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Cady Noland’s “Log Cabin Blank With Screw Eyes and Cafe Door (Memorial to John Caldwell)” (1990) at Stonescape in California. (image courtesy Michael Sippey, flickr.com/msippey, and used with permission)

Cady Noland has reportedly stirred up a kerfuffle around the sale of her work, “Log Cabin Blank With Screw Eyes and Cafe Door” (1990), to a collector, Scott Mueller, who is also a trustee of Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The piece, which consists of a cabin’s wooden facade with a US flag placed above the entrance, is unique in being the only one made by Noland intended to be displayed outdoors. It did indeed spend ten years in Berlin before Mueller decided to purchase it for $1.4 million through a dealer at Galerie Michael Janssen. According to Courthouse News, Mueller informed Noland that he intended to restore the wood logs that had rotted over time. (It is unclear at what point logs were replaced in the piece, but new wood was substituted for the rotted wood at some point.) Noland responded to Mueller with a handwritten note transmitted by fax: “This is not an artwork,” and related the fact that the sculpture was, “repaired by a consevator [sic] BUT THE ARTIST WASN’T CONSULTED” (emphasis in original). Furthermore, according to the wording of the complaint, Noland, “further stated that any effort to display or sell the sculpture must include notice that the piece was remade without the artist’s consent, that it now consists of unoriginal materials, and that she does not approve of the work.”

Mueller subsequently filed suit for the return of $800,000 against the dealer Michael Janssen, the original owner, German collector Wilhelm Schurmann, and the Manhattan-based Marisa Newman Projects who allegedly facilitated the deal. There seems to be grounds for this action, given that the purchase agreement, according to Artnet News which claims to have obtained a copy, contains an apparently airtight buyback and indemnification clause against “against losses incurred … as a result of any and all claims and liabilities … ”

This story consists of compelling dramatis personae: Noland, as the volatile, splenetic, controlling artist; Mueller as the wealthy patron, usually circumspect, but willing to take a risk on a singular work of art; dodgy foreign dealers who have taken the money and run. It is a story of drama and spectacle with a potentially awful denouement from which everyone involved will come away looking a bit shop worn.

However, there is more here to consider than an artist’s high dudgeon or the potentially dodgy business practices of art dealers. Noland has made a post-production intervention on her own work, essentially voiding it for the machinations of the market. Hers is a speech act of incantatory power. Instead of bestowing honor or value on the work, she has taken that value away after producing it and letting it go from her hands. As an act of pique, it feels overwrought at least partly because it bows to a high modernist notion of the purity of the art object, and its deep, inalienable connection to the will and intention of the artist. Contrast this notion with the way that El Anatsui gives his assent to letting his tapestry work be hung in permutations that suit the institution. El Anatsui allows the work to take on varied meaning, and he seems genuinely intrigued to experience new permutations.

Despite the seeming indignation that spurred Noland’s intervention, it goes further for me than an armada of arguments, most of them the hand-wringing, trusting-in-philosophy sort that seek a way to subvert, deflect, or check the power of the market in conditioning our interaction with art. Noland has negated her own work, wrecked it and made it something that while still being art, despite her claim to the contrary, is unpalatable to the market. In doing so she has formed another kind of art, an intervention that is (performance) art as poison pill, art as refusal to play along, art as bomb.

*    *    *

Addendum: I have been informed by the editor, who was in turn informed by a reader that I was mistaken in my reporting of the particulars of Scott Mueller’s lawsuit against Michael Janssen Gallery with regard to the purchase of Cady Noland’s “Log Cabin” (1990). I do apologize for this, and am grateful for the opportunity to make corrections. My errors were partly due to relying on the information I gleaned from Courthouse News and Artnet, which were mistaken about the facts of the case. Thanks to the Greg Allen who clarified the plot in his blog post.

It turns out that the image of the piece attached to this post is of a later version Noland made: “Log Cabin Blank with Screw Eyes and Café Door (Memorial to John Caldwell)” (1993). This piece is not the subject of Mueller’s lawsuit. Mueller didn’t have anything to do with the “Log Cabin” (1990) being refabricated, nor did he intend to restore it. It was already restored by the previous owner, Wilhelm Schuermann (apologies, his name was misspelled in my post above) after he had left it on long-term loan with a museum and Log Cabin deteriorated. Mueller’s agent contacted Noland about the state of the piece as part of the purchase process. So it seems that Noland’s response to Mueller was essentially warning him off from believing this work was what she had crafted or intended. To add to Mueller’s injury, according to the complaint, Mueller never received the piece from Schuermann.

Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is the opinions editor and managing editor of the Sunday Edition for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on...

12 replies on “The Art of Cady Noland as Poison Pill”

  1. the El Anatsui analogy is misleading: his intention is that the work be installed in different ways each time, but if it was to be re-fabricated without his consent or control over materials I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t approve.

    1. Agreed! Furthermore, claiming that by letting the work be hung in different ways he’s allowing it “to take on varied meaning” is just silly.

      1. Hi Giovanni,

        Actually when I visited Jack Shainman’s School in Kinderhook, to see the El Anatsui terospective exhibition that is currently up, the gallery attendant told me that work in the show that had been previously exhibited elsewhere was, in certain cases, displayed very differently in their space. My girlfriend reminded me that a certain piece that contained a large raft of can lids was displayed in small mounds when previously shown at the Brooklyn Museum. The pieces in the retrospective did indeed take on different meanings precisely because they were displayed in categorically different ways. This is a relatively obvious experience of art, is it not? Art objects can mean different things depending on how they are displayed.

        1. I see your point, Seph, but I still don’t believe that the actual meaning of El Anatsui’s works changes depending on how they’re displayed. To me, that’s like claiming that when the Met has a rug exhibition and places them on the wall they cease to be rugs.

          1. Hi Giovanni,

            So are you saying that the meaning of artwork is coextensive with the materials that make it up? I suppose I take meaning to be the imaginative resonances that are intuited from seeing/experiencing an art work. These certainly are mutable for me.

          2. I guess we’ve gotten to the crux of why we don’t see eye to eye on this. I just don’t feel like their placement really offers a transformation significant enough to change their meaning.

    2. Dear Sebastian,

      To be honest, I’m not sure. I had a conversation with someone who has intimate knowledge of his work and attitude toward it, and I want to say that the gallery attendant at Jack Shainman’s School gave me to understand that El Anatsui is not at all precious about the gallery replacing broken wires and the like in his work. However, this may be a consequence of his long association with Shainman. Perhaps you know El Anatsui better, and if so, okay. Thank you.

      1. I work at the Fowler Museum at UCLA and we have several El works, did the first museum show of his work in the US, and I just installed one of his works at LACMA. You are splitting hairs between replacing wires and re-attaching bottle cap casings with completely re-fabricating a work without the consent of the artist. I’m sorry if the gallery attendant at Jack Shainman disagrees, but I can tell you that the analogy to the Noland work fails. There is never a situation where a living artist should not be informed/consulted on the restoration of her/his work, period.

        I can imagine the conversation: “we have a guy who can remake the wood cabin exactly from new wood- you won’t have to worry about customs or insect infestation, it will all be brand new”

        1. Dear Sebastian,

          At some point this conversation seems to have become a contest, and it does not need to be. I don’t understand why the analogy has to either succeed or fail. Is it really that binary? Might we instead talk about my analogy being more or less apt? Perhaps It would be more suitable to refer to a different artist, that is, not El Anatsui?

          I don’t believe I’m talking about completely re-fabricating work. Nor am I arguing that a living artist’s work should be modified without their consent. I am contrasting an approach, an attitude that is very controlling and rigid in Noland with one that is more liberal in El Anatsui–liberal both in the display of the work and in the way it is conserved.

  2. Seems as though she’s made a bit of a spectacle; a new work of the old, not so much.

  3. Consult with the artist!! How hard a concept is that? Log Cabins, usually outdoors, get old, the wood rots, they collapse. Maybe the artist considers that temporal sequence part of the meaning of the piece? If Mueller wants a log cabin built, he can do that for a lot less money.

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