An 11-foot-wide painting that is now on sale in a Washington art gallery imitates so closely a work by a well-known American photojournalist that it revives an old debate: How much may one creative artist, without attribution, borrow from another?
The untitled painting by Jack Goldstein, a young Manhattan artist, which shows the towers of the Kremlin under air attack, turns out to be a close copy of a photograph from World War II, "Moscow, Summer, 1941," by Margaret Bourke-White. The Washington art dealer who bought Goldstein's painting did not know of that connection. The picture gives no credit to its source.
The painting is on sale now, for $5,500, at Middendorf/Lane Downtown, 404 Seventh St. NW.
Goldstein, who says all his art "recycles information," says he feels no obligation to tell viewers of his painting--or Chris Middendorf, the dealer who bought it for resale--that his canvas takes its image from another's work of art, one still under copyright.
The Goldstein is no forgery. It clearly differs greatly, in scale and material, from the picture that it imitates. Many modern artists quote the art of others. But Goldstein's work of art looks so much like Bourke-White's that it seems to exceed the limits of quotation.
Bourke-White (1904-71) earned her reputation while under assignment for Life magazine. She was the only foreign photojournalist in Russia when she made her picture of Nazi flares and tracer bullets lighting up the sky above the Kremlin Wall. Her photo, although scary, has a strangely lyric beauty. It appeared in Life on Sept. 1, 1941.
Goldstein's canvas is included in "Seven From Metro Pictures," a big and flashy show of artists from the stable of Metro Pictures, a commercial SoHo gallery known for its success in selling "New Wave" New York art. Many artists in the show, which closes April 9, take visual ideas from the art of others, from movie stills, '40s fashion placards, and from Andy Warhol. But none borrows quite so baldly as Jack Goldstein does.
Middendorf said the canvas was on sale for $3,000 when he bought it in New York (at a 40 percent discount). When, on Wednesday, he was told how closely Goldstein's picture imitates Bourke-White's, Middendorf expressed surprise, but no disappointment. "I knew how Goldstein gets his images. I knew that he had used 'found' sounds for his records, 'found' film for his movies, and 'found' images for his paintings. The Metro Picture painters are so hot in New York, and everywhere else, that I knew I'd have to buy their work, or get stuck with 'seconds.' I wanted a representative Goldstein--and I got one."
It was Frank DiPerna, the Washington photographer whose work is now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, who noticed how closely Goldstein's image replicates Bourke-White's. A book of Bourke-White's photographs, which includes her Moscow picture, was brought in by DiPerna, and placed beside the painting. When Caroline Huber of Middendorf/Lane first saw the two together, she said, "Oh my God!"
Goldstein, reached by telephone in Hartford, Conn., where he teaches, said, "I'm not trying to hide anything.
"All my work," he said, "deals with public images. I found the photograph of Moscow in a book on World War II. Is Bourke-White still alive? My art has always questioned the whole idea of authorship. It says that there is really no such thing as individuality. I even have other people work on my pictures. I didn't paint the Kremlin painting--but it is still mine. I use all sorts of war photos, some signed and some not. They're all the same to me. Usually I change them, but in certain cases I may find a photograph, a sort of sovereign image, that is so complete I feel no need to doctor it.
"I think of myself as a post-Modernist," said Goldstein. "Post-Modernism is all about recycling extinct information. My art talks about those things. Am I stealing someone else's work? Am I plagiarizing? I don't know. But I figure those questions should be asked all the way down the line."
The boundary, in art, between the act of homage and the coldhearted rip-off is at best indistinct. Picasso borrowed broadly from the paintings of Vela'zquez, Duchamp put a mustache on the Mona Lisa, and it was not Andy Warhol who designed the label for that can of soup. The history of art proves that artists often steal. But usually they do so with a modicum of tact. Certain well-known images, the Mona Lisa, for example, or Gilbert Stuart's Washington, may now be public icons, but Bourke-White's handsome photographs are not half that famous. They are her own works of art.
Life magazine still holds copyright on pictures that she made while on assignment during World War II. The Kremlin shot is one of them. Pamela Kerr of Life says the magazine's attorneys, having not seen Goldstein's canvas, would prefer to withhold comment.
The magazine already knows of Jack Goldstein's borrowing. It knows because Todd Brewster, a Life staff reporter, is working up a story on Goldstein and other Metro Picture painters, perhaps for the May issue of the magazine.
"I showed a photo of Goldstein's painting to John Loengard, the picture editor," said Brewster. "He knows Bourke-White's work. He saw the connection right away."