Friday, March 25, 2011

Prince Adds More Hired Guns in Appropriation-Art Wars After Court Bashes Him & Gagosian For Piracy

Appropriation artist Richard Prince (below right) has decided to appeal the smackdown he received last week in Federal Court.

The court ruled that he had infringed the copyright of photographer Patrick Cariou (below left) by using "at least" 41 photographs from Cariou's book "Yes, Rasta" in a series of paintings by Prince called "Canal Zone" that had been exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan.

Prince has now hired the big-gun law firm Boies Schiller & Flexner for the appeal, it was reported today by "The American Lawyer."  An announcement is also on the firm's website.

Prince, in his losing effort, had argued to the court that his use of Cariou's photographs came within the "fair use" exemption of the copyright law, which allows limited borrowing for reporting, commentary, and the like.

But the Federal District Court in Manhattan held that for "fair use" to apply, the new work must be "transformative" of the original.  Prince's work (one from "Canal Zone" is shown below) 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 by testifying at deposition that he had no interest in the meaning of Cariou's photographs.

Court to Collectors:  'Hide 'em'

The decision seems to have caused a kind of panic among some in the art world, not least because the court ordered that unsold "Canal Zone" works be surrendered for "impounding, destruction, or other disposition, as Plaintiff determines," and that owners of the works from the series be informed that they cannot legally display the infringing paintings.  (As recited in the decision, eight works sold for a total of $10.48 million and seven were exchanged for works of art valued between $6 million and $8 million.)

The apparent cherry on the sundae was the court's finding Gagosian also liable as both a direct and contributory infringer.

Boies Schiller is no stranger to high-profile cases.  It was the losing firm in Bush v. Gore and is now involved in the attempt -- successful in the lower court but now on appeal -- to overturn California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage.

Boies is also hugely expensive -- check out a retainer agreement here, with its nonrefundable retention fee of $250,000. The firm racked up $7 million in fees defending the Andy Warhol Foundation in an authenticity lawsuit, and that case never even went to trial.  (The plaintiff dropped his suit because he could no longer afford to litigate, he said.)

Photo of Patrick Cariou courtesy Vincent Prat.  Photo of Richard Prince from Wikipedia (taken by Nathaniel Paluga).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rarely Seen Medieval Manuscripts at the Met: Solomon's Temple Now, Passover Whimsy Next

How did medieval scholars imagine Solomon's Temple?  One concept is the elevation of the Temple shown right.  It's one of six illustrated manuscript leaves, acquired this year by the Met, from one of the most important biblical commentaries of the late Middle Ages, Nicholas of Lyra's "Postilla Litteralis."

Unannounced, the Met has put two of them on display: the elevation and the curtains of the Tabernacle (below), described in Exodus as "violet and purple, and scarlet twice dyed."

They're big -- 16.5 x 9.75 inches -- and so beautiful in their simplicity that it's a shame the Met isn't exhibiting the other leaves as well.  They show the floor plan of the Tabernacle, the "brazen sea" (a large basin in the Temple), Levite camps around the Tabernacle, and an initial "V" in a commentary on Nehemiah.

Nicholas (1290-1349) was on the theological faculty of the University of Paris.  Like other medieval commentators -- the Bodleian Library has a nice array of illustrations here-- Nicholas made his own architectural drawings to illustrate his text.  Whether the Met's new acquisitions follow his drawings, I can't say.  They're dated 1360-80, not too long after his death.

The "Postilla" occupies an odd place in exegetical history, almost a bridge between medieval Jewish scholars and Reformation theologians.  Nicholas argued that the literal meaning of the Bible was preeminent, and, though he wrote anti-Jewish tracts, he looked to earlier Jewish commentators like Rashi (1040-1105) to determine its meaning.

Yet, the "Postilla" also had a profound influence on 16th-century Reformers, so much so that it was said: "If Lyra had never played his harp, Luther would never have danced."

In other news on the medieval front, what's a great encyclopedic museum like the Met to do when it's left a group pretty much out of the encyclopedia?  Well, for one thing, it can work out some loans.

A couple of years ago, the Met started partnering with the Jewish Theological Seminary up on 120th Street to exhibit, one at a time, some Jewish illuminated manuscripts from JTS's collection.  One of these was included in the Met's magnificent 2009 exhibition "Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages."

In early April the Met is initiating a three-year-long series of loans of Jewish illuminated manuscripts from other American and European institutions.  It's starting with the Washington Haggadah from the Library of Congress, dated 1478 and signed by the scribe and illuminator Joel Ben Simeon, who worked in Germany and Italy.

The Haggadah tells the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and is read at the Passover seder, a joy-intended meal during which four glasses of wine are drunk.  The Washington Haggadah is tempera and gold -- and, from what I've read, wine stains -- on parchment, a luxury item that was actually used.

The pages of the Haggadah will be turned each month, so there will be an opportunity to see several of its sometimes whimsical illustrations.  One page, for example, shows a man roasting meat while blotto from drinking wine.  During the seder, the door is opened for Elijah, a symbolic welcome to the Messiah.  In the Washington Haggadah it's not just Elijah who approaches but his whole family, who jostle for position on a donkey (above).

Hebrew illuminated manuscripts generally do not have a style that distinguishes them from Christian illuminated manuscripts from the same region, but there's at least one difference.  Hebrew text does not have capital letters, so instead of the initial capital letters that are decorated in Christian manuscripts, we find an entire word writ large.

The Washington Haggadah will be exhibited with contemporary works of medieval art in other media from April 5 through June 26.

Metropolitan Museum, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street.

Top two photos:  Laura Gilbert.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Glenn Ligon: America" at the Whitney

Glenn Ligon is good, without doubt -- intelligent, subtle, probing, witty, sometimes billiant, and most emphatically not a trickster.  We see a lot of that in "America," his just-opened midcareer retrospective at the Whitney, which gathers about 100 works.

But the show runs out of steam.  Once we leave the 1990s, when Ligon -- who's black and  gay -- was able to harness themes of racial and sexual identity like no one else, his work as seen here loses its urgency and a lot of its force.

The show is arranged chronologically beginning in 1985, when Ligon was both struggling to get the Jasper Johns monkey off his back and grappling with sexuality and the dilemma of race in American culture, themes that would henceforth permeate his art.

A room with 10 text-based works, with his signature stenciling with paintstick, follows (shown here, a detail from a work with text by Jean Genet, which Ligon changed to the first person).  His own text, "I lost my voice I found my voice," is the equivalent of what's happening artistically.  The pictorial rhythms are sensual, sophisticated, and assured.

But I'd guess we wouldn't be looking at these works now were it not for what followed.  In 1993 Ligon made works for an installation at the Hirshhorn Musseum, "To Disembark," much of which is reassembled here.  It's a meditation on the legacy of slavery in which Ligon plays the starring role.  It's hilarious and tragic at the same time.

One portion is based on the broadsheets by which slave owners advertised for their runaway slaves.  Each runaway is Ligon (above), in one described as "distinguished looking," in another "timid," in a third "a little hunky, though you might not notice it with his shirt untucked."

Another portion is based on the frontispieces of  slave narratives using 18th and 19th century typographic conventions.  Again, each is by and about Ligon.  One reads: "Glenn Ligon, a colored man who at a tender age discovered his affection for the bodies of other men, and has endured scorn and tribulations ever since.  Written by himself."  Pitch perfect.

The other seminal piece is "Notes on the Margin of the Black Book" (above), which reproduces every page from Robert Mapplethorpe's "Black Book" -- black men, mostly naked -- interspersed with quotations from a cacophony of voices, including critics, academicians, politicians, patrons of gay bars, and some of the men who posed.

In this work, everyone comes across as an idiot, not least Mapplethorpe himself, who said, "Most of the blacks don't have health insurance and therefore can't afford AZT.  They all died quickly, the blacks."  It's stomach turning.

Beyond this, there's a series of large, beautiful self-portraits, mugshots mostly of the back of his head (below).

Then this show peters out.  Ligon's attempts to engage Richard Pryor's confrontational "that nigger's crazy" sense of humor just seem ill-suited to an artist who teases out complex reflections.  Repeating the jokes on brightly colored canvases doesn't translate, neutralize, or interpret them.  It's an uneven matchup in which Pryor comes out ahead.

There's a room with smaller works that are interesting and personal -- a screenprint of a report card describing Ligon as antisocial and uncomfortable with his body, for example -- but hardly significant as artworks.

Another room has text works from the last decade based on a James Baldwin essay.  These are lush and elegant but ossified, a return to the Johns aesthetic, this time with a sheen that makes them seem sterile (above left).  Most disappointing, though, is the second-to-last room, in which Ligon as master appropriator uses the art of children he taught (right).

Perhaps his recent neon works will open a more engaging chapter.  Ligon's splendid "Negro Sunshine" beaming out onto Madison Avenue (below) is the artist at his best, rediscovering a vocabulary -- here Gertrude Stein's -- and using it in a new way.

"Glenn Ligon: America," Whitney Museum of American Art, Madison Avenue at 75th Street, through June 5

Images:  Third from bottom, "Mirror," 2002. Collection of Mellody Hobson.  Copyright Glenn Ligon.  Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; second from bottom "Sun (Version 2) #1," 2001.  Collection of Eileen Harris Norton.  Copyright Glenn Ligon.  Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; all other photos by Laura Gilbert.

Friday, March 4, 2011

For the Love of Glitter: Is Damien Hirst's Diamond Dust Actually Crushed Glass?

Damien Hirst has brought his retail shop "Other Criteria" to the Armory art fair, where he's offering, among other works, a print of his diamond-encrusted skull "For the Love of God" (right).  He's done several print versions of it.  This one is dated 2009.  The wall label states that it's a silkscreen with glazes and "diamond dust," which is also how it's described on Other Criteria's website.

There actually is such a thing as diamond dust that comes from real diamonds, but this isn't it -- at least according to the nice salesman who was minding the store.  He was sorry to tell me, he said, that it's actually crushed glass, adding that Hirst had tried to use the real thing here but it didn't work aesthetically.

Perhaps the Hirst factory used something like these crushed-glass Twinklets (left) available from a crafts store for about four bucks.  The term "diamond dust" may be well known to low-end crafters looking for glitter.  But what about the buyers who fork over $2,000 for a Hirst print based on a skull covered with actual diamonds?  No one at Gagosian, Hirst's gallery, would speak to me by phone.  They requested I send a query instead by email, which I have. 

Hirst is as much known for his stupendous marketing as for his art.  It's on full display here, and not just with the fairy dust.  The print is an edition of 1,000, so at $2,000 per he's aiming for a cool $2 million.  With about 700 sold, according to the salesman, he's well on his way.

Top photo:  Laura Gilbert

Thursday, March 3, 2011

News Flash: "Postmodernism" Defined! V&A Sends Philosophers Packing

Philosophers, go home.  "Postmodernism" has now been defined.  It means "cheesy," and it ended around 1990.

That's the latest takeaway from the Victoria and Albert Museum's announcement about the details of its upcoming fall 2011 show, "Postmodernism:  Style and Subversion 1970-1990," which, with 260 objects, is a most ambitious grab at a heretofore most slippery concept.

Here's some of what it will include:

Grace Jones' maternity dress (above), Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," David Byrnes' oversized suit, New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" video.  Ouch!

Also works by Jeff "Mr. Kitsch" Koons and by Andy Warhol, whom some might think of as a Pop artist but who, I guess, is "postmodern" since his work most certainly postdates Modernism.  Besides, Warhol's got that "wink-wink" aura.

The show is being billed as a blockbuster, and with baggy clothing from Comme des Garcons, how can they lose anything but their pants? 

The curators, as reported by the Guardian, admit that a show about postmodernism, whose definition outside architecture has eluded even most of its so-called practitioners, might "seem strange or perhaps perverse, foolhardy even." 

But they claim to have found a commonality: postmodernism "was an attack on what had come before, it was an attack on modernism."  What, me worry?

Lest you think that language indicates the revival of the concept of an avant garde, think again.  The show will include pop videos and album covers (left, Peter Saville's for New Order).  A something-for-everyone approach to a something-for-everyone period. 

The V&A's website says the show will argue that postmodernism died in the early 1990s "despite the use of the term 'postmodern' remaining in common parlance" -- a hint that the contradictions that have plagued postmodernism won't be resolved here?

It also promises to "chart a broad chronology in order to account for [postmodernism's] rise and demise."  Good luck with that.

Look for Jenny Holzer and Philip Johnson to emerge as heroes, if there are any.