Saltz Challenges: Produce a Perfect Faux Gerhard Richter Painting, and I’ll Buy It

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I love art, but I hate the astronomical prices it sells for. My skin crawls when I read about auctions, and every year they get grosser. Last month, a living-artist record was set when a 1994 abstract Gerhard Richter painting was sold for $34.2 million. Like a lot of these purchases, the sale was about a collector trying to make art history by spending money. Or big-dick-waving. Ugh.

I want to own art like this, but I’m not rich, and I also think it’s a conflict of interest for a critic to own work that he or she may write about. (Reviews can affect market value.) So, last winter, I put out a call on Facebook. I’d pay anyone $155 plus the cost of materials to make me a perfect fake by Richter, Ryman, Flavin, Fontana, Du­champ, Hirst, Guyton, or Agnes Martin. (Why $155? It’s enough money to me that the painting had to be worth it, and 55 is a funnier number than 50.)

You can’t just call up a guy and order an ersatz Hirst or Richter—unless you are seeking a flat-out forger, but those folks don’t work for $155 and their numbers aren’t listed. Besides, in the art world, noncriminal fakes aren’t news. We don’t even call them “fakes.” We prefer the term “appropriation,” whereby a new artwork incorporates or reproduces another. Copyists lie on a continuum: At one end, you have extremely original artists (Richard Prince, Elaine Sturtevant) who use the old to make something new. At the other, you have people deceiving buyers. In between, you have artists who merely make covers, trying to get attention; slipstream behind the famous; and offer simplistic observations. Plus some who are just goofing around.

A lot of those folks turned up, and three came through. Daniel Maidman made me a peppy, near-perfect Hirst spot painting. The artist Vincent Zambrano made me a pretty good Guyton. (Guyton produces his art on ink-jet printers, and Zambrano’s printer was too small to conjure the surfaces and scale-shifts of the real thing.) Then came Stanley Casselman, who asked, “Which Richters do you want?” Intrigued, I answered, “Any abstract from the past twenty years.” He vanished—then, months later, e-mailed images labeled “Your Richters.”

He hadn’t copied one painting: These were originals in the manner of Richter. All had nifty squeegee sluices of blurry paint, but they were either too pretty or illusionistic or atmospheric. I sent Stanley an e-mail saying they didn’t make the cut, and he disappeared again. In September, he sent new images—so close they freaked me out. We made a date and met at his Jersey City studio. It was clear that he knew this was a lark yet took it seriously. 

The examples of Stanley’s own art that I saw are nothing like Richter’s. They’re highly crafted abstract minimalist works. Not to my taste, but done impeccably. Which turns out to be key for copying: He is a practiced artist who knows how to handle paint.

When Stanley opened his door, I saw what looked like 50 large Gerhard Richters. I immediately had fantasies of getting rich, of opening a Fake Richter shop with him. Then I started looking more closely. All of the paintings seemed Richterian, but many had an Impressionistic, un-Richterian prettiness. Many looked too thought-out. Accidents looked intentional rather than discovered. His decisions stood out instead of taking me by surprise. Richter—who applies paint in scrims, in layers that emerge through one another—controls accident with a physical intelligence and subtle changes of direction and touch; his decisions are in an incredible call-and-response relationship to accidents. His abstract paintings look like photographs of abstract paintings. This creates glitches in your ­retinal-cerebral memory, so that you perceive this uncanny space between abstraction, accident, photography, process, the nature of paint, and painting. These didn’t.

Then, suddenly, one made my heart beat faster. Stanley grimaced. “That one’s not my best,” he said. “You’re wrong,” I told him. Then another struck me. He winced again, saying, “That’s a reject that had been cut out from another work.” Then I understood that only when Stanley stopped thinking he was making a Richter could he make one. We had a deal: Stanley signed his name prominently on the back of each, and I paid him, put them in my car, and drove home.

I don’t think Stanley understands that he could get pretty rich making these things. I suspect he could get $8,000 a pop. I’ll bet he won’t: Although artists say they want to make money and get attention, almost all of them only want those results from doing their own thing. Whereas I love living with my faux Richters, even if neither looks exactly like the real deal. Very close is close enough for me (and as close as I’m going to get). Maybe it’s better: I love that there’s no big-dick trophy-art baggage around them. Moreover, they trigger enough memory of actual Richters that they become real enough. I’m not making a comment about the market or smirking that some work can be reproduced. We’re not creating fake provenances or aging materials: Casselman signs his own name. These are knockoffs, flints that spark, reminders, whatever. If anyone worries that they will one day enter the market as the real thing, I’ll decree in my will that they should be burned.

The final thing I learned is embarrassing, given how much I hate market chatter: I’ve caught the collecting bug. I’ve arranged for more Richters by other artists. Ditto Guyton and Hirst. I’ve got a Kara Walker cutout on order. Calders, Duchamps, Rothkos are all on the way. My wife is worried. So am I. Oh my! I’ve got a case of little-dick art.         

Click through the slideshow to see how Casselman created a Richter in two hours.

*This article originally appeared in the December 3, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

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