For years, Richard Prince has been ensnared in lawsuits surrounding work in his 2014 show at Gagosian, “New Portraits,” which repurposed screenshots of Instagram posts as large inkjet paintings on canvas. In 2015, the photographer Donald Graham sent Prince a cease-and-desist after one of the works in the show featured a picture Graham had taken that appeared on a third party’s Instagram feed. In July 2017, a judge refused to throw the suit out, forcing Prince to soldier on.
Now, the artist and a crew of curatorial heavy hitters have mounted a defense of Prince’s artistic practice—one that has long invoked the complicated nature of appropriation—in order to show that the works constitute fair use. The Art Newspaper has obtained the summary judgment motions filed on October 5th and October 9th, which contain a 15-page explanation of the artwork from the artist, who says that he needed to make sure the image was unaltered in order to “reimagine traditional portraiture and bring to a canvas and art gallery a physical representation of the virtual world of social media.”
Prince also enlisted New Museum Director Lisa Phillips for the cause, and she says that in the context of Prince’s long history of appropriation—dating back to his celebrated “Cowboys” series, where the works are no more than the images from ads for Marlboro cigarettes—“An image need not be altered to be transformed into a new work of art.” Further testimony comes from Brian Wallis, who is the former deputy director of the International Center of Photography. In the motions, Prince also argues that works by Graham and the pictures of his fellow plaintiff Eric McNatt would increase in value due to the exposure that Prince’s exhibition have given them.
The judge now must decide if such evidence could convince the “reasonable observer” that Prince’s portraits bestowed enough new meaning on the original photos to become new works. The plaintiffs’ court submissions are due by November 9th.