“Art Re: Art” is a curator’s dream exhibition – it poses the sort of theoretical and methodological art historical questions that could occupy an entire semester of study. (In fact, the exhibition was inspired by Art About Art, a class taught by Zirka Filipczak, professor of art history.) In exhibiting “works that take art itself as their subject,” curators Kathryn Price, Miriam Stanton and Vivian Patterson pose a set of nuanced questions about artistic originality, reproduction versus reinterpretation, the legacy of the past and the role of the artist’s studio in mythmaking.
An art historian has no doubt that each of these questions is worth in-depth investigation. The difficulty in an exhibition with such ambitious intellectual aspirations, then, becomes two-fold: How do you narrow and frame these questions so that the exhibition does not turn into over-generalization, over-theorizing and a form of intellectual masturbation? Secondly, how do you synthesize the art historian’s theoretical point of view in order to convince an audience of the validity and value of such an endeavor?
The show begins with Andy Warhol’s “Portraits of the Artists” from 1967. The piece consists of 100 screen-printed portraits of 10 artists on tiny colorful polystyrene boxes, made on the occasion of the New York art dealer Leo Castelli’s celebration of the 10th anniversary of his gallery. To begin this exhibition with Warhol was to begin with a question and not a statement.
To many, Warhol is either seen as the greatest artist of the 20th century or a fraud, a phony celebrity only playing at creating “real art.” Warhol is a difficult artist to come to terms with. He reproduced images of campy Americana, marking a shift from the idea of Abstract Expressionists producing images from the deep, dark insides of their souls, to looking outward at pop culture as the inspiration for artistic production. From a contemporary standpoint, we see how Warhol’s own image as an artist has become mythologized and established in pop culture – it’s as simple as pressing the “Warhol effect” button in Photoshop.
In many ways, we have done to Warhol what he did to American culture. On the other hand, the conceptual questions about reproduction and celebrity, about so called “high culture” versus “low culture” that Warhol’s art brought to the fore have certainly not been answered. As this exhibition points out, many contemporary artists that are usually not considered as working in the same continuity of Warhol’s Pop Art are inevitably harking back to him. Luckily, the exhibition is not a Warhol retrospective. It acknowledges the contributions of Warhol while productively moving away from the oft-exhibited Warhol-centric perspective.
The curators often pair artists that either work in similar modes (such as reproduction) or are appropriating the same iconic work. For example, the work of both Gerhard Richter and Vik Muniz deals with memory and history. Richter’s painting of a photograph, Onkel Rudi (2000), takes stock of personal memory, depicting an uncle who was a Nazi. In contrast, Muniz’s Memory Rendering of John John (from The Best of Life), 1989-2000, draws on a larger cultural archive of images. Muniz is working from collective memory and questioning the role of the viewer as completing the meaning of an image; Richter is grappling with the tension between denial and acceptance of personal history.
Another pair worth mentioning are Ilse Bing and Cindy Sherman, both of whom appropriate the gaze as the subject of their work. As the curators point out, although Bing and Sherman are separated by nearly 60 years, both are dealing with questions of spectatorship, identity and female body image. Other artists, such as Wang Qingsong and Dotty Attie, also deal with the idea of an art-historical legacy. Qingsong, in particular, fuses traditional formats (the Chinese scroll) with modern, digitally manipulated images to investigate the influence of Western culture in China. Cross-cultural infiltration – although only briefly brought up through Qingsong’s work – is a compelling one that deserves further investigation.
The curators also included works by Daumier and Picasso, pieces that are not considered a mainstay of their respective oeuvres but are important to emphasize that the question of art about art is not merely a contemporary question, although the exhibition does take a contemporary standpoint on the question using Warhol as the point of origin. The inclusion of older works, in my opinion, is crucial for the exhibition in demonstrating the curators’ awareness of their biased contemporary point of view. The show lends itself to productive theoretical thinking – a show that seems perfect for paper writing, in a way. However, the actual experience of being in the gallery can at times be disconcerting in the chorus of works attempting to speak to this broad question of art about art.