You probably saw Jean-Paul Goude’s instantly iconic image of Rihanna, shot for the December 2017 cover of Vogue Paris. Wearing a black leather beret and wide net veil, her neck is all chopped up and elongated in the style originally made famous by the French photographer’s portraits of (his onetime lover) Grace Jones. And while that photograph is certainly eye-catching, it turns out we should have all been paying close attention to one of the magazine's alternate covers — the one featuring collaged animal print images created by Juergen Teller.
Nine months after the images were first published, Twitter users noticed a striking resemblance between Teller's images and the work of Mickalene Thomas, a New York-based queer Black female artist. After @STEVEJXSEPH posted four images from Teller’s shoot, a number of other users responded, highlighting the similarities: @goldenpolaroid quoted the Tweet, commenting: "I just [realized] that this shoot looks a lot like Mickalene Thomas' work." Starting a thread, they first posted images of Thomas' art, saying "she really should have shot this [Rihanna editorial]," followed by images of Teller's work, commenting that the cover shoot "doesn't even really look like [his] usual work either."
Another user, @sirsargent, quoted the Vogue Paris images, writing: "This is a bad copy of Mickalene Thomas’[s] art." They added: "What’s perhaps most insane about this is that Juergen Teller and Mickalene have the same New York gallerist," suggesting that "there’s no way he can say he doesn’t know the work. Like, they are literally next to each other on the gallery’s website."
On Tuesday, the gallery, Lehmann Maupin, issued a statement regarding the Vogue Paris cover, saying that it had been "rightly compared to Mickalene Thomas’ work" and explaining the impact and importance of her art: "Throughout her career, Mickalene has developed an internationally [recognized] visual language that is deeply rooted in photography but encompasses collage, painting, video, and immersive installation." They added: "Mickalene has earned the right to be [recognized] and commended for her ground-breaking contributions to contemporary art and visual culture, and for a signature aesthetic that she has been cultivating for a decade. As Mickalene’s long-time gallery and advocate, we vigorously stand by her in defending the originality of her work."
Contacted by The Art Newspaper, the gallery clarified that they represent Juergen Teller’s fine artwork, not his editorial photography. "As such, we were not consulted or involved in his work for Vogue Paris," they stated, adding that they "will continue to represent [him] in this capacity and are hopeful that there will be a resolution between these two artists." Thomas' defenders on Twitter have an idea about what that resolution could look like: "Juergen NEEDS to explain what’s going on," @STEVEJXSEPH said.
Despite the gallery’s statement, @sirsargent still feels that the response hasn’t been strong enough. "I know we are in an era where people feel like they can take whatever they want and call it original and theirs, but we should remember that artists like Mickalene have taken great pain to create an aesthetic that is informed by concern, study, history and a love of black women," they wrote. "It was once a very unpopular position to take and she took it anyway. We should honor and protect the space she created for herself and black women. So for the gallery to release that lukewarm defense and some [publications] to turn...[it] into some stupid debate that gives Juergen Teller the benefit of doubt — something Mickalene would never [have] been afford[ed] if the shoe was on the other foot — is bullshit."
When ARTnews contacted Teller’s agent following the publication of the gallery’s statement, they responded by saying: "I am not aware of this and unable to comment at the moment as Juergen is away shooting." The art website also notes that Thomas' studio "declined to comment further" and directed them to the gallery’s statement.
While this story develops, we’ll be taking the time to check out more of Mickalene Thomas’s work. A fan of Polaroid cameras, she recently used the format to photograph a week in her life for T: The New York Times Style Magazine. Earlier this year, she shared an editorial fashion shoot — starring her partner and muse Racquel Chevremont as the model — featuring Gucci, Chanel, Fendi, Proenza Schouler, and Junya Watanabe for Garage magazine. In September, a major solo exhibition of Thomas’ work will open at the Wexner Center in Ohio. Titled I Can’t See You Without Me, the center’s site says the show "will fill every gallery in the multidisciplinary art space with nearly 30 paintings, videos, and immersive installations," and will include site-specific murals and the debut of a new multichannel video work.