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Appropriation and the Art of the Copy (May 2015): Copying as Homage Post-1960

By Elizabeth Mix

Copying as Homage Post-1960

Academic training of artists continues to include the practice of copying of masterworks, as does the related practice of copying as a form of homage.  Two notable exhibitions captured this practice post-1960.  Jean Lipman and Richard Marshall's Art about Art toured the United States in 1978-79.  An introductory essay by well-known art dealer Leo Steinberg gave several historical instances of works that are inspired by or that borrow compositions including Michelangelo's borrowing from Hellenistic period sculptures and Rembrandt's paintings inspired by late-Renaissance woodcuts.  The exhibition was thematically divided into sections (work depicting art in galleries and works featuring palettes, brushes, stretchers), works inspired by old masters (e.g., Da Vinci, Velasquez, and Rembrandt), work inspired by modern masters (e.g., Manet, Monet, van Gogh, Cézanne, Piet Mondrian, and Picasso), and smaller sections treating works inspired by colonial period American art and recent American art, including Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning.  Featured artists included Saul Steinberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Mel Ramos, Tom Wesselman, Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Audrey Flack, Robert Colescott, Masami Teraoka, George Segal, and John Baldessari.

Encounters: New Art from Old, by Richard Morphet, was a millennium exhibition project for the National Gallery of London.  Twenty-four contemporary artists were invited to make new work in response to master works in the collection.  A short introduction explains the history of copying in both modern and postmodern contexts.  The National Gallery collection was an appropriate location for this project because of its breadth.  The contemporary artists responded to masterpieces by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt, Turner, Monet, J.-A.-D Ingres, Seurat, Titian, Duccio, Nicolas Poussin, and John Constable.  The bulk of the catalogue consists of essays about the engagement of individual artists with works from the collection.  Richard Morphet pens an essay that weaves together the new work and the source of inspiration from the collection, integrating the creative and thinking processes of the contemporary artist as appropriate.  Among the many artists who participated were Louise Bourgeois, Anthony Caro, Francesco Clemente, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, Claes Oldenburg, Paula Rego, Bill Viola, and Jeff Wall.

The field of graphic design, like most visual expression, has depended quite heavily on appropriation since the 1980s.  Two books, written from the competing perspectives of education versus design criticism, give insight into appropriation in this field.  Steven Heller, in Borrowed Design: Use and Abuse of Historical Form, is most interested in helping young designers distinguish between inspiration and plagiarism.  He positions the history of "borrowing" at the very beginning of graphic design, in the history of typography, by demonstrating how Renaissance styles of types have been transformed into contemporary counterparts.  Heller names parody and nostalgia as the key reasons that designers borrow style and content from earlier designers, and identifies design "eclecticism" as a hallmark of postmodern design.  He adds chapters with examples of "good" and "bad" borrowings, not from a copyright perspective, but rather to demonstrate if two different styles are likely to be combined effectively or inherently produce a jarring effect on the viewer.

As opposed to Heller's cautionary and practical approach, Rick Poynor, in No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism, is more interested in defining and celebrating characteristics of postmodern design influenced by technology.  He argues that what used to be called new wave design—design especially influenced by the Apple Computer—and the work of April Greiman, who began combining an intentionally pixilated appearance with borrowed content, is the starting point for this type of design.  Poynor has chapters on deconstructionist design influenced by Jacques Derrida's literary theories, where he includes work from the Cranbrook Academy, David Carson, and typography foundry Emigré, as well as early DIY/punk, and appropriation that is focused most closely on the appearance of the phenomenon in conjunction with the music industry of the 1970s and its subsequent adoption by Neville Brody, Paula Scher, and Tibor Kalman, all of whom would take a more social activist approach in their work.  Additional chapters focus on the use of technology to foster designs with a layered appearance; and explore the limits of authorship, and the extension of social activism by the Guerrilla Girls, Jonathan Barnbrook, and Tibor Kalman, with special emphasis on the latter's work for the provocative Colors magazine.

John Welchman, in Art after Appropriation. Essays on Art in the 1990s, summarizes the role of the curator and the museum as well as relevant theorists (e.g., Gerardo Mosquera, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin) applied to a wide range of literature (e.g., Douglas Crimp, Rosalind Krauss, and Hal Foster).  Welchman expands the concept of appropriation to include the serial production of Monet and argues that realism can be interpreted as appropriation of everyday life.  Among the artists included are Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons, and Haim Steinbach, but a significant portion of the book is devoted to what Welchman terms "counter-appropriations" by non-Western cultures, with a chapter each for Cody Hyun Choi (Korean American) and Steve Fagin (his experimental narratives Welchman considers with James Cliffort's theory of "travelling cultures").  A chapter focused on money compares the topic as treated by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Robert Morris to Louis Hock, Liz Sisco, and David Avalos's 1993 San Diego Art Rebate piece, where the artists gave ten dollars each to undocumented immigrant workers as they crossed the border from Mexico to California.  What Welchman means by the phrase "after appropriation" is advocacy for an increasingly critical use of appropriation, a self-conscious reappropriation, and cultural reappropriation (counter-appropriations), which would become more common in the postcolonial period.

Works Cited