Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Frans Hals" at the Met: Museum Rearranges Furniture, Renews Old Promise

Does the Met’s Hals show -- almost entirely works from its own collection – tell us anything new? 

No.  The Met has pretty much just rearranged the furniture, taking down paintings already on permanent display and rehanging them in a special exhibition gallery.

But a private loan, Hals’ stunning yet small “Portrait of Samuel Ampzing” (above), is one of the best paintings in the exhibition and one that the Met should be begging for, borrowing for long-term display, or stealing.  In 2007 it sold at Sotheby’s London for more than $9 million, a high price for an Old Master.

Show curator Walter Liedtke revealed to this reporter that two miniature Hals portraits on wood (below, of Petrus Scriverius and Anna van der Aar) – which were highlights of the Met’s massive “Age of Rembrandt” exhibit a few years ago – will be on permanent view once the Hals show ends.  They’ll be in a pedestal display case in the Rembrandt-Hals gallery.  (Actually, the Met made the same promise during the Rembrandt show, too.)


“Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum,” 5th Avenue at 82nd Street, through October 11.

Photos: Top, Sotheby's catalogue; others taken at preview.

Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cariou v. Prince Update: Collectors Screwed, Appeal Stalled in Copyright Case That Has Art World on Edge

How do you inform a collector that a work he bought from you for, oh, a million dollars or so is an illicit work, illegally created and now unsaleable?  Well, if you’re the gallery that sold it, you yell for your lawyers.

That’s what Larry Gagosian and his gallery did when they sent letters to the buyers of appropriation artist Richard Prince’s “Canal Zone” paintings, which, the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled in March, infringed -- some might say “stole” -- Patrick Cariou’s copyrighted photographs and are therefore not so different from contraband.  

The letters (left) were sent to comply with the Court’s order in that case, but they didn’t exactly tell the collectors they had all but thrown their money away (unless the ruling is overturned on appeal, which could take years).

The letters stated that “in the opinion of the Court” – as though the federal courts are art critics instead of constitutionally delegated authority on the law of the land –  the paintings were “not lawfully made under the Copyright Act of 1976” and they “cannot lawfully be displayed . . .in the public.”

Translation: the paintings are like pirates’ booty, have to be hidden from public view, and, even according to Prince’s own lawyer, most probably can’t be resold.  According to the defendants’ documents, at a minimum 14 works were sold, and four sold for prices ranging from $400,000 to $2.43 million.

As for Prince himself, the Court’s smackdown doesn’t seem to have changed much, though it could cost him a big hunk of money.  As far as his lawyer Josh Schiller of Boies Schiller knows, the decision hasn’t changed his practice of using other people’s images, nor has it caused “any of his works to be pulled” from any shows, the attorney told this reporter.

Indeed, Prince had two well-received exhibitions in Paris this spring and another in Hongkong.  In August, he’ll be showing in the Hamptons.

Paintings Can’t Be Sold

For the “Canal Zone” buyers, though, it’s a different story.  Their paintings can’t be sold, except conceivably on the black market.  Schiller said “any kind of sale would include showing (the work) publicly” and that’s been forbidden by the Court.

Schiller didn’t say the “Canal Zone” paintings were now worthless – he described their worth as “undetermined” – but he did say that the decision had placed an “implied limit on their value.”  He termed the decision’s effect on the collectors “an injustice.”

Larry Gagosian
A lawyer close to the Gagosian organization said that if the collectors were his clients, he would advise them not to put the paintings up for sale.

Copyright law expert David Wolf, who is not involved in the case and is former litigation counsel at Time Inc., said that any third party who knew about the Court decision and tried to sell the work – not just the owners but an auction house, for example -- “would run a pretty severe risk.”

Have any collectors asked for their money back?  Schiller said he didn’t know.

So are Prince’s dealer and co-defendants Larry Gagosians and his Gagosian gallery offering buyers refunds?  When asked, the gallery refused to comment.

Price Revelations

That’s not all the collectors have to worry about, as revealed to this reporter by the parties’ lawyers this week and gleaned from Cariou’s recent motion to dismiss a joint appeal to a higher court by Prince, Gagosian, and the gallery.

The people who shelled out the big bucks -- as recited in the Court’s decision, eight of the works sold for a total of $10.48 million, and seven were exchanged for art with an estimated value between $6 million and $8 million -- now also could be exposed to the disclosure of how much each paid and, perhaps, their names.

Gagosian Gallery, W. 24th St.
Private market sales are usually kept secret – the industry-wide practice is an old carny shell game of keeping everyone in the dark about an artist’s true prices -- and Gagosian has a strict policy of don’t tell. 

But, in what could be some of the most remarkable revelations of art-market dealings in recent history, that could change when a public jury trial is held to determine the damages that photographer Cariou suffered.

Cariou’s lawyer Dan Brooks has been provided with the appropriate receipts for each painting sold, and the parties have stipulated that the prices “shall be admissible in evidence.”  For now, the information is subject to a confidentiality agreement, but Brooks said they would be “fully aired” at the damages trial and “there won’t be any dispute” about the prices the works brought.  At trial, the buyers’ names could also be revealed, said Brooks.

If we get to that trial.

Prince and the Gagosian defendants filed a notice of appeal before the damages trial could get started, and the District Court adjourned the trial pending the outcome of the appeal. So Cariou has moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that it is improper until damages have been resolved – that’s a motion that will be decided who knows when, though it could be as early as August.

Prince’s Lawyer: Court Should Disregard My Client’s Testimony

Meantime, of course, settlement is always a possibility, though it was also a possibility that was ignored before the District Court dropped a ton of bricks on Prince’s and Gagosian’s heads.
If the appeal is permitted before the damages trial, Schiller plans to argue among other things that the District Court in effect should have rejected or at least discounted his own client’s testimony – since Prince proved to be his own worst enemy.  The Court “would have benefited,” said Schiller, from considering “more objective factors,” which Schiller didn’t specify, and evidence of “how the public perceives his work.”

Prince, in his losing effort, had argued that his use of Cariou's photographs came within the "fair use" exemption of the copyright law, which allows limited borrowing of other people’s copyrighted work for news reporting, satire, and criticism, for instance.

But the District Court held that for "fair use" to apply, the new work must be "transformative" of the original.  Prince's work was not transformative, the Court found, because it did not "in some way comment on, relate to the historical context of, or critically refer back" to Cariou's work.

Under this test, Prince helped sink his own case.  He testified at deposition that he had no interest at all in what Cariou's photographs meant.

Focusing on Prince’s testimony is too “narrow” a view of the law, said Schiller, and it means “an artist has to lawyer up to get his perception across.”

(Well, one might rejoin, only if an artist is sued, and then he has to lawyer up anyway.)

It could be tough to overcome Prince’s testimony.  “Whatever arguments they make, the Court will look at Prince’s testimony,” said copyright expert Wolf.  “Anytime the party gives detailed testimony about what he’s doing it’s important.”

What Happened to the Unsold Paintings

The District Court had given Carriou the power to determine the fate of the unsold “Canal Zone” paintings.  We now know what he decided.

It turns out that within days of the Court’s decision, defendants’ lawyers, “expressing concern that the infringing paintings might be destroyed” -- an option the Court explicitly permitted – asked Cariou to agree to store the works until the case is somehow resolved, according to papers filed by Cariou’s lawyer Brooks. 

Cariou acquiesced, so there’ll be no conflagration, at least for awhile. The unsold paintings are now warehoused somewhere in Long Island City.  

Schiller said he thought Prince was a “target” because he was “rich.” But rich also means he may well be able to afford endless, costly litigation – Boies Schiller reportedly racked up $7 million in fees defending the Andy Warhol Foundation in an authenticity lawsuit, with the fellow on the other side finally dropping his suit because he could no longer afford to litigate, he had said.

I asked Brooks if he was concerned that his client would be litigated to death.  Brooks’ response:  “No.”

Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Whitney's "Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World": A Reputation in Free-Fall

Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) is not exactly a schlockmeister -- though some of his paintings do look like cheap hotel art – but the retrospective that opened last week at the Whitney might just send his reputation into free-fall.  

This retrospective is the first in New York since 1944 and the first in the U.S. since the 60s, so it offers an opportunity to take stock of Feininger, an American who lived for 50 years in Germany, for the first time in a couple of generations. 

He proves to be an artist without consequence.

Feininger was affiliated with avant-garde German Expressionists but inhabited his own small world of amusing illustration.  He adopted a type of Cubism but stripped it of its ambiguities.   He taught at the progressive Bauhaus with artist-rebels like Kandinsky and Klee, while his own paintings became formulaic.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some works to be seen here that give real pleasure.

Sometimes his art has a delightful whimsicality.  Brought by his musician parents to Germany when he was 16, Feininger became a successful illustrator and cartoonist -- he even did comic strips from Germany for the Chicago Sunday Tribune (above, of 1906) – before turning to painting in 1907. 

For a few years his oil paintings retain the lightheartedness and exaggeration of caricature – small heads and clownish shoes, rubbery bodies and fanciful streets – and they’re prettied up with bright colors (top, "Street Near Paris," 1909, and above,"Carnival in Arcueil," 1911).  The Whitney, perhaps recognizing that Feininger’s early works are the ones with audience appeal, has given over nearly a third of the exhibit to them.   But artistically significant?  They’re essentially illustrations of unwritten fairy tales.

Choo-choo trains and bobbing boats appear early and later too, in small works on paper.  Among the most charming works in this show are the wooden toy trains and buildings he began making commercially in 1913 – an endeavor cut short by the outbreak of war -- and then continued making on his own.

In the 1910s, Feininger encountered Cubism and began painting the works he is best known for – German architecture and seascapes.  With translucent planes, the light-filled spaces and sky take on some of the solidity of architecture itself, depicted as though seen through a prism ("Pier," 1912, below).

For 40 years he painted these same subjects in this same style.  The earliest of these works, from around 1912 to 1915, have the excitement of discovery, but they quickly decline to emotional emptiness and pictorial boredom. 

With a few exceptions – some street scenes, for example -- Feininger has little to say about modern life, either in subject and emotion or by stylistic metaphor.  In essence he’s a traditionalist.

His early works might use the bright colors of German Expressionism – he exhibited with the avant-garde Die Brucke – but with nothing of their furious experimentation or their exploration of the dark recesses of the psyche. Feininger complacently inhabits the 19th century of the Brothers Grimm, complete with old-fashioned costumes.

His Cubist-inspired works likewise shun the contemporary – no everyday objects like newspaper and pipe for him. He looks back nostalgically to medieval architecture and the Romantic era's boat at sea.  It’s the old-fashioned Germanic striving toward spirituality but with the emotional punch sucked out ("Galmeroda VIII," above).  

His detachment from the trauma of World War I and its aftermath in Germany is creepy, especially when compared with the war-wounded drawn by George Grosz, the decadence of contemporary life depicted by Christian Schad, and the dark circuses of Max Beckmann.

Feininger continued using cheery colors, and when he attempted serious war themes, he failed.  (He supported Germany against the allies, by the way.)  His picture of an abandoned child with soldiers is flat poster-style decorative.  The prostitute “Woman with Green Eyes” is a knockoff of fellow Die Brucke artist Alexei Jawlensky.

One might think that Feininger’s affiliation with the Bauhaus, which lasted into the 1930s, would open a new chapter.  In 1919 founder and architect Walter Gropius commissioned him to design the cover of the Bauhaus manifesto.  Feininger supplied a woodcut  -- of a medieval cathedral (left).   

And although there are a few paintings in the 1920s and 30s that seem to move toward abstraction and a new compositional rigor, what the Whitney displays is mostly the same old architecture and seascapes, but now in hotel room and greeting card territory like "Mouth of the Rega," below.

Feininger returned to America in 1937, the same year his work was declared degenerate by the Nazis.  Then it’s more seascapes and cityscapes, but of Manhattan now.  They’re darker, and many are night scenes (below).  They’d make good New Yorker covers.

“Lyonel Feininger:  At the Edge of the World,” Whitney Museum of American Art, Madison Avenue at 75th Street, through October 16

Photos: Top, from Whitney Museum website, Copyright Lyonel Feininger Family and Artists Rights Society; "Kin-Der Kids" and bottom, MoMA website;  "Golmerada VIII," Metropolitan Museum website.  All other photos, Laura Gilbert

Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert