Following Up on Yesterday’s Pee Story

by Whitney Kimball on January 6, 2012 Newswire

Sotheby's auctioning another Clyfford Still painting, “1949-A-No..1," last November for $61.7 million. (photo via NYT)

Yesterday, reports stated that Carmen Tisch, a 36-year-old Denver woman, scratched, punched, and rubbed her butt against a Clyfford Still painting before urinating on (we think) the brand-new floor of the Still Museum.  The cost of repairs is estimated at $10,000.

It seems that physical damage has come mostly from the scratches and punches, which undeniably decrease the value of a painting.  A scratch requires inpainting – retouching with fresh paint – which would be detectable to collectors under a blacklight.  Restorations are noted on a work’s historical record, which also factors into pricing.

While most reports infer that physical damage is light, the press continually emphasizes damage to reputation.  Local gallery owner Ivar Zeile said on NBC: “It does damage the piece,…even people just knowing that happened.” Artinfo notes that the Daily News took this to mean: “…even if the painting wasn't seriously damaged, its value would plummet simply because it came in contact with Tisch's tush.” To be fair, it appears that Zeile has no relationship to the painting in question, but it seems the Daily News simply voiced what many were already wondering.

"1957-J No. 2" in the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO

Important to note is that, until its inclusion in the Clyfford Still Museum, the painting 1957-J-No. 2 had relatively little impact on culture. Though Still is widely considered one of the leaders of Abstract Expressionism – so important that the Metropolitan Museum mounted a large survey of his work in 1979 – on the whole, his paintings were sparsely exhibited during his lifetime, due to the artist’s reclusiveness and insistence on total curatorial control. Just when his reputation in the New York art world peaked in 1961, Still moved permanently to a small farm in Maryland.  In 2001, twenty-one years after his death, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden mounted a “reintroduction” to his work. Now that it’s back in the public eye, the incident may (sadly) increase the painting’s worth.

Even the mention of a price tag is ludicrous, considering Still and his wife explicitly stipulated in their wills that no work be sold.  In a comprehensive profile, Peter Plagens noted of the recent record-breaking auction of four of his paintings:

The absolute no-sale provision of both Still's and his widow's wills is being gotten around [by the city of Denver] by the technicality that the works will be sold before they've actually entered into the museum collection. Such is why lawyers are paid the big bucks.

Plagens also includes this quote, which adds yet another nauseating twist to that November 10th auction:

Still once said that “this instrument, the limited means of paint on canvas, had a more important role than to glorify popes or kings or decorate the walls of rich men.” Not that Still never sold a painting to a rich man (he lived fairly well from the proceeds of his art), but overall, he trod his own curmudgeonly high road.

Oddly enough, fame, urine, and profit-enhancement in contemporary art was addressed back in 1995 when Brian Eno pissed in Duchamp’s urinal.  Paddy Johnson joked that Eno’s piss may have actually increased the urinal’s intended value:

Claiming to be upset with the way the object was handled (it had been insured for 30,000, an act which would have been contrary to Duchamp's intentions that the work be some random piece of hardware), Eno called his act a “re-commode-ification.” Well, congratulations to Brian Eno for reclaiming the toilet, a landmark in the annals of art history to be sure. Here's hoping the irony that his piss is valuable does not escape him. You know MOMA has that stuff saved and insured in some archive somewhere.

She was kidding, but it’s a question worth asking: if this had it been an esteemed buttock or fingernail, might a scratch add to the painting’s provenance?  If bodily fluid had hit the painting, what if it had come from Warhol, Abramovic, or Kiki Smith?

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