In the collective imagination, the archetypal art forger is a cynical, sociopathic man with superhuman intelligence and manipulative powers. He works by night in a hidden basement and his associates are shadowy figures in a treacherous underworld. The paintings he produces contain an aura of mystery — the mystery of authenticity, a question most people possesses neither the intuition nor skill to adjudicate. Art forgers are both loved — as evinced by countless novels and movies that revolve around them — and despised for their antisocial tendencies.
Virginia-born Mark Landis, the subject of the 2014 documentary Art and Craft and a prolific forger whose works bearing the names of artists as diverse as René Magritte, José Clemente Orozco, and Egon Schiele have unwittingly made their way into the collections of 46 museums in 20 states, might seem like just that kind of con man. But he’s not. He doesn’t speak with the assurance of an art historian, and he doesn’t arouse suspicion in the company of others. And perhaps most remarkably for a forger, he has never committed a crime, gifting all of his forgeries without a thought for commercial gain. His presence is endearing and invites a nurturing and protective response in those around him — even when they are curators and art fraud investigators, those whose professions should otherwise imply an automatically antagonistic relationship with him.
One of his most fervent supporters is Sabrina Wirth, who organized Landis’s first exhibition in New York City, Creative Conscience, currently on view at Luxuny Atelier on 80 West 40th Street in Manhattan until the end of April. A curator long interested in questions of appropriation and the valuation of art, Wirth was so fascinated upon finishing Art and Craft that she enlisted the film’s co-director, Jennifer Grausman, and Dr. Colette Loll, who met Landis during the filming of the documentary and founded the consultancy firm Art Fraud Insights, to participate in a show.
“I’m very interested in seeing how the perception of value changes when you see artwork in a different context or learn about it from a different angle,” Wirth told Hyperallergic.
The exhibition marks a new era in Landis’s artistic career (even though Landis himself avoids calling himself an artist). Starting in the late 1980s, he spent roughly two decades traveling to different museums in the guise of a priest from a wealthy background looking to bequeath artwork in the family collection away, inventing fake provenances and handing over paintings that oftentimes barely withstood even the most cursory scrutiny. Wirth says that Landis frequently referred to old black-and-white catalogs to produce his copies, so he made up colors that could be quite different from those used in the original artwork.
“At the time, the Internet was just starting, so nobody could just Google an artwork and see if it was really the real one or not,” Wirth said. His copies of Charles Courtney Curran’s “Three women” (1894) and René Magritte’s drawing “La vocation” (1964) evince Landis’s ability to emulate distinct subject matters and styles.
Whereas Landis’s success in making prolific donations then was predicated on his own anonymity as an artist, his show at Wirth Galerie marks over a decade since the publication of John Gapper’s Financial Times article “The Forger’s Story,” which first chronicled Landis’s practice of beneficent forgery in 2011 and catalyzed a quasi-sensational interest in the man and his work.
While most of the paintings that are part of Creative Conscience were never donated to museums, they resemble some of the work he has duped institutions with — including those as prominent as the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and more. Interspersed with the paintings are appreciative letters that Landis was sent by museum curators and leaders.
Wirth poses, “It makes you wonder: what does it say about the institutions that accepted these works of art on a whim?” She also included a drawing that Landis made when he was 12 years old that she calls “masterful” and “unbelievable.”
As important as Landis’s artistry seems to be the narrative of his dedication to philanthropically giving away his forgeries — something he says he did because it made his mother proud, and because “it gave a big boost to my poor self-esteem,” he told Hyperallergic — and the response that his peculiar, childlike charisma has sparked. Since Art and Craft was released in 2014, Landis has gained “tons of new friends,” according to Wirth, and received a number of commissions, including from the likes of actress Rosanna Arquette.
“I was just sitting around on the edge of my bed staring at my TV, thinking to myself, what am I going to do now? I can’t just watch TV for the rest of my life. I felt pretty bad, and my mother was gone,” Landis recounts of his life prior to Art and Craft.
“And then these fashionable young New York documentary filmmakers came along,” he continued, and his life has never been the same since.
Both Wirth and Loll speak about Landis protectively. “I think that he just needs the right people around him, and the right guidance,” Wirth said. And Loll, who before meeting Landis was “outraged by all of it” as a “heritage protection professional,” was quickly “disarmed” upon talking to him and came to revise her preconceptions of him. She vigorously defends him from “negative feedback he gets from people who really don’t understand who he is and where he’s coming from.”
“There’s a group of us you know — myself and the filmmakers — who kind of formed a community around him,” Loll told Hyperallergic. She also made Landis’s website.
“To this day, he gets so much fan mail from people saying, ‘I’m an artist, I suffer from mental health [issues], you inspire me,’” Loll said. (Landis has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.) “You can’t believe the number of people he has touched through this film — not only people who are socially isolated, but also people who suffer themselves from mental health issues.” Ironically, with something of a fanbase, he has become a true philanthropist, having raised tens of thousands of dollars through art sales.
Wirth says that although Landis is known primarily as a forger, she hopes that people might begin to see him as an artist, too.
“What I’m trying to do is to legitimize him a bit as an artist,” she said. “Because he does have the talent and passion to create art.”