Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: At the Core of Postmodernism

It is not surprising in this context that Marcel Duchamp's 1917 readymade entitled "Fountain" (a urinal signed R. Mutt) [PLATE 20] was recently named the most influential work of modern art in the world by a poll of 500 leading artists, curators, critics and dealers.[1] Dadaism, provoked by the mechanized slaughter of the "Great War", with its focus on the random reuse and parody of everyday visual signs, is widely claimed as the herald of conceptualism and postmodernism, two of the most omnipresent aspects of contemporary art at the start of the Twenty-First Century.[2]

Duchamp, a printmaker's grandson, was fascinated by replication, and much of his work challenges the importance of originality. Art historian Francis Naumann calls Duchamp "the first artist in this [sic] century consciously and systematically to reproduce his own work."[3]

While the survey undoubtedly has a British slant (it was commissioned by sponsors of the Turner Prize), the prominence of reproduction as a theme in the top-ranked Twentieth-Century work is noteworthy. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) [PLATE 21], comes in second place, with its appropriation of African masks [PLATE 22] and Ingres' Vénus Anadyomène [PLATE 23], foreshadowing Picasso's invention of collage and his cubist constructions, which in turn inspired Duchamp's readymades, and the rich lineage of formal exploration, improvisation, and abstraction that followed.

Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych (1962) [PLATE 24] ranks third, with its fifty silk-screened repetitions of the glamorous actress's face, a work entirely about the relationship of reproduction to immortality, iconography, popularity, simulacra, and death. Also on the list are Joseph Beuys' I like America and America Likes Me (1974) [PLATE 25], Constantin Brancusi's Endless Column (1938) [PLATE 26], and Donald Judd's 100 untitled works in mill aluminum (1982-86) [PLATE 27], all of which feature reproduction as a key to their documentation, form, or concept (as political multiples, elegant clones, or minimalist repetition).

In another attempt to rank the significance of art works, University of Chicago economist David Galenson found Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) [PLATE 28] "to be not only the dominant American work of art of the late Twentieth Century, but the most important individual work produced by an American during the past 150 years."[4] His measure: the number of times the work has been reproduced in dozens of art textbooks published since 1990. The original Spiral Jetty has barely been seen by the public, not only because of its extreme remoteness in Utah, sixteen miles from the nearest paved road, but also because it has been submerged by the Great Salt Lake for many of the years since it was built. Awareness of Smithson's conceptual work and its significance to the history of art is entirely dependent on technologies of reproduction.

Twentieth-Century artistic strategies are replete with techniques centered on the reuse or reproduction of images: appropriation, assemblage, bricolage, collage, combines, detournement, montage, sampling, readymades. The most widely quoted postmodern philosophers and critical theorists, including Barthes, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Jameson, and Lyotard are fixated on reproduction as the central problematic of culture.[5] Many of the top-selling visual artists born after 1940 use reproduction as a key element of their artistic strategy, including Jeff Koons [PLATE 29], Jean-Michel Basquiat [PLATE 30], Felix Gonzalez-Torres [PLATE 31], Chuck Close [PLATE 32], Damien Hirst, Mark Tansey, and Takashi Murakami (in declining order of their highest auction prices, 2000 to 2003).[6] Reproduction is integral to broader measures of Georg Franck's "attention economy" which values any kind of creative work (scientific or artistic) based upon its ability to garner public and expert recognition.[7] This approach is associated with several other rankings of artistic value that date back to art historian Willi Bongard's influential Kunstcompass, which the German magazine Kapital began publishing in 1970. After Joseph Beuys became the first European artist to top its list in 1979, he made his now-famous quote: "Kunst = Kapital" (Art = Capital).[8]

1. Marcel Duchamp. Fountain. 1917.
Photo credit: Alfred Stieglitz. Reproduced in The Blind Man, No. 2, 1917, p. 4. Courtesy of Tout-Fait: the Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal.

2. Pablo Ruiz Picasso. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. 1907.
Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8" (243.9 x 233.7 cm). © 2002 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art Lillie P. Bliss Bequest.

3. Nkanu Mask. nd.
Approximately 25" high without raffia. Courtesy of McCue Tribal Arts.

4. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Venus Anadyomène. 1848.
Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

5. Andy Warhol. Marilyn Diptych. 1962.
Silkscreen, ink/symthetic polymer paint on canvas, 2 panels each 208.3 x 144.8 cm. London: Tate Gallery. Courtesy of © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/ARS, NY.

6. Joseph Beuys. I like America and America likes Me. 1974.
Photograph by Caroline Tisdall of Beuys performance at René Block Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY.

7. Constantin Brancusi. Endless Column. 1937-38.
Metal-coated cast-iron modules on a steel spine, height 98 feet, Târgu-Jiu, Romania. Restored and reassembled in 2000, conceived as a monument to young Romanians who died in World War I.

8. Donald Judd. 100 untitled works in mill aluminum. 1982-1986.
Installed in two former artillery sheds at the center of the Chinati Foundation's permanent collection in Marfus, Texas.

9. Robert Smithson. Spiral Jetty. 1970.
Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water coil, 1500' long and 15' wide. Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah. Photographed by George Steinmetz, September 2002. Courtesy of the DIA Center for the Arts, New York.

10. Jeff Koons. Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank. 1985.
Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off. Courtesy of the Tate Gallery, London.

11. Jean Michel Basquiat. Mona Lisa. nd.

12. Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Perfect Lovers). 1987-1990.
Two commercial clocks, 14" x 27" x 1", courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery.

13. David Adamson. Chuck Close Inkjet Self-Portrait Being Prepared. nd.
Photograph. (Assistant John Hughes in picture for final mounting) Courtesy of David Adamson, Adamson Editions.

[1] Higgens 2004.
[2] Witcombe 1997.
[3] Naumann 1999.
[4] Galenson 2003.
[5] Barthes 1984; Baudrillard 1994; Deleuze 1994; Derrida 1987; Jameson 1991; Lyotard 1984.
[6] Artprice 2004b, p. XIII.
[7] Franck 1998.
[8] Rohr-Bongard 2004; 2005.

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