1. Review by the inimitable Veritas Rechtschreiber

    By Veritas Rechtschreiber

    In the competitive environment of today’s art world, the pressure on  the artist is immense.  Each decision is fraught with peril.  A  wrong step might pose disastrous consequences for one’s career or  reputation. Making a name for oneself is paramount. Attaching one’s  work to a rising trend is essential.

    If one arrives at a winning formula, the rewards can be  considerable. Validation by the right gatekeepers can mean big  demand for one’s work. Critical and popular success can mean a  years-long waiting list and a staff of assistants executing many  works at once. A signature style of a successful artist is a  valuable brand.

    Artistic identity is closely tied to personal identity. Part of the  value of a signature work is the sense that it is the product of an  interesting person, the artist. The mechanics of fame and celebrity  produce much of this value.  But the celebrity-signature complex can  also lead to intolerable pressures. Artists can feel boxed in by  public expectations. Sometimes one wants to escape the pressure.  It’s not just visual artists, of course; writers use pen names, and  musicians play unannounced performances under assumed names.

    Visual artists, however, have an honorable tradition of blazing new  trails, forging new foundations, clearing new paths, and breaking  new ground by adopting pseudonyms as a device for exploring new creative paths. Without threatening the value of one’s existing reputation, one can use a pseudonym to take risks and float trial balloons. If we consult the canon of art history, we can immediately recognize the high value potential of the pseudonym as a creative strategy.

    Henry Adams was a simple portrait photographer who plied the  railroad-station trade from Bangor to Tombstone, until he had the  brainstorm of placing his previously unrelated avant-garde  activities under the made-up name of “Marcel Duchamp,” a  breakthrough that launched a thousand philosophical disputations.

    Archibald Cox was an unkempt, cigar-chomping reactionary potter  whose fame was limited to the side-entrance window display of the  general store in Butte, Montana, until he cut his hair, hitchhiked  to Pittsburgh, bought a Super 8 Camera and a pair of Ray-Bans, and  introduced himself for the rest of his life as “Andy Warhol.”

    More recently, conceptualists John Kelsey and Emily Sundblad gave birth to the fictional gallerist-supermodel-cum-artist “Reena Spaulings” ; site-specific artist James Magee uses alter ego “Annabel Livermore” to create ingenuous watercolors ; and dastardly mischief-makers James Thornhill and Fulvia Carnevale created “Claire Fontaine” to serve as both a vehicle for their media interventions and a loveable mascot for their wildly successful line of Left Bank stationery products. The rage for alter egos shows no signs of abating. If anything, the frictionless environment of digital media makes it ever easier to experiment.

    Mounted with the support of the Louvre and the Smithsonian Institution, “twain” is an exhaustive nine-part survey of artistic fictionality, self-creation and identity-based experimentation. Containing more works of art than it is possible to see in one lifetime, “twain” will conclusively prove the value of the alter ego as artist’s strategy. Any remaining doubters will be summarily dispatched. It’s not possible to discuss all of the fascinating works that are included in this landmark exhibition, but consider a few highlights:

    "twain" includes over three thousand separate oil paintings,  gathered from yard sales on five continents, a tiny fraction of a  collection assembled by a collector who wishes to remain anonymous.  A research team from the University of Illinois and the Sandia  National Laboratories is engaged in a long-term data mining and  analysis project of uncovering hidden patterns in this corpus of  paintings. For art-world purposes, the research team (numbering  dozens of scientists and hundreds of technicians and support staff)  has adopted the collective made-up name of "Christian Boltanski" to  authorize its work.

    "twain" also includes a set of experimental goggles that are  implanted into the viewer’s cranium and come pre-loaded with the  entire contents of YouTube as of August 2007. Once the playlist  begins, the only non-invasive way for the viewer to shut it down is to recite from memory the complete list of participants in the 1975 Whitney Biennial in reverse alphabetical order. This disturbing device is the work of a crack team of radical anarchist "hacktivists" who work on the margins of surveillance and control, who have collectively dubbed themselves "Leroy Neiman."

    Exploring issues of futility and sublimity, perhaps the most imposing project in “twain” takes place in the entirety of an unused terminal at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which has been turned over to an implacably feuding multi-generational extended family of ill-tempered stray cats for a period of seventy years. The work consists of the variety of different forms of biomatter collected, distributed and produced by this artistic collective, which has named itself after the computer scientist and U.S. Founding Father Robert Morris.

    To enter “twain” is to rapidly find oneself lost within a labyrinth of conflicting claims and counter-claims — a liminal experience of uncertainty and self-doubt that is at the core of the radical creativity enabled by the pseudonym. The roles of viewer and artist become indistinct and unstable, as the exhibition lays bare the social mechanisms that we use to construct notions of authorship. As the historian and philosopher John Rambo famously asserted, “I is another; je suis un autre.” The otherness generated by the works in “twain” goes to the core of our collective cultural experience. It will be a long time before another exhibition explores the radical instability of authorial identity as deeply as “twain.”

    Veritas Rechtschreiber is an art historian and critic living and  working in Facebook.


  2. Orson Welles, 1937-8

    Orson Welles as The Shadow, 1937-38

  3. The burial of Patrick Ireland, put to rest at 36. Photograph by Derek Speirs for The New York Times

  4. "Indeed I am a mud image, and it puzzles me to know what it is in me that writes, and that has comedy-fancies and finds pleasure in phrasing them. It is a law of our nature, of course, or it wouldn’t happen; the thing in me forgets the presence of the mud image and goes its own way wholly unconscious of it and apparently of no kinship with it."

    - Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Letter to William D. Howells, 23 February 1897

  5. Reena Spaulings, Indipendenza Studio, Rome, 2011
    Reena Spaulings, Haswellediger & Co. Gallery, New York, 2005
  6. Making love with his ego ziggy sucked up into his mind
    Like a leper messiah
    When the kids had killed the man i had to break up the band.

  7. Claude Cahun. Self-Portrait, c. 1927. Collection Soizic Audouard.

    Born Lucy Schwob to a family of French intellectuals and writers, Claude Cahun (who adopted the pseudonym at age 22) is best known for the staged self-portraiture, photomontages, and prose texts she made principally between 1920 and 1940. Rediscovered in the late 1980s, her work has not only expanded our understanding of the Surrealist era but also serves as an important touchstone to later feminist explorations of gender and identity politics. In her self-portraits, which she began creating around 1913, Cahun dismantled and questioned preexisting notions of self and sexuality. Posing in costumes and elaborate make-up, Cahun appears masked as various personae: man or woman, hero or doll, both powerful and vulnerable. Almost a century after their making, these innovative photographs and assemblages remain remarkably relevant in their treatment of gender, performance, and identity. (Entre Nous, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2012)


  8. "

    Nerissa: Shall they see us?

    Portia: They shall, Nerissa. But in such a habit
    That they shall think we are accomplished
    With what we lack. I’ll hold thee any wager,
    When we are both accounter’d like young men,
    I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
    And wager my dagger with the braver grace;
    And speak, between the change of man and boy,
    Into a manly stride; and speak of frays,
    Like a fine bragging youth; and tell quaint lies,
    How honourable ladies sought my love,
    Which I denying, they fell sick and died…
    I have within my mind
    A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks
    Which I will practice.

    Nerissa: Why shall we turn to men?

    Portia: Fie! What a question’s that
    If thou wert ne’er a lewd interpreter?

    (The Merchant of Venice, III.iv.)

  9. Portrait of El Conquistador, 2007, photo by Mariana Bersten

  10. Rrose Selavy, 1921, photo by Man Ray