A Chinese artist made fake big-name Abstract Expressionist paintings in his garage, and nearsighted chumps hoping to make a fortune on their investments snapped them up. This story is all over the news, but the focus is on the art world, buyers/sellers, and the law, whereas my interest is from an artistic and a cultural perspective. If you want the background story you can find it here, but the short of it is that someone commissioned a Chinese artist to paint a bunch of fake paintings, which he did in a garage in Queens, and that guy palmed them off to a dealer who sold them to various dupes with more money than artistic taste.
First off, a chuckle, because any reasonably competent and talented artist with a little time to learn the techniques can make a passable approximation of a canvas by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, or Richard Diebenkorn. I don’t feel like writing an academic paper at the moment, but, we now know that the CIA was involved in promoting Abstract Expressionism as a means of solidifying New York as the new center of the art world, and thus of establishing America as having a lifestyle that fostered the most fertile creative genius. A side effect of this is that the art in question didn’t deserve the status it achieved, and contemporary art history has been skewed by an overemphasis and over-investment in the art and paradigm of Abstract Expressionism and its offshoots. In reality better work was being created in England by the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. It’s no coincidence that it would be much, much more difficult to make a fake Lucien Freud than a Pollock, because Freud’s technical skill is off the charts. In the case of Freud or Bacon, it isn’t the idea behind the art that makes the art great: it is the art itself, and hence a fake would require enormous ability. In other words, if you can fake a Freud you can probably have your own art career anyway. Kind of like faking a Beethoven string quartet.
Another laugh at the poor quality of the fake paintings (if the fake Pollock is any indication). Even if one is over-the-top rich and wants to invest in a Pollock, why buy an ugly one? Look at this garbage.
Perhaps to the casual observer this could pass muster. But I’ve never seen Pollock use that crimson. I think he probably avoided it because it might smack of goofiness if it looked like blood or ketchup. You got your mustard and mayonnaise. I mean, yes, it is a respectable forgery, but it’s also ugly. The lines are too uniform in thickness, and there are too many straight ones on the left. The mustard-colored paint is too smudged in places and looks like foam filling from an old cushion. The blurry gray lines on the top are a catastrophe. Real Pollocks have a crispness and intelligence about them, in addition to the athletic paint fling that is literally “all in the wrist”, whereas this is just a jumble. That & shape in the upper right is an embarrassment.
Neither the artist nor the buyer truly understand what makes a real Pollock any good. Take a look at a detail of the real deal.
Pollock was like the Bruce Lee of action painting. As with Bruce and his Jeet Kune Do, Pollock developed his own style and honed it in countless hours of trial and error on the floor of a barn. Chinese artist Pei-Shen Qian, unlike the Chinese martial artist, made crude approximations of an extant style without having the underlying vision or expertise of a real Jackson Pollock. Not that Jackson Pollock is as great as he’s held up to be. Pictures of him flinging paint capture our imagination, and the legend all looks quite convincing on a pamphlet or brochure, but step back a little and his style was like scribbling with crayons for adults. Lots of fun, and it was easier than ever to make gigantic works that could sell for equally enormous prices, but their size signaled not the profundity of his message (dwarfing works of nearly all prior artists), but the sheer ease of their execution on any scale.
And this brings me to the funniest thing about all of this, which is how it reflects on the rhetoric of heroic individualism and visionary apotheosis that surrounds Abstract Expressionism. Pollock was seen as embodying the essence of vitality, vast open spaces, and inﬁnite potential that was the American experience.
The Abstract Expressionist paintings were seen as artifacts of genius. They were not just like Shakespeare’s plays, or Mozart’s symphonies, they were also physical (and in the case of Pollock a physical record of the process or “action” of his creation) and hence akin to religious relics. Above all they were a testament to, and an incarnation of, the uniquely American visionary genius. How can they be forged by someone born in Communist China 73 years ago! And someone bought his fake Pollock for $17,000,000.
There’s just no way for the art world to come out of this without looking ridiculous. Either they were fooled by bad fakes, or a Chinese painter can create paintings in the styles of the cream of the crop of America’s 20th century masters to rival the originals.
My take is that the fakes aren’t half bad (I’m assuming some of them just have to be better than the ones I’ve seen online), but shouldn’t be able to fool people who have a serious appreciation of art or the artists in question. However, the original art is overrated to begin with – which is not hard to do when art becomes the new religion of the people and artists the new messiahs – and the ease of making forgeries proves this. Further, the art world has put so much emphasis on art as investment, and so overvalued art that was believed to be “groundbreaking”, that it has created a distorted history of art that must necessarily culminate with the ascendancy of unrivaled American genius. As a consequence art is valued not for its intrinsic worth, but for external reasons that it turns out are largely bogus.
Lastly, I have one lingering question. What is to become of the forged paintings? Will the $17,000,000 Pei-Shen Qian fake Pollock be summarily tossed into a dumpster? Will people who admired them and cherished them now look at them as rubbish? Or will the 63 paintings Qian made be amassed into a travelling exhibit to celebrate HIS genius, which apparently encompasses that of the best the US had to offer? I’m guessing the paintings will be destroyed or given away, because once you take away the background story and relevance imparted onto them, they look tacky and dated. What will happen if we similarly look at the real paintings of artists like Pollock, without the romance and history built around them? Can they stand on their own for their intrinsic merit, or will they start to seem less universally transcendent and more like you had to be there to get it?
An artist who has been given short shrift by the American version of art history is Lucian Freud. His work is inimitable, and the quality and authenticity incontestable. You don’t need to know why his art is good or important. If you can’t see why it’s amazing, you need to take a longer look and take off your rhetorical-framework-goggles that say his work is reactionary busywork and Pollock or Newman’s work is what must be appreciated and absorbed.
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