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When Paintings Are Easily Reproduced

by Hrag Vartanian on January 11, 2012

A view of Alfred Steiner's "Erased Schulnik (Diptych)" (2010) and "This Is Not a Work of Visual Art" (2010) at Norte Maar's "Guilty/(NOT)Guilty*" (photo courtesy Norte Maar)

So far, the debate about artistic copyright has been safely in the realm of design and photography — with certain exceptions, of course — but how will that conversation change when anything can be easily reproduced and presented without proof of origin or even the original artist’s touch? These are questions that emerged when I saw Alfred Steiner’s “Erased Schulnik (Diptych)” (2010), which is currently on display at Norte Maar’s Guilt / (NOT) Guilty* exhibition in Bushwick.

A detail of the surfaces of both parts of the diptych. (photo courtesy the author) (click to enlarge)

A copyright lawyer by day, Steiner bought a glob-erific clown painting by Allison Schulnik at Canada gallery on the Lower East Side. He then proceeded to have a replica of the work fabricated on a ZPrinter 650 3D printer. The result is a quite good monochromatic reproduction of the painting that is full of the brushstrokes and textures that until recently we thought we couldn’t so easily reproduce.

Looking at the potential in this art work, I realized it was only a matter of time (months?) before paintings with their grooves and quirks could be churned out at will. Will we soon all be able to own a perfect reproduction of a Picasso that only x-ray machines and laboratories will be able to say is a “fake”?

I am excited by the new frontier Steiner’s work suggests. I think the piece is thought-provoking and full of contradictions — if they are both part of the same work, is there really a fake, what if I like the copy better than the original? The title is an obvious reference to Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning” (1953) and I feel like it is a wink — or slap — at the once revered status artists had as singular creators, that special status feels somewhat compromised.

A detail of Steiner's work with the "original" on the left and the "copy" on the right. (photo courtesy the author)

Norte Maar’s director, Jason Andrew, explained to me that the copy is rather heavy as it is reputedly made from a dense carbon — hanging on the wall you wouldn’t know.

In the press materials for the show it mentions:

To cover himself legally, [the artist] sent an e-mail to give [Schulnik] a head’s up that he’d done the deed. She’s not worried. Yet.”

I wonder if painters are threatened by the possibility that artists (and maybe corporations or governments) in the future will be able to reproduce, remix and reconfigure their works — brushstrokes and all — into new versions or perfect copies.

I wonder if this changes the debate in the minds of non-photographers, who until now weren’t faced with the possibility that they could be copied this easily.

Then again, this may cause great relief to some painters, museums, galleries and collectors, who in the future won’t bother to ship art — which is an expensive, difficult and laborious process — and instead simply print out copies for exhibit around the world.

Up until now print makers and artists who used mechanical means to create work (think Dan Flavin, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger) were at an advantage because they could churn out works and editions until their hearts content. They could show the same work in three different cities simultaneously, but this may just level the playing field. So much potential in such a small work.

Guilty / (NOT) Guilty* continues at Norte Maar (83 Wyckoff Avenue, #1B, Bushwick, Brooklyn) until January 29.

UPDATE: Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento of  Clannco: Art & Law blog has chimed in about this post “When Paintings Are Easily Reproduced.” He tackles the legal question around the work.

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  • Anonymous

    This is lame.  Who cares- are we really treating a 3D copied painting as something new and exciting- PLEASE-people who are impressed by novelty shouldn’t be writing articles- rather they should spend their times in physics classes looking at really exciting new things.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I don’t think you understood the point of the post. Art is about embracing a lot of things, and the divide between science and art has always been porous, even during the time of Renaissance, one only has to look at the work of Leonardo.

      You may not care but very many people do.

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSherwinArt Brian Sherwin

    Articles often imply that the art world — as in all artists — accepts a wide interpretation of ‘fair use’. In my seven years of art blogging and working for social art sites and art service websites I find the opposite to be true. Most of the artists I know feel that ‘fair use’ should be limited — same goes for art dealers.

    Many artists are worried that corporations will eventually be able to legally take advantage of their work — all because of a relatively small number of appropriation artists and others who try their best to chip away at copyright law. I recently wrote about how the real issue is about money… not ‘creative freedom’… when it comes to artists who want to see copyright limited. It is all about money.

    The loudest voices against a limited interpretation of ‘fair use’ are artists who rely on appropriation for their artwork and exhibit it for profit (think Richard Prince and Shepard Fairey). They cry ‘creative freedom’… but the fact is that copyright infringement would not be an issue if they simply did not involve price tags. Thus, I think it is clear that the real issue is that they don’t want to 1.) collaborate. 2.) compensate others. Think of how many have claimed that the image they used was not important to the work… if that is so — why did they choose to use it? They just did not want to pay — or face the challenge of finding another image that would work just as well.

    True, the New York scene, if you will, is fairly open to an ‘anything goes’ mentality when it comes to appropriation — but I remind you that the New York scene makes up a very, very, very small percentage of the US art community overall — and international art community for that matter. If you did some form of poll I’m sure that you would find that most artists want strong copyright (but then I’m certain the Free Culture crowd would manipulate the poll by voting once they caught on to it. You would have to find a way to verify that the people voting are artists).

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSherwinArt Brian Sherwin

    I’ll add that it is easier today for an artist to make some or all of his or her living from the creation and marketing of art. Artists, take Chet Zar for example, have established a market and brand without the help of the mainstream art world. Technology and copyright has allowed that to happen. Why anyone would want to make it ‘open season’ on art profit-wise is beyond me.

    ‘Creative freedom’ is not harmed by copyright in my opinion… again, copyright infringement is not an issue really until profit is involved (at least art-wise). As far as art goes… copyright prevents exploitation art market-wise. I mean, do we really want to see it get to the point that anyone with enough resources can reproduce everything shown in Chelsea, claim it for themselves and profit from it? Art would have little financial value overall if that were the standard. Note that some of the art dealers in NYC who openly support a wide interpretation of ‘fair use’ don’t allow photography — hmmmmmmmm.

    I for one want to see visual artists profit from their artwork — that simply won’t happen as it can now if copyright is stamped out.

    • http://twitter.com/alfredsteiner Alfred Steiner

      I’m not sure your analysis goes deep enough.  I do not believe my piece affects Allison Schulnik’s ability to profit from her work in any way, and my selection of a piece that she created was fundamental to the work for many reasons.  The work (and some of its critique) would not make as much sense with any other painters’ work as well as it does Allison’s (which of course is a credit to her work).  Even so, the fact is that under the right circumstances, it would be possible for an artist like Allison in a case like this one to obtain an award of up to $150,000 plus attorney’s fees (which could be in the millions of dollars) simply as a result of a single copy.  That amount bears no relation to the alleged harm, if there is any to begin with.  This is the problem with copyright as applied to non-mass produced objects that do not serve as a replacement for a copyrighted work.  It would be a different story if I were making hundreds of T-shirts bearing a copyright image.

      • http://twitter.com/BrianSherwinArt Brian Sherwin

        Copyright smalls claims may solve part of the problem over minor issues. It will be interesting to see if anything comes from that.

        Do I think the copyright owner should always end up with up to $150,000? Depends on the situation. As you implied — there is a huge difference between what you have done and say an artist like Shepard Fairey marketing $40 t-shirts that involve infringement.

        As for my comments — I’m was mainly pointing out that the whole ‘the art community supports a wide interpretation of fair use’ rhetoric is not exactly true. Writers tend to explore copyright with a very narrow scope as to how artists, overall, feel about it. In addition to that, I do see a lot of appropriation artists, including Shepard Fairey, bellowing about how their negative view of copyright is spurred by “creative freedom” when clearly it is about money… and their unwillingness to collaborate or compensate. For example, if Shepard Fairey truly believed in what he spouts off… he would not have his legal team send out cease-and-desist letters at the drop of a hat.

        Appropriation is generally accepted in the NYC art scene — as is a wide interpretation of ‘fair use’. The irony being that so many art galleries in NYC don’t allow photography… one of the reasons being, they don’t want anyone to exploit the work. Interesting.

        Another contradiction — I seem to recall that several writers who generally support a wide interpretation of ‘fair use’ went ape shit when it was believed that Starbucks had infringed on a New York based artists work. Suddenly appropriation was not a good thing — Starbucks was pinned as the big bad corporate copyright infringer out to ‘steal’ from artists. Bad, bad, bad Starbucks — lets get that $150,000. (most who viewed the examples thought the allegations were absurd — and they were. The artist backed off). But it is OK for an artist to exploit the work of another artist? You can’t have one way or the  other.

  • Amy Guidry

    Brian makes some great points.  To add to that, yes, I think it’s amazing what technology can accomplish.  However, especially as an artist myself, I find that it’s hard enough trying to share art with the world without some jerk trying to make money off of it.  Artists have to endure enough as it is with bad galleries not paying when they should or not at all, artwork donations to charities that the government won’t let us count as a tax write-off, and companies in China copying and selling our work.  Enough is enough.  Yeah, being able to print my work and have it at several locations and avoid outrageous shipping costs would be great.  However, it goes against every fiber of my being as I constantly educate people that the original work of art is so much better than a copy/giclee. 

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