Noah Charney: Salon

On April Fools’ Day, 1998, the crème de la crème of the New York art scene gathered for a party in the studio of Jeff Koons. David Bowie played host, and while a Who’s Who of the art crowd mingled over canapés and cocktails, the mastermind behind what would be (perhaps over-zealously) dubbed “the biggest art hoax in history” prowled the perimeters of the party. It was the key event to launch an elaborate practical joke concocted by Bowie and his friend, the Scottish novelist William Boyd, multi-award-winning author of numerous novels, most famously “Any Human Heart.” Bowie and Boyd met while both members of the editorial board for Modern Painters magazine and quickly hit it off. Both were outsiders in the sense that they were art lovers but not involved in the art world directly, as a rock star and a star novelist. After a meeting in 1998, they bounced the idea around of introducing a fictitious artist into the magazine. Rolling with this idea, Boyd developed a fictitious history of a “lost American artist” by the name of Nat Tate.

With a novelist’s flair, Boyd developed a complete backstory for Tate: An orphan born in New Jersey in 1928, adopted by a family on Long Island, sent to art school and established in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Tate met Picasso and Braques in France, but this triggered self-doubt, rather than inspiration. Returning to New York, Tate burned most of his oeuvre. Substance abuse and depression led to his suicide on 12 January 1960, aged only 31. It was a dramatic tale but one in touch with the history of art, which is unfortunately full of tragic stories of early deaths, from Giorgione and Raphael to Basquiat and beyond. It also conveniently allowed for the lack of documentation about the life of Tate, as well as the paucity of surviving works. But coming up with the story was the easy part. Building physical evidence to back the story proved much trickier. …Read More

Pictured: avid Bowie (AP/Ron Frehm)