New York art world squirms as literary hoax takes its toll

David Usborne in Manhattan on the bamboozled celebs with a faceful of egg

David Usborne
Tuesday 07 April 1998 23:02 BST

THE ART WORLD of New York was decidedly in a tizzy yesterday over an article in a newspaper published a whole ocean away that will not even be on the news-stands here until this morning. The paper in question is this one.

It was, according to Milton Esterow, the editor of Arts News, the New York magazine, a "brilliant scoop; I really must congratulate you". Others, however, were less certain about how they should react.

The article concerned a celebrity gathering in a trendy SoHo Gallery on 1 April - the date is relevant - for a reading by David Bowie, no less, from a new work by the British novelist William Boyd. The book is about the life of a forgotten and tragic artist, Nat Tate.

As David Lister revealed in these pages Tate, who took his own life by jumping from the Staten Island Ferry, did not, however, exist.

Presented as a biography, the book is actually fiction from cover to cover.

The best sport among those who attended was surely Anthony Haden-Guest, a British journalist and Manhattan nightlife fixture, who last night offered: "Well, there are so many bad artists exist, I would much rather hear about a good one who didn't."

Mr Haden-Guest was also generous enough to imply that he was among those not aware that Tate had sprung from Boyd's imagination.

"I accepted that someone like that existed. They are always digging up strange people, I mean I thought he was perhaps some kind of outsider artist. I thought he was another of these black share-croppers or something."

Mr Esterow insisted that he had not given thought to whether Tate existed or not. "I had absolutely no idea whether this was a book about a real person, or whether it was a satire on the Tate Gallery or whatever, because we are all living in a satirical world."

Jeffrey Deitch, who owns a contemporary-art gallery on SoHo's Grand Street, was adamant that he could not care less whether Nat Tate actually existed or not. If the purpose of the spoof was to expose the pretensions of New York's art community, Mr Deitch may have been the perfect target.

"It doesn't matter, it just doesn't matter. There are different levels of reality and painting is very much about illusion," said Mr Deitch bafflingly. "It doesn't make a difference whether there was a real Nat Tate or not."

Mr Deitch forged on: "You know, in the world of art we are used to different levels of reality. It's just treated as art or literature where if it's an illusion it is interesting, if it was not an illusion it's interesting. The book can be just as interesting if he didn't exist. The only issue is was the book interesting or not."

Someone who claimed he smelled a rat from the outset was Bill Buford, another attender, who is the literary editor of the New Yorker.

He got to the gallery too late for Bowie's reading of the Boyd book, but he was immediately suspicious when he saw its less-than convincing cover, featuring a grainy newspaper shot of a young man superimposed on a photograph of Manhattan.

"It was a preposterous cover," Buford said. "The tackiness of the cover made it very hard to take it seriously".

Buford may have been put off by the cover. Others, apparently, were not.

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