Trouble in the Art World

Gag Orders: Ai WeiWei Vs. China

Thieves! Vandals! Forgers! Ever since the actress Valerie Solanas fired the warning shot (and hit Andy Warhol) in 1968, the contemporary art world has endured its share of calamity. W tracks down some of the more salacious moments.


Epic Breakups: Ana Mendieta/ Carl Andre

The battle between überfeminist and übermacho ideologies came to a tragic head when the artist Ana Mendieta, known for her earth-body sculptures, fell from a 34th-floor-apartment window in Greenwich Village on September 8, 1985. Her husband, the brawny, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, was ultimately acquitted, but many still wonder about his role in the incident. The couple was known to fight tooth and nail and had been doing so that night, before she “went out the window,” as Andre put it in his call to 911.


Epic Breakups: Jeff Koons / Cicciolina

“Made in Heaven,” the artist Jeff Koons’s series of kitschy graphic paintings and sculptures, was inspired by his love for the former Italian minister of Parliament—and onetime porn star—Ilona “Cicciolina” Staller. Alas, the magic didn’t last: The couple’s breakup, in 1994, led to the divorce from hell, with the custody battle over their son, Ludwig, dragging on for 11 years.


Epic Breakups: Charles Saatchi / Nigella Lawson

Charles Saatchi, the one-man House of Medici for the Young British Artists generation, pulled the plug on his marriage to the celebrity chef Nigella Lawson in 2013 after he was photographed by paparazzi appearing to strangle her on her home turf—Scott’s, a posh London restaurant. Saatchi maintains that the scene was “playful” and “a misunderstanding.”


Epic Breakups: Alec Wildenstein / Jocelyn Wildenstein Alec Wildenstein, of the Wildenstein art-dealing dynasty, and his overly sculptured wife, Jocelyn, split up in 1999, resulting in the most expensive divorce in recorded history. She was awarded $2.5 billion dollars up front and $100 million annually for the following 13 years. But perhaps that was fair, considering the presiding judge effectively put an end to Mrs. Wildenstein’s personal art practice, stipulating that none of the alimony could be used for plastic surgeries.


Great Heists: Hello, Dali

In what turned out not to be a publicity stunt for Adam Lindemann’s new gallery, Venus Over Manhattan, in 2012, Phivos Istavrioglou, the then head of international relations for Moncler, walked in and helped himself to a Salvador Dalí drawing. He returned the work by mail, enabling police to match fingerprints on the art with those on record from when Istavrioglou had pilfered a juice from Whole Foods the year before.


Great Heists: Bogus Break-In

In 1999, Steven G. Cooperman, a Brentwood ophthalmologist, was convicted of insurance fraud when it came to light that he and his pal, the former federal prosecutor James P. Tierney, had orchestrated the theft of a Picasso and a Monet from his home to cash in on a $17.5 million claim.


Great Heists: Pop Icon

A priest, a pop star, and an icon of Christ walk into a bar… Not exactly, but the three came together in 2011, when a Cypriot bishop caught a glimpse on TV of a stolen religious artifact in the London mansion of Boy George. The singer, who had purchased the piece from a dealer, returned it to the Church.


Great Heists: Mama’s Boy

After several carefree years roaming Europe as a waiter who moonlighted as an art thief, targeting mostly small, regional museums, Stéphane Breitwieser was arrested in Lucerne, Switzerland, on charges of swiping a bugle. He confessed to stealing a total of 239 artworks and artifacts, but more than half were never recovered: In an effort to conceal the evidence, Breitwieser’s mother had destroyed works by the likes of Pieter Brueghel and François Boucher.


A Bunch of Phonies

In May 2013, federal authorities announced that a trove of paintings and drawings by artists like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and Richard Diebenkorn, many of which had been sold through New York’s Knoedler Gallery for millions of dollars, were in fact the work of Pei-Shen Qian, a 73-year-old Chinese painter in Queens.


Show Me the Receipts: Mass MoCA Mess

What is a museum to do when, in the throes of a heated budget dispute, an artist walks away in the middle of installing an exhibition? If you’re Mass MoCA, you shroud Christoph Büchel’s incomplete 2007 “Training Ground for Democracy” in yellow tarps and air your dirty laundry by displaying his list of requested materials for the piece, which included 8 voting booths, piles of old computers, 1,000 feet of barbed wire, 12 grenades, 8 body bags, 4 prosthetic legs, and the fuselage of a 737 airliner.


Show Me the Receipts: Bilbao Binge

In the wake of an embezzlement kerfuffle by Roberto Cearsolo Barrenetxea, a former finance director, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao ran into more trouble in 2008, when Basque investigators checked into acquisitions made by Thomas Krens, its former director. Krens had paid well above market value for works by the likes of Yves Klein and Sol LeWitt, presumably lining not just the titanium halls of the Frank Gehry–designed building but also the pockets of artist and dealer friends.


Show Me the Receipts: Getty Giveback

In the early 2000s, after numerous false-ownership histories—and ties to notorious smugglers like Giacomo Medici in Italy—came to light, the Getty Museum was compelled to return up to 50 works to the nations from which they were stolen. The museum’s curator of antiquities, Marion True, was largely implicated: Substantial loot was discovered at her holiday house, including an ancient Greek stone vessel that had been planted with geraniums.


Show Me the Receipts: Whitney Withdrawal

In 2004, Naseem Wahlah and Rowan Fowley, two former visitor-services employees at the Whitney Museum, were found to have siphoned $880,000 from ticket sales. Wahlah said that she was stockpiling cash for retirement; Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau rejoined that he had “other plans for her.”


Product Placement

Appeasing, flattering, or even prostituting oneself to corporate sponsors is par for the course when trying to keep a major museum afloat, but the Centre Pompidou in Paris had critics seeing red when, in 2006, at a Pernod-Ricard–sponsored gala, it staged an unauthorized revival of the artist Yves Klein’s most famous performance, Anthropométries, substituting the Yves Klein–blue paint splattered on the performers with what looked suspiciously like the liquor brand’s signature blue.


Gag Orders: Ai WeiWei Vs. China

In 2011, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who only three yeas earlier had been enlisted to codesign the stadium for the Beijing Olympics, was detained by his native government and held in a Beijing prison for 81 days for alleged tax evasion—a move that conveniently curtailed his politically active art practice. The first work he made upon his release? A fashion story for W.


Gag Orders: Pussy Riot Vs. Vladimir Putin

In 2012, a guerrilla performance of their punk prayer “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away!” in a Moscow cathedral didn’t exactly have the desired effect for three members of the feminist postpunk band Pussy Riot. Still, their subsequent arrest made them an art world cause célèbre (with the likes of Madonna, Sting, Patti Smith, and Paul McCartney demanding their release), giving a boost to worldwide sales of balaclavas.


Gag Orders: Mapplethorpe Vs. Cincinnati

In 1990, Dennis Barrie, the then director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, was charged with obscenity by Hamilton County for mounting an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. After a two-week trial, a jury ultimately decided that the work, which included images of a man with various objects inserted into his rectum, met the criteria for serious art.


Gag Orders: Artists Vs. The NEA

In 1990, four performance artists—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller—sued the National Endowment for the Arts after their grants were rescinded on the basis of decency standards, making them poster children for North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms’s war on culture. Eight years later, the Supreme Court upheld the decency test for federal arts grants, prompting outrage from the artistic community, including the playwright Arthur Miller, who commented on Finley, in particular: “Anyone who smears herself with chocolate needs all the support she can get.”


Loose Lips

Damien Hirst (above), the richest—and by many accounts brashest—living artist, is never one to shy away from scandal. But when, in a 2002 interview with the BBC, Hirst referred to the September 11 attack as “an artwork in its own right,” he was just being moronic.


Loose Lips

While attending an Arts Council England luncheon in the fall of 2007, David Cameron (below), then the leader of the opposition Conservative Party in British Parliament, is said to have commented, “I hope you won’t be giving grants to too many one-legged Lithuanian lesbians.” When confronted with the ire of the Lithuanian ambassador to England, Cameron’s office insisted he had not used the word “lesbian,” referring rather to “one-legged Lithuanian dance troupes” in an effort to point out that grants were sometimes given to unusual recipients.