For a provocative conceptual artist, you might think a cease-and-desist order from a high-profile international organization would be the publicity equivalent of a bases-loaded home run.
But A. Bitterman of Kansas City, who received word April 30 that the Henry Moore Foundation in England was not amused by his appropriation of an image of the late sculptor’s work, is not celebrating. The group accused Bitterman, a pseudonym for Reading Reptile co-owner Pete Cowdin, of copyright violation.
Bitterman says the project that gave rise to the complaint is legitimate, not a stunt.
“City of Fountains” is a series of four postcards sent by Bitterman to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2012. It’s an unsolicited proposal to swap out one of the museum’s monumental Henry Moore bronze sculptures with a condemned house at 4934 Chestnut Ave. on the city’s East Side; the sculpture would move to where the house had stood.
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Bitterman says his project breaks down the physical boundaries of privilege.
To illustrate his idea, Bitterman created a postcard featuring an image of Moore’s “Sheep Piece” on the condemned house’s block.
Adrienne Fields, in-house attorney for Artists Rights Society, which represents the Moore Foundation, told The Star, “The sculpture was crudely cut out and placed in a location that was not the artist’s intention. Because of the cropping and reformatting of the work, the work loses its integrity in the sense of weight and scale.”
Bitterman disputes the charge of copyright violation and has not taken the image off his website.
“It is completely in-your-face fair use. It’s disconcerting to an artist or a writer or a musician to see their work get torn apart in a Dionysian way, mostly just for the hell of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fair use,” he said.
Bitterman says he is not interested in escalating the fight, because his goal is not publicity but convincing Nelson director Julián Zugazagoitia that his proposal should become reality.
“I don’t think taking the Henry Moore Foundation to task is going to make Julián want to do it more,” he said.
Bitterman is more interested in sparking change than sparking conversation. But he is finding it can be difficult to shed the subversive image (he once posed nude for aerial photographs on the roof of his Armour Hills home) he has cultivated.
Asked whether getting the cease-and-desist letter gratified the bad-boy streak that runs through his work, clear back to getting kicked out of prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan for destroying a chair by Eliel Saarinen to use in a sculpture, Bitterman bristles.
“That is just flattening everything into one thing, so that everything I do has to trace back to Cranbrook. You might be able to say there’s a consistency in my approach, but to connect those things is fallacious.”
Still, Bitterman can’t help but chuckle at the irony of a top-drawer establishment paying attention to him.
“I’m not even a B-list artist. I’m really a nobody as far as the Henry Moore Foundation is concerned. For me it is entirely preposterous that they would raise the profile of (the project) by doing that,” he said.
Even if the Nelson were to back the project, barriers to moving the Moore sculpture abound. For one, although the museum maintains the piece, it doesn’t own it: the city does.
Museums also are respectful of artists or their estates when it comes to display decisions.
Zugazagoitia, whose tenure has seen the installation of two sculptures — Roxy Paine’s “Ferment” and “Glass Labyrinth” by Robert Morris — says he worked with both artists and saw how invested they were in the locations.
The same was true of Moore and “Sheep Piece.” The artist came to Kansas City to install it in 1976 and had a lot to say about the placing.
“The setting is part of the work of art,” Zugazagoitia said.
“City of Fountains” is only one of many encounters Bitterman has had with the Nelson. When Zugazagoitia was new on the job, he was impressed by the audacity of Bitterman’s guerrilla installation of a mock “Wal-Mart” logo on the side of the newly completed Bloch addition.
A photograph of that event resides at the Nelson as part of the documentation of the building and its history.
Zugazagoitia sees “City of Fountains” in a similar light.
“He did a postcard that is a conceptual piece of art that doesn’t need even to happen. The realization was that postcard. And the way I see his development as a conceptual artist is in relation to that tension that exists between that kind of proposal and the institutional place that he wants to install it,” he said.
A couple of summers ago, Bitterman blurred the lines between institution and outsider by taking up residency in the park surrounding the Indianapolis Museum of Art as a rare species, an artist that had been released into the wild.
Bitterman says the reality that the Nelson is unlikely to implement his project does not lessen its seriousness, and the postcard was not meant as an end in itself.
“The whole point is to change the way people think and maybe, in the end, the way we develop the city,” he said.
Zugazagoitia shares Bitterman’s impulse to take art out of a privileged setting and push it deeper into the community. He relates it to the museum’s cultural district plan, which envisions a unified district stretching from Broadway to the Paseo and 44th to 55th streets.
“That idea is to connect neighborhoods on the north, south, east and west of the museum, paving it with walkways and articulating that with art, too,” he said.
Zugazagoitia says the museum follows Bitterman’s work and wants a dialogue with him. Bitterman says he welcomes any conversation.
“I think if you put a $4 million sculpture in a place where you don’t expect to see it, it changes the whole nature of the experience, and it brings up these problematics: ‘Why am I standing in this quote-unquote ghetto neighborhood looking at this garden sculpture?’
“Same with the house coming into the Garden of Eden setting — this old English landscape garden of the Nelson — and here you have this flotsam from the sea of broken dreams,” he said. “That would be really powerful.”
Ironically, with unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore pulling back the curtain on the deep and lingering divides in our communities, “City of Fountains” seems more relevant today than when Bitterman first mailed his postcards off to the Nelson.
And although the Nelson’s eastern boundary for its proposed cultural district extends just halfway to the condemned house of Bitterman’s project, ideologically the museum is moving in the same direction.