Thursday, May 10, 2012

Warhol Would Have Asked, and Other Dirty Secrets of Appropriation Art

Warhol Self-Portrait 1986
The dirty secret of "appropriation" art is that many of its most famous practitioners stopped swiping copyrighted works decades ago or decades before they died.

Now, in  the same U.S. appeals court that 20 years ago ruled that Jeff Koons was "sailing under the flag of piracy," Richard Prince is appealing a court decision that he too is flying the pirate's flag.

In his court papers, Prince -- who has described "appropriation" as a "technique for stealing" -- cites as fellow appropriators such artists as Koons, Sherrie Levine, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol.  He even includes images of Warhol's and Rauschenberg's work in his brief.  An investigation reveals, though, that these "appropriation" luminaries may have started out as willing or unwitting outlaws, but they quickly learned that taking others' copyrights was legally unwise and expensive, and they stopped.

Koons now seeks permission to use others' work
Koons, for instance, is no longer lifting other people's copyrighted work, according to his attorney, John Koegel.  His client "has learned more about copyright" since defending himself in five infringement suits.  "Where permissions are perceived to be needed, they are sought," he said.

Koons hasn't stopped using copyrighted material -- his "Popeye" series is just one example -- but he now seeks licenses first.  Koegel said that although responses to Koons's requests vary, "hordes of people" have granted permissions, including United Feature Syndicate, which had earlier sued him, and Marvel Comics.

The young Warhol settled three infringement suits brought by photographers in the 1960s, and then started working with rights holders to secure licenses and cut deals.  "Andy wasn't trying to steal," said gallery owner Ronald Feldman, who worked with Warhol on some of his most famous prints.  "He learned a lesson from the lawsuits.  I was always concerned about the rights, as was he."

This is some of what I've uncovered.  For more, read my article in The Art Newspaper here.

Images: Warhol from Christie's 2003 online catalogue.  Photo of Koons from Wikipedia.
Text (c) 2012 Laura Gilbert.