Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Unfortunate Side Effect of Art's Popularity Open Thread

The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.
--Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
I was reminded of that quote while reading Michael Kimmelman's article on the renovations and expansion of the Prado in Madrid. From The New York Times:

For many years, the Prado was almost a secret in plain sight. Years of Spanish isolation, neglect under Franco, then institutional incompetence, compounded the impression of narcolepsy. Melancholy reports of leaks in the ceiling, or yet another director promising change before evaporating, overshadowed the odd loan exhibition. Save for busloads of Japanese tourists, the world simply seemed to pass the Prado by.

Truth be told, it was nice. While every other museum concocted Monet blockbusters and fancy new buildings by celebrity architects to name after trustees and satisfy the bean counters who judge success by the number of visitors through the turnstiles rather than by the quality and care of the collection, the Prado stuck with Velázquez and Goya and Titian and Tintoretto in rooms of increasingly shabby grandeur. Before such pictures, nothing else really mattered.
I've only ever visited the Prado during the ARCO art fair, but still (even with all those extra art lovers in town) it struck me as a refreshingly uncrowded break from the hordes I've found when visiting the Louvre or Uffizi or even the Tate Modern (and don't even get me started on the mob that seems to be ever-present at New York's museums [I swear it's the same ten thousand people every time I go]). Given the number of legendary works of art at the Prado and the ease with which one could move from one to the next (other than in the Vermeer exhibition, that is), I received news of the Prado's strategy to increase attendance even more with mixed emotion. Clearly the collection deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Ten minutes before Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights could replace the entire first year of instruction in most universities' painting departments IMHO. But still, I hate to see every museum reach Disneyland-like lines. Alas, time marches on:
The Prado has in the last several years hired a crew of gifted young curators under an ambitious young director with Byronic good looks named Miguel Zugaza. Now there’s a serious and world-class exhibition program, more than two million visitors annually (this year a record number is expected) — and, just opening, a 237,000-square-foot extension.
Folks who work in museums I like tell me there are times when it's not so crowded, but they never seem to be the times I'm free to attend. Normally I'm attending an opening or squeezing in a visit during a business trip or, even more likely, trying to see a show on its last day. Back when I was just out of college, some family member asked me what the Mona Lisa looked like the first time I came home from Paris. "Like the backs of a lot of other tourists' heads," I reported. Sadly, that pretty much sums up my typical museum experience any more.

I don't know, short of perfecting my cat burglar skills so that I could enter any museum after hours (yes, I suffer from TCFS [Thomas Crown Fantasy Syndrome]), what to do about this. The opposite situation (where few people were attending museums) is not an attractive alternative.

I don't have any answers here, btw. Just musing. Consider this an open thread.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What Remains of a "Not by Rembrandt"...

Had it happened when the market itself seemed less mad, the recent sale of a painting at an auction outside London might have been evidence of the madness of its buyer. But given how unpredictable the market seems at the moment overall, it's possibly a very shrewd move on the buyer's part. In case you haven't heard yet, here's the story via

A museum in the Netherlands said the portrait was not by Rembrandt, and the provincial auction house in England was only advertising it as a work by one of his followers valued at $3,078.

But when 15 minutes of bidding on the painting ended Friday, it had sold for $4.5 million. [...]

The Young Rembrandt as Democrates the Laughing Philosopher, a 9.5-by-6.5 inch portrait of a young man, had hung in a local home for years.

The unidentified winning bidder may have concluded that it was a self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, despite expert opinion.

The 17th-century Dutch artist painted a series of self-portraits. About 40 are recognized as his work, but others are believed to have been copies made by his students.

Allwood, the auctioneer for Moore, Allen & Innocent, said the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the unidentified owner of the oil painting that was sold Friday had concluded it was not by Rembrandt.

The auction house advertised the work as by a follower of Rembrandt.
The most interesting twist of this story as being reported seems to be the speculation that the buyer actually might know something the experts do not:

Jan Six, a Dutch art expert with Sotheby's auction house in Amsterdam, said Sotheby's was an adviser for a potential buyer who did not win the painting.

"Nobody pays 2.2 million (pounds, $4.5 million) for a follower of Rembrandt. If this was a known Rembrandt and was published in 20 books and had a great provenance it would go for 10 million (pounds, $21 million)," Six said Saturday.

He said the palette and pose of the painting were very characteristic of Rembrandt, and that the face was clearly his.

If the portrait is one day accepted as a Rembrandt, the buyer will have a bargain.

In January, a Rembrandt painting, Saint James the Greater, sold for $25.8 million at Sotheby's in New York.
It's tough to defend the cult of personality that defines the "value" of so much art in light of episodes like this one. The ultimate market determinator (that so many well-informed people wanted it, the price went up) doesn't distinguish the difference for us here. There are auction flukes, of course, where two determined buyers drive prices up to insane heights out of stubborness, but there is this little voice in the back of my head, shyly raising its hand, wanting to ask whether or not this might just not be the first crack in the cult of personality's armor...whether we might not be witnessing the birth of a fine art market meritocracy. silly little voice. If anything it's more likely the birth of Xtreme speculation where someone with an expert-for-hire in pocket will declare the other experts are wrong and it is indeed a long-lost self-portrait.


Monday, October 29, 2007

With Deepest Sympathies

It is the most unpleasant stage of the grieving process: anger. But at least we now know Charlie has finally made it past his denial. Our thoughts and prayers go out to him and his editor during this difficult transition.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Update and a Few Notes

A blogger who covered the Vargas dog exhibition long before I did was emailed an explanation by the gallery's director in the form of a press release being sent to the local news and the national Costa Rican paper. From Lifestyles of the Chic and Vegan [via an anonymous comment on yesterday's thread]:
Managua, 19 of October
Gallery Codice from its creation in 1991, has promoted the Central American, but specially the Nicaraguans visual arts, as much in the national level, like in regional and the international. In Codice they have exposed great Central American teachers, as well as consolidated and emergenging artists. The contemporary languages of the universal art also have had space in Codice, reason why periodically it welcomes samples of conceptual art. With that spirit, Thursday 16 of August just last No.1 Exhibition appeared, of the Costa Rican artist, Guillermo Vargas, known artistically as HABACUC.

One of the exposed works consisted of presenting/displaying a famélico dog that Habacuc gathered off the street, and during the exhibition he appeared moored with a nylon cord, that was subject as well to another cord that hung of two nails in a corner of the Gallery. Habucuc named the dog "Natividad" in tribute to the Nicaraguan Natividad Canda (24 years) that died devoured by two Rottweiler dogs in a factory of San Jose, Costa Rica, the dawn of Thursday 10 of November of 2005.

The dog remained in the premises three days, from the 5pm afternoon of Wednesday 15 of August. He was loose all along in the inner patio, except the 3 hours that the sample lasted, was fed regularly with dog food that the same Habucuc brought. Surprise, to the dawn of Friday 17, the dog escaped happening through the iron doors of the main entrance of the building, while the nocturnal watchman who finished feeding cleaned it the outer sidewalk of the same one.

The Gallery Codice reserves the right of guarding by the quality of the exposed works, respecting at any moment the creativity of the artist and it has never tried to exert no type of censorship, as long as they do not attempt against the elementary principles of the ethics and much less than they imply the life of a living being, is human or animal. I thought to remain with "Natividad", but he preferred to return to his own habitat. I celebrate the one that so many people in the international level have been annoying by the declarations offered by Habacuc, in which she maintained that its intention was to let die to the starvation dog, which is of its absolute responsibility. When fulfilling informing the truth into the facts, I hope that all those same people have also elevated their voice of repudio when Natividad Canda was devoured by the Rottweiler.

Kindly, Juanita Bermúdez
Director Gallery Codice Managua, Nicaragua"
I agree with VKO (of the above linked blog) that the bottom line here remains that "Guilermo Habacuc Vargas, Galeria Codice & all those people at the exhibition did nothing and let a sick starving animal be tied up to a gallery wall as an exhibit." I'd still consider that cruelty to animals and would still favor prosecution of the artist and at the very least a fine for the gallery (possibly prosecution as well). YMMV.

1. Bambino and I are heading to Los Angeles tomorrow (yes, yes, just in time to enjoy the wildfires from Hell...our hopes for calmer winds are with the folks in Southern California). We have a rather tight schedule, but if you know of any exhibitions we absolutely must see, please share. Blogging may not happen until we return.

2. Tyler and Jeff already blogged about this, but with kind appreciation to writer/artist Peter Plagens I'd still like to also direct you to the bloggers round table discussion published in the November issue of Art in America. From PORT's Jeff Jahn:
Besides myself, the cogent voices of gallerist Edward Winkleman, Seattle PI critic Regina Hackett, Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon of Philly as well as that art blogging machine Tyler Green are present (who once again had the scoop).
Tyler may have had the scoop, but I'll share one behind-the-scenes impression of the piece. It might just be me, but it felt like I was the most the heavily edited of the participating bloggers, which may simply be evidence of how pointlessly verbose I tend to be, or may simply be evidence of how I'll take advantage of any topic to drone on about myself, or may be simply evidence of my penchant to write in long complicated lists, or may simply be evidence of the repetitiveness of my prose, or may simply be evidence that Dick Cheney is actually running the show over at AiA as well, or may simply be evidence that I do indeed need a few days in Los Angeles.

We'll see you when we get back.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Pushing the Limits

A few months back we discussed the limits of contemporary art as raised by a Peter Schjeldahl quote on Chris Burden:
In pragmatic terms, art is a privileged zone of gratuitous activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities. Artists of the Duchampian sort delighted in effacing the boundaries, which, with increasingly avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements. It was a silly game, in the end. Ultimate limits were discovered, most pointedly by Burden, whose influence on conceptual and installational artists, to this day, is immeasurable.
At that time I argued that:
Schjeldahl is most likely wrong. Burden did not discover the ultimate limits. We simply can't imagine them at this point because they'll be of a nature unlike any that we've previously considered.
I went on to pontificate that
My question is whether or not it's ever possible to reach the "ultimate limit" of the imagination. If there's one lesson from history we should have learned it's that there's always some surprise in store for us. I fully understand Burden and even Schjeldahl's desire to dissuade young artists from continuing Burden's earlier explorations, but I thought the best argument for doing so was the one of context Burden offered, not the notion that the ideas therein have been exhausted. Surely that's more likely to encourage some young Turk to attempt to prove them wrong, no?
I provide my earlier statements on this topic as background and context for my feelings about the exhibition by Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas that was brought to my attention by the artist "jec" who comments here frequently and I know in person to be both a great talent and lovely person. I'm not so sure I'd say either about Guillermo Vargas, however. Via DailyKos:
According to Nacion, as part of his exhibition, Vargas took a dog off the street, tied it up inside a gallery, and starved it while onlookers watched it die.
My first response to this story was that it's probably not wise to blog about it, because I really don't want to participate in giving this artist any publicity. Not only because I feel anyone who would actually do this should be locked up in prison, but also because it's a conceptually weak piece not worthy of that much attention in terms of good versus bad art.

However, too many of the responses I'm reading are mixing up their horror at the idea with whether it's "art" or not to do this. To me, though, in the context of a gallery, by a known artist, who's calling it his "art," I can't call it anything else. OK, so I can also call it a "crime," but that's a slightly different matter.

Here's how a blog on matters Costa Rican described the controversy:
A Costa Rican artist found himself in hot water with the animal protection people in his home country after using a starving, sick street dog as part of an exposition in Managua, Nicaragua, in August. Guillermo “Habacuc” Vargas allegedly found the dog tied up on a street corner in a poor Nicaragua barrio and brought it to the showing.

He tied the dog, according to furious animal lovers, in a corner of the salon where it died after a day. Habacuc’s exhibition included a legend spelled out in dog food reading “You are what you read,” photos and an incense burner that burned an ounce of marijauna and 175 “rock’ of crack cocaine. In the background, according to reports, the Sandista national anthem played backwards.

According to the artist, his “art” was a tribute to Natividad Canda, a Nicaraguan burglar killed in Costa Rica by two rottweilers guarding property he had entered at night. The incident caused friction between the two countries. Habacuc told the daily La Nacion, “I won’t say the dog died. The importance to me is the hypocracy of the people where an animal is the focus of attention where people come to see art but not when it’s in the street starving to death.”

“The same thing happened with poor Natividad Canda. The people sympathized with him only after he was dead,” the artist added.
I take it from that quote by the artist that perhaps the dog didn't really die (although I'm not sure), so I'll hope that's the case, but, professionally speaking, the piece fails regardless of whether that's the case or not. I'll be honest, I hope the entire thing is a stunt and the dog was not in any way harmed at all. I can't verify that either way, though, so I'll discuss the work as it's being reported. To be totally objective about the piece (leaving my moral outrage out of it for the moment), it fails because Vargas based the piece, in part, on a false parallel. There is no hypocrisy revealed here. A dog tied in a gallery and not fed will die. A stray dog left to its own devices in the streets at least has a fighting chance to survive, reproduce, and/or even enjoy moments of its life to some degree. The piece is weak because the premise is maudlin and false.

With that out of the way, however, let me say that personally I feel the piece is vile. It's vile because it's anti-nature and untrue (and as such, pointlessly cruel). A dog in a street is a human's equal in nature's eyes. Given the right circumstances, either can kill the other, either can help the other, either can ignore the other. Tied up for humans to contemplate in a gallery context, however, the dog is stripped of any shard of self-determination or control over its existence. Yes, this happens in other contexts all the time, but in those, it is a natural outcome of the circumstances of actors making sincere choices. In the context of a gallery, it's simply false.

According the Costa Rica blog above:
The artist apparently is unaware that at least three large, active organizations are dedicated in Costa Rica to the protection of animals and that several persons have been prosecuted for cruelty to animals.
Here's hoping Vargas finds plenty of time to consider why he failed, both as an artist and as a human, behind bars.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Opening Tonight: Carlos Motta @ Winkleman Gallery

Winkleman Gallery is very pleased to present “The Leningrad Trilogy,” the first New York solo exhibition by Carlos Motta. In a 3-channel video installation and a series of 36 photographic diptychs, Motta presents a thought-provoking meditation on St. Petersburg, Russia, a city whose rich and tumultuous history can be revealed through its public spaces, architecture, and monuments, as much as by how its current inhabitants relate to these historical markers.

“Leningrad,” (8 min., B&W, sound) is a contemplative montage of some of the city's monuments built during the years of political repression under Stalin. A reading of two important poems (Anna Akhmatova’s Petrograd, 1919, and Osip Mandelstam’s Leningrad, 1930) serve as a soundtrack to the images, which suggest Leningrad's character as a literary muse as well as a witness of political victory and defeat.

“Leningrad, Petrograd, Petersburg (Part 1)” (44 min., color, sound) offers an intriguing before-and-after look at landmark cityscapes, based on a 1954 government-published book of photographs of the city. Visiting the city 52 years later, Motta re-photographed each of these locations, revealing changes to Soviet monuments and architecture. The accompanying voiceover is a recorded conversation between curator Elena Sorokina, artist Yevgeniy Fiks, and Motta in which they respond to the images and the many political, historical and cultural aspects that these invoke. Thirty-six of the location pairings are presented also in photographic diptychs, which show a wide spectrum of degree of change over time.

In the third video, "Leningrad, Petrograd, Petersburg (Part 2)" (40 min., color, sound), Motta conducts a series of interviews with local residents around St Petersburg’s two most prominent Soviet monuments to V.I Lenin. The interviewees respond to questions that attempt to investigate the public perception of these monuments and how they affect the contemporary landscape of the city fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

As a whole "The Leningrad Trilogy" presents St. Petersburg as a contested site of confronted ideologies in an attempt to inquire about the imprint of historical events onto the fabric of individual and collective subjectivities.

Carlos Motta is a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program (2006), received an MFA from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College, in 2003, and a BFA in photography from The School of Visual Arts in 2001. His work has been widely exhibited, including in the CCS Bard Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Palazzo Papesse, Siena, Italy; Foam_Fotografie Museum, Amsterdam, Holland; Museum of Modern Art, Bogota, Colombia; SF; and Fries Museum, Groningen, Holland. Recent awards include the International Artists Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS), 2007; the Swing Space Program, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, 2007; the DaNY Arts Grant (with HOMEWORK), Danish Arts Council, 2007, and the Subvention Grant, Cisneros Fontanals Foundation (CIFO), 2006.
Produced with the generous support of The Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) 2006 Grants Program
For more information, please contact Edward Winkleman at 212.643.3152 or


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Not a Cheap Affair

A reader on another thread asked the following:
I've always wondered about art fairs...unless you are participating in a seriously blue chip fair, it must be pretty tough to make a profit, as it costs a fortune to fly 2 or more people, put them up, meals, socializing, etc. in an expensive city.

of course there are other benefits, like exposure for your gallery and for your artists, later sales, etc...but I would be curious to know your take on sattelite fairs in miami, london, NY... money well spent or just something one is expected to do?
It varies, of course, but there's no doubt about it that participating in an art fair is a seriously expensive venture. Add in overseas shipping and travel, and making a profit from one becomes pretty tough indeed. Here's an interesting chart from Art & Auction [via] that breaks down the expenses for a bluer chip gallery than we are, but more or less covers what we're shelling out.

Here's what A&A estimated a booth at Frieze costs for a New York Gallery of decent size:
  • Booth itself: $30,940
  • Booth extras (electrical outlet, extra wall, etc): $2329
  • Crating: $5000
  • Shipping to Fair: $12,500
  • Shipping back to NY: $12,500
  • Empty Crate Storage: $1000
  • Art Handlers (to install the booth): $3000
  • Air Travel (for gallery staff of 4): $2000
  • Hotel for staff: $5600
  • Food during fair for staff (sandwiches, etc): $720
  • Dinners with clients after fair: $2500
  • Cell phone service (amazing roaming charges): $1500
  • Car service (if you're gonna visit East End galleries, you're gonna need some help): $400
  • Massage for director (OK, so this illustrates the difference nicely between a gallery at our level and those selling blue chip work): $290
  • Party for clients: $20,000
  • Total: $100,279
These estimates are not at all unreasonable to me. The party might seem like an extravagance, but your competitors are throwing one, so you might not see it as such after their booth gets mobbed the next day or your collectors tell you how much they're beginning to like that other gallery after such a shindig.

Our costs for London (we participated in the satellite fair Year 07 Art Projects) were a fraction of this. We had only two staff members, a much cheaper hotel, a much less expensive booth, no car service, certainly no massages, we installed the work ourselves, and didn't quite pay as much for shipping (I think...that bill has yet to come actually). Then again, whereas the imaginary A&A booth at Frieze must have had close to $300,000 dollars worth of art to sell in it to make a profit, we had considerably less expensive art in ours.

Of all the costs, the most annoying is shipping (and the stupefying charges for empty crate storage). Not that shippers don't earn their money, mind you, but for any artwork that doesn't sell, the idea that you've paid tens of thousands of dollars to move it from one location to another and back again does begin to grate on the nerves.

As to whether it's money well spent or not, that depends on your original strategy. I don't know anyone who feels they simply have to have a presence at a fair (at the expense of other considerations, that is) because it's something they are expected to do (expected by whom? I would ask). You go into one generally to (try to) make money, to increase your profile, or to build a new client base via that location. There are certain fairs notorious for low sales, but which are so carefully "curated" (if you will) and highly respected that being accepted into them is seen as worth the costs. Other locations, like Miami, are mostly about selling art, although you'll still see galleries taking big chances with a solo installation or incredibly tough-to-sell work there because getting attention in Miami can pay off the whole year round.

There are a few galleries that refuse to do art fairs (and at least one famous one that used to refuse, but now participates, which indicates the power of them), and virtually every gallerist I know would much prefer to sell out of their own space than subject themselves to the boot-camp-esque exercise that an art fair can be if you're counting your pennies (I know dealers still bruised and exhausted from London). Then again, the more fairs we do, and the more gallerists from other cities we become friends with, the more I thoroughly enjoy getting together to hang out with them, bitch about shippers or airlines or security guards, rave about our artists (OK, and/or sometimes bitch about artists), and learning that the problems I thought we were the only gallery in the world to have were rather common.

I don't mind pointing out that there was a time when new satellite fairs were considerably less expensive than the main fairs they orbit, but some of the newest ones in Miami, for example, are considerably costly for an event with little history or prestige. I'm not sure if that's because it simply costs that much to produce one or whether they're mainly seen now as a money-making venture (and of course, why shouldn't they be?) with a captive client base.

I suspect we'll see some rethinking on how many fairs any city can support after Miami this year (are there any hotel rooms that aren't reserved for the galleries and their staffs left for collectors?). I'm not pessimistic about it for us, mind you (we love being in Miami and we're bringing a kick-ass booth of art), but as an observer of a phenomenon that would have been beyond any rational expectations just a few years ago, I'm in awe of what's happening there and simply can't believe it's sustainable. Will slow sales spell the end for certain fairs if things cool off this year? Stay tuned...


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Blogger Show

Is there some common thread to the work of the kind of artist who blogs? That's the first question that ran through my head when I first heard of the "The Blogger Show," the four-venue (5 really, if you count the internet), 34-artist exhibition of work by artists with popular blogs.

Then I read the staggeringly insightful essay on the experimental grouping by the talented Mr. Gusky and realized how limited my initial thoughts on the idea were. Here's a snippet of Bill's piece:
Our entire understanding of Western art is largely the result of a discourse that has taken place over the past decades across a variety of locations and media: artists’ studios, galleries, museums, newspapers, arts journals and bars. Within the past five years another medium has entered this discourse: online weblogs, or blogs.

Bloggers rarely if ever subject themselves to outside editors. The resultant flouting of decorum can lend a kind of expressionistic style to the writing, in which the author’s personal impressions are paramount. At times and in the hands of some authors the invective-seasoned entries almost come off as a new breed of punk: anarchic, iconoclastic, even petty and vicious.

A number of artists have entered the blog arena, writing about art and the art world as they participate in it through their visual work. There have always been artists who write about art, and at times their writing has been highly influential; Donald Judd is one name that leaps to mind. As a new art narrative emerges, writers of all stripes - critics, historians, curators and even art bloggers — will play a large part in shaping, interpreting and defining it.

This exhibition focuses on the work of artists who are active art blog writers. The work you see here emerged in the studio in near-simultaneity with the artist’s written expressions. These twin efforts - art making and blog writing — sometimes appear to flow together and intertwine beautifully, and at other times almost seem to be in diametric opposition.
In case it's not obvious, I love artists who write. Actually, despite how great many of them are, I find artists who don't like to write incredibly frustrating. Yes, I know the "visual art is a different language" arguments, but I guess my attraction to the minds of polyglots (Bambino's fluent in 4 languages, no less) is tied into my admiration for visual artists who can verbalize some of what they're doing in their work. But that's enough about me (see, Wilde was right, every single review of anything is merely an excuse to talk about oneself)...check out the online version of the show, check out its blog, or better yet, make it to one of the four galleries participating:
Congratulations to the artists and organizers!


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Does It Take a Shark?

In a reversal of the frequent number of articles in the Arts section of The New York Times that discuss the current art market, I was pleased this morning to see an article in the Business section that discusses how "many business travelers are finding ways to turn their travel for work with time for cultural and historical sightseeing." Pleased, that is, until I read it:
As work is increasingly making inroads into leisure time, many business travelers are finding ways to turn that equation around — combining their travel for work with time for cultural and historical sightseeing.

“Cultural tourism can be an extension of business, it’s not just fluff,” said Patricia Martin, a marketing consultant and author of “Ren Gen: Renaissance Generation” (Platinum Press, 2007).
It was daring of the reporter to include that quote on "fluff," as the entire following article can be summarized as "One person I talked to stopped to visit a cultural institution on a business trip, then another one did the same, then a different one did the same, then another one did same...." By the end of the article I was wondering whether the paper's readers wouldn't have benefited more from a blank space in which to take notes or mindlessly doodle. There were no trends cited or insights offered other than the fact that so many people have to bring Blackberry's on their vacations (because their work day never ends) that it's no wonder they squeeze in some cultural activities between convention halls and airports. Only whereas I conveyed that idea in 30 words, the Times article did so in about 950.

Mind you, I'm a bit jet lagged (got in late from London last night) and the fair was hard work (more on that later), so I'm sure I'm being harsher on the reporter than she deserves, but I was truly looking forward to the article, based on the teaser on the Business section front page, and by the end of it was annoyed I had read the whole thing. I'm not sure what I expected really (insights into the broadening of art's appeal to the middle classes, I guess), but it did dawn on me by the end of it that the depth of "art" discussed in that article is actually about par with the depth of "business" discussed in most articles in the arts section. It's understandable that most business people are perhaps perplexed by art, but it's actually quite surprising how many art people are so perplexed, if not totally laissez-faire, about the factors that affect their business.

Which brings me back to London. Among the topics that dominated after-fair drinking sessions were (surprise, surprise) anxieties about the market, the sky-rocketing costs of doing art fairs, the desire to sell more work in the actual galleries (rather than at fairs), how the business is evolving/responding to such matters, etc., etc., etc. With very few exceptions, though, most of us hashing out these issues don't have much pure business expertise. None of us had MBAs or were schooled in the subtleties of market influences. Most of us come from art history backgrounds or were artists before we opened galleries. We may well have good instincts with regards to the the ins and outs of the quirky, secretive, unregulated art market, but that's almost exclusively reactionary in nature. I can count on one hand the number of galleries, for example, I know who changed the business through innovation or instincts. What other thriving business can you say that about? This despite the fact that the market has grown so large now that it will almost assuredly have to evolve to where it begins to behave more like other markets (more on that later this month).

There's another article in the Times today about the Damien Hirst piece that's on exhibition at the Met for the next three years. This one's in the Arts section and only tangentially discusses financial issues, but it served as a fitting metaphor for what I feel is the key to the changes we're all about to witness in the art market. Here's the piece in question: Damien Hirst, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”

Clearly there are business geniuses in the contemporary art market. Larry Gagosian turned a poster shop into an international conglomerate. There are others I admire for their savvy as well. But most gallerists (at least at our level) run their spaces like Mom and Pop shops, and as much as I love both the feel and overall aesthetic of such spaces (and as much as I feel that "Art" is better served by such an approach), there's no mistaking that scent in the air...that electrical smell that foretells of an approaching storm. Nice people with nice galleries are possibly going to be swept away in the resulting torrent. Auction houses are already buying galleries, and rumors of other models for corporate-like takeovers are swirling. Bigger fish, with killer instincts, will be fine, of course, but something somewhere simply has got to give. There will be something like 23 art fairs in Miami this year. The only people seeing all of them will be endurance-based performance artists. Many of the participating galleries will not recoup the costs of their booths. It's almost a statistical certainty. Will the smell of blood in water with so much money involved bring 'em circling?

Mind you, the best advice the experts can give for escaping unscathed should a shark advance upon you is to punch it as hard as you can in the nose. I'm not sure that will provide as much business satisfaction as it might personal satisfaction in the coming art market evolution, though, so I'm more inclined to think the more nimble a smaller fish can be, the better are their odds of swimming circles around any predators. du dun du dun, du dun du dun


Friday, October 05, 2007

A few thoughts before our flight

Warning: This one rambles (might be the back pain I've got...might be the pills). I'm not even sure it's not essentially contradictory. Ignore it and comment on what you want to if that's your preference. I'll be in London next week, and regular blogging will resume on the 16th (I might be able to squeeze in a post from the UK but can't promise at this point).

I've been doing a lot of thinking about how much art there is to see, how some folks feel it's not a matter of too much but just knowing how to find what's worth seeing, and all around that, like the elephant in the room, the crescendoing clamor of those who feel art as we once knew it is lost. Defining where we are might be somewhat more complicated than even that though. In an article by Walter Darby Bannard that Franklin pointed to on his blog and that is titled "Artbroken: What Art Is and How We Stopped Making It," the author wrote:

Art is condensed life. The artist works his materials against immediate circumstances and applies what he has in his head against what he has already done, reaching deep down to the extraordinary harmonic integrity of life itself to fashion something that is narrow, safe and permanent, and which deliberately circumvents transitory utility in order to create a dynamic equivalent of life itself. Art comes from a place that is way deeper than words and ideas and things. It goes out to the same deep place in the viewer. The work itself is the point of contact, the spark that jumps between the poles. It yields a special kind of recognition and pleasure, but it does not submit to rational explication.
Anyone who knows me understands full well I don't subscribe to the notion that we've stopped making art. We've gone rounds and rounds here about what's shown in galleries and museums in what boils down to a question of whether what defines good art is form or concept, which is often still the same old debate between representation and abstraction in new clothing, and blah, blah, blah, ad infinitum. But I do like Mr. Bannard's notion that art is "condensed life" (I think some folks abuse his notion that "art does not submit to rational explication" to avoid facing what's intellectually lacking in certain works, but...again...we've been all over that before.), and I think the condensed life notion might be a clue to why there's a certain malaise in certain quarters about the state of Art in general. Stick with me here...I promise to try to make a point in all this.

We live in a walk-thru/drive-thru era in which we'll pay folks to give it to us quickly or summarize things for us because we don't have time to read, hear, learn, see, experience everything we need or want to and still get to eat or sleep. "Give it to me in a nutshell." From Headline News to the fact that movie trailers are so important to selling a film that often they're much better than the film itself, we're a people who want it in capsule form first. "Just give me the elevator version right now."

But there's a critical difference in my mind between "condensed" and "summarized." When something is condensed it's more compact, but just as complex as the original. When something is summarized, the complexity gives way for the bite-sized basic premise. In the domain of viewing visual arts we may be confusing those two somewhat.

Permit me to make this personal, in hopes of expressing more clearly what I'm driving at here. We had an exhibition of paintings by Christopher Lowry Johnson a while back that are incredibly slow to see. The underlying structure of each canvas is worked out through a series of drawings with complex organic frameworks referencing scientific models, and they are then built up with painstaking care and consideration. Then end result, to my eye, is breathtakingly beautiful (if you give them the time to reveal themselves to you), but a number of viewers who passed through the gallery looked for a moment and then passed on. That happens.

One viewer though took the time to look and then wrote about the work in a way that simply delighted me. OK, so that viewer was none other than the connoisseur James Wagner, but here's what he wrote:
This is not a walk-thru show. Actually, this is probably true for most painting shows (at least those where the gallerist/curator has any creds at all), but this one is even more special. It seems quite muted at first, but given a little time, its rewards are great.[...]

I recently walked into the space at the end of a long afternoon of gallery visits and sat down on the bench in the middle [yes, a bench in a gallery - a bench, how extraordinary, and how helpful for both visitor and art!]. I stared at the large, very white-ish, canvas across from me, expecting to work with it only as a beautiful, complex abstraction. I had been immediately attracted to its drama and beauty as I walked in, before I knew anything or saw very much, but then something happened. As I sat looking at this canvas its impenetrable layers of oil opened a wonderful, very grand window on images both abstract and concrete, a world undetectable at first or even second glance.
But here's the rub. If we took that kind of time to view all the work on view in New York, let alone elsewhere, we'd never do anything else, and never even see all we set out to. And yet, if we don't, we stand no chance of experiencing the value of the work out there that is actually "condensed life" rather than merely a summary. Or is that truly the case?

We may simply be using that as an excuse, and in the process potentially closing ourselves off to understanding great work that isn't already part of our experience. This occurred to me while reading Holland Cotter's review this morning of the exhibition Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary:
Is she an infant, a wrestler, a goddess or what? Sunk in thought or entranced by sounds only she can hear? Her flawless skin is dark but glows. Her body is organic but abstract, with seeds for eyes, succulents for arms, and mushroomlike shoulders melting into breasts. In the perfect sleek globe of her head, her face is a scooped-out heart.

You’ll find this stunner, beaming with ambiguity, in “Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was carved in the 19th century by a Fang artist in what is now Gabon. Sometimes referred to as the Black Venus, she resides in Paris today. And she’s just one of many magnetic images in a gorgeous, morally and spiritually vibrant show that is sure be one of the sleepers of the fall art season.

Why, with such attractions, is it a sleeper? Because exhibitions of African art almost always are. Even when museums give them the luxury treatment, as the Met does here, they remain on the fringes of our awareness, in a compartment labeled esoteric, as we make our beelines to Rembrandts and Rothkos. We are the sleepers, somnambulating past extraordinary things.
He's right. We rush to see Rembrandts (with "rush" being the key work here), but we don't have to take much time to benefit from them because we're fully prepared/equipped to appreciate them on a summary basis if our schedules don't permit a slower appreciation of them on a condensed life basis. With work that we'd need to invest much more time to feel we "get," though, we feel we're at such a disadvantage that we might as well not bother. Mr. Cotter notes, however, that perhaps we're not giving ourselves enough credit in that department:
This African show isn’t esoteric at all. Anyone familiar with Western religious art, particularly art before the modern era, will recognize its basic theme: life as a cosmic journey homeward, with parental spirits, embodied in materials and images, coddling, counseling and chiding us every step of the way.
My point is that perhaps there's plenty of great art about, but many folks are are not well suited to find it. For art to be good, it has to be rich (i.e., more than just a one liner or a one-liner that reveals something more complex than itself). Most of us would agree to that. With our hectic schedules, though, slowing down long enough to appreciate that complexity seems impossible, so we often reflexively don't even try. That may lead inadvertently to some viewers leaning toward less complex work. Work that they get quickly and perhaps, because they're not unaware of what's good, project complexity onto that isn't there. I'll include myself in that to avoid it sounding like I'm picking on any particular artist, collector, or gallery.

The knee-jerk solution to this would seem to be "slow down," something I've advocated before. But I might as well stand off to the side of a six-lane highway and whisper that to the motorists flying past me at 85 mph. Besides, what if by slowing down folks decided they no longer had time to venture as far West as our gallery is located ("Slow down, but start at the West Side Highway... :-).

If you're still reading, you're probably hoping for some sage advice on how to deal with this modern dilemma. Me too.

Have a great week if I can't check in on you.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

George W. Bush: Stinking, Lying Torturer

The President of the United States is hellbent on being able to order the torture of other human beings. This despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that torture is not the most effective means of eliciting accurate information from suspects. One can only conclude that indeed, for this man, the point of torture is simply torture.

Despite attempting to fool his nation into believing he doesn't approve of torture, his administration was exposed today in The New York Times as saying one thing in public, but secretly orchestrating legal cover for doing the opposite:

When the Justice Department publicly declared torture “abhorrent” in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations.

But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.

Mr. Gonzales approved the legal memorandum on “combined effects” over the objections of James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, who was leaving his job after bruising clashes with the White House. Disagreeing with what he viewed as the opinion’s overreaching legal reasoning, Mr. Comey told colleagues at the department that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it.

Later that year, as Congress moved toward outlawing “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard.

The classified opinions, never previously disclosed, are a hidden legacy of President Bush’s second term and Mr. Gonzales’s tenure at the Justice Department, where he moved quickly to align it with the White House after a 2004 rebellion by staff lawyers that had thrown policies on surveillance and detention into turmoil.

Congress and the Supreme Court have intervened repeatedly in the last two years to impose limits on interrogations, and the administration has responded as a policy matter by dropping the most extreme techniques. But the 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums, officials said. They show how the White House has succeeded in preserving the broadest possible legal latitude for harsh tactics.
Now I should warn you. I have absolutely no tolerance for the morally and intellectually bankrupt idiots who'll engage in sophomoric hypotheticals of ticking bomb scenarios to justify their support for legal torture. The probability of judicial leniency in the face of a true emergency is all the reassurance a decent human being should need to act as they feel necessary should some "24"-style fantasy ever materialize (and even if that probability wasn't reassuring, does anyone really believe a decent person would just sit there and think, "Uh, I might go to jail, I guess I have to let thousand of people die"?).

Therefore, there is no need whatsoever for the government of the United States to authorize under any conditions the same types of abuse of suspects we had consistently condemned in other countries up until this current resident of the White House moved in. The fact that he feels compelled to issue secret workarounds of the law suggests he has some idea why it's wrong, but just not enough to fulfill the oath he took at his inauguration. If he's incapable of protecting the nation within the law he should say so (and seek changes in the legislation, openly, so the public knows what he is) or resign. Finally it's utterly unacceptable that our President should lie to us about something so fundamental to our collective humanity.


Winkleman Gallery @ Year 07 Art Projects

One week from today, the fairs open in Londontown. Blogging will be sporadic next week if possible at all. Please do stop by if you're in the 'hood. Here's the press release:

Winkleman Gallery is very pleased to announce our participation in the
Year 07 Art Projects at County Hall in London, October 11-14, 2007, corresponding with the Frieze Art fair, and featuring 58 international galleries showcasing emerging and established artists. We're bringing what we believe are a series of important and beautiful works.

First is the highly acclaimed three-channel video installation by the husband-and-wife team Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, Trans Siberian Amazons, which debuted at the Central Asian pavillion at the Venice Biennale in 2005, as well as some of their photographs from The New Silk Road series that were commissioned for their solo exhibition by the Art Institute of Chicago earlier this year.

Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, Trans Siberian Amazons, 2005, mixed media (three-channel video, monitors, plaid Chinese bags, clothing, dimenions variable, edition of 3

In addition, we’re bringing the photo-based installation by New York artist, Jennifer Dalton, titled“What Does an Artist Look Like, (Every Image of an Artist Displayed in the New Yorker Magazine, 1999-2001).” This signature piece has received rave reviews in Artforum, Art on Paper and other US publications. The 436 photographs are sold as a complete set (edition of three, 1 available) or in groups of 10 (edition of 6).

Jennifer Dalton, What Does An Artist Look Like? (Every Photograph of an Artist to Appear in The New Yorker, 1999-2001), 2002, 436 labeled, laminated snapshot photos, each 6" x 4"

Finally, we'll be showcasing a selection of the gorgeous photographic series by Scottish artist Rory Donaldson, entitled SQCity. These remarkable works (each with a central image within a quadrant of rich color fields...created through a well-guarded process) are 40" x 30" and an edition of 5. Works from 2005 - 2007 will be featured.

Rory Donaldson, SQVCACANALDOOR, 2005, Chromogenic C Print, Edition of 5

Hope to see you there!

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Making it Past 30: An Inspirational Case Study

The perceptions vary widely depending on who you're talking with.

In the past few days alone, I've listened to ageism tales from an artist in their 50s and protests of cheap shots against young artists from an artist in their 20s. I know we've been all over this topic here, but just in case anyone out there thinks I'm full of sh*t when I say "don't give up; you can make it," there's a hope-inspiring capsule profile of the artist Mark Bradford on New York magazine's site you should read first:
In six years, Mark Bradford, 45, has gone from being a self-proclaimed “beauty operator” at his mother’s beauty shop in South Los Angeles to navigating the tangled, lucrative weave that is the international art scene. Last week saw the opening of his solo show at the Whitney, “Neither New nor Correct,” featuring paintings of excavated billboards, posters, and other signage found in his Leimert Park neighborhood in L.A.
I met Mark at the ARCO art fair back in 2002, just as his fortunes had seriously begun to turn. The curator who introduced us said, "Watch him. He's an amazing artist. He's going places." That was an understatement. He received the Bucksbaum Award in 2006, and today he shows with one of my very favorite galleries in the world, Sikkema Jenkins, where his paintings sell for as much as a cool quarter of a million dollars (I know that's not that much in Pounds or Euros, but still...).

According to NYMag, Mark had his set-backs along the way:
In 2003, Bradford shows at the Whitney Altria space—his first attempt at his “new vocabulary.” Times critic Roberta Smith and others aren’t enthused. “I knew when I was putting it up that it wasn’t there,” he says. “After that review, I’d show up to give a lecture and there would be two people.” He gets passed over for the 2004 Whitney Biennial.
But he kept pushing and, perhaps more importantly, took some risks:
"Eungie Joo was the curator of the show ‘Bounce’ [at Redcat gallery], and she suggested I work big, but I said, ‘Yeah, but that’s expensive.’ Then she bought the canvas for me, so I said, ‘Aiight.’ She put her money where her mouth was, didn’t she?” “Bounce” includes Los Moscos—one of Bradford’s paintings in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
Mind you, at 45 now, Mark was 40 years old when I met him in 2002, just starting to get recognition and obviously still willing to push his work to new extremes. I know I've reported that some collectors will make a face when you tell them an artist is over 31, but there's one sure corrective for that: telling them the artist received the Bucksbaum Award.

Don't give up!

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

VARA Controversy in the Heartland Settled: Verdict to the Artist

This may not play into Yahoo's favor should the dispute discussed yesterday actually go to court. From

A federal judge has ruled that artist Chapman Kelley’s Wildflower Works I, a 66,000-square-foot patch of wildflowers he planted in Chicago’s Daley Bicentennial Plaza in 1984, is, as the artist insisted, a work of art, reports the Chicago Sun Times.

Kelley brought the question to court after the Chicago Park District removed half the garden three years ago to make room after a bridge linking the plaza to Millennium Park was built. Kelley argued that because the garden was a work of public art, and therefore federally protected, he should have been told about the plans at least 90 days in advance.

Federal judge David H. Coar called his ruling in the case, believed to be the first time an artist using "alternative materials" has successfully sued under the Federal Visual Artists Rights Act (VERA), passed in 1990 to protect public art and its creators, "a great victory for all artists."
OK, so this decision, unlike the Buchel Vs. Mass MoCA one, seems sure to stand as precedent. Important among the issues raised during the case were these two, via the Chicago Sun Times:

[1]Under VERA, the district needed to notify Kelley 90 days before the reduction. Kelley argued he was informed only a few days before the work began, which gave him insufficient time to mount a legal fight or remove the plants.

Among other arguments, Park District attorney Nelson Brown said Kelley's work was not art protected by VERA because it couldn't be copyrighted and was constantly changing. But [2] Kelley said even traditional paintings change over the years because of light and humidity. On the stand, Chicago appraiser Jane C.H. Jacob quoted Andy Warhol: "Art is anything you can get away with."
One of the things the justice system is supposed to do is take emotion out of a dispute and weigh the facts, well, matter-of-factly. That's as it should be. When it comes to determining damages for a wronged party, however, I feel it's perfectly appropriate to let emotions at least be considered. Kelley's feelings about this seem rather clear:

Some of the wildflowers still bloom, but Kelley will not visit the reduced version of Wildflower Works.

To see what's left would be like "going back to where your mother was run over by a train," he said, explaining it would be "too painful."
In this instance, the judge has yet to determine the damages. One plant expert has estimate the piece to be worth about $1.5 million, though.


Monday, October 01, 2007

VARA Controversy on the West Coast Too

Full disclosure: I'm friends with the artist Sharon Louden, whose installation "Reflecting Tips, 2001" is at the heart of this controversy. I've been aware of this ongoing effort to resolve this dispute for some time and, of course, because she's my friend and because I think she's right, am inclined to take her side in this. Read the following with that in mind.

Even though the Buchel vs. Mass MoCA issue is settling down (at least until the promised appeal, if that materializes), that doesn't mean the debate over what the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 actually means is settled. From the other side of the country comes the story about the rights of a corporation (Yahoo) clashing with the rights of an artist (Sharon Louden). Kelly Crow offers the details in today's Wall Street Journal:

When Yahoo moved into its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters six years ago, it kept peace with local authorities by buying and installing $500,000 worth of public artworks.

Now Yahoo says it is suffering for its art.

On its front lawn, the technology giant installed a work by New York artist Sharon Louden that paired real wetlands grass with artificial cattail-like reeds. The grass grew. The city complained. Last year, to rein in its overgrown yard, Yahoo dispatched a grounds crew with weed whackers.

Artificial reeds were cut, bent and twisted. The artist, horrified, responded with letters from her lawyers, which were met with letters from Yahoo's lawyers. "They turned my art into a bad miniature golf course," Ms. Louden says.

As negotiations continue over who controls Yahoo's front yard, the company has found itself caught at the intersection of two artist-friendly laws -- one that made the company install art, and a second that essentially prohibits the company from messing with it.

Like Sunnyvale, many cities across the U.S. have embraced the "Percent for Art" movement. Typically, cities ask or require companies to allocate 1% of their construction budget to buying and prominently displaying art, often in exchange for tax cuts or use of public land. In Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., such ordinances are responsible for dozens of commissions. Typically, city committees approve the potential purchases, while owners are responsible for maintaining the art.
As meddlesome as that may sound for a company, keep in mind that 1) the "Percent for Art" deal is made "often in exchange for tax cuts or use of public land" and 2) back when Yahoo was moving in to their Sunnyvale location, they were very enthusiastic about the art they were acquiring:
[Yahoo] formed an art committee that rejected dozens of proposals before selecting three, including a series of bronze doors around the campus (a nod to Yahoo's role as an Internet portal) and a revolving metal sculpture in a fountain. The committee also tapped Ms. Louden, whose post-Minimalist work has been collected by insurer Progressive Corp. and AT&T.

Ms. Louden proposed creating a landscape that would mimic the natural wetlands that border Yahoo's campus, but with a high-tech twist. She offered to plant 2,500 white wires, clumped into grassy patches and topped with 2-inch reflective squares. During the day, the wires would blend into the surrounding grass. At night, the reflectors would catch the headlights of passing cars on Matilda Avenue and her marsh "grass" would glow.

Mary Ritchey, an art consultant Yahoo hired to help with the project, says the idea was a hit with the committee. "They didn't want anything fancy or flashy," Ms. Ritchey says. "Her piece was beautiful because it was so subtle."
This strikes me as a story that centers around a series of events defined mostly by bad timing. Dennis Taniguchi, the landscape architect Yahoo hired (and who choose the grass for the installation [i.e., that grew too high and led to the city asking Yahoo to trim it back]) had ignored Ms. Louden's suggestions on which grass was best and offered in his defence:
"We were making a lot of decisions quickly," Mr. Taniguchi says. "We weren't sitting around pondering grass."
Then, after the work had been severely damaged, Terry Semel, then Yahoo's chairman and CEO, had his people call the artist to report he was unhappy with the work and wanted it removed. Coming after the work was damaged, it's difficult to assess whether Mr. Semel's feelings about the work are based on the way it originally looked or how it looked after weed-whackers altered it (the WSJ reports that at least half the artificial wires had been cut). He reportedly wouldn't comment for the WSJ article.

Keep in mind that the concept for the piece was to reference the natural wetlands around the property. Here is what the piece looked like before the weed-whackers were sent in (top) and then after Yahoo attempted to mitigate the damage (on their own, without the artist's involvement) by replacing the long grass with something else (bottom):

What's most confusing about the story is how Mr. Semel's original feeling that the work should be removed evolved to the company's current statement that, with their own alterations, they're now happy with it and it can stay. OK, so that's perhaps not all that confusing. Mr. Semel is no longer the CEO. He's been replaced by Jerry Yang, who isn't commenting either though. As the article notes, Sharon called Mr. Yang in an effort to resolve the issue without lawyers, but he didn't return her call.

To my eye, there's nothing about the alterations to the work that would justify Yahoo claiming they own a piece by Sharon Louden. The central concept, as well as the resolved aesthetic, of the work has been lost. As Sharon put it, they changed it into a bad putt-putt course.