The art of appropriation remains at the forefront, as a major new show from the Rubells testifies

Despite high-profile, ongoing legal battles, contemporary artists continue to beg, borrow and steal with abandon

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Originality. Authenticity. Provenance. These terms are routinely intoned at art fairs and blue-chip salerooms to justify the price tags of works of art. If a Rembrandt is proven to be by the master’s hand, it can sell for millions; if otherwise, it’s a novelty. But it’s no secret that over recent decades notions of authorship have been systematically undermined—even rendered irrelevant—by artists themselves, who have been promiscuously adopting works of others as their own, sometimes with little or no alteration. This tactic of appropriation, which in many ways has become a lingua franca of contemporary artists, is the slippery, problematic subject of this season’s Rubell Family Collection show, “Beg Borrow and Steal” (until 29 May 2010).

Consisting of 260 works in the collection by 74 artists of different generations, the exhibition grew out of conversations Don and Mera Rubell had during studio visits with Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker in 2005. Hearing about the two artists’ influences—a range of figures from Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol and Cady Noland, who used found images and objects in their work—the Rubells realised that “almost everything in the collection touches on appropriation in one way or another”, says the collection’s director Juan Roselione-Valadez. “We think that, after modernism, it’s one of the most pressing discourses around.”

It has also been one of the most controversial, generating a stream of lawsuits and ill will from artists, photographers and companies who object to the use of their images without permission. The most high-profile case at the moment is Shepard Fairey’s battle with Associated Press (AP) over the artist’s “Hope” poster, which lifted a picture an AP photographer took of President Barack Obama. Richard Prince is also being sued by French photographer Patrick Cariou over images of Rastafarians that Prince used in a recent series of paintings, and both he and Jeff Koons have been repeatedly taken to court for using commercial imagery in their work. While these suits are occasionally settled, the defendants have in most cases successfully appealed to the United States’ doctrine of “fair use”, which protects the limited reproduction of copyright imagery for creative ends so long as it’s deemed “transformative”.

Artists, of course, have long been using others’ work in their art, from Picasso’s collages of newspapers and assorted ephemera to Duchamp’s readymades, but the term “appropriation art” only entered the critical lexicon in the 1970s as a response to a generation of artists—including Prince, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo—who combined pop art’s use of commercial imagery with the cool remove of conceptual art to create a new critique of authorship, identity and the politics of the self. Called the “Pictures” generation after a 1977 show that Douglas Crimp curated at Artists Space in New York, these artists—many of them women—were concerned with the way the profusion of images in advertising, media and art worked to affirm the dominant ideologies of the day. By rephotographing Walker Evans’s celebrated portraits, for instance, Levine showed that the simple gesture could radically change a picture’s meaning and confuse issues of origin and gender. By juxtaposing photojournalism from Vietnam with House Beautiful magazine clippings, Martha Rosler set the two contexts explosively at odds. All of the artists, who as a loose group were surveyed in last summer’s “The Pictures Generation” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (21 April-2 August 2009), demonstrated that images were malleable, and that merely reframing them could be a powerful act of ideological sedition.

Since the 1970s, appropriation has spread widely as an artistic technique. The Rubell exhibition features a remarkably diverse array of approaches to the practice: collages of found images by Peter Coffin; a film by Jonathan Horowitz splicing together footage from Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” (2006) and interviews with the director about his fringe beliefs; sculptures by Rachel Harrison involving store-bought goods and celebrity photographs; print-outs of Google searches by Steven Shearer; and a film by Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley combining footage of Vito Acconci’s performances with porn videos. Sherman, Prince, Koons and other pioneers are represented in depth. Some artists included use appropriation in more oblique ways, such as Aaron Curry, who overlays sculptures crafted in modernist styles borrowed from Picasso and Noguchi with silkscreens appropriated from his own paintings. Others, such as Maurizio Cattelan, seem to be in the show mainly because they’re Rubell favourites.

Crimp, now a professor at the University of Rochester, says a general preoccupation with the 1970s among younger artists—and academics—has led to a surge of interest in what the “Pictures” generation was doing. “Artists who are beginning to have important careers in the art world are also looking back at appropriation, and looking to rework some of its processes,” he says. “They’re doing it with a kind of self-awareness of this earlier moment, paying homage while making something new about it using digital techniques that weren’t available at that moment. And the internet makes so much material universally available that people are swimming in a different kind of media culture.”

One artist in the show, Los Angeles-based Karl Haendel, has won critical notice for his large-scale graphite renderings of found images, many of which—from baseball cards to the cover of Pravda on the day he was born—have pronounced personal inflections. According to Haendel, the way he uses appropriation is far removed from the original critical context of the “Pictures” artists, in that it has simply become an accepted tool. “I don’t know if the term appropriation is actually still relevant,” he says. “I think that it is something that was being done since the beginning of time. In the Renaissance the depiction of a Biblical scene over and over by different artists allowed them to be part of visual culture, and I think that appropriation allows artists to be part of a visual culture today that is both personal but is also public.”

Israeli-born conceptual artist Elad Lassry, another emerging talent in the show, also finds that appropriation has become divorced from 1970s issues of authorship. He presents anonymous-seeming photographs—mostly original, some found—in vibrantly coloured frames that suggest sculptural, almost totemic objects. When he decides he wants to use an image in his work, he begins by searching through magazines and archive material for what he has in mind; if he can’t find it, he takes the photograph himself. “I never make the picture from a place where I’m interested in putting a new image out in the world,” he says. “In my work I assume that the viewer is very familiar with appropriation. I feel now that the act of appropriation is secondary to the content, so if something is borrowed or stolen or sampled it’s all means with which to connect and it doesn’t make a work good or bad, it’s just one step in making an artwork.” He adds that “as much as I acknowledge that appropriation is relevant to my practice, I never speak of my work in these terms”.

The title of the Rubell show was inspired by the quote “good artists borrow, great artists steal”, a line that, appropriately enough, has been attributed to both Picasso and T.S. Eliot. But when it comes to the idea of appropriation, theft no longer enters the picture for most artists. At a time when online file-sharing, content-aggregating blogs and the profusion of jpegs on Google have made media of all kinds essentially free, the idea of freely taking content from our media-saturated surroundings seems as natural as breathing. That music companies, publications and film studios have found themselves fighting for survival as a result is seen as more of an epochal shift in the way content is valued and perceived.

Haendel adds that he isn’t worried about lifting images for a simple reason: he doesn’t make enough money to be a target. “Copyright law in the US is very much about big business,” he says. “Clearly Richard Prince makes millions and he has lawyers who could tell him ‘don’t do this’, but I’m pretty sure he invites this kind of publicity. Jeff Koons is interested in fame—he wants to be on the top of the New York Times art section.” On rare occasions it works the other way, however. Last year Damien Hirst (who has a medicine cabinet piece in the Rubell show) made headlines when he entered a dispute with a teenage London artist, Cartrain, who had made work incorporating images of Hirst’s £50m For the Love of God skull, 2007. Hirst eventually forced him to surrender the works; when Cartrain retaliated by stealing a pack of pencils from a Hirst installation at Tate Britain, Hirst had him arrested.

According to Crimp, artists’ laissez-faire treatment of “the original” is one of the signal legacies of the “Pictures” generation. “Part of the significance of their work is to show us that we live in a world of representation, that authorship is a kind of fiction,” he says. One of the pitfalls of this legacy, however, is that appropriation can also be used to imply a kind of intellectual sophistication that is absent from the work itself. “I think that it can be used as a guise or a defence,” says Haendel. “I do see a kind of phoniness in it sometimes.” But at the same time it “democratises the possibilities of art”, according to Los Angeles dealer David Kordansky, who has six artists in the show, including Lassry. “What’s so fascinating to me about this current moment is that something can seemingly look like a Matisse painting but in actuality its coming from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. A Pantene advertisement can be almost sublime in a sense.”

Roselione-Valadez says the goal of the Rubell exhibition is to present the works and allow people to draw their own conclusions about appropriation. “The question is how many degrees of separation from the original makes it a new object, and the answer is not a lot I think,” he says.

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