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How a Science Fiction Book Cover Became a $5.7 Million Painting

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What's the difference between these two images? On the left is a book cover by legendary artist Chris Foss for Asimov's Stars Like Dust. On the right is a painting by artist Glenn Brown, which just sold at auction for roughly $5.7 million, way more than it sold for in 2002.

How did this happen? Brown basically reimagined Foss' work — although it looks as though all he did was repaint it, and fool around with the colors slightly.


Update: I added tons more context here, and you should definitely read that second article if you want to understand what's going on.


Brown was actually sued several years ago by artist Anthony Roberts, after Brown copied Roberts' cover for Robert A. Heinlein's Double Star for his painting The Loves of Shepherds 2000. At the time, Foss reportedly expressed interest in joining the suit. To be fair, Brown's pastiche of the Double Star cover was somewhat less blatant than the above copy of Stars Like Dust seems to be.

In any case, I can't find any information about how the lawsuit turned out, but Brown did add the credit "After Anthony Roberts" to his painting's title, and has been careful to credit Foss in the extended title of the above painting.


In addition to Foss and Roberts, as Scott Edelman points out, Brown has also copied the work of science fiction illustrator John Martin, and has gotten a ton of cachet for it. As a program for an exhibition at the Tate Liverpool explains:

The vast science fiction paintings in this room envelop the viewer with such scale and detail that their potential reality becomes almost plausible. The Loves of Shepherds (after 'Doublestar' by Tony Roberts) and Böcklin's Tomb (copied from 'Floating Cities' 1981 by Chris Foss) are unusual for Brown in that they are based upon paintings made specifically to be reproduced and reduced in scale – their originals versions were commissioned to illustrate the covers of popular science fiction novels. By enlarging them so dramatically, Brown merges the conventions of science fiction illustration with the spectacle of large-scale history or landscape painting by artists such as Jacques-Louis David and J.M.W. Turner. Brown establishes a natural connection between different disciplines, genres and subjects, allowing them to slide with ease from one existence and interpretation into another.


So it's not just that he's copying them and adding a bit more color — he's also enlarging them, and changing their context, creating a "natural connection" with different disciplines.

Here's Foss' "Floating Cities" and Brown's "Bocklin's Tomb":


Similarly, in an interview, Brown defends his practice of exhibiting and selling slightly tweaked versions of book covers:

The Foss paintings never look like my versions of them. Mine are always played around with. The colors are altered, the cities were redrawn and I was always inventing things to increase their intensity right from the start. ... I never want to lose that notion of appropriation—people say to me, sooner or later you'll stop copying other artists and you'll make work of your own, but it's never been my point to try to do that, because I never thought you ever could. The work is always going to be based on something, and I wanted to make the relationship with art history as obvious as possible.


In a blog post, Scott Edelman calls B.S. on this whole business: "I have nothing against artists of all kinds referencing other works when that work ends up being transformative. But Glenn Brown's work is not transformative."

Check out a video from Sotheby's, praising Brown's "Monumental Sci-Fi Fantasy Work":

Some choice quotes:

In this work, Glenn Brown tackles some of the fundamental questions of existence: Why are we here? Are we alone? What happens after we die? This painting challenges the viewer to imagine a space which is totally foreign, unknown.


I'll give the last word to another gallery curator, describing Brown's paintings to the Guardian:

There is this wonderful thing Glenn does and I don't think any other painter does [it] – he questions the existence of painting itself.


It's really true. I've been staring at the righthand painting up top for half an hour, and I still can't quite believe it exists. [Scott Edelman, h/t Aaron Stewart-Ahn]