An Interview With Henry Codax
by Peter Scott
curation Claudia Vitarelli
19 March 2013
The following interview between the notoriously reclusive monochrome painter Henry Codax and carriage trade director Peter Scott took place via email on February 29, 2013.
Scott: People wonder whether you actually exist.
Codax: I exist in that there are paintings that bear my name.
Scott: Without signatures.
Codax: Signatures can easily be faked.
Scott: In the first exhibition of your work, which took place at carriage trade, you asked that we forgo the ritual requirements of gallery exhibitions. There was no press release, no bio, no checklist.
Codax: I wanted people to look at the paintings.
Scott: But with no clues as to who Henry Codax was, the speculation began.
Codax: I couldn’t really help that.
Scott: Why monochromes?
Codax: First of all, I think there’s an idea that monochromes can be seen only as “art about art.” It’s worth considering whether there is such a thing as non-referential or “abstract” colors. Colors are everywhere, in every situation. A monochrome painting isolates what is ubiquitous. Like drawing a square in the sand at the beach. It behaves like art in the gallery, but I think there is a certain normative, everyday quality that’s sometimes missed because of the seriousness associated with abstraction.
Scott: But when you put it in an art gallery you add authorship to the square, which provokes questions as to who made the decision on that particular color, the size of the square, etc.
Codax: Somebody needs to be held responsible for it, so we can trust it. But another aspect of monochrome paintings is that they function somewhat like a mirror. They are essentially blanks. With little evidence of the hand that made them, it’s harder to attribute subjectivity to them than with most other art, so people are confronted with themselves a bit more, or at least with their own preoccupations or assumptions about the work, including who made it.
Scott: Would you say that the speculation around your identity is an attempt to fill in the “blank”?
Codax: I would say that many people seem to want to focus more on personalities than paintings, but it’s also possible to temporarily escape from those preoccupations and be left alone to experience a painting, regardless of who made it or why. The actual stuff of painting doesn’t “want” anything. It’s inert, material. We impose things on it and construct associations.
Scott: Like the famous 1949 LIFE magazine article on Jackson Pollock.
Codax: Many people couldn’t deal with those paintings and were perhaps even threatened by them. LIFE illustrated the article with pictures of a brooding Pollock amidst a backdrop of paint-spattered canvas, recalling Marlon Brando’s brutish, passionate character in the then popular “A Street Car Named Desire.” Pollock had been anointed as one of the most significant artists of the time by power brokers within the art world, but the larger public had no reference for what he was doing. Focusing on the painter as a moody genius seemed to make the paintings more accessible.
Scott: What did you think when the “Codax” article in the Observer came out?
Codax: It seemed like pretty good journalism to me, in particular given that it was about art.
Scott: How do you mean?
Codax: I mean the speculation was up front, and even documented (as much as that’s possible). Because art is unregulated territory full of speculation of all kinds, I appreciated that the author backed up his speculation with “if it is so and so, then it might make sense because of …”
Scott: You’re referring to…
Codax: Yes, that’s right, a certain young, American painter, and a veteran “Swiss provocateur.”
Scott: So eventually an exhibition of monochrome paintings that offered no documentation or support material by an artist that is known only as a character in a novel written under a pseudonym started to breed speculation as to whom the paintings were “really”made by.
Codax: The “blanks” were suddenly in danger of being filled in.
Scott: Well, the authorship issue took on another dimension. “Paintings in search of an author” as one critic put it. It went from “Who is Henry Codax?” to “Are these made by who we think they are?”
Codax: And you said I made them.
Scott: I said that they were Henry Codax paintings and if people asked about signatures (I doubted that you would sign them) I told them that there would be a certificate of authenticity with the name Henry Codax on it.
Codax: And then several months after the show one of the paintings came up at auction.
Scott: Yes, the large grey one. I heard about it after it happened. Christie’s had come out and stated as fact that Henry Codax was the creation of the two aforementioned artists. There had been a fair amount of press about the original show at Carriage Trade, the speculation, the fact that you’re work was showing up in exhibitions in France, Switzerland and Belgium, and in New York at Martos Gallery’s booth at NADA, but no one was owning up to who, if anyone, might be behind this Henry Codax person. There were only “no comment’s” offered. Without any concrete evidence, Christie’s took the surprising step of turning the rumors into fact.
Codax: And one of the alleged participants took issue with this.
Scott: Christie’s apparently received a call before the auction from one of the people they named as making the work and were told to read a “correction” which denied this person’s involvement.
Codax: Why are you being so coy?
Scott: Because what’s interesting about this particular narrative, I think, is that the intersection between authorship, authenticity and the market place was not academic. As you know, it created some real issues and tensions around attribution and value. If this Codax person was indeed a fiction, there was pressure to turn fiction into a reality. Investments were being made. Though the idea of a pseudonym may not be new, if this was a recent example, it entered it into a system of valuation and exchange, which is dependent upon a traceable identification between the maker and the object. This identification was never made publicly, nor offered contractually, which created problems when the work came up for auction. The speculation around the authorship dovetailed with the market speculation around the work until they were indistinguishable to some.
Codax: Until the auction.
Scott: The irony is that the market speculation was hindered by “Henry’s” rumored origins being asserted as fact. As long as you remained an artist that “might have been” created by actual, living artists, there was no “true” identity to be lost. The moment that any living person either claimed or disclaimed you, you were subject to verification to establish your “actual” worth.
Codax: So you’re now saying I no longer exist.
Scott: I’m saying you exist through all the paintings out there attributed to the artist Henry Codax.
Photography by Spencer Ostrander