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Artist or Thief?
Herbert Schwartz is a stocky, friendly guy from the Bess Cutler Gallery in New York's art district in Soho. His shirt rumples untidily over his belt. His suit trouser cuffs drag over his heels. He dumps a stack of photocopied material about Australian painter Imants Tillers on Roy Murphy's lap.
"Here you are, Ray," Schwartz says.
"It's Roy, actually," Murphy says with some emphasis.
Schwartz looks Murphy in the eye. "What's the matter," he says. "Ray not good enough for you now you're in America?"
Murphy grins. That's the most creative reply he's had in many years of people getting it wrong. Schwartz's casual air is deceptive. Murphy decides he likes Schwartz.
Murphy sorts through the reviews in the folder of material. Tillers was born of Latvian parents in Australia in 1950. His parents were refugees displaced by the Second World War. When Tillers went to school he couldn't speak English. By the time he left, he couldn't speak Latvian. He graduated as a fully qualified architect, but never practised as one. He taught for a while but now paints full time.
Schwartz is still talking. He is not so much hyping Tillers as explaining why Tillers is so important. An effective technique.
"Tillers represented Australia at the 1986 Venice Biennale, so you know he's not just anybody," Schwartz says. In fact, Schwartz is convinced that Tillers is a leading international artist. The exhibition opening that night is the fourth exhibition of Tillers at the Bess Cutler Gallery, even though the paintings do not sell well. The gallery is on Broadway, on the east edge of Soho (some would say the cutting edge). It is a large space, and Schwartz is good at getting his artists reviewed.
When Tillers arrives, he is wearing a brown suit shot through with gold thread. It's a suit that will get shiny quickly. It has the slightly crumpled look of a suit that has just been pulled from a suitcase.
Tillers' speech is hesitant. He looks nervous. He should be. He has stolen all of his work from other artists.
Tillers steals by looking through magazines, clipping reproductions of art out of them. Then he "works off" these images. He uses the oldest technique in the book. He draws a grid over the reproduction and then he copies the work, section by section.
The first paintings Murphy sees when they walk into the gallery are two big paintings by New Zealander Colin McCahon. Murphy knows a McCahon when he sees one. Except these look slightly odd.
"All my work is on panels for a start," Tillers says. Each section of the grid has become a separate panel in the Tillers version. The panels fit together like a huge jigsaw puzzle.
Tillers walks over to one of the McCahon paintings. He reaches up and rips a piece of it off the wall with an abrupt tearing sound.
This is modern art all right, thinks Murphy, startled.
The panels are stuck on the wall by velcro. "And they're all numbered," Tillers says. He turns the rectangular panel over, revealing the number 20630. It looks impressive in the catalogue. "Walk with Me", No. 20577-20630, US$5,000. Except the painter credited is Tillers, not McCahon.
Tillers says, "The reason aesthetically that I like to do it is that even though that's the total image, it makes you focus on each little area because you don't get a seamless image. And also, when I'm painting it, panel by panel, each square inch of the painting has the same amount of intensity. Of course, if you were painting that on one big canvas, some areas would have more emphasis than others."
"I can see the similarities," Murphy says. "What have you done differently, how have you advanced McCahon?"
"Advanced him?"
"Don't you think you have?"
"I don't know that I advance the work of others," Tillers says slowly.
"But you have to make it your own, don't you?"
"Yeah." He is definite about that. "Well, I think I do make it my own."
Murphy points to the McCahon. "This is a copy, that's what you're saying?"
"A copy, yeah," says Tillers. "Except the surface is totally different, and the way it's painted is totally different. But it's essentially recognisable as the same image."
Murphy is still amused by the velcro. "So if you bought this, you'd have to lay velcro across the wall to be able to hang it?"
"I guess you could get it backed and framed," Murphy suggests. Tillers doesn't like that idea.
"Yeah, you could. But I prefer. . . . The reason I like working this way is because, um, the image only exists when it's up on the wall." He gives Murphy a sly look. This is artspeak. "When you take it down it's just a little stack, like it turns into . . . something else. And it's sort of meant to be in those two stages. You know, so the whole show really only exists while they're on exhibition."
In fact Tillers has exhibited his paintings both ways. Velcroed to the wall, and just as a pile of cardboard panels stacked on the floor so you couldn't even see which artist he had filched from.
Murphy's opinion is confirmed. Definitely modern art. But he thinks maybe Tillers is just an art thief with a gimmick.
"Several of the paintings are combinations," says Tillers. He points to another couple of pictures. "Like this column is from Arakawa. And in this painting those things in the middle are from Philip Taylor and the background is from a de Chirico painting that's sort of been extended."
"Copied but altered?"
"Yeah. Well, it varies. Sometimes they're more or less the same, but other times some of the paintings are quite, ah, densely combined, like this one here."
Tillers walks over to his painting "Poem of Ecstasy". He says, "The right-hand side is from McCahon, but minus the arrows and the dotted lines, and that side's from a German artist, George Baselitz. But then the overlay is from Arakawa and these arrows and the dotted lines, they're like the trade winds of the Pacific which is from a map of the trade winds. And the original McCahon - I saw the original actually after I had painted this - it was painted on doors, an old pair of doors, but the way it was photographed I couldn't read the words fully, so now in this version they sort of disappear."
"So what kind of a statement are you making with a painting like this?" Murphy asks.
"With this?"
"You've borrowed from three or four different people here."
"Yeah. Well, I guess, if you take one painting at a time, it means one thing, but if you take the whole lot as a sort of collection of works then that's where my input comes, like in the selection of images and how they interrelate to each other. And also I'm not that interested in the meaning and significance of the originals but what they mean in my sort of context. Like a lot of the art paintings have words and that's my taking McCahon as a starting point."
Murphy says, "I saw a quote - I was just looking briefly through all those things that Herbert Schwartz gave me. One leapt out and hit me in the eye. It talked about this being a kind of a joke, but the joke is on the joker."
Tillers knows the quote immediately. He reads his reviews. "That's Donald Kuspit. He doesn't like my work." Tillers has a gift for understatement.
"You don't see this as kind of tongue in cheek?"
"No," Tillers says firmly. Then he remembers that art should be open to many interpretations. "Well, I guess I've had different impulses at different times, but, um. . . . I guess it is sort of two-edged in a way. It's not really a parody of the sources and it's not really a homage either. I've taken those images into my sort of framework. That's not to say that some paintings aren't meant to be sarcastic - but not in this show."
This line is getting him away from his prepared text, the artspeak, the theory behind his work. Tillers audibly shifts gears.
"Some places in the world are centers of art. If you're in New Zealand or Australia you're on the periphery and what tends to happen is that the artists are very influenced by art elsewhere but they're sort of trying to pretend that they're original. They're trying to ignore the fact that they're dependent on other centers. I've just made that process transparent. Like I say, this is all borrowed. But then I'm trying to play with the relationship between the centers and the peripheries while trying to subvert that sort of relationship."
Subvert sounds to Murphy like a word that fits. Tillers even admits he couldn't work this way if he lived in the same town and knew the artists he stole from. But he talks about it in terms of perspective, not shame.
"You're at a distance from them which I think is necessary if you work in this sort of way," Tillers says. "There aren't that many artists who are appropriating from living contemporary artists because it's just too contentious an issue. But I actually like the excitement of being able to appropriate an artist's work who may have just shown it."
"Have you had any reactions from these artists that you've copied?"
"One or two have been sort of aggressive about it."
"In what way?"
"I don't think they particularly like it." Tillers is not kidding.
"How do you mean they got aggressive? One can talk legal talk, like copyright."
"Well, no, they're not such direct copies."
"These guys thought they were parodies, that you were chucking off at them?"
"Yeah. One guy, Peter Bommels, a German artist, I did a version of his which had a few other elements and also had de Chirico's signature instead of my own, or his. He thought that was not on, really."
Murphy can't believe his ears. "You mean you copied him but put someone else's signature on it?"
"That's not very nice."
"It's a quirky thing to do," Tillers says modestly.
"But you'd borrowed elements from that other artist as well, had you?"
"No. I just borrowed the signature, of de Chirico."
"What was the idea of that?"
"Well because, I suppose de Chirico's like the, ah . . . he's sort of my model."
"But it seems to be a legitimate complaint to copy some guy and then put someone else's signature on it."
"I just copied it as a visual element. The signature."
"It wasn't a total copy like that one there?" Murphy asks, pointing to the McCahon.
"The Peter Bommels' one was. It was, yeah." Tillers is quite open about it. He is hiding nothing. "But then the elements I added were the signature and another new element. Like there were just a couple of changes."
"But you put a different signature on it." Murphy can't get over it. "It seems to me that the guy's got a right to be offended. If you've copied it, you could at least attribute it correctly."
"Yeah, well I guess also that, I don't know if you know much of de Chirico's work, but. . . ." Tillers is having a hard time explaining it, but he doesn't appear to be at all uncomfortable with the idea. He is enjoying the commotion he has aroused. If he can only explain the theory, that will justify it all.
"De Chirico's signature is a sort of ambivalent thing because there's this controversy, you know," Tillers says. "He used to do copies of his own works 30 and 40 years later. One particular painting he did like 20 versions of it. And then there were also scandals about forgeries, other people doing his work with his signature. Then he also used to publicly say, 'This isn't a painting by me.' There was a confusion about authorship in relation to de Chirico. So that's why his signature is sort of interesting because to me it has all those contentious issues around it."
Murphy still doesn't know if Tillers is an artist, or just a creative thief. Fortunately, he thinks, time will tell.
City Life, Sydney, Australia, 1989