Coincidence Sets Off Storm Over Erotic Work

The New York Times

West Hartford, Conn., Oct. 11 - Some people saw it as outright censorship when the University of Hartford abruptly removed a painting by Damian Loeb from "The Charged Image," a sexually explicit exhibition of 39 works in a campus gallery.

The university's Hartford Art School quietly took down the work last month after an influential family took offense at the artist's appropriation of a photographic image of three smiling young boys in blazers. In the background, in his blatantly provocative hyperrealist style, Mr. Loeb depicts a young girl performing oral sex on a fourth boy; the 1999 work is titled in part "Three Little Boys" in parentheses, preceded by a description of a sexual act.

It seems that the three boys in blazers, photographed by the artist Tina Barney in 1990 but now grown, are the sons of Scott Harrison Smith, a wealthy local businessman and art collector with links to the school. Neither the show's curator nor the university would confirm that the Smith boys are depicted in the painting or say whether the family played a role in having the painting removed.

But staff and faculty members, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the boys' identity and their links with the university. And Douglas S. Cramer, the collector who lent the works for the show, said the university had informed him that the boys' family was distressed by the painting.

Damian Loeb, whose work has raised coyright concerns.

Mr. Smith and his wife, Jerilyn, the boys' parents, have declined to comment. A woman approached by a reporter at the family's secluded home in the wooded ridges of nearby Washington, Conn., demanded that the reporter leave.

Some critics have accused the school of bowing to pressure from a patron and parent. The Hartford Courant, which first reported the removal of the painting, ran a commentary last week by Steven Holmes, a curator at an art center in Hartford, criticizing the university for not explaining its actions more fully. But by every account, from the curator to Mr. Cramer to Mr. Loeb, the painting's removal was less a clear censorship case than it was one of copyright and surprising coincidence.

Several intellectual property lawyers said in interviews that Mr. Loeb's painting might have violated laws by appropriating Ms. Barney's image, and left the university vulnerable to charges of copyright infringement for displaying the image of the boys without permission.

"We were made aware that there was a possible copyright permission issue with this painting," said David Isgur, a spokesman for the university. "With that, it was deemed that the most appropriate action to take was to remove the painting from the exhibit while that issue hung over."

In response to questions, Mr. Isgur said that Mr. Smith once served on the art school's board of corporators, a largely ceremonial role. He has also served on the board of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. In addition to his links to the art school, at least two of the sons, Matthew and Hamilton, attended the University of Hartford last year, according to the 2003-4 directory; both were scheduled to graduate in 2006.

The school would not confirm whether the boys were still students there.

Signs promoting "The Charged Image," which initially included a cropped image of the painting, are found throughout campus. One art school staff member, Matt Weber, an adjunct professor in three-dimensional design, noted that, if any of the boys are on campus, "they probably would have seen themselves on the banner on the way to the library."

Mr. Loeb expressed regret that the family was offended by the image. "I am saddened by the effect it has had on the subjects used in the painting, and I am embarrassed by the inconvenience it has caused the people involved in curating the show," he said.

But he also defended his work. "I do not, however, regret the images I created, or the way in which they were made," he wrote in response to an e-mail query. "When we as a society lose the ability to comment on what we see and to have an opinion on what we are exposed to, then we have all lost what makes us unique on this planet."

Ms. Barney is weighing whether to take legal action against Mr. Loeb for using her work without seeking permission, said her New York dealer, Janet Borden.

"She's mortified," Ms. Borden said in an interview at her gallery in Manhattan. "She feels the trust between her and her sitter has been broken, and she didn't do it."

If the copyright argument wins out, it may well be the first and last public viewing of the painting, which was exhibited for nine days, from Sept. 7 to 16. "The Charged Image" closes on Sunday.

Although lawsuits in this domain are steadily accumulating, several lawyers said that the appropriation of copyrighted images and music for the sake of art or social and political commentary remains evolving legal territory. "We have to ask ourselves, What are we going to do with new forms of art?" said Steven Wilf, a professor of art law and intellectual property law at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

From rap sampling to realist painting, "we've had more and more of these cases," he said, adding: "We know that the line hasn't been properly drawn. How do you know when something's truly transformative?"

Mr. Loeb, who has settled a suit brought against him by a photographer in a similar case, borrowed this depiction from a 1997 book of photographs by Ms. Barney titled "Theater of Manners," in which the image was called "The Boys." Ms. Barney, who has made a career of photographing quasi-candid family scenes, often of what appear to be affluent New Englanders, took the photograph of the young Smiths - Hamilton, Patrick and Matthew - in a garden in Watch Hill, R.I., in 1990.

In 1999 Mr. Loeb, who was born in New Haven, was preparing to exhibit his paintings at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York. In his e-mail message, he described the period as emotionally tumultuous, a time when he was confronting feelings rooted in worries for his young daughter, with whom he had lost contact for several years.

"I felt that the images used for the painting were particularly appropriate as the boys looked like the kids I grew up with in Connecticut and they looked like I did when I was their age," Mr. Loeb wrote.

He would not identify his source for the image of oral sex. "That is probably not a question that would be wise for me to answer at this point," he wrote.The painting ultimately was not included in the show at the Mary Boone Gallery, he said. ."

At about the same time, Mr. Cramer, a television producer and avid collector of paintings by artists ranging from Roy Lichtenstein to Ellsworth Kelly to Jasper Johns, was becoming interested in the sexually confrontational figurative art of the 1980's and 1990's.

After losing the chance to buy a different painting by Mr. Loeb, he visited his studio and saw the painting that included the three boys.

"I thought it was very well painted," Mr. Cramer, who produced "The Love Boat" d several other shows, said in a phone interview. He said he was struck by the work's "social and sexual commentary."

"I knew Damian worked in appropriated images," he said. "I didn't ask, you know, what the image was. Would you ask Jasper Johns which flag he worked from?"

Mr. Cramer, 73, lives in Roxbury, Conn., less than five miles from the Smiths. He said he did not know the boys or their parents.

"I'd love to get to the kids," Mr. Cramer said of the controversy. "I'd love to somehow cut through the fodder and ask the kids how they really feel about it."

Mr. Cramer and Ms. Borden, the gallery owner who represents Ms. Barney, the photographer, said they did not think the Smiths knew the painting by Mr. Loeb existed before it was exhibited at the art school.

Zina Davis, director of the Joseloff Gallery at the art school, said she approached Mr. Cramer about creating an exhibition from his collection of roughly 600 works. The result, "The Charged Image," was intended to "create a dialogue for discussion" about how artists portray the body and sexual subjects, she said.

"It never occurred to me to push the limits of the public domain," Ms. Davis said.

She added that those who had cried censorship were missing the point and that the issue was strictly whether the painting violated copyright law. "For us," she said, "it's not a freedom-of-expression issue."



–Yardley, William
October 12, 2004