The SohoistIssue 21

The Lyrebird

The Rothko would only take half a day to paint but it would have to be done in situ. It was a question of size mostly. No. 61 (Rust and Blue) is a 115 × 92 inch expanse and shipping it was going to be an issue. So he said he would come up from New York to paint ‘on location’. He arrived in Boston just after nine on a Thursday morning.

I let him into my studio apartment and left him to it. By 4pm that day, hanging on my wall – stamped against the gallery blankness – stood nine-and-a-half feet of colour split unevenly in three. These fields capture the ‘inner light’ that was Rothko’s obsession. The top block contains a trio of sun-hit church windows peeking through rust, below it, the smudged royal blue cummerbund and below that, the glaucous final third. The spirituality of the original remains intact.

As I look away from the damp canvas I can see the Malevich (‘Suprematist Composition’) he’d painted the month before – the geometry hanging in space with the same Tetris logic of the original.

I look back to the glistening Rothko.

“What is the difference between this and the original?” I ask. Now it is his expression that becomes abstract. “The signature”.

Adam Peiffer has near savant-like ability. He can replicate any artist, any work, in any period and render it with a precision that is remarkable. Great forgers tend to specialise: Ken Perenyi focussed on 18th and 19th British and American, Han van Meegeren had his Vermeer fetish. Adam, though, is a generalist. I have seen his replicas of Calder, Leger, Haring, Mondrian, Modigliani, and Picasso – all have verisimilitude that is beyond the parlour trick. He also does not identify as a forger. His work is not designed to hoodwink. He claims a kinship with homage. Indeed, Adam occasionally makes minor and almost imperceptible alterations to a work when he copies it – though these are often times subconscious. Perhaps is driven by an ideomotor effect of artistic purity – or perhaps it is to ensure that each of these copies will be, in some small way, an original.

I’d first met him at a New Year’s Eve party thrown in Cambridge MA by some mutual friends. Puckish with long glances, he endured a long and burnished tale of mine concerning a recent trip to Mexico before we turned, conversationally, to him. He was working as an art handler at Sotheby’s in New York, he said. He found it interesting but mainly for the aesthetic access. He would spend his days handling ‘priceless’ works (n.b. for Sotheby’s nothing is truly priceless – that’s kind of the point) as they were sliding through the auction house on one of their periodic journeys from vault to yacht to villa and back again.

Before he took on the role of a physical custodian of art, he had trained at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, CT. Classically minded, he mostly engaged in painting landscapes and rural American sporting scenes. ‘Decoying Wigeon’, a painting of a duck shoot, is a typical watercolour of this period of his artistic output. However, he spent a good deal of time buried in a 19th Century French instructional manual on how to draw. It was by careful and unceasing copying of the manual that his flair for plastic mimicry and duplication was uncovered. On the recommendation of a friend from art school, he applied for a position in Jeff Koons’ studio. Mr Koons is the Henry Ford of the art market and appropriately his studio is an industrially staffed operation of one hundred and thirty people. Again, the discipline of quick reproduction of the style of another was a prize – Koons prioritised the assistants who could ape or even anticipate the kitsch bravura for which he is known.

Moving to Sotheby’s for stability and prox-imity to the art that moved him, Adam began to find that employees asked whether he could copy their favourite works. These office workers and administrative assistants spent their days supervising masterpieces with no hope of owner-ship. For a hundred bucks, he would copy works that passed through the gallery for Sotheby’s em-ployees to take home. They would be signed by him but practically indistinguishable in medium and execution from their real counterparts.

Hearing all this, I asked whether he could paint me a Rothko and a Malevich. He agreed and we struck a bargain, which turned into a friendship. Now that I was a minor patron I wanted to ask about his process.

We choose to meet at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Midtown Rockefeller be-quest between 5th and 6th Avenues. It is a space modulated by donation. As we’re revolved in from 53rd Street we are hit by the brand surnames of the generous splayed across the atrium wall. They remind me of the Great War memorials common in English public schools. Never was so much owed… But these donors usually want something for their charity. The tradition was once endowing and naming an entire museum – at worst, a wing or two. However, with a limited amount of space and near limitless moneyed folk, requests from bequests are slighter, the rewards more absurd. Thus we meet at ‘The Eli and Edythe Broad Reception Center’, proximate to ‘The Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Lobby’.

“Is there any artist you can’t or won’t rep-licate?” I ask as we leave the lobby behind. “There was an artist in the 70s who filmed himself get-ting shot in the arm…that guy”. It turns out the Old Masters are the hardest to copy, not from a tech-nical standpoint but from a psychological one. Adam likes to try and replicate the sensibility and emotional profile of the target artist – he will immerse himself in their biography and, if possible, watch footage of the artist. He feels the Old Masters are exhaustingly meditative and clear-minded, and this makes them tricky to impe-rsonate. We walk past several Malevich works from just before he painted the Suprematist Composition that Adam copied for me. He notes the embryonic nature of the works compared to the piece I chose and appraises these initial forays into abstraction as it they were his own.

The lyrebird is the greatest mimic of the songbirds; its syrinx is a feature of such deep muscular complexity that it allows it to counter-feit the songs of all other birds as well as human sounds. With fidelity, lyrebirds have been known to imitate a chainsaw, a car engine, the barking of a dog, the human voice, and rifle shots. While mimicry forms most of their vocal repertoire, lyrebirds also have their own songs and calls. While some can be harmonious and melodic, the ‘display call’ hits the ear wrong. It’s mechanical in timbre, all clicks and whirring, grinding and gnashing. These metallic sounds are the lyrebird’s own and not mimicry. And yet, they are often mistaken for that.

We move to the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel a little down the block. A Maxfield Parrish mural stares us down. Adam is telling me that a life of copying feels temporary. He is working on original Peiffers at the moment – a series of portraits of Brooklyn hipsters rendered with darkness and a Rembrandt eggwash. There is talk of his becoming the ‘in-house copyist’ for Sotheby’s but “I would”, he tells me, “like to be known for my own thing.”