How Did I Become The Typhoid Mary Of the Art World?

I’m under attack. I’m the Typhoid Mary of the art world. In the last few weeks, I’ve been publicly vilified as “a hack” and a “rip-off artist.” It has even been said of me that I am “full of shit.” Charmed, I’m sure!

I’m not really surprised. It was inevitable; I could see it coming. Helen Keller could have seen it coming.

Let’s go back. Way back.

The year is 1978: I am living in a garage/loft space in downtown L.A. at the intersection of Pico and Figueroa. Somehow I’m subsisting on the $100 per week I receive for decorating the windows at a store called Maxfield Blue. This is a hip, groovy designer boutique located right next to the Troubadour in West Hollywood. My mandate is to change the windows every week and make them cheeky and subversive. The prop budget? Spend as little as possible.

In no time, I have discovered the joys of the L.A. wrecking yards. Here I find incredible treasures: everything from old toilets (Marcel Duchamp!) to factory lighting (Dan Flavin!) and discarded sign letters from movie houses and dry cleaners (Jack Pierson! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves). These often-filthy found objects provide a surreal juxtaposition to the Yohjis and Montanas and Muglers I am charged with displaying. I’m not quite sure why it works, but it does.

1986: Eight years and over 400 window installations later, I relocate to New York and take a job dressing windows at Barneys. My first question to the display-studio manager upon arrival? “Where are the junkyards?”

Over the next 20 years, I continue to use all manner of found objects, particularly signage. Signage, signage, signage. Whether on the store interior or in the windows, signage is hugely integral to display. If inspiration fails me on any given week, I find I can always render the name of the featured designer in an unorthodox way: Armani in pasta or Alaia in French baguettes, or Dries Van Noten in rusty, mismatched found signage. Nail it to a plain white wall, shove a few mannequins in front of it et voilà!

1997: I wander into the now-notorious Sensation show at the Royal Academy in London and am taken aback by what art has become: The sight gags, found-object installations and assemblages before me scream “WINDOW DISPLAY.” Artists would appear to have put down their brushes and picked up staple guns and glue guns. The Basquiats, Schnabels and Scharfs of the 1980’s have been replaced by the Damien Hirsts and Chapman Brothers of the 90’s. (The latter duo actually use window mannequins in their work.) Art is obviously having a love affair with display. Will the affair end in tears? Keep reading.

An art-world friend informs me that detractors have dubbed this strange new development “the post-skill” movement. I find this very amusing and strangely accurate. Virtually every artist in the Sensation show is working in a medium that I have blithely and unthinkingly used at some point or another.

“Does this mean that what I have been doing for all these years with such relentless velocity and frequency is art?” I asked myself as I admired a strange sculpture made out of pantyhose, which recalled a window I did many years before when I found a huge cache of dead-stock knee-highs. A haunting thought occurred to me: Maybe one day one of these artist/window dressers will actually accuse me of copying him.

Enter Jack Pierson.

Suddenly last summer, I get a call from Mr. Pierson. I have a glancing familiarity with Jack’s boy photographs, but couldn’t pick one out of a line-up. (I should point out at this point that, though my knowledge of fashion is encyclopedic, I am sketchy when it comes to contemporary art. Years of being a window dresser have made me a populist. I like my art to be clear, communicative and to have people in it. I own a Cindy Sherman, but only because she reminds me of my lobotomized grandmother. With the exception of one photography show (Inez and Vinoodh Matadin at the Matthew Marks Gallery), I have never been to a Chelsea opening and have never attended Art Basel. My favorite living artist is LeRoy Neiman: I would love to own one of his sketches of pimps and hookers.)

Jack politely asks me to “take down those displays in your Co-op stores.” Further questioning reveals that he is referring to the words “COURAGEOUS,” “OUTRAGEOUS” and “CONTAGIOUS,” rendered in found lettering, which appear in all the Barneys Co-op stores. He claims that these installations constitute copies of his work.

I explain to Jack that the lettering has been culled from a vast collection of junk signage that has accumulated in the Barneys display studio. Some letters pre-date even me. Some were purchased at the flea market and on eBay. The words themselves are a brand statement about the Co-op, and the inspiration to display them in mismatched found lettering (as opposed to vinyl or paint) came not from Jack’s oeuvre, but from the mismatched lettering in the Co-op packaging and tissue paper, designed by Work-in-Progress, a design studio on Crosby Street.

I then tell him—and this is the part that went over like a lead-filled colostomy bag—that I am not familiar with his signage pieces.

This last bit of information was met with complete disbelief by Mr. Pierson. He cannot countenance the fact that neither I nor my colleague who installed the display have any knowledge of his signage sculptures. I try to appease him by telling him that I am constantly meeting people who live in New York and have never heard of Barneys and—worse still—people who have zero awareness of me, my work, my three books, my Observer column or my endless America’s Next Top Model appearances. I tell him that people are very busy and distracted and not to take it personally, and to remember that art—his milieu—is now competing with an enormous amount of other cultural clutter, not the least of which are celebrity and SHOPPING.

None of this seems to go over very well at all. It is clearly not what Jack wants to hear. I surmise that what he actually wants me to say is more along the lines of the following: “Yes, Jack, we will support your desire to maintain a worldwide monopoly on the use of found lettering. Quickly, come to our studio and take all these letters away before we use them to spell out ‘MOTHER’S DAY’ (yet again!). Even though I have been using this stuff for decades—as have millions of other people—I will cede to you because you are an Artist, and Artists are more important than mere window dressers.” For reasons too obvious to state, I did not say this.

Jack then sends me a package of images of his found-signage sculptures. They are attractive and chic; if I were a wealthy art patron, I would definitely buy one and hang it over my escritoire. “Great minds think alike,” I muse with a certain satisfaction.

I call him up to thank him for the postcards. I concede that now, having seen these images, I can clearly see how, when he walks into the Barneys Co-op and looks at our hastily assembled words, he sees his oeuvre. I suggest to him that his challenge now lies in accepting the idea that, conversely, when I look at his postcards, all I can see is the Barneys Co-op. This doesn’t go over well either.

The Barneys legal department sends Mr. Pierson a letter clarifying our position and confirming that we would not be removing the pieces and were under no legal obligation to do so. No more is heard. I travel to Florida at Christmas and encounter one of Jack’s pieces installed in the entryway of a friend’s West Palm Beach bungalow. The word reads “CLOSER.” I make a mental note to ask Jack what this means.

Fast-forward to this year, March 25: I’m checking my e-mails on a bracing spring Saturday afternoon. Up pops an invite to Jack’s upcoming show at the Cheim & Read gallery in Chelsea, sent by John Cheim himself. The new show would appear to consist of found images of Jackie O. The unexpected invitation is accompanied, as is so much of today’s art, by a long explanation of what it all means. This missive is immediately followed by the most hostile e-mail I have ever received. It comes from Mr. Cheim himself and should really have been written in mismatched type—à la poison pen, à la ransom note, à la … Jack Pierson.

Denouncing both my employer and me, this e-mail is cc’d to an extensive list of fancy-pants New Yorkers, everyone from Philippe de Montebello to “Ingrid Sichy” ( sic).

Mr. Cheim follows this with a communication sent to the press and subsequently picked up by the Daily News, New York magazine and Time Out. Indignation sputters. Suddenly I am persona non grata in the art world, a shadowy Dr. Strangelove figure whose lack of shame, imagination and talent is being chewed over by the most glamorous people in Manhattan. E-mails and phone calls castigate me for “plagiarizing and insulting a living artist.” A few brave souls leap to my defense, one suggesting that Jack Pierson’s desire for a monopoly was the equivalent of Marcel Duchamp trying to sue a urinal company.

Underlying the whole debacle is the horribly flawed idea that artists are somehow at the apex of our society. According to this ridiculous thinking, artists are somehow innately superior to us window dressers, or to coffee-shop waitresses and strip-club fluffers. Being an artist is not just a job or vocation, but something holy and infinitely worthy. In this topsy-turvy retarded world, the option to place a monopoly on a found object would automatically fall to an artist over a window dresser. Should that window dresser bump into an artist prowling the same wrecking yard, he should quietly step aside so that the artist can have first pick. For reasons too obvious to state, this idea does not go over well with me.

The personal insults directed at me by John Cheim are jarring and unworthy of either himself or the artist he represents, but they will eventually be forgiven and forgotten. What I will never forgive is the implication that Barneys is or has ever been unsupportive to the art community. Barneys has always supported artists—from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the smelly to the fragrant—financially, consistently, unimpeachably, and does so to this very day. To imply anything to the contrary is outrageous, possibly contagious and definitely not courageous.

As this storm in a junkyard dissipates and farts off into the ether, it is hard to see a downside for Mr. Pierson. He and his gallery are raking in an extraordinary amount of money for these nifty sculptures. I applaud this. As a capitalist, I say ka-ching! Good luck to you, Jack! Since those found letters sell on eBay and at the flea market for an average of $12, your profit margins are better than anything we are able to achieve at Barneys.

If you are wealthy, support the arts and buy one of Jack’s hip assemblages. If you are not, then make your own. Do what Rhoda did on The Mary Tyler Moore Show: buy your own initial and hang it on your wall. If you have bigger walls, why not spell out a longer phrase, à la Jeopardy? How about “EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES”?

PS: Dear Jack and John, if all you wanted was a bit of publicity for Jack’s show, you had only to ask. Here goes: The new Jack Pierson show will run through May 6 at Cheim & Read, 547 West 25th Street, and is entitled Melancholia Passing into Madness. You would be insane to miss it.