Tag Archives: Dada

Art 101: What is Performance Art?

Fourth post in my ongoing series, “Art 101.” This post focuses on the rise and lifespan of Performance Art. The other posts in the series can be found under the Art tab at the top of the page.

Performance Art

Cut Piece - Yoko Ono. First performed in Japan (1964) then in New York (Carnegie Hall, 1965). Performed for the last time in Paris (September 2003).

Performance art is a performance presented to an audience; either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. It can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer’s body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work.

Performance art is an essentially contested concept: any single definition of it implies the recognition of rival uses. As concepts like “democracy” or “art”, it implies productive disagreement with itself.

The meaning of the term in the narrower sense is related to postmodernist traditions in Western culture. From about the mid-1960s into the 1970s, often derived from concepts of visual art, with respect to Antonin Artaud, Dada, the Situationists, Fluxus, Installation art, and Conceptual Art, performance art tended to be defined as an antithesis to theatre, challenging orthodox artforms and cultural norms. The ideal had been an ephemeral and authentic experience for performer and audience in an event that could not be repeated, captured or purchased. The in this time widely discussed difference, how concepts of visual arts and concepts of performing arts are utilized, can determine the meanings of a performance art presentation (comparePerformance: A Critical Introduction by Marvin Carlson, P. 103,2-105,1).

Performance art is a term usually reserved to refer to a conceptual art which conveys a content-based meaning in a more drama-related sense, rather than being simple performance for its own sake for entertainment purposes. It largely refers to a performance which is presented to an audience, but which does not seek to present a conventional theatrical play or a formal linear narrative, or which alternately does not seek to depict a set of fictitious characters in formal scripted interactions. It therefore can include action or spoken word as a communication between the artist and audience, or even ignore expectations of an audience, rather than following a script written beforehand.

Trans-fixed - Chris Burden. Performance piece in which he is nailed to a Volkswagon. Performed in Venice, CA in 1974

Some kinds of performance art nevertheless can be close to performing arts. Such performance may utilize a script or create a fictitious dramatic setting, but still constitute performance art in that it does not seek to follow the usual dramatic norm of creating a fictitious setting with a linear script which follows conventional real-world dynamics; rather, it would intentionally seek to satirize or to transcend the usual real-world dynamics which are used in conventional theatrical plays.

Performance artists often challenge the audience to think in new and unconventional ways, break conventions of traditional arts, and break down conventional ideas about “what art is”. As long as the performer does not become a player who repeats a role, performance art can include satirical elements; utilize robots and machines as performers, as in pieces of the Survival Research Laboratories; or borrow elements of any performing arts such as dance, music, and circus.


Performance art activity is not confined to European or American art traditions; notable practitioners can be found in Asia and Latin America. Performance artists and theorists point to different traditions and histories, ranging from tribal to sporting and ritual or religious events.

There are accounts of Renaissance artists putting on public performances that could be said to be ancestors of performance art.

Western cultural theorists often trace performance art activity back to the beginning of the 20th century, to the Russian constructivists, Futurists and Dada. Dada provided a significant progenitor with the unconventional performances of poetry, often at the Cabaret Voltaire, by the likes of Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara (see my discussion of Dada here). Russian Futurist artists could be identified as precursors of performance, such as David Burliuk, who painted his face for his actions (1910–20) and Alexander Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova.

According to the art critic Harold Rosenberg in the 1940s and 1950s Action Painting gave artists the freedom to perform – the canvas as “an arena in which to act,” thereby rendering the paintings as traces of the artist’s performance in his/her studio. Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting preceded the Fluxus movement, Happenings and the emergence of Performance Art.

Performance art was anticipated, if not explicitly formulated, by Japan’s Gutai group of the 1950s, especially in such works as Atsuko Tanaka’s “Electric Dress” (1956).

Conceptual work by Yves Klein at Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-Aux-Roses, October 1960. Photo by Harry Shunk.

Yves Klein had been a precursor of performance art with the conceptual pieces of Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility) 1959–62, and works like the photomontage, Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void). In the late 1960s Earth artists as diverse as Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer and Carl Andre created environmental pieces that predict the performance art of the 1970s. Works of conceptual artists in the early 1980s, like Sol LeWitt, who converted mural-style drawing into an act of performance by others, were influenced by Yves Klein and the Earth artists as well.


In the 1960s a variety of new works, concepts and the increasing number of artists led to new kinds of performance art.

Prototypic for the later emerging artform “performance art” were works of artists like Yoko Ono with her “Wall piece for orchestra“ (1962); Carolee Schneemann with pieces like Meat Joy (1964); Joseph Beuys with How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965); Yayoi Kusama, with actions such as a naked flag-burning on the Brooklyn Bridge (1968) and Allan Kaprow in his many Happenings.

Kaprow had coined the term Happening describing a new artform, at the beginning of the 1960s. A Happening allows the artist to experiment with body motion, recorded sounds, written and spoken texts, and even smells. One of Kaprow’s earliest was “Happenings in the New York Scene,” written in 1961 as the form was developing. Notably in the Happenings of Allan Kaprow, the audience members become performers. While the audiences in Happenings had been welcomed as the performers, it only sometimes and often unwittingly that they become an active part in a Performance. Other artists who created Happenings besides Kaprow include Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman, and Wolf Vostell: Theater is in the Street (Paris, 1958).

Hermann Nitsch's Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries

Hermann Nitsch in 1962 presented his “Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries” (Orgien- und Mysterien Theater), a form close to the performing arts, and a precursor to performance art. Andy Warhol during the early 1960s began creating films and video. In the mid-60s Warhol sponsored the Velvet Underground and staged events and performances in New York, like the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966) that featured live Rock music, exploding lights, and film.

Indirectly influential for art-world performance, particularly in the United States, were new forms of theatre, embodied by the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Living Theatre and showcased in Off-Off Broadway theaters in SoHo and at La MaMa in New York City. The Living Theatre chiefly toured in Europe between 1963 and 1968, and 1968 in the USA work of this period, Paradise Now was notorious for its audience participation and a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity, while disrobing.

The work of performance artists after 1968 often showed influences of the cultural and political events of that year. Barbara T. Smith with Ritual Meal (1969) was at the forefront of the feminist body art, and performance art of the 1970s; among others including: Carolee Schneemann, and Joan Jonas. Schneemann and Jonas along with Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden pioneered the relationship between Body Art and Performance Art.


Artists whose work already before tended to be a performance art, as well as new artists, at the beginning of the 1970s began to present performance art in a stricter form.

New artists with radical performances were Chris Burden, with the 1971 performance piece Shoot, in which he was shot in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of about five meters, and Vito Acconci in the same year with Seedbed.

The book Expanded Cinema, by Gene Youngblood, marked a shift in the use of media by performance artists. The first book considering video art as an art form, mentions Jud Yalkut as a pioneering video artist. Since 1965 he had collaborated in dozens of intermedia performances throughout the United States, also with Nam June Paik, who beginning of the 1960s already had been a Fluxus performer on the way to become a media artist. As to the art of Paik, Youngblood refers to works of Carolee Schneemann and Robert Whitman from the 1960s, which had been pioneering for performance art, becoming an independent artform at the beginning of the 1970s.

The British-based pair Gilbert and George, already in 1970, had documented actions of themselves on video, and created their “living sculpture” performance, being painted in gold and singing “Underneath The Arches” for extended periods. Joan Jonas began to include video in her experimental performances in 1972.

Pages from Marina Abramović Rhythm 10

In 1973 Laurie Anderson performed Duets on Ice, on the streets of New York City. Marina Abramović, in the performance “Rhythm 10,” conceptually included the violation of her body.

Since 1973 the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles had a formative impact on the wave of performances with feminist background.

Carolee Schneemann work in 1963, Eye Body, already had been a prototype of performance art. Schneemann in 1975 drew on with innovative solo performances, like Interior Scroll, showing the female body as an artistic medium.

Performance art, because of its relative transience, by the 1970s, had a fairly robust presence in the avant-garde of East Bloc countries, especially Yugoslavia and Poland.


Until the 1980s, performance art had been demystifying virtuosity. Now it began to embrace technical brilliance. In reference to Presence and Resistance by Philip Auslander, a performance art critic, Sally Banes writes:

“… by the end of the 1980s, performance art had become so widely known that it no longer needed to be defined; mass culture, especially television, had come to supply both structure and subject matter for much performance art; and several performance artists, including Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian,Willem Dafoe, and Ann Magnuson, had indeed become crossover artists in mainstream entertainment.”

Despite the fact that many performances are held within the circle of a small art-world group, RoseLee Goldberg notes, in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present that:

“…performance has been a way of appealing directly to a large public, as well as shocking audiences into reassessing their own notions of art and its relation to culture. Conversely, public interest in the medium, especially in the 1980s, stems from an apparent desire of that public to gain access to the art world, to be a spectator of its ritual and its distinct community, and to be surprised by the unexpected, always unorthodox presentations that the artists devise.”

Art/Life: One Year Performance (aka Rope Piece) - Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh

Among the performance art most discussed in the art-world of this decade were a performance by Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh between July 1983 and July 1984, Art/Life: One Year Performance (Rope Piece), and Karen Finlay’s I’m an Ass Man 1987.

Until the decline of the European Eastern Bloc during the late 1980s, performance art by most communist governments had actively been rejected. With the exception of Poland and Yugoslavia, performance art was more or less banned in countries where any independent public event was feared. In the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Latvia it happened in apartments, at seemingly spontaneous gatherings in artist studios, in church-controlled settings, or covered as another activity, like a photo-shooting. Isolated of the western conceptual context, in different settings it could be like a playful protest or like a bitter comment, using subversive metaphors to express dissent with the political situation.

Hedwig Gorski before 1982 came up with the term performance poetry, to distinguish her text-based vocal performances from performance art, especially the work of performance artists, such as Laurie Anderson, who worked with music at that time. Performance poets relied more on the rhetorical and philosophical expression in their poetics than performance artists, who arose from the visual art genres of painting and sculpture.


While the Soviet bloc disintegrated, formerly repressed activities of performance artists like György Galántai in Hungary, or the Collective Action Group in Russia, became better known. Young artists from all over the former Eastern bloc, including Russia, turned to performance. Performance art at about the same time appeared in Cuba, the Caribbean and China. Chinese performance artists like Zhang Huan had been performing underground since the late 1980s. Beginning of the 1990s chinese performance art already was acclaimed in the international artscene.

“In these contexts performance art became a critical new voice with a social force similar to that found in Western Europe, the United States and South America in the 1960s and early 1970s. It should be emphasized that the eruption of performance art in the 1990s in Eastern Europe, China, South Africa, Cuba, and elsewhere should never be considered either secondary to or imitative of the West.” (Linda Montano, Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties, 479)

In the western world in the 1990s, even sophisticated performance art became part of the cultural mainstream: performance art as a complete artform gained admittance into art museums and became a museal topic.


Abramović sitting with "The Artist is Present" curator Klaus Biesenbach

From March 14 to May 31, 2010, the Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective and performance recreation of Marina Abramović’s work, the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA’s history. During the run of the exhibition, Abramović performed “The Artist is Present,” a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium, while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. A support group for the “sitters,” “Sitting with Marina,” was established on Facebook. The performance attracted celebrities such as Björk and James Franco and received coverage on the internet including an essay by NYC-author Tao Lin.

The Role of the Body in Performance Art

Through history, the figure has provided artists with both form and content. Human figures are challenging, versatile forms that can strike many poses and provide a multitude of contrasting, complex shapes and visual relationships. As content, human figures have served to express deeply cherished cultural values, including beliefs about religion, politics, and personal and social identity. Sometimes but not always in art history, the figure has also been used to represent ideas about the body as a corporeal entity, for instance, ideas about sexuality and morality.

(Parasite) performed by Stellarc at the Ars Electronica Festival, 1997

Figurative art has had a tumultuous history in the West since WWII. The most critically acclaimed new art of the 1950s was nonobjective. At the same time, much attention was given to artists’ gestures and creative process; think of the well-known photographs of Jackson Pollock making his drip paintings. Artists’ self-consciousness about their own physical actions and creative process helped open the ay to the various live-art forms – the performance art that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Happenings, Fluxus, Actions, and Body Art. Body Art, a subset of performance art consisting of art made on or with the human body – where artist’s body literally serves as the medium – has an obvious connection to themes of the body. There have been forms of body art in many times and places, such as tattoos, body piercing, and scarification. Body art as a movement in contemporary art includes works ranging from self-mutilation (think of Yoko Ono’s now canonical Cut Piece, or Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0) to feats of bodily endurance (Stellarc, for example) to more benign demonstrations of the artist’s body as a form in space.

Why have so many contemporary artists focused on the body? In some cases, this focus is a result of an activist stance toward art making, in which the personal becomes the political. In an essay analyzing the formation of the feminist art in movement in the US, artist Suzanne Lacy provides a list of key ideas that helped propel the work that feminist artists were making in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Among these ideas, she noted that the body became a primary site for works of art. Lacy explained:

“Not only was the body a site, it was an important source of information. Much of women’s social status was seen as based in the body, so issues like violence, birthing, sexuality and beauty were frequent subjects.”

Lateral Suspension - Stellarc, 1976

In other cases, artists using the body have made as aggressive decision to blur the boundaries between art and life. Linda Montano, discussing a work of performance art in which she was tied by rope to the artist Tehching Hsieh for one continuous year (1983-84), explained the consequences of viewing all their bodily actions as forms of art:

“… because I believe that everything we do is art – fighting, eating, sleeping – then even the negatives are raised to the dignity of art.”

But there is more about the body than the role of gender or politics. The sexualized body and sexuality, the gaze, sex and violence, mortal bodies, and posthuman bodies have all become central topics of Performance Art, of Body Art.


Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, Feminism, History

A Commercialized Modern Life

After a conversation with the awesome @magpielibrarian on Twitter yesterday, I decided it was time to try my hand at discussing the role of kitsch and the banal in contemporary art. I am no expert by any stretch of the imagination. My training as an art and architectural historian is mainly in European, North African, and Middle Eastern Medieval, Byzantine, and Early Modern periods. Though there are tremendous similarities between Medieval and Modern and Contemporary art practices – the body, the self, the Self, religion, the image, iconography, etc – there is not as much cross over between the two fields as there should be, could be. Recent museum exhibitions, most notably a show on Joseph Beuys and the Middle Ages at the Schnutgen Museum in Cologne explored the question of materiality between Medieval reliquaries and Beuys’ art practice in the 20th century. What are things made of? How are materials used? These are important questions, ones that were essential to Medieval artisans and craftsmen, and equally important to Modern and Contemporary artists and theorists.

So what is meant by kitsch? Let’s start there.

Kitsch (German) is a form of art that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art or a worthless imitation of art of recognized value. The concept is associated with the deliberate use of elements that may be thought of ascultural iconswhile making cheap mass-produced objects that are unoriginal. Kitsch also refers to the types of art that are aesthetically deficient (whether or not being sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative) and that make creative gestures which merely imitate the superficial appearances of art through repeated conventions and formulae. Excessive sentimentality often is associated with the term. The contemporary definition of kitsch is considered derogatory, denoting works executed to pander to popular demand alone and purely for commercial purposes rather than works created as self-expression by an artist. The term is generally reserved for unsubstantial and gaudy works that are calculated to have popular appeal and are considered pretentious and shallow rather than genuine artistic efforts. The concept of kitsch is applied to artwork that was a response to the 19th century art with aesthetics that convey exaggerated sentimentalityand melodrama, hence, kitsch art is closely associated with sentimental art.

But we can use kitsch in a non-derogatory way as well. True, kitsch is pure commercialism, a way of distilling elements of culture down into an easily digestible souvenir or totem; take for instance the ever popular “I love NY” shirts and keychains. But there is more to it than that, it can be a polyvalent exploration of the distillation of culture in mass-media or consumerism. Often those who embrace kitsch do so as a way of subverting critique, using “low-art” to poke holes in “high art.” Blending the high and the low of the art world of visual culture is nothing new in art or in culture. Court jesters were the kitsch equivalent in the Middle Ages, playing the fool, essentializing their personhood in order to state truths without wounding those in power. This has become a key role of Modern and Contemporary Art, periods of art that utilized critique and theory in ways never before seen.

Banal is often used in quite the same way as kitsch is used. Banal, meaning literally as being devoid of freshness or originality; hackneyed, trite, or commonplace. What is enticing about contemporary artists playing with the banal is their insistence on finding beauty in the commonplace. Every period of art has their artist who explores the banal in one way shape or form.

Les Demoiselles dAvignon - Picasso (1907) - Museum of Modern Art, New York

For many, when they hear “modern” they think today or at least 20th century. In reality, the foundations of Modern Art are in the late 19th century with the Impressionist movement. By rethinking time, emphasizing the moment as opposed to the narrative, and by highlighting instead of concealing the presence of the artist, the Impressionist movement ushered in a new concept of art practice and of the artist. In its wake, Post-Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, etc etc altered the form, the color, the shape, the dimension in which the natural and the created world were conceptualized, depicted, and most importantly theorized. Once Picasso and Braque shattered the image with Cubism (see the Picasso example at right), theory became central to art. How the artist thought about the image became as central to art as the image itself.

Then came Dada. As former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director, Thomas Hoving writes:

“As an art movement, Dada emerged full-blown – and totally crazed – from the blissfully anarchic minds of the art crowd gathered around the Cabaret Voltaire founded in Zurich in 1916. Dadaism swept on to Berlin, Paris, and New York. It was less a new style or technique than a purposefully giddy state of mind, according to its high priest, the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara. Tzara onse appeared on stage in a “serious” Dada was selected by opening a dictionary and pointing – blindfolded – a pencil to a word that happened to be the French diminutive for “hobbyhorse.” “

Marcel Duchamp

The most gifted practitioner of Dada was the seminal artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp, a French artist, influenced the important post-WWI Western Art scene. In addition to being an important artist, Duchamp was also an important art advisor to prominent Western collectors such as Peggy Guggenheim. In this capacity, he was able to influence prominent Western collections and the tastes of Western collectors.

New York Dada had a less serious tone than that of European Dadaism, and was not a particularly organized venture. Duchamp’s friendPicabia connected with the Dada group in Zürich, bringing to New York the Dadaist ideas of absurdity and “anti-art.” A group met almost nightly at the Arensberg home, or caroused in Greenwich Village. Together with Man Ray, Duchamp contributed his ideas and humor to the New York activities, many of which ran concurrent with the development of his “ready-mades” and The Large Glass. They also worked on the concept of “found art.”

The most prominent example of Duchamp’s association with Dada was his submission of Fountain, a urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917. Artworks in the Independent Artists shows were not selected by jury, and all pieces submitted were displayed. However, the show committee insisted that Fountain was not art, and rejected it from the show. This caused an uproar amongst the Dadaists, and led Duchamp to resign from the board of the Independent Artists.

Along with Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood, Duchamp published a Dada magazine in New York, entitled The Blind Man, which included art, literature, humor and commentary.

When he returned to Paris after World War I, Duchamp did not participate in the Dada group.

Duchamp is most known for his self-styled “ready-mades,” a term he used to identify works – such as shovels, urinals, etc – that he presented as works of art. It’s this turn in art that marks the emergence of kitsch and the banal in art practice. Is a urinal art? What’s the difference between art and the banal? Or art and design, for that matter?

“Readymades” were found objects which Duchamp chose and presented as art. In 1913, Duchamp installed a Bicycle Wheel in his studio. However, the idea of Readymades did not fully develop until 1915. The idea was to question the very notion of Art, and the adoration of art, which Duchamp found “unneccessary.” Duchamp said:

“My idea was to chose an object that wouldn’t attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it, you see.”

Fountain - Marcel Duchamp (1917)

Bottle Rack (1914), a bottle drying rack signed by Duchamp, is considered to be the first “pure” readymade. Prelude to a Broken Arm (1915), a snow shovel, also called In Advance of the Broken Arm, followed soon after. His Fountain, a urinal signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” shocked the art world in 1917. Fountain was selected in 2004 as “the most influential artwork of the 20th century” by 500 renowned artists and historians.

In 1919, Duchamp made a parody of the Mona Lisa by adorning a cheap reproduction of the painting with a mustache and goatee. To this he added the inscription L.H.O.O.Q., a phonetic game which, when read out loud in French quickly sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul”. This can be translated as “She has a hot ass,” implying that the woman in the painting is in a state of sexual excitement and availability. It may also have been intended as a Freudian joke, referring to Leonardo da Vinci’s alleged homosexuality. Duchamp gave a “loose” translation of L.H.O.O.Q. as “there is fire down below” in a late interview with Arturo Schwarz.

According to Rhonda Roland Shearer, the apparent Mona Lisa reproduction is in fact a copy modeled partly on Duchamp’s own face. Research published by Shearer also speculates that Duchamp himself may have created some of the objects which he claimed to have been “found.”

After Dada, the next powerful impetus for the role of the kitsch and banal in Modern Art was Pop Art. Pop Art is an art movement that emerged in the mid 1950s in Britain and in the late 1950s in the United States. Pop art challenged tradition by asserting that an artist’s use of the mass-produced visual commodities of popular culture is contiguous with the perspective of fine art. Pop removes the material from its context and isolates the object, or combines it with other objects, for contemplation. The concept of pop art refers not as much to the art itself as to the attitudes that led to it.

Tomato Juice Box - Andy Warhol (1964)

Pop art employs aspects of mass culture, such as advertising, comic books and mundane cultural objects. It is widely interpreted as a reaction to the then-dominant ideas of abstract expressionism, as well as an expansion upon them. And due to its utilization of found objects and images it is similar to Dada. Pop art is aimed to employ images of popular as opposed to elitist culture in art, emphasizing the banal or kitschy elements of any given culture, most often through the use of irony. It is also associated with the artists’ use of mechanical means of reproduction or rendering techniques.

Much of pop art is considered incongruent, as the conceptual practices that are often used make it difficult for some to readily comprehend. Pop art and minimalism are considered to be art movements that precede postmodern art, or are some of the earliest examples of Postmodern Art themselves.

Flag - Jasper Johns (1954-55)

Pop art often takes as its imagery that which is currently in use in advertising. Product labeling and logos figure prominently in the imagery chosen by pop artists, like in the Campbell’s Soup Cans labels, by Andy Warhol. Even the labeling on the shipping carton containing retail items has been used as subject matter in pop art, for example in Warhol’s Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box1964, (pictured above), or his Brillo Soap Box sculptures.

Although the movement began in the late 1950s, Pop Art in America was given its greatest impetus during the 1960s. By this time, American advertising had adopted many elements and inflections of modern art and functioned at a very sophisticated level. Consequently, American artists had to search deeper for dramatic styles that would distance art from the well-designed and clever commercial materials. As the British viewed American popular culture imagery from a somewhat removed perspective, their views were often instilled with romantic, sentimental and humorous overtones. By contrast, American artists being bombarded daily with the diversity of mass produced imagery, produced work that was generally more bold and aggressive.

Drowning Girl - Roy Lichtenstein (1963) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Two important painters in the establishment of America’s pop art vocabulary were Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.While the paintings of Rauschenberg have relationships to the earlier work of Kurt Schwitters and other Dadaists, his concern was with social issues of the moment. His approach was to create art out of ephemeral materials and using topical events in the life of everyday America gave his work a unique quality. Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s work of the 1950s is classified as Neo-Dada, and is visually distinct from the classic American Pop Art which began in the early 1960s.

Of equal importance to American pop art is Roy Lichtenstein. His work probably defines the basic premise of pop art better than any other through parody. Selecting the old-fashioned comic strip as subject matter, Lichtenstein produces a hard-edged, precise composition that documents while it parodies in a soft manner.

The paintings of Lichtenstein, like those of Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann and others, share a direct attachment to the commonplace image of American popular culture, but also treat the subject in an impersonal manner clearly illustrating the idealization of mass production.Andy Warhol is probably the most famous figure in Pop Art. Warhol attempted to take Pop beyond an artistic style to a life style, and his work often displays a lack of human affectation that dispenses with the irony and parody of many of his peers.

Made in Heaven Suite - Jeff Koons, Tate Modern, London

After the Pop Art surge of the 1960s, the next major wave of kitsch and banal didn’t come till the 1980s and the rise of active artists Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince, just to name a few.

Jeff Koons (born January 21, 1955) is an American artist known for his reproductions of banal objects—such as balloon animalsproduced in stainless steel with mirror finish surfaces. Koons’ work has sold for substantial sums of money including at least one world record auction price for a work by a living artist. The largest sum known to be paid for a work by Koons is Balloon flower (Magenta) which was sold at Christie’s London, on Monday, June 30, 2008 (Lot 00012) in the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, where it sold for £12,921,250 or $25,765,204.

Critics are sharply divided in their views of Koons. Some view his work as pioneering and of major art-historical importance. Others dismiss his work as kitsch: crass and based on cynical self-merchandising. Koons has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques.

Rabbit - Jeff Koons

Koons’s early work was in the form of conceptual sculpture, an example of which is The Equilibrium Series (1985), consisting of three basketballs floating in distilled water that half-fills a glass tank.

Arts journalist Arifa Akbar reported for The Independent that in “an era when artists were not regarded as ‘stars’, Koons went to great lengths to cultivate his public persona by employing an image consultant.” Featuring photographs by Matt Chedgey, Koons placed “advertisements in international art magazines of himself surrounded by the trappings of success” and gave interviews “referring to himself in the third person.”

This type of hyperactive self-promotion can be seen as a trademark of many modern artists, note for example the antics of Damien Hirst.

Koons then moved on to Statuary, the large stainless-steel blowups of toys, followed by the Banality series that culminated in 1988 withMichael Jackson and Bubbles, a series of three life-size gold-leaf plated porcelain statues of the sitting singer cuddling Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee. Three years later, one of these sold at Sotheby’s New York for $5.6 million. Two of these sculptures are now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The statue was included in a 2004 retrospective at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo which traveled a year later to the Helsinki City Art Museum. It also featured in his second retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 2008.

Balloon Dog - Jeff Koons (My personal photo from "Koons on the Roof" at the MET, New York, Summer 2008)

Koons has received extreme reactions to his work. Critic Amy Dempsey described his Balloon Dog as “an awesome presence… a massive durable monument.” Jerry Saltz atartnet.com enthused that it was possible to be “wowed by the technical virtuosity and eye-popping visual blast” of Koons’s art.

Mark Stevens of The New Republic dismissed him as a “decadent artist [who] lacks the imaginative will to do more than trivialize and italicise his themes and the tradition in which he works… He is another of those who serve the tacky rich.” Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times saw “one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the 1980s” and called Koons’s work “artificial,” “cheap” and “unabashedly cynical.”

In an article comparing the contemporary art scene with show business, renowned critic Robert Hughes wrote that Koons is “an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.” Hughes placed Koons’s work just above that of Seward Johnson and was quoted in a New York Times article as having stated that comparing their careers was “like debating the merits of dog excrement versus cat excrement”.

"Koons on the Roof" - Jeff Koons, MET, New York, Summer 2008 (Personal Image)

To the question – “Is it important that your work be famous?” – Koons replied: “There’s a difference between being famous and being significant. I’m interested in [my work’s] significance — anything that can enrich our lives and make them vaster — but I’m really not interested in the idea of fame for fame’s sake.”

He has influenced younger artists such as Damien Hirst (e.g. in Hirst’s Hymn, an eighteen-foot version of a fourteen-inch anatomical toy), and Mona Hatoum. One could even say that Koons’ Neo-Pop Art work influenced Ghada Amer’s erotic embroidered canvases, especially those utilizing Disney imagery. In turn, his extreme enlargement of mundane objects owes a debt to Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Much of his work also was influenced by artists working in Chicago during his study at the Art Institute, including Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and H. C. Westermann.

Like Koons, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s style, called Superflat, is characterized by flat planes of color and graphic images involving a character style derived fromanime and manga. Superflat is an artistic style that comments on otaku lifestyle and subculture, as well as consumerism and sexual fetishism.

Like Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami takes low culture and repackages it, and sells it to the highest bidder in the “high-art” market. Also like Warhol, Murakami makes his repacked low culture available to all other markets in the form of paintings, sculptures, videos, T-shirts, key chains, mouse pads, plush dolls, cell phone caddies, and $5,000 limited-edition Louis Vuitton handbags. This is comparable to Claes Oldenburg, who sold his own low-art, high-art pieces in his own store front in the 1960s. What makes Murakami different is his methods of production, and his work is not in one store front but many, ranging from toy stores, candy aisles, comic book stores, and the French design house of Louis Vuitton. Murakami’s style is an amalgam of his Western predecessors, Warhol, Oldenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as Japanese predecessors and contemporaries of anime and manga. He has successfully marketed himself to Western culture and to Japan in the form of Kaikai Kiki and GEISAI.

Hiropon - Takashi Murakami (1997) - Artist pictured next to work

Interviewer Magdalene Perez asked him about straddling the line between art and commercial products, and mixing art with branding and merchandising. Murakami said,

“I don’t think of it as straddling. I think of it as changing the line. What I’ve been talking about for years is how in Japan, that line is less defined. Both by the culture and by the post-War economic situation. Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of ‘high art.’ In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that’s okay—I’m ready with my hard hat.”

“Smooth Nightmare” is an example of a popular Murakami painting in the Superflat style. It exhibits one of his recurring motifs of the mushroom. The mushroom repetition is a good example of Murakami’s work’s connection with themes of the underground and alternative cultures.

My Lonesome Cowboy - Takashi Murakami (1997)

In November, 2003, ArtNews reported Murakami’s work as being among the most desired in the world. Chicago collector Stefan Edis reportedly paid a record $567,500 for Murakami’s 1996 “Miss ko2”, a life-size fiberglass cartoon figure, at Christie’s last May. Christie’s owner, François Pinault, reportedly paid around $1.5 million in June to acquire “Tongari Kun” (2003), a 28-foot-tall (8.5 m) fiberglass sculpture, and four accompanying fiberglass mushroom figures, that were part of an installation at Rockefeller Center. In May 2008, “My Lonesome Cowboy” (1998), a sculpture of a masturbating boy, sold for $15.2 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

The last artist I’m going to discuss is Richard Prince, recently made even more infamous through the inclusion of several of his works in the popular television show Gossip Girl. Richard Prince (born 1949 in the Panama Canal Zone) is an American painter and photographer. Prince began appropriating photographs in 1975. His image, Untitled (Cowboy), a “rephotograph” of a photograph taken originally by Sam Abell and appropriated from a cigaretteadvertisement, was the first “rephotograph” to raise more than $1 million at auction when it was sold at Christie’s New York in 2005.

Starting in 1977, Prince photographed four photographs which previously appeared in the New York Times. This process of re-photographing continued into 1983, when his work Spiritual America featured Garry Gross’s photo of Brooke Shields at the age of ten, standing in a bathtub, as an allusion to precocious sexuality and to the Alfred Stieglitz photograph by the same name. His Jokes series (beginning 1986) concerns the sexual fantasies and sexual frustrations of middle-class America, using stand-up comedy and burlesque humor.

(Untitled) Cowboy - Richard Prince (1989)

Re-photography uses appropriation as its own focus: artists pull from the works of others and the worlds they depict to create their own work. Appropriation art became popular in the late 1970s. Other appropriation artists such as Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Vikky Alexander, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Mike Bidlo also became prominent in the East Village in the 1980s.

During the early period of his career, Prince worked in Time magazine’s tear sheets department. At the end of each work day, he would be left with nothing but the torn out advertising images from the eight or so magazines owned by Time-Life.

Prince had very little experience with photography, but he has said in interviews that all he needed was a subject, the medium would follow, whether it be paint and brush or camera and film. He compared his new method of searching out interesting advertisements to “beachcombing.” His first series during this time focused on models, living room furniture, watches, pens, and jewelry. Pop culture became the focus of his work.

Prince’s series known as the Cowboys, produced from 1980 to 1992, and ongoing, is his most famous group of rephotographs. Taken from Marlboro cigarette advertisements of the Marlboro Man, they represent an idealized figure of American masculinity. The Marlboro Man was the iconic equivalent of later brands like Ralph Lauren, which used the polo pony image to identify and associate its brand. “Every week. I’d see one and be like, Oh that’s mine, Thank you,” Prince stated in an interview.

Prince’s Cowboys displayed men in boots and ten-gallon hats, with horses, lassos, spurs and all the fixings that make up the stereotypical image of a cowboy. They were set in the Western U.S., in arid landscapes with stone outcrops flanked by cacti and tumbleweeds, with backdrops of sunsets. The advertisements were staged with the utmost attention to detail.

It has been suggested that his works raise the question of what is real, what is a real cowboy, and what makes it so. Prince’s photographs of these advertisements attempt to prompt one to decide how real are media images.

Jokes - Richard Prince (1999-2000)

The subjects of Prince’s rephotographs are the photos of others. He is photographing the works of other photographers, who in the case of the cowboys, had been hired by Marlboro to create images depicting cowboys. Prince described his process in a 2003 interview by Steve Lafreiniere in Artforum. “I had limited technical skills regarding the camera. Actually I had no skills. I played the camera. I used a cheap commercial lab to blow up the pictures. I made editions of two. I never went into a darkroom.”

Prince’s re-photographs led to his series known as the Gangs, which followed the same technique of appropriating images from magazines as the Cowboys did, but now the subjects moved from advertisements and mass media toward niches in American society. Prince in this series paid homage to “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” in American niches, seen through magazines. He depicted the bizarre in subcultures such as the motorcycle-obsessed, hot rod enthusiasts, surfers, and heavy metal music fans.

These Gangs are recognized in his series Girlfriends, featuring biker girls. A motorcycle magazine he used featured photographs of motorcyclists’ girlfriends, were sprawled on their boyfriends’ bikes.

Untitled Publicities - Richard Prince - 2009 (?)

Prince’s Gangs works are single sheets of white paper covered with a grouping or “ganging” of 9×12, 35 mm photographs. Prince did not intend any distinct relationship between the “ganged” photographs. An example can be seen in such works as his 1984 Velvet Beach, twelve Ektacolor-printed photographs of massive waves, clearly from a surf magazine. Another example is his 1986 Live Free or Die, gathering nine images of loosely dressed women on motorcycles.

Prince has said numerous times that he would like to be a biker chick.

Prince’s first Joke piece came about in 1985, in New York, when he was living in the back room of the 303 Gallery, located on Park Avenue South. His first Joke was about psychiatrists, a subject he later worked with often. Prince described the discovery of the idea for the Jokes beginning when he posted up a small 11 x 14 inch handwritten joke on paper. He realized that if he had walked into a gallery and had seen it hanging from the wall, he would have been envious. Prince’s Jokes come in several forms. His first Jokes were hand written, taken from joke books. His jokes grew into more substantial works as he began to incorporate them with images, often pairing jokes with images that had no relevance with one another, creating an obscure relationship. An example of one of these peculiar combinations can be seen in his 1991 Good Revolution, which depicted black and white images of a male torso in boxing shorts set amongst doodles of a kitchen stove. These were set above the text “Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman that will give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you’re in the wrong home, that’s what it means.” In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Prince, like his contemporaries Lorna Simpsonand Barbara Kruger, played with image and text in a style that was becoming increasingly popular. Prince put jokes among cartoons, often from The New Yorker. Prince described his early discovery of jokes and his sense of humor, as “I never really started telling, I started telling them over. Back in 1985, in Venice, California, I was drawing my favorite cartoons in pencil on paper. After this I dropped the illustration or image part of the cartoon and concentrated on the punch line.” Prince’s jokes were primarily satirical one-liners, poking fun at topics such as religion, the relationship between husband and wife, his relations with women. The jokes are simple, often relying on a punch line: “I took my wife to a wife-swapping party, I had to throw in some cash” or “I never had a penny to my name, so I changed my name.” Prince commonly repeats his jokes.

Jokes became the complete subject of his prints, set atop monochromatic backgrounds red, orange, blue, yellow, etc. These works range in size from 56 x 48 inches as seen in his 1994 Untitled, to 112 x 203.5 inches, as seen in his 2000 work Nuts. His early jokes were modestly sized, but as they caught on he executed larger pieces. These Monochromatic Jokes question the importance of the unique, in high art. What is it that set these jokes apart from one another, the background color, the color of the text, the jokes themselves? Compared to other Appropriation Artists working in the same time period, Prince has a distinct quality between works and series. Works are distinguishable from one another or identifiable as a particular artist, but with Prince’s Monochromatic Jokes, we are presented with yellow text upon a blue background as in his 1989 Are You Kidding? Differing from Jeff Koons, for example, are not only technique and style, but also the significance given to making the artwork identifiable. In 1988 Koons was working with porcelain sculptures like his Michael Jackson and Bubbles and Pink Panther. These are two works produced in this year that are distinguishable. In the same year, 1988, are Prince’s Fireman and the Drunk and his Untitled (Joke), which raise the serious question of what sets these two works apart.

By exploring these three artists after a discussion of the role of Dada and Pop in art, the goal is to show that there is a way, perhaps not always critically accepted, of using the perpetually derided into the coveted. There is a role for kitsch and the banal beyond mere punchline.


Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, History