Cady Noland, Log Cabin, 1990.
On Tuesday, artist Cady Noland filed a lawsuit seeking the destruction of Log Cabin (1990), a wooden sculpture formerly attributed to the artist that has been embroiled in authenticity and legal disputes.
The suit asserts that, in an effort to conserve the piece, it was entirely reconstructed from new wood without permission or notice, essentially producing an unauthorized copy. Noland says this copy and its subsequent sale for $1.4 million violated her copyright and rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).
Noland also filed for monetary damages from those parties the complaint alleges may have conspired to infringe on her copyright by reproducing the work without her knowledge. The suit names Wilhelm Schürmann, the German collector who first bought the cabin, art advisor Chris D’Amelio, and two galleries that handled the work—Galerie Michael Janssen and KOW—along with Janssen personally, as defendants.
In an emailed statement, Janssen said that he has yet to be served with the suit, “but based on what I have heard I believe that it has no merit.” The gallerist added that “unfortunately, Ms. Noland has a history of trying to use the law to hurt art collectors and even her own artwork. That should not be necessary and I hope to find a positive outcome in this case.”
Purchased by Schürmann in 1990, the large-scale wooden sculpture went on view outdoors in 1995 as part of a long-term loan with Aachen’s Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum. The piece stayed outside for approximately 10 years, according to the complaint.
The suit charges that in 2010, a conservator evaluated the cabin and recommended to “one or more” of those named as defendants that all of the logs should be replaced. As a result of the advice, “the entire edifice” of the piece was replaced and the original discarded. In July of 2014, the conserved Log Cabin was sold by Galerie Michael Janssen to Ohio collector Scott Mueller for $1.4 million.
Shortly after the sale, Noland says she was informed about the replacements to her work for the first time. She was told the piece had “suffered significant deterioration” and that “a great number of the logs had rotted or begun to rot.” Noland faxed Mueller on July 18th disavowing the piece, writing “this is not an artwork” and noting it was “repaired by a conservator (sic) BUT THE ARTIST WASN’T CONSULTED.”
Under VARA, artists can disavow their work and prevent attribution to them if the piece is mutilated or modified in ways that are prejudicial to an artist’s reputation. Noland has disavowed other pieces in the past for such reasons, including Cowboys Milking in 2011. The previous disavowals likely contributed to a clause in Mueller’s purchase agreement that, should Noland disavow Log Cabin within 12 months of the purchase, he was entitled to reverse the sale—which the collector sought to do following Noland’s fax. After receiving $600,000, Mueller sued Janssen and his Berlin gallery in a New York court in June of 2015 for the rest of the funds, but the case was dismissed as being time-barred.
At the time, some questioned whether Noland had actually disavowed the Cabin or if the statement “this is not an artwork” referred simply to the fax itself, as a spokeswoman for Janssen claimed to The Art Newspaper. But Tuesday’s suit puts any remaining confusion about the artist’s feelings to rest. “Noland refused and continues to refuse to acknowledge or approve of the ‘legitimacy’ of the Log Cabin Copy,” the complaint reads. “And she seeks to disassociate her name from said Copy, and claims that her moral rights, and rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act and other similar legislation have been violated.”
Barring a settlement, the suit will provide rare case-law around VARA, which is often invoked but rarely litigated to verdict. The law does grant artists the right to disavow mutilated or distorted art. But it carves out an exception for modification “which is the result of conservation or public presentation, including lighting and placement” unless that modification is “caused by gross negligence.”
Whether the display and conservation of the log cabin qualifies as negligence will be an important issue in the case. In her suit, Noland alleges that Schürmann was “either negligent or indifferent” and failed to regularly inspect the piece while on view outside, where it was in direct contact with the soil.
Noland also charges that the restoration of her work duplicated the cabin in violation of copyright law, which prohibits the reproduction of copyrighted or derivative work without permission. The charge raises broad questions about the conservation of conceptual art, notes Amy Adler, an art law professor at New York University.
“At what point does conserving a piece mean recreating it?” she asked.
Noland is seeking a declaration that she holds the copyright to the piece, proof of its eventual destruction, an injunction halting any use of the work, any profits from the piece, and damages of between $750 and $30,000, along with statutory damages, if applicable.
Representatives for KOW declined to comment. Chris D’Amelio and Wilhelm Schürmann were unable to be reached for comment.
Additional reporting by Mitch Sawyer.