In The Recognitions, his brilliant novel about an art forger, William Gaddis wrote, “Originality is a device that untalented people use to impress other untalented people to protect themselves from talented people … Most original people are forced to devote all their time to plagiarizing. Their only difficulty is that if they have a spark of wit or wisdom themselves, they’re given no credit. The curse of cleverness.”
Art and Craft, a new documentary, is a similarly vexed study of authenticity and creativity: it tells the story of Mark Landis, an art forger who is, as the design site Colossal puts it,
arguably one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history, having tricked over sixty museums in twenty states into believing his masterfully created replicas are authentic artworks. The catch: so far, it appears Landis, who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, has yet to commit a crime. While he’s caused headaches, confusion, and multi-year investigations, he has never sought to benefit or profit from his forgeries in any way. Instead, he enjoys the performative act of pretending to be a philanthropist who makes donations of obscure artwork to art institutions, many of which unknowingly exhibited the fakes, allowing Landis the secret thrill of seeing his work on display.
On the other end of the spectrum is Matthew Leininger, a righteous curator whom the Times calls “a kind of Javert to Mr. Landis’s Valjean.” Leininger has made it his mission to put a halt to Landis’s ruse; he “maintains a database of all known contacts with Mr. Landis, sightings of him and works he has copied … he uses a dry-erase marker to update a laminated map in his office.”
But has the man really done anything wrong—is he really a kind of failure? Certainly Gaddis would say so—“I tried to make clear,” he says of The Recognitions in his Art of Fiction interview, “that Wyatt [the forger] was the very height of a talent but not a genius—quite a different thing. Which is why he shrinks from going ahead in, say, works of originality. He shrinks from this and takes refuge in what is already there, which he can handle, manipulate. He can do quite perfect forgeries, because the parameters of perfection are already there.”
Maybe the same could be said of Landis, but that seems to give short shrift to his project. A 2012 article elaborates on the remarkable scope of his talents (or, if you remain skeptical of the validity of such things, his “talents”):
Landis creates works in oil, watercolor, pastels, chalk, ink and pencil, making most of his copies from museum or auction catalogs that provide dimensions and information on the originals.
He sometimes bestows gifts under different names, such as the Father Arthur Scott alias used at Hilliard. In that case, he told officials that his dead mother had left works including Curran’s oil-on-wood painting “Three Women” and that he was donating it in her memory … To convince museums he is a philanthropist, he also concocts elaborate stories about health concerns, said Cincinnati exhibit co-curator Matthew Leininger.
“He has been having heart surgery for almost thirty years,” Leininger said with a frustrated laugh. “This is the strangest case the museum realm has known in years.”
Landis, fifty-seven, acknowledges what he’s up to. He told The Associated Press in a phone interview from his home in Laurel, Miss., that he made his first forgery donation to a California museum in 1985.
“They were so nice. I just got used to that, and one thing led to another,” he said. “It never occurred to me that anyone would think it was wrong.”
There’s no release date for Art and Craft yet, but you can see the trailer, which brings to life Landis’s eccentricities, here. “The art world is a very strange place,” says one of its interviewees, in what may be the understatement of the year.