A convoluted legal battle involving artist Cady Noland, a collector, and three art dealers is raising questions about copyrighting artworks and the boundaries between art conservation and forgery. Last July, the elusive artist filed a lawsuit asserting that the collector and dealers infringed on the copyright for her work Log Cabin Blank with Screw Eyes and Café Door (Memorial to John Caldwell), 1990, by hiring a conservator to extensively repair the sculpture, whose wood was beginning to rot. Noland contended that by refabricating parts of the workwhich consists of a cabin facade manufactured by a commercial company and an American flagthe collector and dealers committed forgery, and she demanded the work be destroyed. Noland then sued collector Wilhelm Schurmann, who bought the work soon after its creation; KOW Gallery of Berlin, which exhibited the piece in 2011; art dealer and adviser Chris D’Amelio; Galerie Michael Janssen; and Janssen himself, who sold Log Cabin to the Ohio-based collector Scott Mueller for $1.4 million in 2014.
Now, in a motion filed last month to dismiss the case, the defendants are suggesting that Noland’s lawsuit is a way for the artist to defy the market, characterizing the charge as “a desperate but futile search for a cause of action, by an artist with a history of trying to keep artworks created by her from being sold,” according to Artnet. Additionally, the collector and dealers have claimed that the work is too generic to be to copyrightable. “Were placing two American flags on a traditional log cabin façade enough to warrant copyright protection, then any log cabin owner who affixes a similar patriotic symbol to the front of their home might be considered an infringer via the creation of an unauthorized derivative work,” wrote the lawyer for the collector and dealers. The defendants say that it is the concept behind the work that makes it art, not its physical aspects. The defendants also argue that if the object is unable to be copyrightedand since the idea itself cannot bethey cannot be held accountable for copyright violation.
The artist’s lawyers say that the work’s design is inextricable from its concept. “Clearly, the Copyright Office does not understand contemporary art,” Noland’s lawyer wrote. “Noland was not designing backyard garden sheds and trying to seek copyright protection for her design. Instead, she made a sculpture that was neither a house, garden shed, or a shelter, and strategically draped her signature American flags over one of the ‘window’ openings.”
Noland, who is no stranger to legal controversy and is notoriously interview-averse, provided an affidavit to the judge this week. “I do not think I am difficult to work with,” Noland said, adding that she has repaired many artworks herself recently so that they could be sold. “I just do not want anyone to change, modify, or destroy my art,” she said. The case has not yet gone to trial.