Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Calls $65 Million Lawsuit a ‘Frivolous Claim’

Bobby Miller is not happy.

This photo of Robert Mapplethorpe in drag was submitted as exhibit B in photographer Bobby Millers complaint against the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. <br>Photo: United States District Court, Southern District of New York.

This photo of Robert Mapplethorpe in drag was submitted as exhibit B in photographer Bobby Miller’s complaint against the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Photo: United States District Court, Southern District of New York.

In midst of what’s become a very big moment for the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who is the subject of a new HBO documentary and a joint retrospectives at Los Angeles’s Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is a considerable lawsuit.

Photographer, writer, and self-proclaimed performance poet Bobby Miller has filed a $65 million claim against the artist’s foundation and a number of galleries and museums who stand accused of previously showing the work, reports the New York Post. Miller claims that while spending time with Mapplethorpe in the late seventies, he snapped a number of photos of the artist dressed in drag that have since been reproduced .

“Our position is that it is a frivolous claim,” Michael Ward Stout, president of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation’s board of directors, told artnet News in a phone conversation. “In the history of photography there are many artists who created self portraits and by the physical nature of the setting, they very often wouldn’t be able to click their own shutter,” Stout allowed, insisting “they’re clearly Mapplethorpe works.”

The complaint notes that Miller, “who was also a proficient makeup artist,” convinced Mapplethorpe to go along with the idea and was responsible for the makeup and lighting for the photo shoot, as well as for operating the camera. That might have been the end of it, had Mapplethorpe reportedly not offered to have his assistant develop the images for Miller.

The lawsuit claims that Mapplethorpe never gave the images back, and when he died in 1989 they were evidently handed over to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. The organization now stands accused of having reproduced and publicly displayed the photographs over the last three years. Miller’s complaint alleges that the Mapplethorpe Foundation, “has misrepresented and continues to misrepresent the Miller Images to be the work of Robert Mapplethorpe as ‘self-portraits.’”

Stout tells a different story, insisting that the photos were printed in Mapplethorpe’s studio, and that the artist personally selected three of them images to release as limited edition prints in 1980. “They’ve been published in practically every book we’ve ever published, and now comes Bobby Miller… what can I say?” Stout asked, adding that “we have all of our archives and records,” to back up their case.

The complaint accuses the foundation of having infringed on Miller’s “exclusive rights” to the images. Also named in the suit are Sean Kelly Gallery, Skarstedt Gallery, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Miller contends that all four New York-based institutions are guilty of exhibition his photographs of Mapplethorpe without securing his permission.

In his suit, Miller is seeking $45 million from the Mapplethorpe Foundation alone, and another $20 million from institutions that have displayed his work. He is also looking to secure the exclusive rights to the images.

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