Los Angeles

“Notes on Renewed Appropriationisms”

The Project

Using references when the premise is to eliminate them, is like filling a slot instead of creating new channels

Formulating an external structure of support is to lose a great deal of strength

—Sturtevant, 1978

Fact: I once sat on a panel with Michael Lobel and Sturtevant where Sherrie Levine, Thomas Crow, T. J. Clark, and other pooh-bahs were in attendance. When Sturtevant asked Levine about the word, there was no consensus over for whom, where, or when “appropriationist” was let loose; and neither woman had much truck with the word in relation to her work.

Lauri Firstenberg based her exhibit and its press release on her article of the same name in Parkett 67 (2003). Despite her show’s title and her article’s invocation of Douglas Crimp and his 1977 show “Pictures,” it’s not uninteresting to note that Crimp never used any noun or verb form of the word “appropriate” in versions of his show’s text. Crimp wrote of “processes of quotation, excerptation, framing, and staging,” but he (and the October regime) continued to miss the destabilizing force of those issues, in part by ignoring Sturtevant, who had for over a decade been interrogating not appropriation but sameness, repetition’s production of difference, and the power of interior visibilities—via an intense (re)reading of Nietzsche’s eternal return. Expressing an interest in “some of the turns and tendencies of recent appropriationisms that are personal, political, formal, popular, historical, technical and self-critical,” Firstenberg rallies just about everything but fails to explain why the wide range of her interests is best demonstrated by these artists and not others and to elucidate the ramifications of her juxtapositions, thereby simply reproducing the concerns raised (in different ways) by Sturtevant and Levine instead of renewing their potential for today.

Why return to Crimp’s exhibit at all? As Lobel and I talked about recently, Gene Swenson’s 1966 “Art in the Mirror” show at MoMA—“appropriation” avant la lettre—would be a more salient starting point. After all, one could argue that ever since Mr. Rauschenberg erased one of Mr. de Kooning’s drawings, all contemporary artmaking depends on some kind of “appropriation”—and the complexity of that particular act figuring intellectual purchase and erasure as re-presentation could seed fields for much thought. Firstenberg starts with a good idea (a reinvestigation of appropriative energies and a few of its contemporary dynamos), but her choice and use of terms create a closed circuit (“appropriationisms” depend on “appropriation” that takes a “variety of forms, from a direct lifting of cultural artifacts to a more veiled resuscitation of the vernacular” as crafted by “neo-appropriationists”). For Wade Guyton’s sharp, hot Untitled Action Sculpture (Breuer) 1, 11, 111, 2004 (three reconfigurations of the skeletal chrome supports of Breuer-style chairs), to be located in front of Kelley Walker’s I see a uniform blue, turned 90 degrees, with a torn top right edge, 2004 (one of his voracious mirrored Rorschachs), shows more about kinds of shininess than about theories of appropriative (self)reflectivity. Smart Seth Price’s Global Taste: A Meal in 3 Courses, Element 1. Martha Rosler, 1985, 2004, in which he reframes Rosler’s 1985 video installation rechanneling various food (i.e., consumption)–related ’80s commercials, might find the pleasure principle at work in Rosler’s “political” montage, but mass culture has long been sorting through such politico-aesthetic transferences, and the effect here is nostalgic rather than challenging. Better to recall Douglas Sirk, with his Imitation of Life (1959), itself a remake, who not only created a crucial Pop manifesto—where personality is figured as a consumer good—but also showed how imitation and “appropriation” cause unruly ruptures in the structures of family, gender, sexuality, and race.

Finally, but significantly, in both versions of her text Firstenberg discusses the work of only five of the artists in her show (Walker, Price, Guyton, Siemon Allen, and Anton Vidokle); about the other four artists on display (Ellen Harvey, Mathieu Mercier, Michael Queenland, and Ruben Ochoa), there is, apparently, nothing to be said. While some might see this as a nod to Crimp’s convenient (careerist?) reshuffling of the artists in his “Pictures” show and texts, here it just comes across as lazy. Appropriation, so-called, can allow the myriad structures (economic, sexual, etc.) of art and its reception to be pondered, often by revealing, inappropriately, the nonvisual’s part in the aesthetic, demanding to be articulated exactly what can’t be shown or even seen.

Bruce Hainley