Last year, a story written by New York magazine contributor Jessica Pressler about “SoHo grifter” Anna Sorokin went viral. The profile detailed how the fake German heiress, better known as Anna Delvey, conned her way through New York to the tune of $275,000.
The artist Cynthia Talmadge never met Delvey and had nothing to do with the case. But after the piece was published, she kept getting texts from friends and family asking if she had read it yet.
“A million people sent it to me, and I don’t know what that says about me,” said Talmadge, whose latest piece, “Four Courtroom Outfits of Anna Delvey,” is currently on display in London. “People I haven’t spoken to in years said, ‘You’re going to love it,’ five times a day for a week.”
It made sense, given Talmadge’s wheelhouse. The artist, who is 30, often turns to the underbelly of polite society for inspiration. She’s recreated the interior of an Upper East Side funeral home known for handling the burials of celebrities like Jackie Onassis, Judy Garland, and Rudolph Valentino, and she has also made replicas of dorms from some of the 1 percent’s choicest psychiatric hospitals.
Like many in New York, Talmadge became obsessed with Delvey’s dramatic trial, especially after GQ reported that the scammer hired a stylist to craft her courtroom looks.
“[With Delvey’s court looks], we saw a really, really tiny crack in the plaster of keeping up appearances, a tiny glimpse into the internal feelings of someone taking part in an incredible public spectacle,” Talmadge said. “My work is always about that to a certain extent—the tension between the actual experience and everything that goes with keeping up appearances, the feeling of fraudulence that goes into that.”
Despite former fashion editor Anastasia Walker’s best attempt to dress her client in fashion-forward outfits, the clothes she pulled rarely made it to Delvey’s cell in Rikers Island. On certain days, the inmate refused to come into court wearing the standard-issued uniform of black pants and a white shirt. One day, she held up court for over an hour until her presiding judge laid down the law, saying, “This is not a fashion show.”
The ongoing drama became tabloid fodder, and Talmadge took note. Four months after sentencing, “Four Courtroom Outfits of Anna Delvey” directly nods at the more colorful details of the trial. Talmadge made a dressing screen with five panels adorned with things like Delvey’s American Express card, shopping bags, the silhouette of the Manhattan courthouse she was ultimately tried inside, and many, many checks (which presumably went unpaid).
The piece is currently on view in London inside an empty storefront at the Piccadilly Tube stop. “Just make a right when you see the poster for Light in the Piazza at the Regent Streets Stairs, walk past the vacant Pick n’ Mix shop,” and you’ve found the artwork, Talmadge wrote on Instagram.
Behind the screen, Talmadge put in place a machine that shoots up clothing. When viewed from the front, it looks as if someone is furiously getting dressed. Talmadge wanted this part of the installation to run 24/7, but to ensure she didn't “blow up the power grid,” the piece stays powered on from 10:30 in the morning until 6 at night.
The installation runs until Nov. 24. The mechanics that send snake-printed dresses and black sweaters like the ones Delvey wore flying through the air seems to work well now, though Talmadge admits it had a slightly tempestuous start.
“It can get hot back there, clothing can get stuck,” she said. “The whole thing is a nightmare, maybe like Anna herself.”
When asked why she opted to show her work in London as opposed to the scene of Delvey’s crimes in New York, Talmadge replied that she was mostly drawn to the space provided by her gallery, Soft Opening.
There are no plans for the dressing screen to come to New York, though that could change. Rest assured, Londoners have followed the case with interest, too.
“She is a cult figure in London,” Talmadge said. “People have read everything, and I think they have a bit of history with her because of their obsession with class. They have their own similar types of people, fake heiresses and things like that. It’s a familiar concept to them.” (Last year, a certain Thomas J. Mace-Archer-Mills, Esquire, who regularly gave televised interviews as a “royal expert” and possessed a mighty posh accent, was outed by The Wall Street Journal as “an Italian-American from upstate New York” named Tommy Muscatello.)
Talmadge also believes that the Brits “have us beat” when it comes to tabloids, adding that Delvey’s story was covered by The Daily Mail, Evening Standard, Telegraph, and Guardian. “Our tabloids tend to focus on the film industry and Hollywood figures, and theirs are more society, Page Six kind of things.”
The artist has not received any critiques from her subject. But Talmadge's work has been tagged on the Instagram page Anna Delvey Court Looks, which once documented the series of outfits she wore to chambers.
“I’ve been tagging Anna Delvey in all of my posts about the project,” Talmadge said. “So Anna, if you’re reading, I would love for you to know about it. I’d be curious.”