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Reading Roundup: Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960 by William Boyd

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13 October 2011 | 06:14 pm

Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960 by William Boyd
New York:Bloomsbury, 2011 (1998). Trade paperback, 67 pages. Complimentary publisher copy (EarlyReviewer), July 2011.

So this book was originally published as a hoax, the biography of an artist that never existed.  William Boyd was trying to prank the art world, getting a bunch of critics to show up to a party where none of them would admit they'd never heard of the fellow before.  It's been republished now for some reason.

I read it right after rereading Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, which was appropriate as it added to the experience of feeling like I was tracking someone who may or may not have actually existed. (This is doubly appropriate, as Paul Auster was at the original 1998 launch party for the biography.) The use of photographs in the book is kinda Lemony Snicket-esque; all of the photos of "Tate" are of people whose face you can't see, much like the pictures in Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography.  The book has this weird feeling of not-quite-parody throughout, with exchanges like this:
She recognized the Hart Crane debt in Tate's powerful, intense drawings and was immediately captivated. 'That Crane fellow ought to pay you a commission,' Franz Kline once jokingly observed to Nat when he later became a succès fou. 'Hart is dead,' Nat replied, flatly, 'so it doesn't matter.' Kline denied this heatedly and fiercely until he was advised they were talking about Hart -- not Art. (27)
It's almost funny, but more just off-putting, like you've entered a Kafkaesque world where everyone is doing strange things, but there's no seeming purpose to it, and the book is filled with moments like it.  Which makes it hard to make something of it. 

Would I have found it funny if I knew something about the New York art scene of the the 1950s? (Franz Kline was apparently a real abstract expressionist painter, for example.)  Maybe, which speaks to my major complaint that the book needs some kind of apparatus-- an introduction or appendix talking about what was done and why, an explanation of the references, an account of the launch party, and an account of the discovery that Nate Tate wasn't.  Without that, it's just an odd little curiosity that doesn't really have a reason to exist, lingering in the world long after it should have vanished from existence.


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