The first time I read about Mark Landis, from New Yorker magazine around 2013, I thought the story would make a great film. And now the film is out. As a documentary, Art and Craft has its fundamental flaws. By the time Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman started the film, Landis had become too prominent to fool institutions. Fortunately a forger at his level has more than artistic talent. Being or acting himself seems not much more difficult than taking up a fake identity with old money in order to convince sophisticated people. He seems genuine and engaged in the film. Art and Craft, is more than a vivid portraiture of one of the most prolific forgers in history. It is a character study of a troubled soul, in which idiosyncrasy and obsessiveness justify all that incongruent but amazing.
(Mark Landis at home with recent works. Photo by Sam Cullman Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Deceit requires two participating parties. The mishaps in some 40 museum institutions are downplayed in the movie. After all, art institutions, facing ever-tightening budgets, could hardly say no to the donation of possible masterpieces. Their basements are often filled with problematic and mediocre work that one more dubious piece won’t add much to the clutter. For the few which unfortunately displayed Landis’ work, however, it is worrisome to think how the public have often given their blind trust to the uncanny judgment in these institutions.
Philippe De Montebello says “It is the judicious exercise of the museum’s authority that makes possible that state of pure reverie that an unencumbered aesthetic experience can provide.” In such insulated judiciary in relation to art, the public would assume paintings on those white walls are guarded from self or conflicting interests and are best and most informed choices with the intention to benefit the public. Yet, the delicate and often hidden relationship between museums and donors are not that far in their differences from that between commercial galleries and patrons. “Art is money,” as quoted in the movie. Museums are not paid to advocate for what they exhibit, but once exhibitions are given for the pursuit of gift and donation (thinking of those promised gift exhibitions in recent years), perhaps, a thin line has been crossed.
In the movie, Landis demonstrates his ability to make a copy by flipping a photocopy on top of his drawing paper. He has never seen a Picasso blue period painting, but he got the idea from a movie and catalogs. The ability to absorb different styles, or more importantly, remove his own individualism is marvelous.
Yet Landis has been modest about his skills. Glenn Gould once said he could teach anyone to play the piano within three days. That self-depreciation (on his own trade or skills) is almost bordering pretentiousness. Neither Gould nor Landis has realized how far they have traversed to reach the level of excellency that they possess. For Landis, the length of his practice (over four decades) and its mundanity (in his cluttered apartment) diminish his own perception of the achievement.
Yet copying can only get you that far. Matthew Leininger, the former museum registrar, questioned whether the inaccuracy in the catalog reproduction makes his copy inferior – something that Landis did not reply to directly but certainly could not avoid. However, the bigger problem is his lack of understanding in the consciousness of continuity in art history.
In a recent New York Times article, Landis takes on modern art. He deemed Stuart Davis’ Houses Along a Canal as a picture could have done “by a 6-year-old,” hence taking “no particular effort” (to forge). He also commented that “you could get a 3-year-old to do better sailboats” than those by John Marin.
Milan Kundera, in his book “Curtain” writes about the anachronism: Historical consciousness is so thoroughly inherent in our perception of art that this anachronism (a Beethoven piece written today) would be spontaneously felt to be ridiculous, false, incongruous, even monstrous. Our feeling for continuity is so strong that it enters into the perception of any work of art.
Further, he claims that from the sociological viewpoint the history of an art has no meaning in itself but is part of a society’s whole history, like the history of its clothing, its funeral and marriage rituals, its sports, or its celebrations.
Fauvism and cubism may be the inspiration for John Marin. And Davis had his ties with John Graham. But both eventually developed their own individual voices that subsequently defined American art. By merely copying good paintings, Landis is saved from frustrations and angers over numerous failures that every artist must endure. The unconscious and accidental brush strokes in the original work become indisputable because they are the few that are preserved. Moreover, he would not have to place himself in the contemporary art market that more often than not works against the will of individual artists.
Art is a personal act of courage. By creating something that has no specific demand, to make a living, artists challenge the status quo. To this extent, Landis has great skills, but he is no artist.
Image: Screen Shot from Movie Trailer