How much more valuable would this review be if, though written in the exact same words, it were signed not with my name but that of Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, or Martin Amis? Or what if you read some other newspaper story with a famous writer’s byline, then discovered it was actually generated one of those news aggregators like the notorious Journatic? What happens then to the perceived value of the piece?
In the art world, such questions have long been asked. The ateliers of the great masters were filled with brush-wielding assistants; in his Factory, Warhol likewise farmed out much of the production of his work; and contemporary artists from Jeff Koons to Dale Chihuly to Ai Weiwei have ceased to care who “makes” their artworks, so long as the concept is their own. If the studio master signs the thing, that signature supposedly confers both ownership and originality. Duchamp’s urinal famously tweaked that idea almost 100 years ago, though he signed it with a fake name.
A young Chinese artist engages those issues in Liu Ding’s Store: Take Home and Make Real the Priceless in Your Heart, appropriating the Frye’s most famous canvas, Franz von Stuck’s Sin, in 40 iterations—none of which Liu painted. Instead, he isolated and reproduced two elements from that 1893 work, the snake and the gilt frame, with Beijing factory laborers doing all the brushwork. The results are hung indifferently at the Frye, many of them simply leaning against the walls, the back of the canvas facing us so we can read Liu’s signature. The message is clear: It’s not the image you’re paying for, but the artist’s imprimatur. (All the works are for sale at liudingstore.com; prices range from $139 to $2,000.)
During Liu’s visit to Seattle last month, his wife and frequent collaborator Carol Yinghua Lu translating most of his remarks, he stated his intent “to test how the value is added with the name,” meaning his signature. Problem is, that notion of assigned value is well past familiar in the Western art world. It only takes a few minutes to determine what Liu has done (nothing new) and whether you’d actually want to buy any of these Sin excerpts on his website (no thanks). The concept here is small and stale, and Liu’s further blurring the line between museum and store in the gift shop—where a few items have been haphazardly arranged on special pink and green tables—is a joke.
If Liu wants to investigate value, reproduction, and commerce, let him say how much he paid those Beijing copyists. Are the factory conditions better or worse than at Foxconn, where our iPhones are made? Show us a video. Liu also might explain what Charles and Emma Frye paid for Sin in 1925 during one of their European shopping sprees. As the museum is concurrently showing a selection from its permanent collection (Ties That Bind) and highlighting its own history (The Perfection of Good-Nature, also continuing through Sept. 23), why not estimate what Sin and those other works might be worth today? (Could they be sold to buy some better art? That’s a question for future consideration.)
In a sense, Liu is here borrowing the Frye’s prestige to confer more value to his wares. There’s a halo effect that runs from museum to shop, but I’d rather see Liu work in the other direction. At 60, 15 years after its rebuild, the paint still fresh from this summer’s spruce-up, the Frye’s problem isn’t the building, but the permanent collection. Recently changing Deputy Directors from Robin Held to Scott Lawrimore isn’t going to change those holdings. In Liu’s first American solo show, he’s likely unaware of the museum’s history, how Charles Frye intended to bequeath his collection to found Seattle’s first public art museum. Richard E. Fuller got there first with SAM in 1933, placing it in Volunteer Park—just as Frye had proposed in 1915! Following Frye’s 1940 death, SAM rejected his collection as an estate gift, so his executor set up a new museum, which opened in 1952.
None of this I’d expect Liu to know or engage. But, if the Frye truly wants to explore value and provenance, it ought to consider what its own name is currently worth.