The art of artifice and abstraction

Nat Tate
April 24, 1998

This book at last rights the wrong committed by the editors of the Grove Dictionary of Art when they chose not to include an entry on Nat Tate. He does not even appear as an also-ran in their entries on New York and abstract expressionism. We should therefore welcome this pioneering monograph by the art historian and occasional painter William Boyd, who, as some readers of this journal may know, also dabbles occasionally in the craft of fiction.

In a well-paced narrative Boyd makes skilful use of the unpublished Intimate Journals of that celebrated British man about town in New York, Logan Mountstuart. His liberal use of quotation from Mountstuart is entirely legitimate both on the grounds of his elegant, English, dilettante style and because Boyd is editing the Journals for publication next year.

Boyd gives us all the essentials. A brief biography is interwoven with the reminiscences of Mountstuart and others, like Tate's dealer Janet Felzer - a remarkable woman who could have been, in different circumstances and had Tate not cracked up and died, a serious rival to such celebrated New York dealers as Sidney Janis or Leo Castelli.

As the dates make clear, Tate's was a tragically short life. Illegitimate and fatherless at birth, orphaned at eight, adopted by a rich family, tuition from the doyen of the abstract expressionist school, Hans Hofmann, the early promise and success; all these are both typical and scrupulously set down. Boyd naturally covers the by-now-celebrated and seminal encounters with Picasso and Braque, but he is particularly sound on Tate's obsession with Hart Crane's epic poem The Bridge. One of the many remarkable paintings I did manage to see before Tate so efficiently sequestered everything he could lay his hands on for "reworking", was surely inspired by Crane's lines, oddly not quoted by Boyd: Outspoken buttocks in pink beads Invite the necessary cloudy clinch Of bandy eyesI No extra mufflings here The World's one flagrant, sweating cinch Tate's visual response to Crane's words, which at times seem to soar to the same majestic heights as the Brooklyn Bridge they commemorate, is equally celebratory.

The drawings and collages reproduced here conjure up, for all the abstraction and simplicity of their forms, the same mystical involvement that Crane had with what is surely the single most beautiful man-made object in New York. Boyd's terse but moving description of Tate's suicide by throwing himself off the Staten Island Ferry is unforgettable.

As Crane was himself also a suicide and those icy waters into which Tate plunged washed through the majestic structure they had both worshipped, one must assume that the headstrong felo de se was not merely epatant, but a desperate act of union with the intellectual mentor who died when Nat was only four.

Boyd, surprisingly perhaps for one so erudite, appears not to know of my own friendship with Tate; at least he fails to mention one of the great vignettes of the New York art scene. My old friend Robert Motherwell and I had dined well at Lut ce with Nat making up a threesome. This was in the hard-drinking 1950s and Motherwell, fearing that Nat would disgrace us at New York's smartest restaurant, suggested that we all went off for a nightcap or two at Jackson Pollock's place. This we did; Motherwell and I just managed to hold our liquor but Tate and Pollock were soon much the worse for wear. In fact Tate threw up all over the canvas, which Pollock, in his characteristic way, was painting - or rather dripping on to - on the floor of his vast studio. Pollock was not happy and made some remarks I could not possibly quote here; the situation looked ugly as Pollock had several of his large knives to hand. Bob, as always, saved the day, or night, by quietly saying: "Come on, Jack. You owe the kid. He's saved you some time and made the picture worth at least an extra two-hundred grand."

"Shit, Bob, you're right. Come on kid, have another god-dammed drink", Pollock replied, putting a heavy armlock on Tate's slender frame.

Although there is one casual reference to that great painter Philip Guston, neither Boyd nor Mountstuart refers to the close friendship between the two. I remember one 1960s summer evening in Woodstock, NY after Tate's death, when Philip Roth, Philip Guston and I had played softball with a group of friends. (My former cricketing skills greatly surprised the Americans when I batted and they scattered in some alarm to the edges of the field.) Roth had not known Tate but when, at dinner, over steaks barbecued by Guston, I asked Guston what he thought of Tate, his eyes filled with tears: "Such talent, such dreams, such a waste," Guston whispered. "And I always knew he'd kill himself. He carried a kind of halo of death around with him."

Boyd, perhaps out of that reticence characteristic of the modern fiction writer, tells us relatively little about Tate's sex life. This is a pity, not least because Tate, a strikingly handsome teenage boy, brought solace to President Franklin Roosevelt in what, years before the current Clinton imbroglio, Tate christened the Oral Office. After FDR's death, Nat was taken up by Eleanor Roosevelt but was so discreet about their affair that, to date, it has received no mention in the many lengthy biographies of the former First Lady.

While, sadly for such an essentially scholarly work, there is no index, the book is well illustrated and produced. However, it is impossible not to notice an understandably close relationship between Tate's drawings and those occasional works of art produced by Boyd himself. Boyd's volume on Tate is thus both an act of literary as well as artistic homage and an entirely justified piece of hero worship of an undoubted lost genius at last restored to us.

As Gore Vidal, who has himself lived through and contributed so notably to these hectic years of our cultural history, so wisely observes of this unique book, it is "a moving account of an artist too well understood by his time".

Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-60

Author - William Boyd
ISBN - 1 901785 01 7
Publisher - 21 Publishing
Price - £9.95
Pages - 69

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