From Collaboration to Theft: What Happens When Art and Advertising Collide


Last week, the Texas Department of Transportation ordered the removal of a new large-scale sculpture designed by contemporary artist Richard Phillips for Playboy Enterprises, on the grounds that Playboy had not solicited a permit for a public advertisement. Titled Playboy Marfa, the work sits along a stretch of US Highway 90 outside of Marfa, Texas, and is comprised of a 1972 Dodge Charger sitting on a plinth next to a giant neon rendering of the Playboy logo.

Since the sculptor Donald Judd first arrived there in the early ’70s, Marfa has been home to a small, exceedingly spirited community of artists and other creative workers. The Lannan Foundation has sponsored a writers-in-residence program, the Crowley Fountation boosts public theatrical productions and workshops, and, in addition to the work and exhibition spaces Judd left behind, the gallery scene is booming. When it was unveiled last month, many local residents thought Playboy Marfa smacked of commercialism, going against the art-for-art’s-sake values that made Marfa great.

It’s unclear what Playboy’s response will be — a PR rep asserted to the El Paso Times that the installation does not violate any laws — but a likely defense is that Phillips’s sculpture is not a work of public advertising, but a work of public art, or at least a happy marriage between the two. Playboy Marfa purports to be much more than a giant billboard, and the message from Phillips and Playboy is that their collaboration will take nothing away from Marfa’s reputation as an arts homestead.

Playboy has always presented itself as art-friendly. In the past, the company has commissioned work by Roy Lichtenstein and Helmut Newton, and their corporate collection of painting and sculpture is huge. Speaking to ARTINFO a few weeks ago, Phillips said he was using the iconography of the Playboy brand as his “palette,” as if to suggest he was applying a unique comment about the adult media company and their aesthetic legacy from within. In other words, he doesn’t think of Playboy Marfa as a piece of advertising, so much as a piece of art about advertising.

Never mind that Phillips is being paid by Playboy to improve the cultural cachet of their brand, which fits the definition of an advertisement comfortably. Like it or hate it, adverising attracts some very talented people. Whoever writes the copy for those Manhattan Mini Storage billboards deserves a friggin’ Nobel prize. Have you seen the commercials Errol Morris made for Miller and Adidas? Beyond brilliant. Drew Magary wrote a brief list for Gawker of advertising vets that included Joseph Heller and Salman Rushdie, and lest we forget, the vast majority of Ridley Scott’s working hours have been devoted to making commercials for TV. In addition to this, the advertising world has co-opted a great many artists who are mainly known for their non-commercial work — both with and without their permission.

Salvador Dalí

[Image via Phaidon]

Founded by Enric Bernat in 1958, Chupa Chups is credited as the first candy company to sell sweets on a stick, and was among the first companies to broach the idea of marketing candy to children (instead of keeping them on tall shelves, Bernat sought to have the lollipops placed by the cash register). Bernat also sought the services of Salvador Dalí, who created the candy’s logo, still in use, and insisted that it be placed from the top of the candy, rather than the side, for maximum visibility.


Wassily Kandinsky, Label for Château Mouton-Rothschild, 1971.

[Image via Artist Labels]

Château Mouton-Rothschild, a wine estate located in Médoc region of Bordeaux, has sought out celebrated painters to design their bottle labels since 1924, beginning with the Cubist poster designer Jean Carlu. Since then, other participating artists have included Henry Moore, Joan Miró, Francis Bacon, and Anish Kapoor.

Gilbert and George

[Image via Dan Alexander]

In 1987, the collaborative duo Gilbert and George provided the first designs for an art label series for Beck’s Brewery. Started for bottles sold in the UK, the artist label campaign eventually extended to every country where Beck’s was sold, and has included work by Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, and Yoko Ono.

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst hasn’t always been sanguine about the use and re-use of his images in corporate advertising. In 1999 he filed a suit against British Airways for appropriating a motif from his “signature” dot paintings, but at other times, he has lent his skills to the industry quite willingly, allowing his work to be taken up by the Peperami sausage company and used in a 60-second promo for TNT’s 100 Percent Weird movie slot in 1994.

William Klein

Hirst was not the first artist to take issue with an ad company using his signature style. Photographer William Klein was said to have been seething when he saw images in a fashion magazine with his trademark technique of painting bright strokes of color on enlarged contact sheets. In 2007, a court in France ordered fashion designer John Galliano to pay $250,000 in damages to the American photographer for plagiarism.

Container Corporation of America

Fernand Léger, Container Corporation America Pulp Paperboard Packaging Ad, 1941, 10.25 x 13.25 in.

[Image via Amazon]

Between 1950 and 1975, the Chicago-based Container Corporation of America commissioned fine artists including Willem de Kooning, René Magritte, and Fernand Léger (above) to create paintings for its magazine ads. Like Playboy, CCA is known for its substantial corporate art collection, which was donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1985.


Image via Wikipaintings

Numerous fine artists have been recruited to create full-page magazine spreads for Absolut Vodka. In 1991, the company auctioned off limited edition lithographs of ads made by artists from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the proceeds of which went to the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. Other well-known artist contributors include Keith Haring, Lisa Yuskavage, and Andy Warhol (who, of course, started his career as a commercial artist).

Cindy Sherman

[Image via Guardian ]

In 2011, Cindy Sherman offered her conceptual photography skills to an ad campaign for the MAC cosmetics company. The outcome was typical of her fine-art style in that it included self-portraits in which the artist’s use of makeup was so varied (and often so heavy) as to render her unrecognizable.

Christian Marclay

Yet another working artist with a legitimate claim of plagiarism is Christian Marclay, who created the proto-supercut Telephones, using footage from classic movies, in 1995. In 2008, Marclay declined a request by representatives from Apple to re-appropriate the style of his video work for a commercial for the new iPhone. He spotted a commercial that bore a striking resemblance to Telephone later that year:

“They approached us [about using Telephones] and I said no, and then they just went ahead,” he told Radar. “The way they dealt with the whole thing is pretty sleazy.” After consulting his lawyer, Marclay was disappointed to learn that he had no legal recourse, concluding, “They have the right to get inspired.”