Opinion

The Art of Cady Noland as Poison Pill

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

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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.

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