Leo Steinberg, however, suggests that thievery and laziness have little to do with such borrowings, but rather represent a healthy phenomenon that he calls "a spiritual intercourse between artists and art . . . an intergenerational fellowship." Trumbull, he suggest, "in 'borrowing' from Van Dyck, realized a subliminal aspiration to become part of a chain, to join and prolong the historic relay from Antiquity, through Renaissance and Baroque, to Revolutionary America; suing for membership in that glorious company of horse thieves that is the performing cast of the history of art."
It is a juicy and delicious subject, the whole history of "Art About Art," and it has now, inevitably perhaps, become the subject of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, on view through Sept. 24, after which it will begin a national tour. "Art About Art" is also the title of the accompanying catalogue (E.P. Dutton & Co., [WORD ILLEGIBLE] paperback) by Jean Lipman (who also wrote "Calder's Universe") and Whitney curator Richard Marshall.
Apart from Leo Steinberg's entertaining and informative historial introductory essay, both enterprises have turned out to be disppointingly narrower than the subject itself, since they devote themselves exclusively to American art since 1950, with a preponderance of "pop," a narrow slice indeed. Both, however, provide some provocative thoughts and sufficient chuckles to keep art lovers busy thinking about the subject until a broader survey can be organized.
The exhibition centers on what is, in fact, a remarkable phenomenon: The fact that since the 1950s, many American artists have turned to old and recent masters, not for inspiration or to help solve formal problems, as before, but for subject matter per se.
This blatant and undisguised copying, reinterpretation, or simple parodying of earlier art has, indeed, become a whole genre, with innumerable partisans, including Malcolm Morley, John Clem Clarke, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Robert Indiana, George Segal and Red Grooms. Fifty painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and video artists are included here.
The show is divided into five sections, showing new art "About Old Masters," "About Modern Masters," and on to early and recent American art. There is also a section on art "About the Artist" replete with etchings of paintbrushes by Jim Dine, magnified painted brushstrokes by Lichtenstein and a paper bag full of stretched canvases by Lucas Samaras.
Not surprisingly, the old master realists have been the most provocative influences. Velasquez's famed "Las Meninas" ("Maids of Honor"), now in the Prado, has inspired one of the most profound new works on view, a haunting video piece by Juan Downey wherein the artist visits the painting over a period of several days, looking at it in a mirror through which he attempts to enter the Baroque space of the painting itself.
One of the important elements in this famous painting is the mirror which hangs within it, reflecting the space where the viewer seems to stand. Downey takes inspiration from that idea and expands upon it, giving it new meaning. Such new meaning is rare in this show.
"Las Meninas" is also reinterpreted by John Clem Clarke, whose close-up rendering of the Velasquez work gives an astonishing likeness, despite the very different stencil and airbrush technique which has applied to this and many other old master paintings, including Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Clarke is among the best of those who devote themselves exclusively to art-about-art subjects, though one would have to live with one of his works for a while to see how well they hold up over the long run.
Mona Lisa, art's most famous icon, is much in evidence, in works by Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Marisol and Andy Warhol. But it is only Warhol, in repeating her in various colors all over the surface of his painting, who makes a statement about her equating the proliferation of her image, in art books and the like, with other commodities like Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's soup cans. Art surely had become such a commodity in the '60s.
In fact, since "pop" was chiefly concerned with pointing out this vulgarization of contemporary culture, it is not surprising that "art" imagery itself provided such fertile territory. "Pop" was also anti-elitist, and the desire to de-mystify art allowed the kind of irreverence "pop" artists loved to visit upon objects of veneration. What better target than the old masters?
Wich led, unfortunately, to the plethora of parodies and takeoffs that dominate this show, and range from the amusing and sometimes provocative works by Larry Rivers, Red Gtooms and Roy Lichtenstein, (who does his Benday dot routine on everyone from Monet to Matisse) to the rubbery, cartoony travesties by Peter Saul, who actually seems to be "taking off" Picasso's "Guernica." Mel Ramos, who replaces the "Odalisque" of Ingres with a magazine "cutie," is, with Saul, an artist who would probably not be hung in a museum were the subject matter not based upon other, far better art.
Red Grooms' three-dimensional takeoff on Robert Capa's famous photograph of the Picassos on the beach is hilarious, as are you Scott Grieger's photographed impersonations of works of art, including (legs flying in the air) a George Rickey sculpture.
Larry Rivers is another artist who holds up very well throughout this show. He has often used art subjects, but usually the commercial manifestations. One painting, for example, is based on a Rembrandt - not upon the original, but upon the Dutch Masters cigar box version.
One of several works on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum to the Whitney show is Rivers' takeoff of the National Gallery of Art's famous portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, painted in 1812. Though they are neighbors on the Mall in Washington, it is always a source of some amusement to think, when looking at either of them, how unlikely it is that they will ever meet. Or what would happen if they did!
The National Gallery portrait is unabashed flattery. All done up in his parade regalia, Napoleon would appear, by the clock on the wall and the burnt-down candle to have just risen from his desk at 4:15 a.m. after a hard night's work. David's intent was obviously to glorify.
Rivers' outrageous "interpretation," however, which keeps the main image of Napoleon intact (while loosening up the brushwork and adding collage), is called "The Greatest Homosexual." It is, says Rivers, "in the tradition of a contemporary artist 'paying homage' to some brilliant ancestor. I didn't 'set up' at the National Gallery as did Matisse when he copied at the Louvre (I just bought a large color repro).After many days of drawing, brushing, cutting, gluing, stencilling, etc., I couldn't avoid some obvious nontechnical conclusions. Given a right hand nesting in the split of the cream vest, a gesture which by itself has come to prepresent Napoleon, the plump torso settled comfortably on the left hip, the careful curls and coif, the cliche of pursed lips - I decided Napoleon was gay. Now if he wasn't history's 'Greatest Homosexual' who was - Michelangelo?"
Apart from what some viewers might consider to be objectionable, the comparison in the attitudes of the two artists, the early 19th-century glorification versus the late 20th century irreverence, is telling. This show yearns for such juxtapositions.
Art begets more art, there is no doubt about that. One question that might be usefully asked, however, is whether it has been begetting any good art (let alone better art) during this most current art about art craze? This show neither asks nor answers that question.
There is too much that is not here, bad and good. One New York, artist, in what could be the dead end of the genre, currently offers to render "your face in a famous painting" for fees ranging from $500 to $1,000.
On the other hand, there are some very poetic local manifestations, notably Charlotte Robinson's pencil drawings which monumentalize, in an amusing but telling way, the words of contemporary artists and critics, profound and absurd.
The quality of current art-about-art also obviously ranges from the profound to the absurd, the most profound being that which inspired some creative new entity, such as the work of Joseph Cornell, whose universes within boxes are so much more profound and poetic than the rest that it seems wholly out of place in this show.
One point that is made clear by the exhibition, however, is that much of what the "pop" era produced is now a lifeless period antique, one aspect of which had a great deal to say about old master art but actually produced very little that could either rival or join it.