Weekly Schedule (CET)

Art on Air #8 Nicola Tyson, ‘Dead Letter Men Part 1’

11 April 2024
  • Arts & Culture
  • Reading
  • Cinematic
  • Playful
  • Quirky

“Confession and lie are the same thing. We cannot communicate what we are, exactly because

we are it. We can communicate only what we are not: that is, only the lie”

Franz Kafka

Dead Letter Men is a book by Nicola Tyson composed of a series of letters to dead artists. It

began as a performance piece initiated by Tyson’s participation in an exhibition at INVISIBLE

EXPORTS on the Lower East Side in February 2011, staged by Ridykulous, the curatorial duo of

A.L Steiner and Nicole Eisenman. For the exhibition, titled Readykeulous: The Hurtful Healer:

The Correspondance Issue, artists were invited to contribute an open letter of complaint

concerning and something that irked them about ‘the world today’, in particular, The Patriarchy.

That first draft of Tyson’s letter to “Dear Man on the Street” was laminated and hung on the wall

from a small string noose at the suggestion of Steiner and Eisenman.

Over the next couple of months, inspired, Tyson wrote a series of letters to a select group of

famous dead artists: Picasso, Bacon, Manet, Gainsborough, Ensor and Beckmann—at first just

for the amusement of her friends. In these seven satirical and occasionally ranting missives, her

concerns range widely; art (her own and that of others), sexual politics (contemporary and

historical) and biography (her own and theirs) in an absurd, pointed and playful exercise that

seeks to create a mutable framework for locating and interpreting her own work, without actually

discussing it directly. Tyson, who has always resisted explaining her own work, used this

medium as a humorous means of investigating and describing the particular coordinates—art

historical, political and personal—from which her working practice had evolved. References and

puns ricochet back and forth within each letter, as well as between them, creating meaning and

obfuscation by turns.

Tyson first read the letters as a performance piece – originally titled Letters to Dead Artists and

Other Men – at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in May and again in October 2011, and in 2012 at

Susanne Veilmetter Los Angeles Projects and Vox Populi in Philadelphia, at which point Sadie

Coles suggested Tyson create a book.

The collected letters became Dead Letter Men a book designed by Peter Miles and published by

Sadie Coles HQ and Friedrich Petzel Gallery in a limited edition of 800 in 2013.

Tyson was subsequently commissioned in 2014 by the DRAWING ROOM in London to pen a

letter in the same spirit to Egon Schiele to accompany their exhibition The Nakeds – co curated

by art historian Gemma Blackshaw and artist David Austen. This ambitious group show was

inspired by a discussion between the curators about the relevance of Egon Shiele’s work to

contemporary artists regarding ‘the nude’ versus the ‘naked’, voyeurism and exploitation, and

pornography and art. Both the artists personal relationship to their own nakedness was explored

and how women artists interrogate the modernist concepts of nakedness, gender and sexuality

was investigated. Tyson performed to letter on the opening night and a video recording can be

viewed on online. The letter is reproduced in the exhibition catalogue.

Excerpts from reviews of Dead Letter Men:

“The reading started with “Dear Man on The Street”, a tirade against hecklers who call out to

Tyson to smile as she walks by with knitted brow. An annoyed Tyson: “I resent even the energy

expenditure in just the act of ignoring.” All too often, as a reflex, she smiles, and is “instantly

sodden with disbelief, shame and the poison of self-betrayal”. This tortured relationship with the

opposite sex sets the tone for the remaining five epistles, all of which are addressed to past

masters of painting. Each letter is playfully resentful and lovingly confrontational and easily runs

to over 1,000 words. The artist raced through them in less than an hour.”

Brian Boucher Art in America

“In turning to literary prose, cast in the satirical mold that informs the comedy of manners at

work in her paintings, Tyson lays herself bare. Beneath their ebullient tone, these rather

breathless but quite engaging letters, in which she takes on in turn some of the artists to whom

her work is ritually compared, betray an understandable anxiety of influence”.

Agnieszka Gratza, Frieze

“The letters have a free-written feel to them and the format feels appropriate – it’s as if she has

something to get off her chest, something that she really should have said earlier but some length

of time has passed where a letter is really the only appropriate thing”.

Dan Duray New York Observer



Egon Schiele
James Ensor
Pablo Picasso
Francis Bacon