Who Loses Money When a Famous Artist Disavows Their Work?

An installation without an artist behind it is just a weird piece of garbage.

Ohio art collector Scott Mueller has filed a lawsuit in Manhattan demanding a $1.4 million refund for Log Cabin Blank With Screw Eyes and Cafe Door, an installation by artist Cady Noland. His complaint? The Janssen Gallery in New York, which sold him the piece, didn’t make it clear that the artist wasn’t into the whole thing. Noland has now disavowed the piece, potentially diminishing its value and putting Mueller in a bizarre situation. Does he own a Cady Noland or doesn’t he?

Because Log Cabin, which was created in 1990, spent the better part of a decade stored in an environment unsuitable for its proper preservation, the Janssen Gallery had to do restorative work to prep it for sale. Apparently, that work was done without Noland’s guidance or consent. The artist didn’t take this sitting down and faxed Mueller a simple if jarring handwritten note: “This is not an artwork repaired by a consevator [sic] BUT THE ARTIST WASN’T CONSULTED.”

A spokesperson for Janssen attempted to clarify Noland’s comments, stating that the artist did NOT disavow the piece - but simply implied it’s worth WAY less than Mueller paid for it. I’m not sure which is worse.

The whole thing is a lose-lose for Mueller. He’s so far only received $600,000 back from the gallery, but that’s an impractical resolution. He either wants the art to be the art he bought or he wants the money.

This is a particularly compelling case because the piece involved is pretty much just the facade of a scout hut. The concept is the powerful thing at play here and the concept did not degrade in the drafty warehouse where the piece was stored. Given that, what Noland is claiming is that an artist can strip his or her name off a piece that is altered in any way. If a court rules against Janssen, the precedent is going to make dealers very nervous indeed.

And they should be nervous.

Back in 2011 Noland tussled with a collector over her piece “Cowboys Milking,” which she similarly disavowed when Sotheby’s muscle caused damage to one of its corners. That work is presumably rotting in a closet somewhere courtesy of the the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which grants artists “moral rights” over all of their work, even pieces they no longer own.

Cady Noland may not care for her sculpture any more, but she’s turning the art market into an amazing performance piece.

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