Art history is full of aliases, alter egos and imposters. Take Rrose Sélavy, Marcel Duchamp’s female persona, a dada 1920s pin-up, adorned in feathers, lipstick and pearls; or Vern Blosum, the alias of an anonymous abstract artist who painstakingly satirized pop art in the 1960s. Their popularity points to the close relationship between art and deception. ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal,’ Pablo Picasso is alleged to have said, crystallizing the figure of the modern artist as a thief, a magpie, and a self-inventor, with stealing as an instrument of the new. But theft, of course, is also a crime. (Picasso himself got into trouble with the law in 1911 for the possession of sculptures stolen from the Louvre.) Even so, artistic license prevails: Sélavy was validated by her peers as an expression of Duchamp’s liberated libido, her name a pun on the artist’s maxim Eros, c’est la vie (sex is life); and Blosum became a cult phantom with a collector base and works featured in institutional pop-art surveys.
Many female artists, too, have invented second selves, often with political intent: to be taken seriously in a world that trivializes and sexualizes women á la Duchamp, and to unpick the gender roles stitched deeply into the fabric of society. If Picasso plundered the female body for his art, crusading for the new, Claude Cahun and Tomaso Binga examined their own bodies to reroute their positions in the world.
Destabilizing the identity she had been assigned, the surrealist photographer Cahun, born Lucie Schwob, blurred her gender in a series of self-portraits. In Untitled (1921–22), she frowns in a double-breasted suit, hand on hip, a handkerchief poking out of one pocket; in Self-Portrait (1928), she leans against a mirror, her head shaved and doubled against the glass. ‘Under this mask, another mask,’ Cahun wrote in her autobiography Disavowals (1930). ‘I will never be finished removing all these faces.’
Currently on show at Mimosa House in London is the work of Binga, the alias of Bianca Menna, an Italian feminist who began making work in 1960s Rome. Binga’s poetry, collage and performances toyed with the inherent patriarchy of the Italian language, devising new alphabets formed using women’s bodies, standing upright in a ‘T’, for instance, or scrunched in a ball to make a tight ‘O’. Menna created her male persona in the early 1970s, adopting the middle name of the futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and removing one ‘m’ to make it less masculine, so she claimed. Marinetti, who had died in 1944, remained a celebrated poet despite his open misogyny and fascist leanings. Binga would dress up in his image, wearing a dark suit and fat tie, a sheet of paper in hand, as if ready to compose a poem, and a sturdy typewriter at her side.
The legal position on assuming a fake identity under the premise of artistic license is somewhat ambiguous. Adopting an alias can be criminalized as fraud, so artists who choose to do so walk a fine line between interrogating the confines of class and gender and breaking the law. In 2005, the American writer J.T. LeRoy, author of three successful semi-autobiographical novels, was revealed to be a fictitious identity, outraging many of his sponsors. LeRoy rose to fame as a teenage boy, heroin addict and sex worker from Appalachia who turned his life around in the mid-1990s to become a writer. Although he was known to be chronically shy and battling AIDS, LeRoy would occasionally appear in public, wearing a blonde wig and sunglasses. LeRoy, however, did not exist. The American novelist Laura Albert began writing under the alias as a teenager. When LeRoy was picked up by publishers, she posed as his foster parent, with her sister-in-law playing the part of LeRoy. Her novels are exercises in imaginative empathy, but she also strayed into the territory of the literary con. Albert was eventually convicted of fraud in 2007 and fined $350,000 for signing a film contract in a false name.
In an opposite trajectory to Albert, the criminal wrongdoings of another imposter, Anna Delvey, have been interpreted as a work of art. Born Anna Vadimovna Sorokin, she was convicted of fraud this spring after scamming a series of hotels, banks and art world figures out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sorokin invented her alias in 2013, after moving to New York: she posed as a German heiress from a family of antique dealers, sometimes oil barons, with a fortune of $67 million. In a small solo exhibition, ‘Four Courtroom Outfits of Anna Delvey’ (2019), currently on show at Soft Opening in London, the New York-born painter Cynthia Talmadge construe Delvey’s transgressions as an artistic creation as much as a criminal ploy, toying with systems of representation and exposing the superficialities of the haut monde.
A wooden dressing screen has been painted with art-deco motifs that narrate Delvey’s charade. As her alias, Sorokin lived out of Manhattan’s best hotels and attempted to establish the Anna Delvey Foundation – a fantasy club-cum-visual arts centre with a Park Avenue postcode. Painted in silver and blue are festoons of palm leaves, wheat sheaves and ribbons interwoven with hotel slippers and polished serving platters from the hotels Sorokin swindled; the coat of arms of Eschweiler, the town in Germany she claimed to be from; and a subpoena summoning her to court. Behind the screen, a wheel turns, tossing clothes into the air too fast to catch the eye, as if Sorokin herself is changing costume – an actress furiously transitioning between parts.
Since she was outed in 2017, Sorokin has become a figure of intrigue, her actions interpreted variously as those of a lowly grifter or an ultra-conceptual faker – a con artist. The legal system did not view her with the same indulgence: in May, she was sentenced to four to twelve years in prison, on multiple counts of theft and larceny. Yet, having famously proclaimed herself ‘not sorry’ for her actions, Sorokin’s story appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. With New York Magazine and Vanity Fair both publishing lengthy profiles plus a biopic in the making, Sorokin has brought into being the very thing that she faked.
Tomaso Binga, ‘A Silenced Victory’ is at Mimosa House, London, UK, until 20 December 2019.
Cynthia Talmadge, ‘Four Courtroom Outfits of Anna Delvey’ is at Soft Opening Piccadilly, London, UK, until 8 December 2019.