It all begins on a Sunday morning in October. My fiancé Alex and I arrive at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, pass through the double doors of the lobby gallery and enter the world of Albuquerque Now. As we would at any exhibition—but particularly since this marks our first real introduction to local visual arts, having just moved to New Mexico in July—we move slowly. We spend 20 to 25 minutes with the first six works, marveling at the intricacies of Catalina Delgado Trunk’s cut paper “Cyclical Time” and trying to identify the myriad found objects in Cynthia Cook’s “This Mortal Coil.”
And there it is: The seventh work, “#919 Untitled (Decorative Object).” It’s unassumingly beautiful, an oil painting over what looks like a page from an antiquated physics textbook. The image is of an unusual and unnamable thing—best described as a bouquet of motley-colored orbs—and stands in the frame like it might on a shelf, like I could reach out and pick it up. The technique and the aesthetic echo another time; the muted palette, the cracked surface and the trickeries of trompe l’oeil make me pause for a moment and wonder when and where the artist came from.
So I look at the information card next to the work, and I am reminded of when and where I am: at a show of local and contemporary practitioners. I start to write, as I have for all of the works thus far, the name of the “#919” creator. A – n – o – n – y – wait. I examine the whole moniker for the first time; it reads “Anonymous Artist.” By virtue of the 54 remaining works in the exhibition and only two available hours to see them all, I move on. Reluctantly.
But over the next couple of months, whether to interview museum Curator Andrew Connors or to share the talent of our art community with Alex’s visiting mama, I return to Albuquerque Now three times. And it becomes harder and harder to move on from the Anonymous Artist. Even after I wrench myself away from “#919,” I think about it. And not just at the museum, but when I eat breakfast, ride the bus, visit a gallery and almost pass out from holding my breath over the hope that I’ll see another painting by Anonymous. Mostly because I don’t know how to find more of his* work—a circumstance, I finally decide, that must be changed.
I try to access the Microsoft Art Collection online, but you can only see it in person and only if you have a Microsoft employee as your host (monopolists of the art world, too, it appears).
The first step, it seems, is to return to the scene, so I contact Connors. He invites me to the museum to examine their “slim” research dossier on the artist, to visit their permanent collection vault and view the included painting by Anonymous. I think I must be dreaming—what luck on the first inquiry! And then, the rude awakening: I have scheduling conflicts that will preclude our meeting in-person. But he and assistant extraordinaire Patti Gonzales are sympathetic to my curiosity, and Gonzales e-mails me an electronic copy of the research materials.
As it turns out, the dossier is very slim, consisting of one exhibition essay and five gallery reviews, all of which are dated between 1993 and 1999 (and one of which came from our very own Alibi). The most biographical information I can glean is that Anonymous hails from New Mexico and is male. But one of the authors, Mark Van de Walle, wrote two articles on Anonymous for THE Magazine; he seemed to respond to the work differently than the other writers, so I try to track him down, thinking he might recall some illuminating detail. My Google search dead ends in 2002 and without any contact information, but Facebook comes to the rescue (it shocks me, too); I find two Mark Van de Walles and one is the writer! But he doesn’t remember a thing about Anonymous—not surprising, maybe, as it was 15 years ago.
So I move on to the galleries at which Anonymous showed, using the exhibition reviews as my guide. The longest serving staff member at Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts has been there since 2004; Anonymous doesn’t ring a single bell. Graham Gallery, once at Sixth and Central, is years gone—replaced, it seems, by either a fairly hideous half-finished condo tower or (less likely) Sushi Hana. But Richard Levy Gallery is a different story.
Richard Levy Director Viviette Hunt informs me that the gallery represented Anonymous throughout the ’90s, when he still went by “Anonymous Artist, Late 20th Century.” Though they had much success with his work, culminating in 2001 with the addition of his “Radio” to the Microsoft Art Collection (5,000 pieces strong and counting), Anonymous moved away for a time and took his trompe l’oeil with him. It wasn’t, apparently, until Hunt and others at the gallery saw Albuquerque Now that they realized Anonymous was back in Albuquerque. Hunt explains that the gallery has been aiming to “reintegrate [his] work into our program” ever since, provides me with some JPEG images of his older paintings and apologizes that she can’t offer me more. We lament that they no longer have any of his work on hand.
The technique and the aesthetic echo another time; the muted palette, the cracked surface and the trickeries of trompe l’oeil make me pause for a moment and wonder when and where the artist came from.
At this point, it seems that my luck has run out. Google returns 495,000 hits for “Anonymous Artist, Late 20th Century;” 18,400 when I add “Albuquerque” at the end. I move through 1 percent of them and realize the search is going nowhere fast. I try to access the Microsoft Art Collection online, but you can only see it in person and only if you have a Microsoft employee as your host (monopolists of the art world, too, it appears). I call the few remaining local galleries that have been around since Anonymous first showed here, but there are none who remember him.
At first, I feel defeated and slightly depressed; after all of my searching, I’ve come up with only a handful of decade-old JPEGs and can't find a single, solitary painting. I curse Anonymous and his diligent veiling of identity, thinking that if only I had a name, I would have surely found a work. But then I realize how remarkable it is that—in the field of art, where identity is almost everything, in an age of exposés and instant access, in a global environment of self-aggrandizement and celebrity—he is truly anonymous. And I know that I’ll joyfully keep holding my breath and hope, as hard as I can, that one of these days, I’ll round a gallery corner and see his still-Anonymous work in front of me.
* In an essay prepared by Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts to accompany a 1994 solo exhibition of Anonymous’ work, author David Clemmer writes that the artist is “purported to be of the male gender.” No one else—neither artists nor gallerists nor curators—I spoke with over the course of this search ever used a pronoun; they diligently referred to Anonymous as “The Artist.” But for sake of ease, Clemmer’s suggestion of “he” will be used throughout.