“...deconstruct the premises of modernism....exposing the device...analysis of power...is everything a quotation...images only refer to other images...substituting signs...Jean Baudrillard...from imitation to the copy...appropriated plurality of copies...the end of the original...”

“If you have a message, send a telegram.”
Samuel Goldwyn (quoted by Ralph Gibson)

I would like to start by describing three photographic works, pertinent to the issues discussed below.

A high quality studio color portrait of a woman and a man is rephotographed and printed as a color print a number of times, each time copying the preceding copy using the best photographic technique and materials available to preserve the quality of each subsequent copy as close to the original as possible. The procedure is repeated as many times as needed to reach a point of complete disintegration of the image readability. The resulting  photographs are exhibited as 8” by 10” prints in the order they were created with titles “Untitled, November 17, 1992”, “Untitled, November 18, 1992”, etc.

Two identical covers of Hustler magazine are glued back to back and put up on a stand. A camera on a tripod with a flash on it is enclosed with the stand in a box of six large mirrors completely surrounding them. Operating the camera by remote control the photographer takes multiple color photographs with different wide-angle lenses and varying the positions of camera, stand, and mirrors. The results are exhibited either as a series or as a single photograph selected to be the best.

An artist has a billboard size photograph printed from Walker Evans’ original negative of an image with the words “The world’s highest standard of living” on a billboard in it. The photograph is mounted and displayed without any text on actual roadside billboards along busy expressways.

If we imagine that a contemporary American critic well versed in today’s photo scene, with inclinations to the left and predilection for postmodern art practice were to write a critical essay commenting on these works and their cultural context, chances are s/he would use in it at least some of the terms and phrases from the list below the title above. (The list has been randomly culled from similar such reviews and essays.) The immediate problem would be: these works do not exist.  They were made up as an introduction to the issues of copy and original, creativity and reproduction as raised by the practice of such contemporary American artists as Richard Prince,
Sherrie Levine and John Baldessari.

“Images that can be retold”, “visual texts”, “silent critics” are all working definitions of this type of photographic practice coined in my attempts to find its common denominator. The critic A.D. Coleman refers to a larger postmodern activity that incorporates the works in question as “theory-driven art”.

The “physical” appearance of this work does not warrant excitement.  It ranges from the painfully dull (cropped and lightly manipulated “rephotographs” of popular and advertising color magazine imagery by Richard Prince) at worst to disturbing and thought provoking (Nancy Burson’s computer composites of human races and public personalities) at best. The air here is arid, the surfaces are lackluster, and color, however bright, is devoid of life.

A basic and overriding principle lying at the core of the work that is to critique, “deal with issues”, subvert established notions about art and culture, and hence visual seductiveness would not only be misplaced, but also harmful to its value and effect. When Sherrie Levine photographs an Edward Weston nude, and exhibits it as her own a reaction such as, “Nice image!  This is a very talented artist!” is exactly what the work sets out to undermine. As Max Kozloff puts it: “Sherrie Levine’s framed rephotographs of Walker Evans images were of course meant to undermine not only the prestige of prints made from original or copy negatives, but the value of an artist’s way of seeing; they argue that the esteem enjoyed by certain images is arbitrary and can be cheapened.”

This does not mean, however, that these works lacks ambition or its authors—motivation. Precisely the opposite is the case: the final product may be obtuse, but wait until you see the artist!  Thus the two examples mentioned (by Levine and Prince) set the following paradoxical chain of events: The piece on the wall may look, feel and taste uninspired and insipid—and especially so if this is not the first time you see this author’s work—yet only a dumb viewer may think the artwork is such... This is so partly because the work is on a museum or gallery wall, but more importantly so because its creators are not by any measure “Sunday artists”, but sophisticated intellectuals (most nowadays with M.F.A. degrees) whose scope of learning and critical and cultural concerns are the tools at work overlaying the backbone of the work with layers and layers of integrity and depth of meaning. In short, only a fool may think Sherrie Levine is a plagiarist. Richard Prince is not a deadline-stricken art-school sophomore.

Enter the critic mentioned earlier to bring the puzzle a step further. For the first time someone is to systematically and intelligently decipher the layers of meaning laden in the work.  “Sherrie Levine lays bare the fallacy of the religious faith modernism puts in originality and newness, thus effectively deconstructing one of its dearest premises. Working in a similar vein, Mr. Prince aims at an analysis of the internally colonizing power of commercial mass imagery through the proliferation and insidious influence of seemingly original, yet ultimately identical in their stupefying effect ads and ‘commercial art’ photographs. The cogent and intelligent questions those artists ask cannot be disregarded: ‘Isn’t everything nowadays quotation in one sense or another?’; ‘Are socially accepted commercial and art photography not substitute signs for the randomness with which post-industrial capitalism invests value and meaning?’...”, etc., etc. This critical text can and will go on for much longer until a sizably bigger toolbox of terminology and sense-investment techniques than the one I started with is exhausted.

This written or spoken word is of crucial importance: as an object in itself, as physical presence the artwork has minimal or no impact, no originality, wit or warmth. Conversely, by criticizing these very attributes in the imagery it appropriates or uses, those works desperately need and rely on text/discourse because it is implicit in them, and when it is let out in the open, it justifies their meaning. Being by their nature silent visual texts, the works are liberated by the verbosity of interpretation. They are born-again. Samuel Goldwyn is completely put to shame here, to refer to his modernist statement at the beginning of this text. The artists do have a message, and are sending in whole doctoral theses, not simple telegrams.

It is curious to observe how Prince and Levine use and rely on words as a complement to their “image-making”. The former accompanies his images in book form with slightly absurdist tales (some allegedly autobiographical) and with old worn-out jokes. Dullness is the main trait of those, just as it is of the imagery. Levine, on the other hand, when interviewed about her life and work recounts an early childhood memory, which turns out to be confiscated from an Alberto Moravia book. In this way both of them achieve some kind of nonsensical totality: Prince within his art, Levine between her real life and her art persona. This integrity is worthy of the artists’ efforts. It is also good for them because it supplies that certain amount of tension and ambiguity usually expected from art and most certainly missing from their work per se.

After the images have been properly invested with meaning, and their creators hailed as innovators, the next episode of the puzzle-paradox is about to happen: the artwork is to be gobbled up by the commercial gallery machine, put a price tag on, and properly disposed of, i.e. sold. The work, which has as its rationale and meaning the post-industrial death of originality, is labeled original. The artists are found guilty of creation and sentenced to success. The fate of their efforts is sealed in a post-modernist art world as hungry for newness as the modernist one was. The artists here find themselves in the remarkable position of a writer who has struggled hard to produce the anti-novel of his dreams, only to find out after it is published that his editor has merely rearranged the words, and without changing anything else  has come up with Leo Tolstoy’s “War And Peace”...  Subversion is subverted. Levine and Prince have become postmodern modernists.

As a confirmation of the above point, chance brings into my hands a book by John Baldessari, a case study of art in which the copy becomes original, dullness is stimulating thought, and impotence breeds power. The book is entitled “Close-cropped Tales” and consists of what look like appropriated stills from Hollywood B-movies, with danger, violence and anguish pervasive.  As the title suggests those images are cropped into irregular geometric forms, and grouped in six series according to the number of sides of the geometric figure: from a triangle to an octagon.  Except for the title and the names of the six sections (“A three-sided tale”, “A four-sided tale”, etc.) there is no additional text beyond the bibliographic information and the following note: “3000 copies printed. 50 numbered and signed by the artist. This project was coordinated by Tom Damrauer."

As in the examples by Levine and Prince mentioned above, this work is much more interesting to talk about than to look at.  By virtue of its  very predictability and blandness the work acquires aura and virtue. From its boredom stems its excitement; its major esthetic conceit is its unassumingness. The main problem is that notwithstanding the piling up of paradox over critical meaning as overlayers on the work, in its material presence it remains unchanged: bleary and lukewarm.  As this art thrives on paradox, the ultimate one is that to salvage its main shortcoming it is better left undone, and only described or projected as a possibility.

Or else the artists face the painful necessity to think of and implement strategies and techniques to make their art more exciting to look at, which does not necessarily mean easier to digest. However, this new look and feel may well destroy and change the whole meaning of the work, since it is known form and content can not be separated randomly and at will. If nevertheless chosen, this path requires a little more effort than sitting deep at thought trying to choose which Marlboro ad or Weston nude to cannibalize for tomorrow’s art piece.

In the meantime, while waiting to witness the next esthetic development on the stage occupied by Levine, Prince and Baldessari, I am contemplating my own art. (For, not unlike them, besides words I also tinker with images.) Should I realize  the projects I described at the beginning, or are they better left undone? If the first, isn’t it a bit too late already? If the second, how are people to know I am talented? For the time being my tentative solution is: leave ‘em undone, yet write a Ph.D.-length critical piece on them as if they were fact, and exhibit the paper itself as visual art.

Yet since this is quite of bit of work, I will start getting into the mood by chanting 3000 times “A copy is a copy is a copy is a copy...”

©Rafaelo Kazakov, 1993, New York City

As  I proofread this text, written 15 years ago in art school, I learn that one of Richard Prince's rephotographs of the Marlboro ads sold at auction a year ago for $3,401,000. More on this can be found here:
RICHARD PRINCE'S MARLBORO MAN SETS WORLD RECORD OF $3.4 MILLION FOR PHOTO AT AUCTION. The image sold is reproduced below. (RK, November 2008)                                                                  



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