Magazine article The Spectator

Two Tates and a Lot of Tat

Magazine article The Spectator

Two Tates and a Lot of Tat

Article excerpt

NAT TATE by William Boyd 21 Press, L9.95, pp. 67


by Frances Spalding Tate Gallery Publications, L25, pp. 308

The art world is an odd sort of place, with its curious rituals and appeasements, its social bluffs and dangers. From time to time, some small event exposes the workings of this odd society, and, before the observer replaces the stone, an entire unsuspected seething society has been unearthed for our amusement. What initially seemed pillars of respectability can easily start to crumble on closer inspection, individuals one always thought motivated by the highest ideals of a love of art turn out to be rather more interested in filthy lucre. So it has always been, and always will be.

William Boyd's life of Nat Tate was one of those events which exposed this strange world to a wider audience. Launched as a perfectly serious biography of an underrated artist, it was, of course, a spoof, a short story decked out with critical apparatus, photographs purporting to be of the artist in the company of Braque and even some (really quite good) drawings by 'Tate' himself. The gaff was blown too early for the hoax really to develop, but for a short time a surprisingly large number of people in the New York art world seem to have been taken in by it. Reports back from the American launch spoke of eminent critics and painters boasting that they had known Tate or, at the very least, been a great admirer of his work for years.

I said that a surprisingly large number of people were taken in by the hoax, simply because the book is an obvious fake. This isn't just in retrospect; I smelt a rat when I saw that 'Tate' met his death in exactly the same way as the poet Hart Crane. Other people, noticing that the photographs were not right, clearly not of the date shown, quickly came to the same conclusion. Most of us looked in a couple of reference books, and then worked out what hardly anyone, it appears, in the New York art world could see, that there was no such animal. I don't think the joke could have run much longer, and it's surprising it went as far as it did.

The frustrating thing about all this is that Boyd's elegant small fable has been quite overlooked, as if there were nothing there but a practical joke. It is, in fact, an intelligent parable about mediocrity and genius, about an artist who comes to see the limits which have been placed on his own capacity and prefers to draw the line himself. Tricked out in orthodox post-modern garb, it is a pleasant and thought-provoking piece of work; if the present generation of young British artists get round to reading it, they may find it makes them pause.

Frances Spalding's authorised history of the Tate Gallery is necessarily soberly written. A great deal of it is about committee meetings and internal politics, and the details of acquisitions and bequests. In short, it is absolutely gripping stuff, with a cast of wild men, eccentrics, and semilunatics all fighting like polecats; the chapter about the 1930s, surely the gallery's darkest hour, is particularly eye-stretching. The story of how a collection of Victorian sentimental and comic paintings grew to a gallery which is supposed to encompass modern foreign art, the national collection of British painting, Carl Andre's bricks, video art, and most of Turner's paintings under one roof is a fascinating one; sometimes, reading this excellent history, one has the sense that it has grown and improved against the best efforts of those put in charge of it. …

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