NAT TATE An American Artist 1928 – 1960 by William Boyd

21 Publishing Ltd, 1998, 71 p.

NAT TATE cover

Complete with cover flap comments from David Bowie and Gore Vidal attesting to its subject’s importance this is an account of forgotten US artist Nathwell ‘Nat’ Tate, whose final artistic act was to burn as many of his works as he had managed to lay hands on (“perhaps a dozen survive”) before committing suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. The usual biographical conditions apply, obscure origins, father unknown, mother died young, adoption by her rich employer (emphatically not Tate’s father but an avid admirer and buyer of his work,) an influential teacher at Art School, chance viewing of his work by the founder of a gallery, socialising with other artists, the development of his style – aslant to that of his contemporaries and details of which Boyd provides – descent into alcohol, meetings with Picasso and Braque, disillusionment. The text is interspersed with photographs of three of the surviving paintings and various important stages of Tate’s life, four of which depict Tate but in only one is the adult artist the sole subject. Boyd gives us a convincing, if short, portrait of an artist and his life.

Yet the story of Tate is of course entirely fictitious. Not fictional, such biographies imagining the circumstances and lives of real people abound, but fictitious. Tate never existed. He is a total invention by Boyd.

On the book’s publication in 1998 the cover picture, containing as it does a cropped version of that black and white photograph of the adult “Tate” obviously photoshopped over a coloured one of New York, might have provided a clue to those not in on the joke but anyone at all familiar with Boyd’s work coming to it post hoc would be immediately aware of its confected nature on its first mention of Logan Mountstuart, protagonist of the author’s 2002 novel Any Human Heart. Boyd would also employ photographs to an equally verisimilituding end within the text of his 2016 novel Sweet Caress.

A hint of Boyd’s purpose in writing this book (apart from sending up the hagiographic artistic biography of the forgotten genius) may be gleaned from the passage where there are speculations on possible reasons for “Tate”’s destruction of his work and his suicide. “Tate was one of those rare artists who did not need, and did not seek, the transformation of his painting into a valuable commodity to be bought and sold on the whim of a market and its marketeers. He had seen the future and it stank.”
Pedant’s corner:- “the layers of white turps-thinned paint that was repeatedly laid over them” (Boyd treats this as if paint is the subject of the verb laid; that subject is in fact layers, hence “were laid”,) swop (swap.)

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