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Tag Archives: Mark Rothko

Imitation Isn’t Always the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Ernest Hemingway with his son John Hadley Nicanor (Bumby), 1927.

One semester I had a student who turned in a story that I believed was plagiarized from Hemingway. The student had frequently spoken of his admiration of the minimalist master, and the story he turned in had the tell-tale traits, at least superficially. I had seen (even assigned) emulations before, but usually they were ham-fisted, amateurish, and identifiable as copies. Usually my students couldn’t keep their own personalities from peeping through. I had also seen completely plagiarized stories—once a student had turned in an entire Stephen King story with even the title intact. So I began searching for this Hemingway story.

I couldn’t find it. And I had to admit that if I couldn’t find it, the student probably hadn’t found it anywhere either. Creative writing students seldom plagiarize, and in my experience they never do so with enough leisure to hide their trails. The story, I decided, also didn’t quite have the Hemingway attitude toward women. I finally came to the conclusion that this student had just written a very good stylistic emulation of Hemingway. The following year I had him in another class, and by then he had begun to write like himself.

This is the usual trajectory for writers. But it might be different for a talented painting student.

At any rate, the production of fake manuscripts by dead famous authors is not a big business. It’s been known to happen, but the difficulties seem to surmount the temptation. Even though the Antiques Roadshow estimates that the lost suitcase of a pile of Hemingway’s manuscripts might reap $3 to 4 million if it was ever found, no one has tried to fake it. Instead, literary hoaxes tend to be more of the James Frey variety, with an author claiming a realm or set of experiences themselves that are false. These are the cases that seem to most common in accounts like Melissa Katsoulis’s Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes.

However, in the world of the visual arts, this kind of forgery is not at all uncommon. It’s one of the fundamental differences between the various arts, and it is based on the reproducible nature of the written word and music. Original manuscripts and scores may be valuable, but the real money is in an original artwork like a painting. A literary work may be experienced a million times over with the same power even from a cheap paperback copy, and the power of music lies in the details of its performance, but the original painting can only be experienced first-hand, in person, in the flesh. Even rough, imperfect, one-of-a-kind preliminary sketches made in preparation for prints can take on more value than the prints that were their ultimate end.

The New York Times covered such interesting happenings in the art world this week, with a different kind of retrospective from that of Cindy Sherman—an account of what is evidently a fraud perpetrated on the art world for nearly twenty years. A small-time art dealer, Glafira Rosales, is now tangled in legal troubles for numerous paintings she sold as works by some of the best-known Modernists—Rothko, Motherwell, Diebenkorn, de Kooning, and Pollock. Ann Freedman, former president at the famous Knoedler gallery, was evidently drawn into the fraud, bought several of the paintings herself, and helped to sell others for millions of dollars. Now Knoedler has closed and many of the paintings’ purchasers are suing for their money back.

And yet, the case points out the extent to which artists can be imitated, just as writers can. Pastiche, in fact, frequently forms part of an artist’s tutelage, and sometimes people are very good at it. What is viewed as a helpful learning practice becomes criminal, however, if someone gets too very good at it. And in the art world large profits can be had in this way.

In the recent case reported by the Times, there is no conclusion. No forger has been revealed, and some still claim that these paintings might, somehow, be authentic, even though some of the paints used in them were not available commercially at the dates they were claimed to have been painted. But I am compelled to think about that forger or those forgers and how he or she or they decided to produce these masterful paintings and put masterful names on them. These are paintings that fooled some of the world’s experts, and someone decided that money and the satisfaction of skill and cleverness would prevail over someone’s performance of his or her or their own talents. Well, being able to fool the experts is, I suppose, a talent of its own.

I can see the appeal, actually, of working for a fame in someone else’s name.

Of sticking it to an art world where fame and income are restricted to a very select few even though many have talent to spare.

Of playing a trick on a universe where work that is done out of deep, self-motivated reaches of the imagination is then commodified and traded like so much chattel.

And yet…

There is such a hateful despair in the theft involved. It’s hard for me to see one artist doing this to another or to herself or himself.

These cases seem to me to illuminate the chasm between the two channels of art: the need to communicate through whatever medium, on the one hand, and the business of buying and selling and making contacts and fostering fame on the other. It’s not a new conundrum, and different writers and artists and musicians have answered it differently over the centuries.

For myself, it is true that I would love to sell another book sometime, to be paid for my labor. But that isn’t why I do it. I watch so many of my cohort desperately scratching at the door, and I both admire their business sense and wonder what their work would be like without it. Obviously, balance is in order—I would not have all my writer friends starving and homeless, and I would enjoy a world where expertise and skill in the arts were respected far more than they are these days. I know that a lot of writers, musicians, and artists do what they think they have to do to survive and thrive. But I would not have us all pretending to be Motherwell or Rothko or Hemingway, in either name or fame. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the artist who engages with the world without constantly grasping at fame—whether in his or her own name or that of another—is all the more free to pursue the ragged path of art.

Mark Rothko

The first time I ever cried in front of a piece of art was when I visited the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1980. Last February, during the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in D.C., I was locked into a tight schedule, but made it a point to visit the Phillips Collection again. It’s one of my favorite places on earth.

In 1980 I was a twenty-year-old art student, and I was in Washington on an internship with the Washington Women’s Art Center (no longer extant), which was just off Dupont Circle near the Phillips Collection. Since my college campus sat in the hinterlands of Minnesota, I vowed to see all I could during that summer. You might say I was museum- and gallery-crazy, not to mention deliriously thrilled to be in the city.

I had little interest in Abstract Expressionism. The figure and landscape—tangible things—though not necessarily in the Realist style, spoke to me more than abstraction. I liked Matisse better than Kandinsky. I loved Constantin Brancusi but not David Smith. Most of all, I loved the gentle obsessive boxes of Joseph Cornell and the harsh obsessive ones of Lucas Samaras. I loved the textile- and craft-based art of Eva Hesse, Miriam Schapiro, and Judy Chicago.

Therefore the Mark Rothko paintings at the Phillips were not high on my list. Nonetheless, in the process of devouring everything available, I went there one weekday afternoon. The galleries echoed, nearly empty, and I went through the door into the Rothko Room. I had it to myself, and I sat down on the little bench and stared at the paintings.

Mark Rothko. Green and Maroon. 1953. Phillips Collection.

Much to my surprise, I found myself weeping. The paintings were just so much more beautiful than could be captured in reproductions in books, the only way I’d ever seen them and where their lights and darks had been muddied in the photographic and printing process. The real paintings pulsed on the wall, the subtle contrasts in hue and value coming alive in front of me. They seemed truly alive, like living, breathing creatures. I sat on the bench for a long time, until others began to poke their heads in and interrupt my reverie. I got up and left, changed, shocked in part by my ability to mis-judge.

At the time, I didn’t know that this was a common occurrence. “The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures,” Rothko once noted, “shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.” I certainly did.

Rothko, in fact, has also noted that he is “not an abstractionist,” that he’s “not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else,” but “only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” I’m glad that he puts tragedy and ecstasy side by side.

Perhaps because of the emphasis on contrast in the visual arts—a painting without the play of literal light and dark is impossible to conceive—it’s easier to see the necessity of balance there. But the same is true in writing and in music. Point and counterpoint, compression and expansion, scene and summary—all of these principles must exist in balance. Even emotionally, a work must have its balance. A work may be dark overall or light overall, but if that quality is uniform and uninterrupted, we won’t even notice the actual strength of the emotions.