Who Is rg_bunny1: An Instagram Whodunit

It is the parlor game of the pandemic. Among a certain segment of the scrolling classes, art and literary division, firing up their tablets and smartphones each morning has taken on aspects of a whodunit. Rifling through Instagram feeds, they register with half yawns the sponsored posts and thirst traps, the Throwback Thursday selfies and banal memes of cats. All the while they are waiting to happen upon the latest clue from a particular account.

It is that of rg_bunny1, an enigmatic and anonymous, unabashedly niche figure who, since at least the beginning of lockdown, has released into the daily Instagram slipstream a daily torrent of quirky, particular images that, taken together, speak to an aesthetic that delights, confounds, fixates and infuriates in equal measures and that belongs to who-knows-who.

Modestly at first, and then in manic bursts of oversharing, rg_bunny1 has data-mined images from an impressive cultural gold mine that seem in sequence to resemble the jumbled contents of an obsessive and over-cultivated mind.

On one day, his followers may encounter, say, three rare images of the ballerina Anna Pavlova in the embrace of an actual swan. They may come upon a mug shot of the publicist Lizzie Grubman taken after her 2001 arrest on charges of intentionally backing her S.U.V. into a Hamptons crowd, followed by Julian Wasser’s iconic portrait of Joan Didion slouched against her Daytona yellow Corvette Stingray, cigarette in hand.

Followers have almost come to expect a daily dose of works by 20th-century art greats (Mark Rothko, Picasso, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Francis Bacon) with the occasional wild card like Clyfford Still thrown into the mix. They anticipate details of paintings culled from the byways of the Western canon (from John Singer Sargent to Chaim Soutine to Édouard Vuillard) as filtered through rg_bunny’s quirky eye.

They delight in snapshots of the artists themselves; of film stars and directors from a knowledge base specific to rg_bunny1’s decidedly Eurocentric cinematic, mostly nostalgic tastes (Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Pier Paolo Pasolini); to hypnotic video clips of Maria Callas from ancient television interviews.

“He posts incredible archival photos,” said Charlie Scheips, a writer and painter and the founding director of the Condé Nast archive. “It’s not Corbis or Getty or the common stuff you can Google and search Marilyn Monroe.”

Daily, and sometimes hourly, rg_bunny posts obscure paparazzi shots (Anita Ekberg taking aim at the paparazzi with a bow and arrow); images capturing the motley coterie of drag queens, artists and sycophants that surrounded Andy Warhol; portraits of the beautiful doomed socialite Tina Chow; of the socialite and model Penelope Tree at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball; of Watteau pierrots; of Yves Klein as a child; of the brilliant and drunkard German artist Martin Kippenberger; of the English playwright Joe Orton wearing a jock strap.

The glacially blond socialite C.Z. Guest may suddenly turn up in a variety of moods and settings (and as painted by Salvador Dalí) followed by a run of fragments from, say, Goya’s 18th-century aquatint series, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”

“He definitely likes Hockney, he definitely likes old Hollywood,” Mr. Scheips said. “There are other tropes, like male nudes but not the usual stuff. One day he was posting the erotic drawings of Duncan Grant.”

If there are baseline characteristics of the rg_bunny account, they are enigmatic juxtaposition and unbridled obsession. Even those traits are snake-fascinating to a cadre of followers that, while minute (under 1,700) in comparison to that of, say, an influencer and model like Kendall Jenner (169 million), could easily pass for the membership roster of some exclusive spot like the Groucho Club in London.

Run down the list of his followers and you’ll find the painters Tracey Emin and Jack Pierson; the New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast; Luke Syson, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England; a smattering of European nobilities with surnames like Windisch-Graetz and Schönbrunn; fashion folk like the hatter Philip Treacy and the Schiaparelli designer Daniel Roseberry; the art photographer Roe Ethridge; the critic and curator Hilton Als; the film director Whit Stillman; and, yes, Madonna.

As the posts lit up Instagram feeds throughout the long drears of lockdown, rg_bunny scattered random clues to a possibly fictional identity — references to California, to insider London, to a swank father who favored custom silk shirts from Sulka, to stints in rehab at the Connecticut psychiatric hospital Silver Hill and to a childlike fascination with rabbits in all forms, evidenced in the name of the account, with its allusions to celebrated people nicknamed Bunny. (Bunny Mellon and Edmund Wilson, to name two.)

“Whoever it is, he or she is clearly an educated person, whether formally or self-educated,” said William Norwich, the editor of fashion and interior design at the Phaidon Press. For Mr. Norwich, doping out the mystery of rg_bunny1’s identity became a “fun society guessing game.”

“No one knows who it is, and everyone I know is talking about it — even Carl Bernstein is obsessed,” Mr. Norwich added, referring to one-half of the duo that famously uncovered the source that brought down the Nixon presidency.

Following rg_bunny1, said James Reginato, a writer-at-large for Vanity Fair, can be as addictive as bingeing on “Bridgerton” or “Gossip Girl.” “It’s a pretty fancy list,” Mr. Reginato said of his diagraming of rg_bunny1’s list of followers. rg_bunny1 scatters clues to his (or her) identity at random. Often, like all red herrings, they work to divert you from the source.

“There’s a lot of range in the list, but a lot of it is very specific,” Mr. Reginato said, referring to an art world/fashion/society matrix. “It’s fascinating because of how few reliably personal clues he leaves.”

Yet the clues are there.

Or are they? “You rarely get any personal information, though there are the references to rehab,” Mr. Reginato said. “You get the sense that he — if it is a he — is in recovery but still a compulsive, like he’s given up booze for Instagram.”

For Matthew Yokobosky, the senior curator of fashion and culture at the Brooklyn Museum, the rg_bunny1 account reads as “very gay and art-centric and speaks to people obsessed with things like Warhol, Callas or Isabella Blow that we worship and enjoy being reminded existed.” Like a diaristic picture puzzle built of fragments from a magpie sensibility, the account is equal parts Artforum, Tatler and Interview, and Modern Painters, Mr. Yokobosky said.

Speaking by telephone from the California desert, the painter Jack Pierson recently took a stab at identifying rg_bunny1. “I’ve decided he’s some art/fashion writer from Germany or something, somebody that, before the internet, was on local weird art TV in Berlin,” said Mr. Pierson, whose occasional direct message exchanges with rg_bunny1 ended abruptly one day when he posed the obvious question. “I asked, ‘Who is this?’” He stopped answering. It’s just annoying that he won’t ever reveal himself, although part of what I should let go of is guessing who this person is.”

If no one seems to know, many hold theories. Surely it is David Rimanelli, some said, before a Timothy Greenfield-Sanders portrait of Mr. Rimanelli, an Artforum critic, turned up on the rg_bunny1 feed. (“Uh, no,” Mr. Rimanelli said in response to a reporter’s query. “People ask me this every week.”)

Or it is the worldly and socially well-connected Los Angeles painter Robyn Geddes (“I asked if we knew each other, and he sort of evaded the question,” Mr. Geddes wrote of the Instagram sphinx, adding that “he won’t answer a question directly.”) Conceivably, it is the globe-trotting art dealer Tobias Meyer.

Or perhaps, suggested Christine Coulson, a novelist and rg_bunny1 follower, “It’s a very precocious 13-year-old.”

Like many on rg_bunny1’s list, Ms. Coulson has no clear recollection of how rg_bunny1 first appeared in her Instagram feed. Once linked to him on social media, she began to consider the account, with its torrent of posts, either a form of visual catnip or a nuisance.

“I follow, like, 600 people, and some days half my feed is rg_bunny1,” Ms. Coulson said. “For whatever reason, he has great art, great people and is clearly speaking to a certain generation,” she said, particularly when posting about characters like the Karl Lagerfeld muse Ines de la Fressange or the storied eccentric Marquesa Casati, or Andy Warhol’s business manager, the elegant and self-invented Texan Fred Hughes. “And there’s no nature, no food and no selfies, and for me that’s a big plus.”

Intrigued by personal clues that may well be diversions or feints — references to Pacific Palisades, Calif., in the ’70s, to an accidental apartment fire at the Police Building in New York, to Ian Schrager as a “dream boyfriend” — Ms. Coulson also attempted to divine rg_bunny’s identity, though without success. “I asked, of course, and there was silence,” she said.

“The truth of the matter,” said Peter Bacanovic, a digital brand consultant, “is it would take a bunch of us to track him — semantically, semiotically and actually.”

Then there’s the Highsmith factor.

Or else it would take someone with social media savvy, an intimate familiarity with the works of Patricia Highsmith and the patience to pore through ancient blog posts on the Wayback Machine.

While scanning the rg_bunny1 account one day last winter, Alissa Bennett, a writer Vogue once called a “true crime scene zine queen,” in writing about “The C Word,” a death-obsessed podcast she created with Lena Dunham, was nagged by the sense she had seen certain of the rg_bunny1 images and motifs collated in another social media account. Working at a succession of art galleries in Manhattan, Ms. Bennett has developed an acute ability to inventory artworks in her head.

“Before he started using the Caravaggio, his profile picture was a Ryan McGinley photo that I happen to know this one guy had purchased from Team Gallery,” Ms. Bennett said. “Then he started posting all those Rineke Dijkstra photos,” she said, referring to a series by the celebrated Dutch artist depicting a young soldier in the French Foreign Legion. “Who posts Rineke Dijkstra?”

As it happens, somebody had. Turning to the digital archive, Ms. Bennett bored down into a defunct blog maintained a decade ago by an art world professional with the feeling she was playing a bizarre game of Memory. “There were so many doubles,” Ms. Bennett said.

There were the Dijkstra portraits, of course, but also a well-known 1990 snap by the British social chronicler Dafydd Jones of Brooke Astor and Iris Love attending a dachshund party, along with numerous images of dogs from a breed that is a recurrent rg_bunny1 theme. There were doubles of Karen Kilimnik drawings, of Matisse drawings, of flower paintings by Henri Fantin-Latour.

“Not just the artist but the exact work,” she said. “I mean, what are the chances of two people posting the same Tina Chow picture on the back of the same Anne Slater picture?” she said, referring to the Manhattan socialite known for her trademark blue-tinted glasses. “The selections and the flourishes were too specific. It was like something lifted from ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.’”

In a further quirk, the old blog posts made repeated reference to biographical details uncannily similar to those of rg_bunny1, most saliently to him having been partly educated in Canada, romantically linked to an artist (now seemingly deceased) with the initials R.G., and preoccupied, of course, with images of bunny rabbits in art.

What Ms. Bennett logically did next was to write direct messages to rg_bunny1, asking if he were, in fact, who she thought. That is, an Ivy-educated arts administrator with a varied résumé notable for stints at a blue-chip contemporary design gallery, a specialized Upper East Side museum and another museum that is unquestionably world-class. “Finally, I asked directly, ‘Is this you?’” she said.

There followed a long silence before the person who either is, or is not, rg_bunny1 at last replied.

“Oh, I didn’t read this,” rg_bunny1 wrote. “Hi!”

That was the end of their exchange, as rg_bunny1 seemed to freeze in place, perhaps feigning invisibility, as prey animals like rabbits (and so many social media avatars) reflexively do.

Later this reporter also scoured the old blogs and found dozens of echoing references and images. Attempting to reach him, I wrote direct messages to another Instagram account associated with the putative creator of the defunct look-alike blog and then emails to a personal Gmail account.

For a time there was no movement at all. Then, suddenly, a flurry of messages from rg_bunny1 appeared.

“This account is most definitely not maintained” by any person with either the first or last names provided,” this person replied to me in an Instagram message, followed by another so consistent, in its arch incredulity, with the tone of rg_bunny1’s posts that it may as well have been an autograph.

“I’m confused, nonplused,” wrote rg_bunny1 before vanishing again into the Instagram underbrush.

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