The Museum of Modern Art, July 30 – November 10, 2008
In an interview with Gene Swenson, Andy Warhol articulated his intellectual stance on originality and mechanization, saying: “I think somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me…I think it would be so great if more people took up silk screens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s.”
Swenson: “It would turn art history upside down?”
Swenson: “Is that your aim?”
Warhol: “No. The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.” (“What is Pop Art?” Art News, November 1963, p.26).
Andy Warhol’s art questioned the allure of the original by appropriating pre-existing imagery as well as the commercial means of printing, which departed from the individual mark of the hand. If Warhol’s inclusion in the canon of art history as an appropriator is perhaps too obvious, it’s still worth noting that Museum of Modern Art’s recent show of drawings and prints from their permanent collection, Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Rum: The Art of Appropriation has chosen to omit him. This may indicate a reckoning that his works have become such a staple for museum-goers that his reflections of our collective vanities have taken on a comforting familiarity.
The show does make clear, however, that appropriation is not limited to copying in a single sense; that conceptual and technical approaches incorporating non-art sources have proliferated over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. The concern of the show’s curator, Connie Butler, then, is epistemological, in that she employs neither the rubric of art history, with its movements and periods, nor the progression of works from room to room to make sense of the degree to which appropriation has taken hold of the modern creative mind.
In the first room we find Sherrie Levine beside Marine Hugonnier’s newspaper collages, among others, and in the next, the progenitors of these post-modern appropriators: Picasso, and his fellow Cubists, Juan Gris and Braque, as well as Kandinsky, with his schemas of artistic movements, and Marcel Duchamp’s prank version of the Mona Lisa, “L.H.O.O.Q Shaved” (1965). Finally, in the last room, there is a wide range of artists from the ’60s and ’70s, but not in any conceptual or stylistic grouping. It includes the delicate prints of Rauschenberg, the deep black hues of Jasper Johns’ etchings of flags and an ink drawing of paintbrushes in a coffee can, the graphic imperatives of Barbara Kruger’s collages, Lichtenstien’s comic-inspired benday dot prints, and several others.
The show suffers from its conceptual generalities. To call Picasso, whose collage supplies the show’s title, the father of appropriation is the kind of facile labeling we find in a textbook: the show reads like an illuminated manuscript of the accepted valuations and groupings of art history. Picasso’s Cubist works are indeed seminal, for, in his maquettes, collages and paintings, the use of newspaper as a stand-in for itself is one of the first instances in which form and content are literally married—an original stroke that assimilated the pulse of modern life. This impulse propelled the collage techniques pioneered by Kurt Schwitters, Gris, and Braque, and it informs the appropriated comics manipulated by Lichtenstein and others. Individual artists, rather than art historical movements, redefine the practices of appropriation.
Sherry Levine’s prints, hung on the adjoining wall in a grid format, demonstrate the proclivities of the contemporary reappropriator. By creating print editions nearly identical to the work of Egon Schiele and Vasily Kandinsky, she plays an endgame with the questions of reproduction and originality. In other words, what is visually derivative is to be taken as a theoretical breakthrough. She comments on her own act of re-creation through her vicarious use of Max Fleischer’s KoKo the Clown, who (as the caption reads for those who miss the reference) escapes from his animator and draws himself. Never mind Levine’s cool assertion that no original image need be made, as the concept of the death of the author would have us believe. The contemporary appropriator turns the disruptive and radical energies of early modernism into a burdensome self-awareness, played off as abjection. While we can confront this attitude coolly ourselves, it is folly to compare it with the early radical agitators, here most notably Duchamp and Picasso.
Meanwhile, if we are to understand appropriation as a willful assumption of the outside world into that of the image, what art, to some degree, has not appropriated an exterior source? Even the artists of the Renaissance copied Greek and Roman busts to achieve their own original styles. Wouldn’t the whole of MoMA be considered a House of Appropriation?
The puzzle presented by the show, then, is how do we reinvigorate our viewing of radical works that have been incorporated by the very institutions which, in their time, they sought to subvert. When Duchamp submitted his urinal to the World Art Fair as an original work of art, he was deliberately snubbing the institution at the same time he was allowing for the serious possibility of a new art. Decades later, the ready-made is a museum commodity. If today’s museums cannot imagine new, thoughtful presentations that foster a variety of ways to consider art, that alone bespeaks the continual need for an avant-garde.
Duchamp’s treatment of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa as a playing card in “L.H.O.O.Q. Shaved” mocked the public sentimentality smothering the masterpiece-cum-souvenir, while simultaneously referencing his earlier parody of the Mona Lisa on whom he painted a moustache and goatee, in “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919). It is noted in the museum’s wall label that the sound of these letters approximate the French slang for “she’s got a hot ass.” In “L.H.O.O.Q. Shaved” the facial hair is gone, but we cannot ignore her sexual ambiguity in light of Duchamp’s own artistic precedent. The beautiful Lisa is nearly transgendered, just as Duchamp fancied himself as a female persona, Rrose Sélavy. These gender games also comment on the reproduction as a field for play for the artist in the technological age.
But because art is intrinsically mimetic, even the original painting of the Mona Lisa is described by the first art critic, Giorgio Vasari, in the language of mechanical reproduction: “…whoever wished to see how closely art could imitate nature was able to comprehend it with ease,” he said, “for in it were counterfeited all the minutenesses that with subtlety are able to be painted…” The skill by which Leonardo captured his subject was, in Vasari’s words a counterfeit of nature, reminding us of the absolute necessity of the source. As the sources that artists have drawn upon have expanded over time, it is ultimately the inventiveness and ingenuity of their use that enables the processes of art to continue ad infinitum. If only that could extend to curatorial practice.