For the last five years, a legal saga has been unfolding over a single question: whether a log cabin is still Log Cabin Blank With Screw Eyes and Cafe Door
(1990), an artwork by Cady Noland
. One of the most expensive living female artists, Noland also has one of 2019’s most talked-about exhibitions—despite the fact that she has not had a show of new work in the last two decades.
Here are the key details of a twisty lawsuit revolving around the borderline-unanswerable existential question of what makes art art:
- In June 1990, Noland made a work called Log Cabin Blank With Screw Eyes and Cafe Door, a structure that consisted of logs of wood and other wooden components.
- The work itself was fabricated by a commercial log cabin manufacturer in Montana.
- It was shipped to Germany in 1990, exhibited at Max Hetzler’s gallery in Cologne, and sold to the collector Wilhelm Schurmann.
- It was placed on long term loan to the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen and treated with a weather-proofing stain in accordance with Noland’s wishes, as she intended it to be one of her only works to be installed outdoors.
- The work was displayed at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum from 1995 to 2005.
- During that time, the logs rotted. A restoration report in December 2010 said the only way the work could remain intact was for it to be refabricated with new logs. New logs were integrated into the structure by the same company in Montana that fabricated the work originally.
- In April 2011, the work was shipped to Berlin to be shown at the KOW Gallery. It was for sale.
- In 2014, the work was sold to Scott Mueller, a tire manufacturing tycoon based in Cleveland, Ohio, through the dealer Michael Janssen. The price was $1.4 million.
- Noland learned of the transaction and the restoration and on July 18, 2014, sent Mueller a fax of a handwritten note disowning the work, saying the log cabin with new logs was simply that, and not a work of art by Cady Noland, which would effectively render it valueless. “This is not an artwork,” Noland said in the handwritten note.
- The artist attempted to obtain a copyright for the original version of the work, but the U.S. Copyright Office denied her this, saying the restored version of the work is still the same work because it “is exactly what one would expect to see in a ‘classic’ log cabin design.”
- Mueller sued Michael Janssen over the sale. The suit was dismissed. In July 2017, Noland sued Schurmann, KOW Gallery, Galerie Michael Janssen, Michael Janssen the person, and the art advisor and dealer Chris D’Amelio, alleging the rights granted to her by the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) had been violated.
- In March 2018, the dealers named in that suit filed a motion to dismiss the suit, citing the fact that Noland could not get a copyright for the original work, thus making it impossible to infringe on the copyright simply by restoring a thing to what it originally was.
- In April 2018, Noland voluntarily dismissed her claims against Chris D’Amelio.
In the legal saga’s latest development, the dealers have once again filed a motion to dismiss the suit. On May 17th, Schurmann, KOW Gallery, Galerie Michael Janssen, and Janssen in the U.S. District Court’s Southern District of New York once again pointed to the lack of a copyright as a defense.
The memorandum states: