An artist named Henry Codax currently has a show of his paintings on view at the Carriage Trade gallery on Walker Street in TriBeCa. That seems simple enough, but there is a problem: a source tells The Observer that Mr. Codax does not, in fact, exist. According to the source, the name is a pseudonym adopted by two painters working in tandem, the veteran Swiss provocateur Olivier Mosset, 77, and the New York-based rising star Jacob Kassay, 27, who has been a subject of intense attention from collectors and art dealers in recent years.
An internet search for “Henry Codax” returns only links to the show at Carriage Trade, and the gallery’s website offers no information about the show: no press release, no artist biography, and no other explanation. The gallery’s director, Peter Scott, declined to comment on Mr. Codax’s identity, so The Observer contacted Mr. Mosset’s New York gallery, Leo Koenig, Inc., which denied any knowledge of Mr. Codax’s show. A representative from Mr. Kassay’s gallery, Eleven Rivington, also said that he had no knowledge of the show.
The monochromatic paintings certainly look like the work of Mr. Mosset, who has spent much of his half-century career painting monochromes, and the pseudonymous project would fit with the artist’s conceptual agenda, which has frequently involved critiquing ideas about authenticity and authorship. As a young man in 1960s Paris he ran with the B.M.P.T. group of painters. (Mr. Mosset was the M, with the other initials corresponding to Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni.)
A search in Google Books did turn up one other reference to Henry Codax, in the 2004 art novel Reena Spaulings, which was written by the Bernadette Corporation, an international consortium of artists, critics, dealers, and other art types. The novel describes Mr. Codax as a “bearded, taciturn painter” who works in an office building in Manhattan. It notes, “He is a radical painter in the old school sense, and devotes his practice to a steady production of expensive, intimidating monochromes.” Check and check: Mr. Mosset sports a beard, and the works are, indeed, monochromes.
It gets richer. In the novel, its main character, Reena Spaulings, “watches [Mr. Codax] rolling a coat of bubblegum-pink semi-glass enamel across a large canvas in the corner.” Sure enough, among Mr. Codax’s monochromes at Carriage Trade one can find a sweet bubblegum pink. In the book, the artist wears Timberlands and overalls as he works, drinking Remy VSOP and smoking a pipe, although there is, alas, no evidence of these activities at Carriage Trade. However, it is worth noting that Ms. Spaulings (who is, one must remember, a fictional character) has had solo shows at galleries and museums in Europe and the U.S.
Any obvious trace of Mr. Kassay’s involvement in the project is harder to discern. His young fame has rested on silver paintings lined with subtle burn marks, and his recent works have taken the form of black and white monochromes, not color ones. However, with his first museum show set for October, at the London’s ICA, Mr. Kassay may be cannily positioning his work in a long line of radical painters. Of course, that is all speculation: with no one stepping up to claim authorship of the works, it is impossible to say.
At the very least, Henry Codax has firmly aligned himself – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has been firmly aligned – with a tradition of fictional and pseudonymous artists that includes French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp masquerading as a woman named Rrose Selavy and the artist Richard Prince and dealer Colin de Land reportedly making work under the name John Dogg. Even right now, at Chelsea’s Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, there is work by another fictional artist, Donelle Woolford. In this case, at least, the artist behind the mask is widely known. Described as a young African-American woman in press materials, she is, in fact, a creation of the mid-career white artist Joe Scanlan.