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Courtesy The New Yorker. Prince's New Portraits show controversially drew from Instagram as source material.

by Elinor Case-Pethica

On January 11th, little more than a week before the inauguration of President Trump, celebrated contemporary artist Richard Prince tweeted an image from his New Portrait series along with the statement “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This is fake art.” 

The portrait in question depicts Ivanka Trump getting her hair done—in keeping with the rest of Prince’s New Portraits, it is appropriated from Instagram. The piece was commissioned for Ivanka’s expansive contemporary art collection, which includes artworks by the likes of Alex Da Corte and Christopher Wool. Prince claims to have returned the $36,000 he received in exchange for the portrait commission, and demands that his name no longer be connected with the piece. Despite Prince’s excommunication of the work, it does not result in any significant doubt over his role in creating it. His actions stand, rather, as an interesting form of political protest that have prompted other artists to follow suit.

Courtesy Richard Prince.

Disavowing work is a relatively common practice among artists, and one that is legally protected by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. VARA provides protection to paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and still photographic images produced for exhibition, existing in limited editions of 200 or fewer. The law retains the artist’s right to claim authorship, prevent the use of their name on works they did not create, remove their name from works that have been modified, distorted, or mutilated in any way that would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation. Disavowal usually happens because of perceived mistreatment of a work—an example being Cady Nolan’s Log Cabin Blank With Screw Eyes and Cafe Door. Nolan demanded that her name be removed from the piece and declared it “not an artwork” because of unauthorized repairs made to portions of the sculpture that were rotting.

Courtesy Stonescape. Artist Cady Nolan demanded her authorship be stripped from this work after its restoration, despite its recent sale to a collector. 

Prince’s disavowal his portrait of Ivanka poses a variety of interesting problems. In theory, claiming that the piece is a “fake” and not his work should undercut its price and salability—however it seems likely that the opposite would in fact be true. The publicity and timing of Prince’s statement has added an element of cultural and historical significance to the work, which could drive up demand and therefore price should the portrait ever go to auction. Whether or not it could be sold with his name attached is another question; in order to meet the specifications for disavowal from the Visual Artists Rights Act, Prince would need to either prove that the work had been fundamentally distorted mutilated or modified, or prove definitively that he did not make the work (no easy task, as has been made clear by Peter Doig’s three-year legal battle to remove his name from a painting wrongly attributed to him). Prince’s chances of successfully proving either of these claims seem slim.

Courtesy The Guardian, Peter Doig recently won a lawsuit over whether his name could be removed from a landscape painting he claimed not to have made.

Worth noting is the conceptual flip that Prince has performed. As an appropriation artist, his practice consists of taking preexisting images and repurposing them as his own artwork—essentially an extension on the idea of the readymade, taking something and saying “I made this, and it is real art.” Now, he is doing the opposite, taking a piece of his own work and saying “I did not make it…This is fake art.” Thus, it stands as a kind of ‘unmaking,’ a conceptual removal of his hand. 

Art critic Jerry Saltz latched on to Prince’s term “fake art” as one that is, as of yet, undefined; perhaps opening the door to a new type of conceptual/performative artistic statement. Prince’s actions have placed a powerful tool in the artist’s arsenal, the gesture of ‘unmaking’ a piece as a statement.