Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Barneys Vs. Pierson: or The Irony of "Owning" an Appropriated Vocabulary

Tyler and Barry have both been all over this, but I still wanted to flesh out some of the details on the Barneys vs. Jack Pierson scrap (which is really playing itself out in public as Barneys vs. Cheim & Read, but...[image to right, Jack Pierson, Fame, 2005, Plastic, metal, wood, and neon, 160" x 45" x 4" vertical install, image from Cheim and Read website]). As fate would have it, the day before the gallery's letter hit the blogosphere, I had walked by Barney's Co-op store in Soho and caught a glimpse of the fake Piersons there. My first thought, being the naive country bumpkin I am, was "Wow, Barneys has quite an impressive art budget to be able to afford such big Piersons for their boutique...and rare ones at that...I've never seen those before."

A few feet later it did dawn on me (yes, I'm slow like that) that the text was too obvious to be a real Pierson and that the store had likely appropriated the vocabulary in an attempt to lure in art savvy types...or that they just liked the aesthetic.

Now if you haven't seen it, the gist of Pierson's gallery's complaint is as follows:

Around a year or so ago, imitations or forgeries of [Pierson's] works began to appear in Barney’s clothing stores throughout the country saying such things as "fabulous, courageous, and outrageous." They are formally weak plagiarized versions of Jack Pierson’s work and we want you to know that they are not by Jack Pierson. Many people have assumed they are. They are, in fact, made by Simon Doonan, the chief window dresser at Barney’s. Jack Pierson has asked that he remove them but he has refused.

We regret this lack of integrity on the part of Simon Doonan and Barney’s. They obviously have no respect for artists or the art world. [emphasis mine]
And I fully agree with C&R's assessment of the pieces...they stretch out too far and, again, the text is lame...they're lazy knock-offs designed to appeal to folks who know just enough to be flattered that their sophisticated tastes are being catered to (er, yes, I was temporarily fooled...make of that what you will).

Now there's an argument to be made that indeed Barneys is showing a lack of respect for the art world here (i.e., who else would assume the text was "art"?), but what really intrigues me about this episode is the assertion that a visual vocabulary of appropriated lettering is now owned by the artist who assembled it.

Obviously, I immediately recognized the text as Pierson-esque, so in that sense, Jack does own it. But the argument C&R makes (while I viscerally agree) does seem as if it might fall apart in court. When an artist appropriates other vocabularies, images, styles, etc., at what point can he/she claim that new mix as his/her own? When the art world recongizes it as theirs or when the general public recognizes it as theirs or never?

Consider this an open thread.


Anonymous David said...

I encountered a similar thing when I wandered into Saks a few months ago and saw racks of expensive jeans that had paint smeared on them. But I knew right away they weren't real artist's pants.

3/28/2006 09:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack Pierson owns that style as much as I own the cut-up-from-magazine-letters-ransom note style which I just used to write a ransom note to the Henry Moore Foundation for the return of their precious sculpture.

3/28/2006 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger chrisjag said...

Artists great ideas are always copied. Pierson should have more confidence in the qualities of his work. If this letter style defines him, then he didn't have much to begin with...I am really surprised by his reaction. Imagine warhol or picasso having a tantrum like this. stupid.

3/28/2006 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pierson's style was already floating around before he became the main one known for it, he just grabbed it and ran... Even though the Barneys copies may be lame, they have every right to do it because it's not a style you can specifically and definitively attribuite to Pierson. I think it just addresses the lack of true originality for that series. And I should point out that I DO like those pieces quite a bit, and what makes the cool to me is the quality they have that "anyone can do it". But that's the risk he took by doing them, and now that "anyone" can do them and IS doing them, well, he should just go suck his thumb and shut up.

3/28/2006 11:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've made giant xeroxes or Christopher Wool's word paintings for myself that I like nearly as much as the originals, and if I wanted to make a Pierson I could do that pretty easily too, as could anyone. I'd make it for my own personal use, not to show, but when you work with such an "easy" style that's a risk you take, and risk people showing them. The only way he might have a case is if they were exact copies of ones he had already made.

3/28/2006 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone have photos of the ones at Barneys?

3/28/2006 11:24:00 AM  
Anonymous bamibino said...

i will try take for you if i'll have time :)

3/28/2006 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


why is there an extra "i" in your name? are you the REAL Bambino? or an imposter?????

3/28/2006 11:39:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Ed, the real Bambino is over at Cheim & Read.

3/28/2006 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger chrisjag said...

This question of ownership is more interesting as it pertains to the artworld at large. Some artists have so completely staked out a territory that no one can copy them without being criticized. Others don't "own" what they do at all. I think this is what puts the anxiety into being influenced for young artists.

3/28/2006 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous jj said...

There are millions of knock off Picassos and Warhols out there. Of course they are inferior (most of the time), but that is besides the point. Consider it a flattering form of mimicry and move on... but wait this is an opportunity for an artist to get more credit for the good work they have already done and creates free advertisement for Barneys.

It's a mutually beneficial squabble. If this builds expect to see Kara Walker appropriated soon by Diesel!

3/28/2006 11:59:00 AM  
Anonymous oriane said...

I think in this case context is important. If an artist had a show in a gallery in NY using this technique, it could be seen as referencing (not necessarily ripping off) Pierson. But since he did not invent the technique and it has been used and is used in a lot of other non-art contexts (ransom notes, cobbled-together signs for all kinds of purposes, hobbies & crafts, etc.) I don't think you can even assume that the Barneys use is even a concious rip off (or homage or borrowing).

Also keep in mind that, from what I can tell, it's C&R;, not Pierson, that has made a fuss.

3/28/2006 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous henry said...

the art world reaps what it sows. "appropriation" has been in the artist's toolbox for years. there are at least two artists whose names escape me at the moment (one male and one female) who have built their entire careers on complete appropriation. both artists have mature careers. she was featured in her own article in Art in America very recently (like within the past year), and i think he was in either AiA or ArtNews even more recently, but not dedicated just to himself. the window dresser would be wise to say he's a legitimate artist following in the tradition of famous window dressers like warhol, rauschb'g and johns, and like famous contemporary artists "a" and "b". (sorry for the lack of names and the overly terse comment).

3/28/2006 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger The Artist Extraordinaire said...

Jack Peirson doesn't own that style. He owns the particular ones he has made. That, and C&R; is the one complaining. They didn't even make the art, they are just protecting their brand name and their investment. So that is pathetic as well.

Such a simple thing as arranging letters to spell stuff can invented by anyone with no knowledge of Pierson, and surely has been. My sister, for instance, in college stole letters from signs in a plan to spell out her name. She didn't know about Pierson, so would her project be plagerizing this "look." I agree with the Henry Moore theif. The Pierson aesthetic is an extenstion of "randsome note"

Also consider the "pop art style." Like on the new iMac photo booth program. It essentially Warholizes the subject being photographed. Or countless clip art that is aping Lichtenstein, who was doing comic books.

It comes down to C&R; bitching about an artist they claim to own. That is the more disturbing concept. In our booming art market, galleries have "stables" of artists. It is not about copyright, or respecting art or artists. It's about cash and power. C&R; might even be upset they aren't getting royalties.

C&R; should be happy Barney's is doing Pierson and not an artist from another gallery. It is also foolish to assume Peirson is being directly quoted. How often do you see desing like that that vaguely resonates with popish sensibilites. Or is it because its Barneys and NY, so it is all much more sophisticated?

3/28/2006 12:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see what all the fuss is, they look like they belong in Barneys.

3/28/2006 12:20:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

the window dresser would be wise to say he's a legitimate artist following in the tradition of famous window dressers like warhol, rauschb'g and johns

This occurred to me too, and I also wonder if the logical next step (you know, in the history of art) would be for Johns or Rauschenberg to do a gallery installation at Cheim & Read using Simon Doonan's actual original knockoffs of Pierson's work. Makes my head hurt just thinking about it.

3/28/2006 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

well...this is certainly not an issue folks are ambivalent about.

If I had Jack's ear (unfortunately, I've never had the pleasure of meeting him, which is a pity, because I think he's brilliant), I'd advise him to take a page out of Exene Cervenka's playbook...yes, I'm obsessed with her, even though I missed her CBGC gig...Dennis...would it kill you to start an email letter of your blog? I do try to read daily, but... ;-)

In response to seeing bootleg t-shirts of her band over the years, Exene has collected them and reissued them (for sale, mind you) on her website:

Exene's new line of OFFICIAL bootleg t-shirts or rather bootlegged bootlegs. The t-shirts are reprints of bootlegs collected by Exene over the years. Exene will release one roughly every other month.

It's simply the most perfect response to feeling you've been ripped off ever.

3/28/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger fogg100 said...

Irony is not dead. See enclosed link:


The art world get's a taste of it's own medicine...

3/28/2006 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous pc said...

I think the point to be learned here is that commercial aritsts learn from fine artists. But in commercial art, it's a virtue to imitate, because that means the method is proven. In commercial art, originality is frowned on for the most part. I think there's something interesting to be studied in how fine art influences commerical art over the years. Fine art is almost never influenced by advanced design, only vernacular, crappy design. Maybe architecture is an exception. Photographer Karl Baden has collected book covers that use Magrittes used or altered to suit the publisher's purpose (see http://www.bc.edu/libraries/meta-elements/html/baden/baden.html). The collection is pretty amusing and pretty relevant to this discussion.

3/28/2006 12:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It really comes as no surprise that Simon Doonan rips things off left and right and has no problem with it. Look at his boyfriend Jonathan Adler, his whole catalog is one giant rip-off. Bourgeois American shoppers don’t really care about authorship; they care about product.

3/28/2006 12:55:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Bourgeois American shoppers don’t really care about authorship; they care about product.

What do bourgeois shoppers in other countries care about?

3/28/2006 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What do bourgeois shoppers in other countries care about?

American labels?

3/28/2006 01:08:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

American labels?

Ha! That's really funny! :-)

3/28/2006 01:30:00 PM  
Blogger James Wolanin said...

Folks in the advertising world "borrowing" from other artists is nothing new, unfortunately it happens all the time, in music and in the visual arts. Being an artist, my response to other artists "lifting" or "being influenced by my work is," You can only copy what I have done, you have know idea what I'm going to do next."

3/28/2006 03:35:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

Color me ambivalent. The most interesting part about this topic is that C&R; bothered to send a letter to a bunch of bloggers, hoping that they would plead C&R;'s case for them in the court of public opinion (possibly shaming Barneys into acquiesence?). They must realize that they don't have any legal recourse unless Barneys copies one of Pierson's works exactly.

Although ... is it possible that the imitation of Pierson's art infers an endorsement, by him, of their product? I'm reminded of the numerous cases where companies mimic Tom Wait's singing style in commercials and are subsequently sued by him.

3/28/2006 03:37:00 PM  
Blogger M. Cameron Boyd said...

Memo to Henry: the female appropriationist you're thinking of is Sturtevant; the male is Richard Pettibone. And it is true they, and others (Richard Prince, Mike Bidlo, Sherrie Levine) have made art based on others' work, erecting another level of critique (authorship, simulacra, originality) in art discourse. But the issue with Pierson's work is substance - these are just varietal fonts, styles of letters, with a Warholian-Naumanesque dead-pan tone in the choice of words formed. Yet when Madison Ave. starts gloaming on to a fine arts style, you know that style's "made it." Pierson should be looking into patents.

3/28/2006 07:12:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

shoot, Art Soldier has something with the Tom Waits analogy. There is more to Pierson's work than using old sign letters that Barney's has copied. It is identifiably 'referencing' JP's work and using it for commercial purposes that implies endorsement.

Waits won, even though he himself has obviously borrowed his style from black blues singers. This has always puzzled me.

3/28/2006 08:37:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

But in commercial art, it's a virtue to imitate, because that means the method is proven. In commercial art, originality is frowned on for the most part.

I've heard rumors that Mr Air Guitar has actually suggested to students that they steal any idea they like. Makes me think that grad school for fine arts has finally melded with graphic design.

3/28/2006 10:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's as about as exciting as reruns of murder she wrote.

3/29/2006 07:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to his opening tonight, looks like a PR stunt to me. The "paintings" were not so hot.

3/30/2006 09:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to his opening tonight, looks like a PR stunt to me. The "paintings" were not so hot.

3/30/2006 09:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pierson and C&R; shouldn't complain about Barney's. Pierson made his word sculpture series in the late mid to late 90s, then stopped. The series was Over! Pierson clearly stated that he would no longer make word sculptures, nor would he take commissions. Over! UNTIL, Phillip's sold "Stardust" 1995 from the Enron Collection in 2003 for a record breaking $135,000.
ALL OF THE SUDDEN, guess who's making word sculptures again??
Pierson and C&R; shouldn't worry about Barney's, the already know how to play the game.

4/02/2006 05:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

I linked to your article today from my blog. Good piece. thanks! here is the link just in case you didn't see it yet via stats....


4/07/2006 04:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whats with the interest in window dressing, is this the emporers new clothes? Has shopping actually replaced art or is the new world a place where art is now fearcely competeing with the glutt of product? found, bought, sourced or salvaged?
Window dressing seems to be the oldest art form of the 2 to me.

8/17/2007 01:46:00 AM  

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