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Steal This Exhibit

"Black Star Press" by Kelley Walker. Courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The art of appropriation at the Albright-Knox

The ECHO exhibit at the Albright-Knox is about appropriation—borrowing, stealing, ripping off, and recycling—in art, and opens with the two modern era pathfinders of the practice, Marcel Duchamp from the first part of the 20th century, and Andy Warhol from the second.

Art always appropriated, in spades, but before the modern era what it appropriated was just art. What is called art. Painting, sculpture, architecture. Styles, forms, subjects.

What the art of Duchamp and Warhol appropriated was everything.

This was a key insight of modern art, that it could—and then it did—appropriate everything. Which is really another way of saying—because what art was doing was what it always did, which was appropriate art—that everything is art. Everything people make or do. Which was really a medieval idea, from the philosopher/theologian/saint Thomas Aquinas. He said that.

So the key modern art insight of art as appropriation is itself an appropriation.

All the artworks in the show are from the Albright-Knox permanent collection. Duchamp is represented by his enigmatic little work consisting of a small wire cage containing marble cubes, cuttlebone, and thermometer. A category of art object Duchamp described as Readymade. His most outrageous Readymade, a urinal, was art for two reasons: first, based on Aquinas’ idea that everything anyone makes or does is art; second, based on Duchamps’ own idea that it is art because he said it was art. That is, because the artist appropriated it as a work of art. Thereby inventing the truly modern art form, conceptual art, a subcategory of appropriation art. (I think.)

Warhol is represented by his reproduction—cropped and enlarged—of a photo by Charles Moore originally published in LIFE magazine depicting a scene from the 1963 Birmingham civil rights conflagration. Why or how was this Warhol’s art? For pretty much the same reason his Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes were his art. Because he appropriated them.

And there’s no end to it. The insight is infinitely self-generating. Or more precisely, art-generating.

Adjacent to the Warhol piece is a piece by Kelley Walker that consists of another photo by Charles Moore of roughly similar subject matter (it appears) to that of the Warhol, blown up to mural dimensions, rotated 90 degrees on its axis, and substantially obscured by large-scale extrusions and spatters of what is said to be chocolate.

The Warhol piece had distinct political content. (Similar to that of the original photo.) In the Walker piece, the defacement by chocolate makes the political or sociopolitical message difficult to decipher, but ups the ante on the appropriation issues raised by the Warhol piece.

A work by Roy Arden is a photo of a colorful but unimaginative Apple Jacks display in a Wal-Mart. Instead of painting Brillo boxes or soup cans, just photograph a huge cube of boxes on a pallet. Warhol’s idea simplified. But complexified.

Sherrie Levine has a series of small-scale digitized prints enormously enlarged so that each pixel is almost an inch square, producing a completely abstract image of blocks of different shades of gray, called After Stieglitz. It is an homage to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, particularly his enigmatic series that he called Equivalents, which were images of clouds, as correlatives supposedly of some inner feeling or experience of the artist.

Hiroshi Sugimoto has a Karsh-like portrait photograph of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, taken in 1990. The problem is that Hirohito died in 1989. You have to read the information placard to learn that this is a photo of a wax image of the late emperor.

In the matter of recycling, or not, Julian Montague has a documentary series of photos of strayed shopping carts, scientifically classified as false strays, not strayed far from their source location, and true strays, far from their source location. Examples of the latter class are several carts that made their way into Scajaquada Creek. Some of the Scajaquada Creek cases seem to be in advanced states of decay, which is to say, ultimate recycling. But what the true stray cases seem to represent generally—including most of the Scajaquada Creek cases—is not so much what you would call recycling as long-term pollution of the environment.

Another piece about recycling that raises questions as to the mortality/immortality of the matrix recyclable is Tom Sachs’ heroic-looking silicon bronze sculpture consisting of a stack of old auto batteries, called Trojan.

In the category of far out, conceptually and technologically, Siebren Versteeg’s piece consists of a large plasma viewing screen and a computer program developed by Versteeg that captures images off the internet based on programmed criteria and crams them into a huge, messy digital collage that is said to change continually, but slowly, apparently. The piece is called Heaven and Hell, and presents heavenly images toward the top of the screen, hellish images toward the bottom, and a jumble of minuscule to the point of illegible images in between.

Across the room from the Versteeg is a traditional-style static (but yet dynamic) collage from the 1940s by German artist Kurt Schwitters, of bits and pieces of newspaper and other printed matter and plain and patterned paper, a revolutionary in its day example of recycling and appropriation art, but without quite the Duchampian/Warholian revolutionary fanfare.

The ECHO exhibit was curated by Holly Hughes, with help from intern Josh Olivieri. It will be up through October 10.

jack foran

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