When Margaret Bowland entered one of her portraits into the Smithsonian’s annual portrait contest, it seemed the worst that could happen was that she might lose. She did far better than that: In the National Portrait Gallery’s 2009 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, Bowland’s submission, a 2008 figurative painting called Murakami Wedding, won the People’s Choice award. But that was before the National Portrait Gallery stole her painting—or so Bowland alleges. On Jan. 20, she filed suit against the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution, and the United States of America.
The story begins in 2008, back before things went south between Bowland and Santa Fe–based art dealer Klaudia Marr—a third party who is not named as a defendant in the case. Marr was showing the painting at her eponymous Santa Fe gallery in 2008 when it came to light that it had been accepted in the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait competition. The museum picked up the painting at Marr’s gallery following the show’s run.
A few things happened over the course of the painting’s sojourn in Washington, according to both Bowland and Marr, with whom I spoke in October 2010, when Bowland’s allegations first surfaced. During the competition’s run, Bowland broke off her relationship with Marr, she said. And at the same time, Marr sold Bowland’s painting, according to Marr. They disagree fiercely over who it belongs to. The only thing that’s not in question is who has it. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then its owner is Santa Fe–based collector David Naylor.
Back in September 2010, when the National Portrait Gallery looked to return the painting to Bowland, museum registrars weren’t able to reach her. Bowland says the museum tried to contact her using an old email address that she no longer checked. So the museum reached out to Marr, who directed the museum to send the painting to Naylor—the collector to whom she had sold the painting. In her legal filing, Bowland claims she has never received payment for the painting.
So why isn’t this the case of Margaret Bowland v. Klaudia Marr? That’s the question vexing Artinfo’s Julia Halperin, who asks what this has to do with the rest of the United States. But if the feisty comments section below Halperin’s story are any indication, there are any number of painting fans ready to file an amicus brief on Bowland’s behalf.
“Margaret Bowland is one of the best painters working today in America,” writes commenter Richie Fine. “For the readers that are not familiar with Margaret Bowlands work—they are stupendous! They belong in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” writes commenter Carolyn Kramer. Many more of the comments are directed at Halperin. (“Julia Halperin = idiot,” writes Kramer. Not content to merely demean Halperin, she writes a followup comment: “Dear Mr. [Andrew] Goldstein, I would like to call for the immediate resignation and firing of Julia Halperin, your assistant Editor.”)
D.C. art blogger Lenny Campello weighed in in the comments: “This is easily one of the most offensive pieces of drive-by, personal attack writing that I have ever read, and I am not only shocked at what I have read here, but surprised that the author’s editor did not see the disturbing consequences of taking unnecessary and brutal personal attacks on the artist.”
(Perhaps he meant this comment from Halperin: “We’re not sure what’s more shocking here: that the painting in question was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, that it won the People’s Choice Award in the museum’s 2010 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, or that someone actually purchased it.”)
News-bloggers and art critics say things like that all the time. What’s so bad about Halperin’s comments? That has to do with what makes Bowland’s painting a People’s Choice in the first place.
Fans of painters—still life-rendering, live model-drawing, nude figure-representing artists—sometimes cop a Nixonian pose. They appear beset on all sides by barbarians, in the form of performances, installations, and interventions. The Julia Halperins of the world represent a threat to this silent majority, the fans of art who still put a premium on beauty. They adore paintings like Bowland’s and feel baffled that critics often give this work short shrift. (The New Criterion is the leading publication for this lonely voice in the wilderness.) Their victimhood status makes the difference between a fan of a painter and a fan of a painter who is willing to savage a writer who questions the painter.
So when a figurative series by a North Carolina–born white artist that features black girls in white-face paint strikes Halperin as self-evidently “unsettling,” it puts fans of the traditional on the defensive. Bowland’s supporters don’t see crypto-racism or anything like a blinkered approach to race issues. Fans of this kind of work see art cultivated through talent and training, not conceptual trickery—art whose quality can be measured, in place of art whose meaning must be guessed at.
What does any of this mean for the National Portrait Gallery? Fans of traditional painting—call them Wyethians—are probably the museum’s biggest constituency. After all, the National Portrait Gallery is devoted solely to artworks that look like famous people. It’s a conservative institution, in that it mostly emphasizes subject over artist or artwork and caters to accessibility. For example, in its museum wall text, the National Portrait Gallery makes it a practice to retitle artworks so their meaning is utterly unambiguous. Bowland’s Murakami Wedding was rechristened Portrait of Kenyatta and Brianna at the museum.
And so the conflict between Bowland and the National Portrait Gallery might be less interesting than the potential conflict between Bowland’s supporters and the National Portrait Gallery. Observers have, after all, seen what a few thousand phone calls can do to a body, and Bowland’s work appears to attract the right temperament for manufactured outrage. (“Ms Halperin has no place being associated with Artinfo. Shame on her and shame on you for printing her article.”)
Fortunately for the museum, they have been spared the headache. It doesn’t seem that Bowland’s bad turn has embittered her fans against the National Portrait Gallery—not with someone like Julia Halperin to beat up on instead.