Part of Arakawa & Gins’s The Mechanism of Meaning, 1963–73.

COURTESY COLLEGE OF THE HOLY CROSS

The artwork The Mechanism of Meaning, an 80-panel painting series that the late artists Arakawa and Madeline Gins began in 1963, is the subject of a lawsuit filed today in federal court in Manhattan.

The Architectural Body Research Foundation (ABRF), founded by Arakawa and Gins in the late 1980s, is alleging that another foundation formed more than 20 years later by the two artists, the Reversible Destiny Foundation (RDF), along with the Gins estate, is falsely claiming ownership of the piece and now is seeking to sell it through Gagosian Gallery. ABRF is suing the Reversible Destiny Foundation and the estate. Art lawyer Ronald Spencer and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s director, Michael Govan, are both named as defendants, in their capacity as directors of RDF, as well as Madeline Gins’s brother Stephen Gins, as executor of her estate. (Govan and Spencer are also executors of her estate.)

The defendants and counsel for the estate did not return requests for comment before press time.

Arakawa passed away in 2010, and Gins in 2014. When the two artists founded ABRF (as Containers of Mind Foundation, Inc.) in 1987, the suit alleges, they made to it a gift of “all works and background materials related to The Mechanism of Meaning, including all intellectual property rights.”

A twist in the suit involves fallout from Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheming. In 2008, the suit says, ABRF learned that its accounts with Bernie Madoff, which it thought were valued at $20 million, were essentially worthless. (A story about the artists losing “their life savings” appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2009.)

Arakawa and Gins subsequently formed a new organization, RDF, in 2010, to explore the concept of “reversible destiny”—the idea that architecture and design can prevent death. ABRF, however, continued to exist and, the suit alleges, “never transferred any property to RDF, much less its core holding, The Mechanism of Meaning.”

Because ABRF withdrew funds from its Madoff–managed accounts, the trustee for the disgraced banker’s defunct company has been attempting to claw back some $3.27 million. Without the ability to sell The Mechanism of Meaning—“its sole, major asset,” ABRF says in its legal complaint—the foundation has been unable to repay the funds.

Complicating the situation is the fact there are two editions of The Mechanism of Meaning. One is in the collection of the Sezon Museum of Modern Art in Karuizawa, Japan. At issue is the other edition. According to the suit, the Sezon Museum bought its edition in 1989 for around $3 million, and both editions would now be worth considerably more. ABRF is suing for copyright infringement, declaratory judgment, conversion, and replevin.

The suit alleges that “the directors of RDF and the executors of the Estate of Madeline Gins have sought to loot ABRF, seizing possession and control of The Mechanism of Meaning under a false claim of ownership.” It also alleges that the RDF directors and the Gins estate’s executors are seeking to sell The Mechanism of Meaning through Gagosian, which announced this past February that it would represent Arakawa’s work, and sent out a press release that mentions The Mechanism of Meaning. (The story was first reported in ARTnews, and the article is included as part of the plaintiffs’ case.)

David Baum, the lawyer for ABRF, told ARTnews, “This is an important work of art, and we look forward to it being returned.”