Brand New or Appropriated From The Reality of American/Art History?

Warning: Use of undefined constant user_level - assumed 'user_level' (this will throw an Error in a future version of PHP) in /home/commons/public_html/wp-content/plugins/ultimate-google-analytics/ultimate_ga.php on line 524

Walking into the Hirshhorn, I was quite a bit skeptical to the kinds of artworks I would encounter. I prefer the National Gallery’s Vermeer paintings to post-post (post?) modern works housed in the hollowed cylindrical gallery. Yet I left amazing and surprised at how moving the pieces of artworks I saw were- they either took up the entire floor like Bradford’s Murals, or just one wall like Barbara Kruger’s “I Shop Therefore I Am.” Taking a closer look at Bradford’s Murals reveals the socio-political drive behind Hirshhorn’s exhibitions. Bradford is a Los Angeles–based artist whose work combines socio-political issues such as race, class, and gender, with art history. One such work is Pickett’s Charge, an eight-piece mural that wraps around the entire third floor of the museum. The abstract murals are his response to to the political and cultural climate during the civil war, where the resulting work “weaves past and present, illusion and abstraction, inviting visitors to reconsider how narratives about American history are shaped and contested.” (Hirshhorn Musem) Indeed I started to reconsider how Americans responded to socio-political turmoil, and such a question reminded me of Aaron Douglas’ From Slavery Through Reconstructionduring the Harlem Renaissance (1934). He used a combination of silhouettes and circular light to reveal a mural with graphically incisive motifs and the dynamic incorporation of such influences as African sculpture, jazz music, dance, and abstract geometric forms. I believe both murals embody what David Hockey accomplishes in Irvine’s From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces; their now “meta-museum” visualization on a “great wall”. They are all taking aspects of political and social culture and visualizing it through different mediums with a large view in a human-scaled room, providing “a different kind of interface to relationships and developments in historical periods that can be taken in through one view” (Irvine, p. 11). I felt like I was living in the middle of Pickett’s Charge, with the mere grandeur of the murals overwhelming the entirety of the floor- you feel as if there is no separation between you and the mural, you are one entity. The gap between painting and person has closed where there isn’t even room for an interface- the person standing in front of the painting is the interface.

Aaron Douglas: From Slavery Through Reconstruction during the Harlem Renaissance (1934)

Douglas Crimp notices that in the contemporary era, “the criterion for determining the order of aesthetic objects in the museum throughout the era of modernism—the ‘self-evident’ quality of masterpieces—has been broken, and as a result ‘anything goes.’” (50). Crimp describes how our ways to understand the museum are changed as contemporary artworks claim their spaces in museums. In the era of modernism, whether an artwork could enter into the exhibition hall of a museum depends on its quality, or its masterfulness. In the contemporary world of art, however, the situation totally changes. The “‘self-evident’ quality of masterpieces” is no longer the only criterion for determining whether an artwork could be put into a museum. Painters not only focus on the content of the paintings, but also revolutionize with the medium and other aspects of the form of the paintings. Moreover, contemporary art expands beyond traditional forms of art such as paintings and sculptures to other forms of arts, including articles of everyday use, furniture, craftwork, etc.  Interestingly, all of these changes are reflected by museums that exhibit modern and contemporary art.

One of the best examples to illustrate the museum’s change is the “BRAND NEW: Art & Commodity in the 1980s” exhibition in the Hirshhorn Museum. This is an exhibition of artworks, but those exhibits are simultaneously the objects that we would see and might use in our everyday life.


The left-hand exhibit exemplifies how contemporary art annuls the boundary of high art and daily life. The cleanser that we use in our daily life is made into an object of art and is put into the museum on display. Likewise, the second picture shows how the artist recognizes the wooden tool as an object of art. Both objects manifest how the definition of art and artwork is democratized: the ordinary objects could become art as well. As a result, museums that display contemporary become a place where “anything goes.” By including objects such as sofa, telephone, radio, the “BRAND NEW” exhibition showcase how anything could become art. The broken boundary between high art and popular culture is manifest in the museum’s exhibition of contemporary art. This also shows how the museum is changed in its interface with contemporary art.

Continuing in the pop art tradition of appropriating and referencing the commercial reality of the time, a group of Canadian artists called General Idea “created works that both critiqued consumerism and mimicked painting” (Hirshhorn Wall Text). Having a background knowledge of Andy Warhol’s art was not enough to interpret meanings, values and the dialogue associated with this group. I recognize pasta – the elbow-shaped kind – and I recognized the Marlboro package colors and shapes, but the “meanings, values and ideas are not observable in the artworks themselves” (Irvine, 2018, p.1). The longer wall text provides further explanation: “In a series called Pasta Paintings, the group appropriated famous logos of multinational companies and freed them from all written information, turning them into abstract geometric compositions. The surfaces were adorned with pasta giving the canvases a sculptural quality. Sans titre (Marlboro) is a play on the iconic Marlboro cigarette box” (Hirshhorn Wall Text).

General Idea
Artist collective, active 1967-1994
Sans titre (Marlboro), from the series Pasta Paintings
Acrylic Paint and dried pasta on canvas

This painting stood out to me the most throughout our visit to Hirshhorn. However, their website lacks information on this particular piece, promoting me to search elsewhere. (It may have been there, but I could not find it via search, which could be a constraint of their site). I went to the museum listed on the wall text, Mudam Luxembourg’s website for more information and it read: 

“The very slight display of conditioning through abstract publicity signs evoking concrete allusions in us, the viewers, even without words and in an automatic way, while simultaneously denigrating the pure beauty of emblems we see every day without noticing – is difficult to take seriously. Because, instead of dabs of pointillist colour applied to the surface of the painting, we find noodles. Little round noodles of hard buckwheat. And with that, all the experimental attempts to breathe life back into the picture plane, be it the Cubist’s sand, Anselm Kiefer’s straw or Julian Schnabel’s china cups, are drowned in hilarity. (…) By removing the writing from the emblems of brands, the brands themselves disappear. G.I. thus continue their appropriation strategy: by monopolizing the found object, they remove its content and give it new meaning. (…) The ‘empty’ emblems remain Untitled, while filled to the brim with the history of painting.” Stephan Trescher 

Mudam Luxembourg’s site provided clarity, context, dialogic information, and ideas to further research, but who was Stephan Trescher? Without a link or any further referencing information to him, I searched to find out he is an art history scholar. Museum website creators must struggle with wanting to provide enough information to be credible, authentic, and reputable sources on the artworks, while also encouraging visitors to visit the museum in person.

Layers of context are not visible in the artworks themselves even though we “feel” something much different when we see the artwork in person versus seeing its digital representation. Seeing the art in person, you do have the advantage of seeing size, medium used, and reading the text associated with the artwork; however, the same can be seen online if the interface has taken each of these into account. So why do we consider the Museum the only “real” place we can interpret meaning from artwork? Because we have been socialized to believe that art exists inside of the walls of a museum, but also because technology has not been used to create a visualization that emulates the experience in the museum.

Meaning relations that allow for a work to be intelligible and interpretable are already in place, waiting to be discovered, they are not in us or in the artworks themselves (Irvine, 2018). The task at hand is to make an interface that helps its user discover these meanings. In my opinion, the problem with looking at the works online is that the learning process is lacking desirable difficulty. The information is right in front of you online and the power of searching for information is overwhelming. To truly learn, the process needs to require more time to make make meaning.

Crimp, Douglas. “On the Museum’s Ruins.” October, vol. 13, 1980, pp. 41–57.

Irvine, Martin. From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces.

Adriana Sensenbrenner, Yinghan Guo, and Catherine Boardman