View exhibition and available works on our Artsy page
Opening Reception - Saturday June 24 from 5-8pm
ROBERT BERMAN GALLERY is pleased to present VERY APPROPRIATE, a group exhibition of artists who use Appropriation of established art and imagery as a base for their interpretations and manipulations. This exhibition features the far and wide, repeated, mundane, everyday images from popular culture that are now tightly woven into our Modern Art History.
Appropriation in art and art history refers to the practice of artists using pre-existing objects or images in their art with little transformation of the original. The most historic known examples of appropriation vary from Warhol's infamous soup cans to a urinal found object by Marcel Duchamp to the illustrative Standard Stations by Ed Ruscha - all works have been exhibited, filmed, and countlessly written about in the world of art and Appropriation. These historical works are re-visited here, in Very Appropriate, by countless artists from the contemporary realm of Appropriation. The exhibition is boundless in media, featuring works in ceramics, photography, paint and found objects (coat hangers, basketballs, urinals and the like).
Featuring works by:
Mike Bidlo, Vik Muniz, Elaine Sturtevant, Richard Pettibone, Richard Prince, Ronnie Cutrone, Liza Lou, Gregg Gibbs, Hugh Brown, Gary Palmer, Mary Bakal, Cameron Jamie, Keith Haring, Tom Marioni, Stephen Verona, Valentin Popov, Lutz Bacher, David Jones, John Colao,Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, John Geary, Jorg Dubin, Alexis Smith, John Waters, Nick Agid, Guy Overfelt, Ara Bevacqua, Dennis Mukai, Martabel Wasserman & others
VERY APPROPRIATE: THE SINCEREST FORM(S) OF FLATTERY
By Peter Frank
Which came first, the original or the copy? More to the point, which came first, inventing or copying? And when exactly was that point at which invention or copy emerged?
This can be asked in the context of contemporary artistic practice because, over the last fifty years or so, one of the principal bases for sophisticated inquiry has been the distinction between originality and imitation – that is, the notion of innovation and the positing of a non-, even anti-innovative stance against the, er, original notion.
At the entryway to modernism, toward the middle of the 19th century, the prevailing construct of art in western society presumed a faithfulness to observed reality. Whether or not the picture recorded the observed world, it adhered to its appearance; even work as radically dissipate as JMW Turner’s “captured” the optical conditions of the land- and seascapes that were his subjects. The introduction of photography ca. 1839 effectively (if gradually) freed the traditional fine arts from their responsibility as media of record, allowing artists not simply to engage, but to indulge, their subjective responses and sui generic concepts. Once photography (chiefly, if perhaps not solely) relieved painting, sculpture, drawing, and the printed arts of their indexical relationship to observed reality, those art forms became more and more self-reflexive. Their practitioners became more and more concerned with the plasticity of the media itself, and with the relationship of practice to medium. A painting could now be a painting before – and ultimately rather than – being a picture.
At this juncture, the connection of artistic practice to its own tradition became a far more important, and consciously addressed, factor in such practice. If it could no longer be assumed that new art would employ the visual language of the past, what would keep art connected to itself? Many things would, not least the facture of the materials, the subtleties of individual style, and the echo of the past in the present, that is, the recurrence and recontextualization of already established imagery in modernist practice. Especially in the 20th century, many of the artists most worshipful of their predecessors were those least likely to ape their formal language. Rather, artists like Picasso, Ernst, de Chirico, and Dali re-stated the masterpieces they grew up with on their own terms – analytic, hallucinatory, satiric, certainly transformative, and with more than a hint of Oedipal rage against the parent, but in the final analysis knowingly caught up in the cycle of history. Even a destroyed monument stands, Ozymandias-like, in a cultural field, its empty pedestal occupied by memory – and, per the “great artists who steal,” by replication, again on the terms of those artists.
The concept of “appropriation” in contemporary discourse is grounded in both replication and interpretation. Replication now, however, addresses issues of originality, authenticity, and the benefits (and drawbacks) of authorship. And interpretation addresses issues of intervention, refiguration, and the sanctity of ideas vis-à-vis their manifestation in the hands of their originators (and/or their replicators). The discussion over wholesale appropriation of images began in the 1960s, but not over images of art; rather, it was over images generated by and in popular culture. The burgeoning consumer society was being driven in great part by a plethora of graphic images – some as old as the century, some as new as the month – designed either to be consumed (like comic books) or to drive consumption (like billboards and magazine ads). There were antecedents in folk cultures (e.g. broadsheets, penny dreadfuls, Russian lyubok), and the commercial poster had already been turned into art at least as far back as the Belle Époque. But the 1960s saw boundaries dissolve between high art and low. Anglo-American Pop Artists and the Nouveaux Réalistes on the Continent raided the supermarkets and the funny papers and the movie theaters for their material, not simply to elevate the mundane to vaunted status but to capture the energy and brio of the postwar boom’s visual fallout. (The German version of Pop was called “Capitalist Realism.”)
Pop Art appropriated images off the street and the screen the way assemblage sculpture appropriated objects out of the junkyard: it was all one huge recycle, reflecting not simply the affluent consumerism of the western world but the very act of consumption. And the cascade of images pulled from newspapers and construction-site walls made perfect sense to visual artists as grist for their mill. It was art, too, graphically designed to command the eye and deliver the message. Since then, the street and the TV – and now the computer – have belched forth a never-ending stream of imagery that, short of copyright infringement, has been the fodder for countless Pop, post-Pop, neo-Pop, para-Pop, and meta-Pop artists wrestling with both message and medium.
This exuberant approach to negotiating the visual aspect of consumer culture gave permission to a younger, more archly critical cohort to take the next step: to challenge the notion of uniqueness even with regard to that most individual of formations, the “original” artwork. What is originality? asked artists who emerged in the ‘80s of themselves and their audience. What constitutes an irreducible, autonomous work of art as opposed to a multiple edition or a mass product? Does the “aura” Walter Benjamin attributed to the work of art still distinguish any and all works of art in the age of mechanical – and, soon, digital – reproduction? Where does the painting end and the wallpaper begin? Or, more to the point, how does the art object maintain its inviolable claim to distinction? Any number of artists of the “pictures generation” challenged the pretenses upon which their elders and even peers based their very identities. By practicing a kind of admitted forgery, an approach to replication that sought to erase, or at least minimize, measures of distinction between “original” artworks and their copies, the appropriation artists of the 1980s questioned the nature of originality. At a time when the art market was beginning its explosive expansion, demanding and commanding millions of objects whose fungibility was supposedly insured by their signatures, this challenge to the value of authorship was a gauntlet thrown down by those who valued concept.
This kind of direct, transgressive appropriation is motivated by more than just intellectual argument over art’s relative distinction. There was, and remains, something worshipful in refabricating artworks dear to one’s heart. Ironic as the process of appropriation-through-replication might be, it betrays a love, or some sort of obsession, with the object(s) being replicated. Imitation is the sincerest form not simply of flattery, but of curiosity, envy, and desire. There is nothing to add to the quarter-century-old discussion of appropriation per se, so present-day appropriationists bring focus to the specific things they appropriate. Their exactitude in replication says one thing. Their clever fillips on the originals say another. Their Warholian hyper-productivity says something else. And meanwhile, irrespective of the individual artist’s enactment of passion and possession, the urge to appropriate and replicate speaks to the cannibalization of visual culture, “high” and “low” alike, in the age of digital reproduction.
Digital reproduction means at once infinite reproduction and inexact reproduction. Indeed, it means reproduction and not replication. What you see on your computer screen is not the artwork, it is a picture of the artwork. The image of the artwork is now readily and universally available; the artwork, however, remains as remote as ever. The latter-day appropriator fabricates duplications in great part so that there might be more of the “real stuff” at hand – certainly at his/her hand – because pictures of stuff just don’t cut it. But s/he also duplicates artworks in order to play out the lonely drama of the artwork in the age of unlimited access.
It’s no accident that Marcel Duchamp’s works, particularly his Readymades, are favored by current appropriation artists: they, even more than Warhol’s silkscreens, stand as the model for endless replication, easily assembled out of readily available things themselves produced in unlimited quantities. Duchamp would perhaps have been made uncomfortable by the plethora of “contiguous Readymades,” exact copies of his anti-monuments; but he would ultimately have recognized the delightful irony in the act of “forging” artworks that were themselves chosen out in life rather than crafted in the studio. And the various curious slippages that artists now visit on the Readymades, from making them a different size to making them out of entirely different materials, would have appealed greatly to modern art’s most committed skeptic.
Skepticism is the natural byproduct of our age – or should be, besieged as we are by a continuous cascade of dubious information. Art has also entered this age of infinite reproduction, and the sanctity of art – indeed, its reason for being – can be maintained only through the ongoing critical regard of every observer. The artistic act of appropriation is a bullshit meter, an embodied Snopes in a hall of mirrors. “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” Picasso (another favorite of appropriationists) said, and the act of appropriation – where the re-made work of an artist is signed by its re-maker – gives away its own falsehood. There is no faux art, only faux artifacts. No lies could be truer.