OBITUARY: Philippe Thomas

Philippe Thomas ceased to exist long before he died. Before vanishing physically, at the age of 44, he had already disappeared altogether from the art world, not through neglect but rather as a deliberate strategy.

If Thomas is no longer, works by such diverse figures as Marc Blondeau, Jacques Salomon and Giancarlo Politi are still in circulation throughout contemporary art circuits. These works, whether framed photographs, cinema clapper-boards, paintings of computer bar codes or a simple filing cabinet, bear the names of real, living people. And at any time that these objects appear in a museum or gallery the name of such a person is cited as the artist. But in fact all these objects were created by Thomas through a company he established in New York in 1987 called readymades belong to everyone .

Referring to the "readymades" of Marcel Duchamp, everyday objects made "art" on the say-so of an artist, Thomas's copyrighted organisation played a complex, clandestine game, pushing conceptual art to its limits. Anyone, whether collector, patron, or museum, who bought a work from readymades belong to everyone immediately became the author of that work. Hence in 1990, when advertising agencies were asked to come up with a campaign to promote the company, Leagas Delaney created a poster of a Van Gogh chair with the caption, "Become a great artist without the pain, anguish and poverty."

Thomas himself infiltrated the art scene relatively late. He studied literature and worked as a teacher before moving to Paris to join with two other artists to create the group IFP (Information Fiction Publicite), which used advertising photography to question the status of an artist's "unique" signature in today's fluid culture of mass imagery.

Leaving IFP, Thomas developed "fictionalism", influenced by, amongst others, the multiple identities of the writer Fernando Pesoa, the invented museums of Marcel Broodthaers and the sly style of Duchamp. In 1985 Thomas exhibited Sujet a discretion, three identical photographs of the sea's horizon, which changed intention according to the name attached, whether an Autoportrait by Philippe Thomas, or the subjective vision of whichever collector's name.

In 1987 Daniel Bosser published his book Philippe Thomas decline son identite, which meant that Bosser had bought the work, the authorial rights, of a book written by Thomas. Likewise in 1989, when the Santa Fe collector/dealer Laura Carpenter published her Insights, she signed the limited edition but the maxims themselves were written by Thomas, whose name appeared nowhere.

Thomas's most impressive exhibition took place at Bordeaux in 1990. Called "Feux pales" (after Nabokov's detective story told through footnotes) it included 16th-century wunderkammern and 17th- century portraits of collectors with their walls full of paintings, as well as Thomas's own (or rather not his own) creations. His name appeared only once in the exhaustive catalogue, as a tiny footnote.

Though Thomas showed at the prestigious Dokumenta IX, in Kassel, and once in Britain at Tyne International (1993), the very nature of readymades belong to everyone ensured its operations were difficult to organise. For the agency to prosper it needed a gallerist capable of finding suitable collectors in sufficient numbers and explaining and disseminating the work without compromising its necessary anonymity.

Thus the role of Thomas's gallerist, Claire Burrus, should not be underestimated in an appreciation of his work, and it was she who reunited a group of his collectors, that is to say his creators, his artists, for the cremation of their alter ego at Pere-Lachaise.

Adrian Dannatt

Philippe Thomas, artist: born 7 July 1951; died Paris 2 September 1995.