Gagosian has been sued by the Archiv Franz West over its latest exhibition of the late artist’s furniture, which opened at the Madison Avenue gallery on 11th September. The dispute is over who possesses the right to produce and sell the works. This cloud of copyright infringement settles over the mega-gallery just as it is poised to open its fifteenth space, in London, next month.
The Archiv Franz West, which is based in Vienna, has filed a suit of copyright infringement against Gagosian claiming that only it has a licence to make furniture works by Franz West. The US District Judge, Louis Stanton, issued a restraining order against the gallery on the day before the opening, but Gagosian’s lawyers are disputing it. Matthew Dontzin, the lawyer acting on behalf the gallery, says that the Archiv’s dispute is actually with the Franz West Privatstiftung, which the artist set up before his death in 2012. Gagosian is arguing that West transferred the license for the furniture works to the Privatstiftung shortly before his death, and, moreover, that Gagosian has obtained the licence from them.
The concern is that without the requisite licence the furniture works are mere imitations, thus flooding the market with inauthentic products and misleading buyers. This is a sublime illustration of the fact that one cannot tell the difference between the real thing and a mere imitation simply by looking, since authenticity inheres in the work at a level beyond perception. Authenticity, after all, is a relationship between an object and the arbitrary actions of a person, since it is a matter of obtaining the correct paperwork and not a matter of craftsmanship.
The interesting thing here is precisely the popular obsession with works of art being fashioned by the hand of the artist themselves: we hear a very great deal about artists’ studios that work like manufacturing plants, with assistants and artisans doing all the work. Part of the problem here is that the work is thought to be inauthentic because it is not done by the artist. This, however, is a misguided obsession with an unrealistic – and practically never existing – notion of the artist as a toiling, lone craftsman, rather than a robust claim about the nature of authenticity. A signature, routinely used to authenticate paintings, is indeed nothing more than an action performed by a person – it makes a statement, but it does not imbue the work with any special aura, any more than signing a cheque or a contract does. A signature merely acts as an instruction to treat the work as an authentic product. West’s furniture pieces are an extreme demonstration of this flourish of the hand.
Gagosian has gone ahead with the West exhibition on the basis that is possesses the correct licence and therefore that – in virtue of a mere document – the furniture it is selling is perfectly authentic. The dispute is there between the Archiv and the Privatstiftung, whereby the gallery must be confident of its agreement with the latter. It would certainly be awkward to say the least if the Archiv wins the case and merry old Larry has sold a bunch of fakes. Hopefully no such cloud will descend over the opening of his new London space, which is inaugurated with a Cy Twombly exhibition. The show includes hitherto unseen works from the wonderful Bacchus series and opens on 10th October.
Words: Daniel Barnes