Is Copying the Highest Form of Flattery?
Art and Craft, which opens tomorrow at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York, is a film about an enigmatic art forger who gives (he does not sell) his forgeries to museums, libraries and other institutions throughout the U.S. The star, so to speak, is Mark Landis, who so faithfully copied so many styles, that many years elapsed before one of his fakes was caught by Matthew Leininger, an art registrar, who made it his mission to end Landis’s crusade with a show-all exhibition.
This film account is a complex portrait of deceit, compulsion and pleasure. I asked the directors Jennifer Grausman and Sam Cullman to discuss their own compulsion to make this stunning documentary.
Mark Landis at home and at work on a “Picasso”. Photograph: Sam Cullman Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
How did you become aware of Mark Landis?
Jennifer Grausman: In January 2011, I happened upon a story in The New York Times about Mark Landis, an unusual art forger who gave away his fakes instead of selling them. The Times reported that numerous attempts to contact Landis had been unsuccessful, so I put the article away. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it – what kind of art forger donates his work to museums instead of selling it? So I showed the article to Sam Cullman and Mark Becker, and they were both intrigued as well. A few days later, I contacted Matthew Leininger, who The New York Times had called: “a kind of Javert to Mr.Landis’s Valjean.”
After speaking with Leininger on the phone, Sam and I decided to make the trip to Cincinnati to interview him. It was a promising start, but we knew we had to track down Mark Landis to see the story’s full potential. We soon made contact, and after several months speaking with him on the telephone (and sending him our past films so he could vet us), we were eventually invited down to Laurel and filmed with Landis in person in May 2011.
What determined why you chose to invest your time, energy, talent and money in this project?
Jennifer Grausman: The story particularly resonated with me since I grew up in the art world – my uncle is a sculptor and my aunt owned a gallery – and I worked as a fundraiser for The Museum of Modern Art before I began making films. But really it was meeting Leininger, and especially Landis that made me want to make this film.
Sam Cullman: Prior to my work in documentary, I had a background in the arts as well — I’d spent years as a painter and later a printmaker. When first presented with this story, I was immediately interested because of the potential to explore all sorts of fundamental questions about art itself: how we determine value, how we interpret originality, how we define and protect notions of creativity, authenticity and authorship. But the story would ultimately expand beyond this frame and resonate with me on a way deeper level as we explored the complex motivations and perspectives of our main subjects.
Mark Landis at home, showing off recent works. Photograph: Sam Cullman, Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
How did he initially respond to the idea of a doc? And how large was his access to you?
Grausman and Cullman: Once Landis had seen our past films (Pressure Cooker and If a Tree Falls), and we’d spoken for many hours on the phone getting to know each other, he was very responsive to the idea of a documentary. In fact, his openness to us and the film came as a bit of a surprise — we’d imagined that a man in his position might not be so forthcoming — but it did not take long for Mark to let us in and soon enough we were filming him at work as both forger and philanthropist.
When we first met Mark, his mother had very recently passed away and he was living a fairly solitary existence. Mark seemed to welcome the company and the opportunity to tell his story — and as we built mutual trust and understanding, we were able to find a level of intimacy that our film and Mark’s story demanded.
Did you enter into the project with a point of view about his forgeries or his aims in doing them?
Grausman and Cullman: We really had no idea what to make of Mark and his story. We were introduced to it all through the Times and through Matt Leininger — and neither had actually spoken with Landis about his ruse. We were determined to understand his motivations though, and when we finally met him, we hung on his every word for clues:
Was he a kind of Robin Hood for the arts bringing great works to the masses? Was he a disgruntled artist trying to get back at an art world that had rejected him? Or was he perpetrating an elaborate prank to challenge the art world and the very institutions that drive the industry? Mischievous but never malicious, Landis’ aims would prove to be far more complex and nuanced than we could have ever imagined.
Mark Landis at home. Photograph: Sam Cullman, Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
What did you learn about these motives that altered your thinking?
Grausman and Cullman: Landis’ “career” certainly raised a number of important ethical questions — and the film explores this — but we also couldn’t ignore the fact that there was no ill will or spite. Even from the first day we filmed with him, Landis seemed genuinely troubled that his actions had caused anyone anguish or harm. The film of course ultimately reveals that Landis is a diagnosed schizophrenic. And understanding this forced us to see his elaborate con in a new light.
Said simply: After a lifetime of marginalization and isolation at the hands of his illness, forging work and giving it away had become a means for Landis to cultivate human connection and respect. Landis had harnessed his talents and escaped “the life of a mental patient.” Seeking community, appreciation and purpose, his motives were at once idiosyncratic and also very familiar, influenced by mental health issues, informed by familial experience, and inspired by art, both high and low.
Obviously, you cannot script a film like this. But did you have an anticipated trajectory? And did it follow or deviate?
Grausman and Cullman: When we first interviewed Leininger, he mentioned his dream of putting together an exhibition of all of Landis’ known forgeries and of course that sounded like a great ending to a film – where the protagonist and antagonist meet – but we had no idea if Leininger would follow through on this idea and forgot about it until the show became a reality almost a year into filming. Once we filmed this verité scene though, we knew our story had coalesced and we had an ending to the documentary….That is until a few months later when Landis invited us to film what would ultimately be the film’s surprise final sequence.
There are two emotions I came away with, and I’m curious if they were the same for you: 1. Extremely sad because he seems to be a slave to his own sadness.
Grausman and Cullman: Landis indeed is a solitary figure and he carries a certain sadness with him for sure. That said, we don’t see him as someone who was powerless or mired in malaise. He’s someone who has tremendous agency and was able to carve out a meaningful life for himself in spite of the odds.
2. Anger at Leininger for his tenacious hounding.
Grausman and Cullman: Leininger betrayed a remarkable tenacity in his approach to Landis and need for him to stop. As a museum professional, he was no doubt deeply offended by Landis’ career, but he also had not fully appreciated the dynamics at play until he met Landis for the second time at the exhibition. Leininger’s transformation was important for the film to portray — as were the surprising parallels in the obsessive nature of the two men’s pursuits.
This seems to be a film that at once sympathizes with Landis and condemns and condones his behavior. Do you come out on either side?
Grausman and Cullman: As documentarians, we felt it was important to present the story without judgment, letting the main characters speak for themselves. Certainly we were sympathetic to everyone we met and tried to portray them with respect and honesty.
How do you feel about the exhibition? Torn between it being a freak show and validation. Was Landis pleased or disappointed in the end?
Grausman and Cullman: ART AND CRAFT in many ways is a film about a man who must confront his legacy and the exhibition became the culminating moment of that confrontation. With a planned opening on April Fools’ Day, the event was quite consciously designed as a kind of public shaming — a way for Leininger to educate people about Landis and force him to stop his antics once and for all. Things didn’t quite turn out that way but certainly the scene was dramatic for other reasons.
Though Landis seemed to be dreading the exhibition during the lead up, it seems that surviving it gave him a new lease on life – his health has picked up in the years since then and he seemed to be very pleased, both with the show itself and with the opportunity it presented him to meet new people and hear their reactions
After spending such a long time with Landis, have you maintained a relationship?
Grausman and Cullman: We are still very much in touch with Landis, Leininger and several of the other people in ART AND CRAFT. Landis in particular tends to collect friends, and so now in addition to the two of us, he stays in regular email contact with Mark Becker, Stephen Ulrich (composer) and Richard Miron (assistant editor).