Los Angeles

Lee Kaplan

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions / Jan Baum Gallery

Until this year, Lee Kaplan’s work had taken the form of small, intimate collages of photomechanically reproduced images derived from corporate reports, fashion layouts, and advertisements. By appropriating and dislocating the allegorizing strategies of early Modernism—such as those of Kurt Schwitters or Hannah Höch—and rereading them through the reifying language of Madison Avenue, Kaplan was able to disclose their historicized passivity and restate an open evaluation of the image-context dialectic. In two recent exhibitions, however, Kaplan moved up in scale and ambition to tackle historicism head-on, specifically the art institution’s use of media encoding and dissemination to naturalize the modern masterpiece.

At Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Kaplan presented a group of photo-enlarged image/text pieces in an attempt to deconstruct the artificial hegemony of Pop art—in the artist’s words, “this century’s first truly media assimilated modern art movement.” Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and James Rosenquist exploited the received information of advertising rhetoric; they, in turn, have become a self-fulfilling prophecy of media marketing. Because Warhol has become synonymous with Marilyn and Jackie, Lichtenstein with comic-book iconography, there are virtually no gaps left for the audience to fill in. Kaplan pushes this hermeneutic circumscription to a minimalist extreme. In Demystification and Reconstruction with Contrary Alignment, both 1988, for example, he reduces Lichtenstein’s war-comic works to a single, black typographical text of a metallic gold or copper background. Thus an explosion is signified by a simple “BLAM,” or machine-gun fire becomes “BRATATATA.” Similarly, in Associable With Sufferance Rather Than Action, 1988, Jasper Johns’ oeuvre is stripped down to five textual signifiers: “MAP,” “FLAG,” “NUMBER,” “TARGET,” and “DEVICE.” We are so used to seeing the actual paintings in reproduction that we have little difficulty in correlating each word with its appropriate representational image.

Kaplan further challenges the institutional influence on art with his “Rights of Reproduction” series, shown at the Jan Baum Gallery. Each painting in the series is derived from a work owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A sign-painter (hired by Kaplan) reproduces the original work’s actual size in acrylic; this series features “reproductions” of Jasper Johns’ Map, 1961; Frank Stella’s striped Empress of India, 1965; Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962; Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl, 1963; Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942–43, and Yves Klein’s Blue Monochrome, 1961. The majority of each painting is blacked out, so that it can only be discerned through a “window” created by the word “DEFER,” which is rendered in various type styles. The deferral works on a number of levels. As an audience, we defer to Kaplan’s selection of works to be partially reproduced; the artist, in turn, defers to the painting talents of the sign painter, as well as to the mechanical rights of reproduction owned by the Museum of Modern Art (which, incidentally, barred the original works’ photographic simulation). The deferral also encompasses the museum’s selection of these particular paintings as representative masterworks by these artists. Because MoMA has chosen them for its permanent collection, we assume that they must be the best pieces, thus sanctifying their place within the historicized Modern-art pantheon. Kaplan defers one more step by labeling and hanging the works in accordance with MoMA’s guidelines: the exact number of inches from the floor, medium used, “Gift of. . . . ,” etc.

Conceptually, the problem with this strategy is that Kaplan invites his audience to defer to the same historicist assumptions that he purports to deconstruct. By creating an artificial us-vs.-them, artist-vs.-institution dichotomy, Kaplan simplifies historicism into an invariably passive “inside-outside” dialectic. Instead of implicating the artist, critic, gallery, and museum as parts of a broader institution, rife with contradictions, Kaplan himself defers to a conceptual closed shop, where the production of real objects in the real world is made to fit into a fixed, coded (albeit disguised as critical) formulation. If Kaplan can reapply the dislocating strategies of his earlier collages and somehow reallegorize the historical, he may be able to break the deferential stranglehold.

Colin Gardner