Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran
The exhibition Good Morning America casts light on how, in the late 1970s and the 1980s, an important group of American artists invented a new form of artistic language, often referred to as ‘Appropriation art’, by borrowing existing photographs, objects, aesthetics, ideas and clichés found in American art and consumer culture. The exhibition includes works by Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Charles Ray. Each has created a very personal form of artistic expression to tell a story of American society at the time.
The incorporation of collage by the Cubist artists Picasso and Braque – the latter of whom was the first, in 1913, to introduce fragments of wallpaper into his paintings – was a radical move, creating a new definition of what could be considered a work of art. The invention of the ‘Readymade’ by Marcel Duchamp in the same year was even more of a rupture with traditional art history and in fact a new beginning. However, it took time for a consensus to form around the revolutionary idea of readymade art. This avant-garde concept remained more or less dormant for decades, until artists at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s reintroduced it into their works. Even though collage and the readymade were invented in Europe, it was mostly in America where these artistic concepts became a dominating force. Neo-Dadaists like Robert Rauschenberg, and Pop artists like Andy Warhol worked in ways that were close to Duchamp’s initial idea by introducing ordinary objects into their art. The Pop artists in general took these ideas further by creating a new kind of aesthetic, which they borrowed from popular culture, the media and the world of advertisements.
Duchamp’s readymade was a philosophical act, stripping the artwork of all aesthetic or narrative intention, while dealing with the notion of authorship and the role of the viewer. This resonates in the writing of the French critic Roland Barthes of the 1950s and 60s, who famously heralded the ‘death of the author’. Such ideas had an important impact on American critics and intellectuals, as we can see in the magazine October, which was very influential for the artists related to Appropriation. A large part of their analytical approach was based on French ‘post-structuralism’, and in particular the ideas of Barthes, whose intolerance of stereotypes, especially in terms of narrative structures, in the worlds of culture and art was accompanied by a call for rupture, subversion and invention.
After two decades of Pop, Minimalist and Conceptual art, which took artists further away from traditional art-making in the first person, young artists in New York in the 1970s and 80s proposed a new artistic approach, which was termed Appropriation art, Neo-Pop or Neo-Conceptualism. The basic idea was to appropriate existing forms and figures to create a new kind of meaning. Their art certainly had roots in Pop art, but the mechanisms, logic and theoretical discourse of Conceptualism are just as important, since most of these artists were students in its heyday. Even though the point of departure for all the artists in this exhibition was the readymade, collage and appropriation in one way or another, they have all developed their own artistic languages, introducing different characteristics and their chosen thematics in order to emphasise different aspects of the human condition.
In the 1970s, early in her career, Cindy Sherman (b.1954) became one of the leading figures of American Appropriation art. Through her staged photography, she created scenes based on references to popular aesthetics, clichés and commonplace ideas, particularly in film, and later around the depiction of women within the American media and society in general. These codified images highlighting social and cultural conventions often carry a strong political undertone, particularly regarding the condition of women in society.
While most, if not all, of the Appropriation artists were borrowing and reproducing objects and images, Sherman was appropriating ‘ideas’. In her series Film Stills, begun in the late 1970s, for example, she stages herself as a character from a film. There is, of course, no movie – only the artist pretending to be a performer. But these works are not about Sherman herself; they are about the clichéd ways in which women are presented as a commodified sign in society. In fact, Sherman’s artistic project is a visual encyclopedia of images representing the American woman.
Each of her series is made up of photographed theatrical performances framed by a certain aesthetic, imagery, colours and forms, suggesting specific narratives inspired by the references she is making. Her image is never a copy, since there is no ‘original’; it is rather a simulacrum, referring to an idea, which puts the artist into a productive but ambiguous relationship with the viewer. In the Film Stills, the figure of the artist is ‘glued’ to the persona in the image, but later on in her works, when the characters and scenarios become more theatrical, we can see a certain separation between the two. This play with the simulacra, and an expression floating between the first and third persona, creates intriguing layers within the narratives.
Sherman’s practice does not reveal an artist situated on the periphery of culture and looking in, nor merely decrypting and intellectualising societal codes. Rather, we find an artist in the thick of that culture, communicating what she sees, feels and senses, and engaging with its reality. She appropriates scenes, but first and foremost, she expresses, reconstructs, readjusts, transforms and adds to them, inviting the spectator to be seduced and disturbed by her art, and to participate in the pleasure and critical vision of her fiction.
Of all the Appropriation artists, Richard Prince (b. 1949) perhaps made the most radical use of Duchamp’s readymade. His formative years coincided with the heyday of Pop art and the breaking through of the more analytical Conceptual art. Both permeate his artistic production. His series ‘Cowboys’ (1980–1992), for instance, in which he re-photographed images from the famous Marlboro advertising campaign, is indebted to Pop art’s critical interest in consumerist culture. However, ‘Cowboys’ can be seen not only as a cynical representation of reality, but also, in the critical tradition of Conceptual art, as a piercing inquiry into the ethos of the American vernacular, and even as the existential gesture of a figurative and realist artist. Such pieces sealed Prince’s reputation as a leading manipulator of social and cultural symbols.
Even though his art, especially his use of photography, is conceptually and intellectually anchored in the critical discourse of its time – loaded with references to simulacra and the death of the author, as championed by thinkers such as Barthes, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze – his practice cannot be reduced to a philosophical or sociological comment. Rather, it creates an intelligent dialogue between critical thought and formalistic transformation. His Marlboro man (the ‘cowboy’) offers a contemporary reworking of the readymade, while his series begun in the 2000s ‘American/English’ (where he juxtaposes his collection of American first-edition books with their British counterparts) and ‘Untitled (Publicity)’ (where he appropriates publicity shots) carry the tautological logic and attitude of Conceptual art. The transfer of cartoons to canvas made in the series ‘Jokes’ is a Pop procedure, while the backgrounds of this ‘Check Paintings’ (examples from his collection of celebrities’ cancelled cheques mounted on canvas) look back to a longstanding tradition of modernism.
Prince’s paintings, as opposed to his photographic works, are neither preconceived nor harmonious, linear, stable nor continuous. Instead, they explore discrepancy and displacement, contradictions and misunderstandings (much like reality in general). We could even speak of the absurdity of these works, the zone where irreconcilable elements on the pictorial surface interrupt the meaning. Here, the spectator is confronted with a confusing and enigmatic frame of reference, akin to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ruminations on the challenging frame of vision in which one ‘perceives much, but understands little’. Indeed, Prince’s figurative paintings are about reconstructing reality, or fabricating parallel realities.
Repetition in different forms plays an important role in Prince’s narrative structures. This is most obvious in his re-photographed appropriations, where repetitions introduce a ‘double’, creating confusion and frustration, as developed in canonical texts by Kafka and Nabokov, two writers who have a special position in Prince’s library. In the paintings, the same jokes or cartoons are often used within a series, but each time they are slightly transformed. ‘Reprise’ is perhaps a more appropriate term than repetition for these works, since the images are integrated into Prince’s system before their function as appropriation takes hold. According to Kierkegaard, repetition and reprise are part of the same, but divergent, act – the former being identified with what has been and the latter with moving ahead. Reprise can thus be considered a modernist concept pertaining to the liberty of the artist and the notion of progress. It is in this sense that Prince the painter emerges as an artist not merely engaged with the calculated appropriation of images, signs or objects (and the critical baggage that comes with these devices), but one equally involved with the development of a genuine sensibility related to touch. The ‘Car Hoods’ paintings, for example – moulds taken from vintage car bonnets and washed with colour – are real objects, but also painterly abstractions. They are embedded with connotations of energy and power, at once indexing machinery and the legacy of Abstract Expressionism.
In his first series of works, Jeff Koons’s (b. 1955) artistic intention was to develop Duchamp’s notion of the readymade. He did so by appropriating everyday objects together with artistic references to artists like Robert Smithson and Dan Flavin. But he added the notion of ‘display’, partly borrowed from the Minimalists and the display-aesthetics of the consumer society. The semantics of the display of works such as New 100’s Merit Ultra-Lights (1981) and New Hoover Convertibles (1980) or New SheltonWet/Drys 5-Gallon Doubledecker (1981–87) are anchored in the fact that beauty is related to the notion of the New.
With his series dating from the late 1980s entitled ‘Banality’, including the sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), Koons moved away from the appropriation of readymade objects to the more general borrowing of decorative styles. He created figurative objects in the manner of German populist woodcuts, for example, Italian baroque/rococo ceramics, or sentimental ornaments. In doing so, he sanctioned a certain ‘kitsch’ taste that has never been considered acceptable by the art world, delving into the cultural closet of the ‘lower’ classes, and by concentrating on the conceptual, decorative and abstract aspects of these recognised but denigrated artistic styles, giving them new content and form. Sculptures with heavily blown-up proportions, carved and cast by skilled craftsmen, serve as vehicles for a renewed notion of art and aesthetics.
The works from ‘Banality’ represent a line from Duchamp’s readymades and Warhol’s silkscreen image transfers, but through the appropriation of such subject matter as fairytales, Buster Keaton, the Pink Panther or Michael Jackson. Their chief originality and achievement lies in the way in which Koons creates a new kind of artistic language, extracted from ‘mass consciousness’. His creative act blends aesthetics and strategy. The former is based on his sincere conviction that such populist references have true artistic potential, and that the notion of art is so open and flexible that it can be manipulated or changed according to the artist’s intention. This is founded on the fact that, being already accepted as aesthetic signs by an important section of society, the works will be recognised on several different social levels simultaneously. (We should keep in mind that the art world has expanded in the past forty years – since the emergence of Pop art – and references to popular culture have become increasingly significant in creating the consensus on art.) Just as Warhol proposed real news images and iconic pictures as art, Koons appropriates the aesthetics and the social and cultural conventions of the masses. He ‘penetrates mass consciousness’ and proposes a populist notion of beauty as art. ‘Where I differ’, he says ‘is that Warhol believed you could penetrate the mass through distribution and I continue to believe you penetrate the mass with ideas.’ One could add that Koons’s creative act is also – and not least – a political act, aimed at re-evaluating the cultural references of a class that for too long has been regarded as a cultural outsider.
From the beginning, Koons’s art has essentially played with different forms of assemblage. In the 1990s, with series such as ‘Celebration’, ‘Easyfun’, ‘Easyfun-Ethereal’ and ‘Popeye’, he adopted the well-established artistic language of the collage, initially making large-scale paintings composed of a few objects/signs. These were then developed into an overwhelming complexity, where fragments of images metamorphose over the surface of the canvas, and different spaces and times are represented simultaneously without hierarchy, beginning or end. The reading of the work is defined by the kind of semiotic value that one attributes to each image fragment, and how one relates them to each other. These paintings interlock with Koons’s sculptures from the same period: copies of plastic beach toys, but cast in heavy aluminum and painted, and in some cases combined with readymade objects.
Again and again in Koons’s work, the spectator is confronted by reflections on social aesthetics, self-acceptance, willpower, sexuality, immortality and death. But there is one notion in particular that recurs like a leitmotif across the whole of his output: the notion of pleasure – both aesthetic and personal. This is manifested in pleasure in the object, the quest for perfection, and the quality of the material. If we consider his different bodies of work – including the almost fetishised readymade objects in ‘The New’, the highly decorative works in ‘Banality’, the sexualised imagery in ‘Made in Heaven’ (1989), with its rejection of the notion of guilt and shame, and his last series ‘Popeye’ (begun 2003) featuring beach toys, which evoke children’s joy – we see that all are more or less images of pleasure. In his insistence on this theme, Koons is highlighting the need to reject all ideas of blame and culpability, which consciously or unconsciously determine our actions, and to break away from social and cultural taboos and intellectual oppression.
Robert Gober (b. 1954) introduced his very personal take on Appropriation art in the 1980s and 90s. In opposition to the blank Duchampian readymade, his handmade objects are loaded with emotions, doubts and even suffering. He is concerned with transforming objects and situations into emotive and sensorial experiences, creating art that is fascinating and troubling at the same time. Seemingly innocent everyday objects betray a different side to their character, referring back not only to the artist’s personal experiences, but to what is common to us all. Familiar objects from the home environment such as a crib, a sink, a pump, a drain, or a stack of newspapers create the initial impression of readymades, but all are handmade and strongly infused with the psychological workings and memories of the artist. Orchestrated in dialogue with the ‘normal’, perhaps in order to comment on his own ‘difference’ as a gay man, the transfigured objects tell their stories on several levels, presenting intricate and mystifying narratives concerned with childhood, sexuality, religion, discrimination and memory. On closer inspection they take on a symbolic character onto which the viewer’s experiences and unconscious whims can be projected.
Aware that human existence consists of endless oppositions and contradictions – fact/fiction, wholeness/fragmentation, reality/fantasy – Gober thoughtfully deconstructs commonplace preconceptions and activates the possibility for new meaning. Every detail matters. He frequently works from a dominant object and then adds to it tangible elements and intangible situations. New meetings of objects occur; new meanings arise. This dualistic approach, as well as the constant association of different ideas and objects to create new situations, the hijacking of the meaning of familiar objects and the use of metaphors, is related to the visual rhetoric of Surrealism, sometimes recalling Magritte’s illusionary metaphorical vision. Such references underline the fact that Gober practises a highly intellectual and sensitive form of art that continually generates new dimensions, triggering elemental experiences within the viewer.
Felix González-Torres (1957–1996) gathered appropriated everyday urban objects, loaded with emotional connotations or cultural conventions, and placed them in participatory situations that renew their meanings. He rarely produced any objects, but instead used readymade things that were accompanied by a Certificate of Authenticity, including guidelines for the exhibition of the work, without being overly concerned about the exact aesthetic presentation of each piece. According to the artist, the work became ‘active’ once it was acquired, instigating a new kind of contact and responsibility between the artist and the collector. Behind each work and object lies a story or a narrative that operates on many different levels, partly anchored in the artist’s own experience, partly in its openness to the initiative and participation of the public. Taken all together, his works constitute a corpus expressing fundamental themes related to man and society.
The audience is invited, for example, to help themselves from mounds of sweets or stacks of posters, transforming consumables into social events. In this way, the viewer becomes an actor and vehicle within the mechanism of the work. Profoundly democratic, Gonzalez-Torres’ artworks are constructed around the bipolar function of denotation and connotation. There is the materiality and the display of the works – simple objects like clocks or light bulbs, often arranged in a way recalling Minimalist sculpture – and then there is meaning given by the artist, informed by dense biographical, biological and political undercurrents but which never dominates the connotation projected by the spectator/participator.
Untitled, Blue Placebo (1991) is a pile of sweets whose weight is equivalent to the combined weights of González-Torres and his partner Ross Laycock, who had died from AIDS that year. The spectator is invited either to eat the sweets or carry them into the world, so that the private sphere merges with the public. The objects and their presentation then function as vehicles with different connotations, religious, sexual, social, medical, economic, according to the personality and the culture of the participating viewer. A similar exchange takes place in the poster series Untitled (NRA) (1991), while Untitled (Ischia) (1993) is a string of lights that functions as both symbolic poetry and architectural frame, capturing the festive atmosphere of an outdoor party and creating a physical space within which viewers can commune and complete the work.
Even though Charles Ray (b. 1953) works in a dialogue with appropriation and artistic references, his art can neither be systematised into pre-existing historical categories nor framed in relation to specific artistic groups or movements. But he is no outsider. Over the last thirty years, he has emerged as one of the art world’s most unique figures. Intrigued by the vocabulary and thematic of Anthony Caro’s sculptural practice – including the joining of different elements within a work, and the work’s relationship to the surrounding space – Ray has cleverly worked through the legacy of Pop art and Minimalism in his pursuit of extra-formalistic and aesthetic potentialities. Introducing his body into the creative process, and into the art object itself, he creates performative sculptures that generate emanative relationships between spectators and artworks.
Ray manipulates existing forms and figures like altered readymades or quotes. His practice is a cycle of reprises, and with these borrowed and renewed elements he creates spectacular surprises through an unexpected manipulation of weight, scale and perception. Behind the first level of appearances and the obvious connotations of cultural and social symbols, as we can see with works like Plank Piece I–II (1973) and Ink Drawing (1988), lies a reflection that is more abstract as well as more sensitive. The invisible forces that manipulate the perception and experience of the spectator form the basis of Ray’s oeuvre. Most of his works are constructed around a duality: with the passing of time, they frequently reveal themselves to be something other than the way they appear at first glance. This explains why they are often conceived in layers, both conceptually (through a multitude of meanings) and materially (through what one might call the ‘Matryoshka effect’). In the process of revelation, an intriguing if not disturbing experience of strangeness occurs.
Aiming to give sense and meaning to the initial form by rephrasing, transforming or subverting it, Ray charges his objects with emotional significance, whether through attraction or repulsion. This sublime moment of transformative experience is simultaneously cognitive and physical, creating a certain kinesthetic aspect that one perceives as a perpetual state of ‘becoming’. Following this objective, works such as Male Mannequin (1990), Aluminum Girl (2003), Tractor (2003–05) invite intriguing speculation about identity, authenticity, beauty and idealisation; and they concern both the narrow annals of art history and broader questions of sociability, consumerism and simulacra (Debord, Baudrillard and Deleuze are formidable influences).
Male Mannequin is an appropriation of a famous mannequin created by Sears Roebuck, who invented a new type of showroom dummy in the 1950s that was made of fibreglass. He also wrote a book explaining in detail the characteristics of his new standardised mannequin. However, for Ray, it is a reflection on contemporary figuration, how it can be both idealisation and figuration. To this standard industrial mannequin, the artist has added a representation of his own genitals, and by doing so he gives it a human dimension. Aluminum Girl is not a mannequin, but a life-cast, where the artist emphasises the relationship between what has been stylised and what is natural. It is about the dynamic within the structure. Because aluminium is soft, its edges do not hold in the way that bronze does. This is what gives the sculpture its flesh, its body. The kinaesthetic aspect once again emerges from the physicality of the piece, the biology, as if the aluminium could come to life. ‘It’s almost as if she could step out of the paint’, Ray has said. He has commented similarly on Tractor: ‘I think of the Tractor as a kind of machine in heaven. It … could even be real the first time you see it shined up, sand-blasted and cleaned. You perceive the piece very slowly and it’s only as you move into it that you realize it’s been hand-made. Originally, I thought that it would be more of a transparent object. I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I think it has a depth to it. Again, I also like that it’s aluminum, not bronze.’
Ray’s practice bridges modernism, Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism. Whatever nomenclature one chooses to describe his methodology, it is clear that critical distance, intelligent reflection and genuine intuition anchor his production. He is a master of adopting and recreating art forms that translate, illustrate, represent and perform both obvious and obscure forces, which cumulatively thrust the spectator into a captivating experience.
Altogether, these artists present fragmented images of society from the 1970s to the 1990s, pointing towards the spectacle of consumer culture in general at the same time as revealing their own personal engagement with American culture in particular.
 Jeff Koons, published by Taschen, 1992.
 “I have always been interested in structure, both internal and external, mind versus body” Charles Ray interviewed by Gunnar B. Kvaran, Astrup Fearnley Museet, 2006.
 I have always been interested in structure, both internal and external, mind versus body” Charles interviewed by Gunnar B. Kvaran, Astrup Fearnley Museet, 2006.