NEW YORK—Richard Prince, the artist known for his use of appropriated imagery such as Marlborough cigarette-ad cowboys and seductive pulp-fiction nurses in his work, has been sued for copyright infringement by French photographer Patrick Cariou.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Dec. 30, involves Prince’s “unauthorized” incorporation of Cariou’s photographs in work for a recent show called “Canal Zone” at the Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district (Nov. 8–Dec. 20, 2008). It also names as defendants dealer Larry Gagosian, the Gagosian Gallery, and Rizzoli International Publications, which exclusively distributed a “Canal Zone” book in connection with the show.
The dispute revolves around photographs that Cariou published in a book titled Yes Rasta (powerHouse Books, 2000), and which are protected by copyright law, according to his complaint. Prince, the lawsuit alleges, appropriated Cariou’s photographs “without authorization” and “created a series of paintings incorporating copies” of the photographs, thereby infringing on the photographer’s exclusive copyright to the images.
According to his complaint, Cariou spent parts of six years in the secluded mountains of Jamaica, “gaining access to, living and working with, and earning the trust of the Rastafarians,” who “do not easily trust outsiders . . . and it was only after living with them for years that [Cariou] was finally permitted to photograph them.” The end result, Yes Rasta, includes “100 strikingly original black-and-white photographs, mostly close-up portraits of stern, mystical-looking men with a distinctive tropical landscape,” the suit says.
Cariou claims that unlike in previous instances where Prince has copied “anonymous commercial imagery, such as advertisements,” the paintings in the “Canal Zone” exhibition involve appropriation of Cariou’s own copyrighted works.
The lawsuit argues that because Gagosian and Gagosian Gallery displayed the works and “sold some or all of the paintings,” they were “thereby infringing and contributing to Prince’s infringement.” Neither Gagosian Gallery, nor Prince nor Rizzoli responded to requests for comment.
Another issue addressed in the lawsuit is the use of Cariou’s imagery in the “infringing book” published by Gagosian Gallery (with an essay by discredited memoirist James Frey) and distributed by Rizzoli to accompany the “Canal Zone” exhibition. According to the complaint, Prince “actually purports to be the copyright owner of all ‘artworks’ and ‘insert images,’ presumably including the [p]aintings” containing Cariou’s images.
Prices for Prince’s work, particularly for his series of “Nurse” paintings, have skyrocketed in recent years. Last July Overseas Nurse, 2002, sold at Sotheby’s in London for £4.2 million ($8.5 million) on an estimate of £4 million/6 million. The nine highest-selling “Nurse” paintings at auction have brought prices in excess of $3 million.
Cariou’s lawsuit says that the appropriation of his Yes Rasta imagery has damaged his ability to “sell additional copies . . . or to earn revenues from derivative works” based on the photographs, which could have been licensed to others.
Koons Faced Similar Allegations
Artist Jeff Koons was exonerated in a similar infringement lawsuit three years ago. Koons had been sued by fashion photographer Andrea Blanch in October 2003 for his use of elements from one of her photographs in his painting Niagara, 2000, from his “Easyfun-Ethereal” series commissioned by Deutsche Bank and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Both institutions were also named as defendants in Blanch’s lawsuit.
Judge Louis Stanton of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in late 2005 that neither Koons, Deutsche Bank nor the Guggenheim were liable for copyright infringement because the “defendant artist’s incorporation of the photograph in a collage painting constituted fair use.” In late 2006, a U.S. appeals court upheld Stanton’s ruling (ANL, 1/31/06). In Niagara, the appeals court’s decision stated, the artist had “copied, but altered the appearance of, part of a copyrighted photograph” taken by Blanch.