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Book Review: Joan Kee, “Models of Integrity” (2019)

By Center for Art Law.

On Thursday, February 14, 2019, The Art & Law Program hosted the book launch of Models of Integrity: Art and Law in Post-Sixties America by Joan Kee (PhD in Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2008; JD, Harvard Law School, 2000; BA in History of Art, Yale University, 1997). The program was co-sponsored by Cornell Law School.

In her book that provides a refreshing take on art and law, Joan Kee, who is both a lawyer and art historian, thoroughly inspects a series of American artworks from a legal perspective. Each chapter is dedicated to a specific modern art project and the legal and ethical issues each of them raised. The author explains how the artists dealt with the law at a time where “art law” was not what it is today and there were very few lawyers involved in the field. Her selection of artworks highlights how the law surrounds the arts and how artists can learn to navigate or stay clear of legal issues.

Chapter 1 focuses on The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement (1971), a model sales contract co-authored by Seth Siegelaub (curator and labor activist) and Robert Projansky (lawyer). It illustrates how the art and the law can collaborate to validate artists’ economic and intangible rights, at a time when the art market is in its early bloom.

Chapter 2 analyses Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 1976 Running Fence project and underlines the importance of negotiation with the landowners and government officials over the use of land. The artists had to deal with environmental committees, capitalism, and even vandals. The work exemplified the questions surrounding legal aesthetics and the prominence of legal permission and negotiation in artistic creation.

Chapter 3 puts the spotlight on works produced by Gordon Matta-Clark, who sliced and cut into buildings, sometimes without permission. This raised the issue of defining property and space into 1970s New York. “[He] made it all but impossible for these structures to effectively function as vehicles of exclusion.”

Chapter 4 explores the work of Tehching Hsieh from 1978 to 1984, a series of one-year performances where the artist voluntarily subjected himself to extreme conditions, including living attached by an eight-foot rope to Linda Montano, another artist. At the beginning of each performance, he would write a pledge to uphold various restrictions, where the language used resembles the legalese of binding contracts, so as to show the boundaries of the law as a “system of moral principles.”

Chapter 5 studies Sally Mann’s Immediate Family (1992) photography series, where she featured her children, and raised questions of freedom of expression and religion. The escalation surrounding the works illustrate how society attempts to undermine the artist’s integrity and credibility. The photographer’s refusal to engage in the debate about the obscenity of the pictures expresses the limitations of the law in defining what is art.

Chapter 6 discusses certificates of authenticity issued by Felix Gonzalez-Torres to buyers of his works starting in 1994. Unlike traditional certificates that impose obligations on the buyers, Gonzalez-Torres’ certificates shared with owners some of his duties and authority. Because his artworks have a fleeting form, this provides an alternative to possession as a fluid condition; the owner has both unprecedented flexibility and responsibility from the moment of acquisition to when or if the works are sold. The artist tries to forge a sustainable working relationship between the customs of the art world and the rigidity of the law.

Impressions: The book adds a novel perspective on art law, highlighting how both law and art can serve as sources of creative thinking. Illustrations and scholarship form an integral part of the book and constitute an unconventional and much needed artistic take on the law. Joan Kee formidably puts six post-sixties artworks in their legal, historical, political, and artistic contexts.

The Author: Joan Kee is Associate Professor in the History of Art department at the University of Michigan. Formerly a lawyer in Hong Kong and New York, she is the author of numerous articles on contemporary art and law and Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method.  

The Book: Joan Kee, Models of Integrity: Art and Law in Post-Sixties America (University of California Press, 2019). Available here.