “cool” brought a huge fascination and interest to the Nat Tate story.
And so it rolls on — relentless, continually fascinating, endlessly renewable – and I have abandoned all attempts to stop it in its tracks. The little book is now in its third incarnation. It has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Italian. I have lent Nat Tate drawings to exhibitions – I have quite a collection, myself — and I am regularly asked to curate a retrospective. It’s now over twenty years since that April Fool’s Day party in Jeff Koons’s studio in Manhattan where the Nat Tate hoax began and flourished for a few days. Resigned to my fate as Dr Frankenstein, I look at Nat Tate, the monster I created, and I have to confess to an odd feeling of baffled satisfaction. I never expected him to live so long, and my attempt to drive a stake through his heart and destroy him was doomed to failure, I realise. Something makes me think he might be immortal.