A months-old series of Juergen Teller photographs of the pop star Rihanna made its way around social media this week, with many observers, including the critic Antwaun Sargent, alleging that the German artist had drawn too heavily on the aesthetic of artist Mickalene Thomas without giving her credit.
Originally shot for the December 2017/January 2018 issue of Vogue Paris, to “celebrate the style and charisma of a modern-day icon,” the photographs feature Rihanna in settings with mixed-and-matched décor. (The issue also included photoshoots by Inez & Vinoodh and Jean-Paul Goude.) Zebra and leopard prints clash on the floor beneath Rihanna, and fertile greenery and mid-century furniture are scattered around. Some images appear to be torn up, collaged, and rephotographed. The page for the photoshoots on Vogue Paris’s website does not mention Thomas’s art.
Detractors have noted that the style of Teller’s photographs of Rihanna draws on similar-looking images by Thomas, who has for the past decade crafted work known to feature black women in mixed-and-matched domestic settings. Fashion and design are likewise important to Thomas’s work.
Viewers on Instagram and Twitter pointed out similarities between Teller’s Vogue Paris photography and Thomas. “THIS IS A BAD COPY OF MICKALENE THOMAS’ ART,” Sargent wrote on Twitter earlier this week. A Twitter user named Steve Jxseph, whose tweet featuring the Rihanna image has been retweeted more than 2,000 times, wrote, “I just wanna point out that this is very similar to mickalene thomas’ work and juergen NEEDS to explain what’s going on.” The writer Muna Mire tweeted, “Rihanna by Mickalene Thomas but okay.”
In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Lehmann Maupin gallery, the New York- and Hong Kong-based enterprise that represents both photographers, noted that Teller’s Vogue Paris photographs have “rightly been compared” to Thomas’s collages. “Mickalene has earned the right to be recognized and commended for her ground-breaking contributions to contemporary art and visual culture, and for a signature aesthetic that she has been cultivating for decades,” the gallery wrote. “As Mickalene’s long-time gallery and advocate, we vigorously stand by her in defending the originality of her work.”
In response to a query from ARTnews after the statement was sent, a spokesperson for Lehmann Maupin said the gallery represents “Juergen Teller’s fine art practice, which is different than his commercial and editorial work. As such, we were not consulted or involved in his work for Vogue Paris.” The gallery said it is “hopeful that there will be a resolution” between the two artists.
Teller’s agent said, after the statement was sent, “I am not aware of this and unable to comment at the moment as Juergen is away shooting.” Thomas’s studio declined to comment further and directed a query to the gallery’s statement.