Category Archives: Final Projects

Interpreting Abstract Art Through Dialogism

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Adey Zegeye


In this essay, I will refer to Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogic principle as a framework to interpret the color field paintings of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. I will demonstrate that Rothko’s classic paintings act as an interface to the system of abstract expressionism and ideologies surrounding the movement. I argue that we can understand Rothko’s work through exploring his dialogic network and in result identify patterns and connections useful in discovering meaning.


“The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees” – Mark Rothko

Meaning is created as a dialogue and is an activity to engage with and contribute to (it is continuous and not fixed). “All meanings, values, and ideological functions of a work are not properties or perceptible feature of or in the physical thing, but only emerge when communities of interpretive agents are enacting the learned patterns of symbolic correlation that form the meaning system in which the work, and they as interpreters, participate” (Irvine, 2018).

When asked about the meaning of his color field paintings, artist Mark Rothko replied, “silence is so accurate” (The Art Assignment, 2015). This statement reveals Rothko is inviting the viewer to reflect with the work rather than identify it. Rothko’s challenge was to create intimate and emotion-based art that would be presented within a rigid system (the museum) and through a limiting medium (the two-dimensional surface). He went through multiple styles before reaching one that freed the viewer from the question of a single meaning. As a student of art, Rothko knew that no artwork can stand in isolation from the system in which it belongs. He also knew that the two-dimensional surface proved inadequate in creating visual depth. Analyzing these two issues as a part of the larger dialogue within Rothko’s network, allows us to uncovers the thought behind his expression.

Artist Networks and Influences (A Dialogic Approach)

Mark Rothko moved to New York in 1923 and began studying at the Art Students League under Max Weber, where he adopted Weber’s figurative painting style (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). He also learned about cubism, Matisse, and the German expressionists (The Art Assignment, 2015). The next significant influence to the development of his craft was modernist painter Milton Avery (who also attended the Art Students League). Avery was best known for his use of color (which proved to be a large influence for Rothko), but he was also known for using non-conventional forms of representation which likely influenced Rothko’s views and principles surrounding expression. Avery’s home was a meeting place for artists such as Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. These expressionist artists later formed a group called The Ten and exhibited together between the years of 1935 and 1939 (“The Ten Whitney Dissenters,” n.d.). All of these artists shared similar views and philosophies, which is reflected in the elements of their work as well as the presentation of their work in museums. They were all “unified by their belief that abstract art could express universal timeless themes” (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012).

Milton Avery, Rothko with Pipe, 19361936 Milton Avery, Rothko with Pipe, 1936

Photo source:

The 1940s marked a shift in both thinking and outward expressions by Rothko and the community of artists to which he belonged. It was during this period that Rothko began to use abstract painting to “explore the relationship between the painting and its viewer” (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). This role of the relationship between artist and observer is a central concept to understanding Rothko’s thoughts and ideas behind his art.  

Influenced by the works of Nietzsche and Carl Jung, Rothko began searching for ways to depict universal emotion and the subconscious mind (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012). At first, he used classical myths as a “source of eternal symbols,” then he transitioned to a Surrealist-inspired biomorphic style (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012). Gradually, his work became more and more abstract and by 1949 he transitioned into his classic style known as color field paintings.

Mark Rothko, The Omen of the Eagle, 1942, oil and graphite on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.107

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1944/19451944/1945

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1944/1945, ink on paper hinged to cardboard, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.181

Image source:

In uncovering Rothko’s thoughts behind the evolution to abstraction, it is useful to apply Bakhtin’s dialogic principle for context. One common form of the dialogic process is looking at an expression (in this case Rothko’s paintings) as a response-interpretation relationship (Irvine, 2018). To do this, we ask “what conversation is this work participating in and assuming is already in progress before another expression is made?” (Irvine, 2018). Bakhtin’s view states that “an expression in a living context of exchange is the main unit of meaning, and is formed through a speaker’s relation to Otherness (other people, others’ words and expressions, and the lived cultural world in time and place)” (as cited in Irvine, 2018). Therefore, meaning is not found in the physical properties of a work but “emerge when communities of interpretive agents are enacting the learned patterns of symbolic correlation that form the meaning system in which the work, and they as interpreters, participate” (Irvine, 2018).

During the 1940’s Rothko felt strongly that the social climate surrounding World War II should be reflected in painting. The realities of war changed the thought process behind creating and in response the desire to be truthful and create meaningful work. Rothko felt it was irrelevant and irresponsible to continue artistic traditions (The Art Assignment, 2015). In response to the events surrounding the war, Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman wrote a manifesto to the New York Times expressing their ideologies, which can be interpreted as context for understanding their work. They wrote, “we favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth” (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). From this dialogue, we can infer that the choice to abandon form was in rejection of past techniques because ideas of representation changed. At this time in history, these artists were in dialogue about the meaning of art in comparison to what it meant in the past, and were shaping their meanings based on their own historical context. Showing the process of change in paintings became the central focus, primarily shown through the layers  of paint in each artwork, and in calling attention to the creation process. Modern artists’ use of technique to change perception supports the claim that meaning is created in the community that perceives the art rather than in the art itself.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1945/19461945/1946

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1945/1946, watercolor and black ink on paper, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.175.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 19481948

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1948, oil on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.120.

The manifesto also directly addressed the common idea among painters (up until this point) that the work’s content was not important, but rather the level of expertise shown (physical attributes). Rothko and fellow expressionist painters believed that “there is no such thing as a good painting about nothing” (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). They also asserted that “the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.  (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). This example shows that meaning is an active, continuous discourse that changes over time depending on context (Irvine, 2018).

Abstract art abandons forms and is a rejection of traditional academia and other forms of conformity. In order to free the mind of the viewer, there has to be as little reference to something outside of the work as possible. This allows the viewer to experience the work (without distraction) and focus on the emotions and layers it took to create it. When Rothko started focusing primarily on color (1947), he ultimately found his classic style. His color field paintings feature color as the main subject with floating rectangles positioned vertically against a colored ground on large canvas.  Once adopted in 1949, Rothko used only this style for the remainder of his life. He believed that this style successfully “eliminated all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer” (The Art Assignment, 2015). Prior to this point, color was usually tied to narrative content but Rothko used it as a source for accessing emotion (The Art Assignment 2015). In the dialogic process of response, we know that expressions can be unpacked or approached by identifying what they are responding to, rejecting, or cancelling out. In this case, Rothko’s use of elimination was found in a search for clarity (as a way to reach the observer), and in in this way, his thoughts were reflected in his work. All that is left to observe is layers, depth and color (which is used to activate emotion). Rothko had to create clarity in his mind, before clarity could be revealed to the viewer. 

Mark Rothko, No. 8, 19491949

Mark Rothko, No. 8, 1949, oil and mixed media on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.147

The Museum as Mediator of Rothko’s Color Field Paintings: The National Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection

Rothko understood that the way his work was mediated would contribute to overall viewer reception. For this reason, he “strictly controlled the environment of his paintings, demanding they be shown in low-light, in groups, encountered in close quarters and never mixed with work by other artists” (The Art Assignment, 2015).  Controlling these elements resulted in creating an environment that encourages viewers to reflect with the work rather than see the work as a separate object meant for viewing. Keeping the outside world out – is a well-known concept in the Art System. Galleries and museums often strive to detach the viewer from the concept of time entirely. O’Doherty explains that the white cube represents “a transitional device that attempted to bleach out the past and at the same time control the future by appealing to transcendental modes of presence and power” (1986). Similarly, creating a room just for the Rothko works creates the idea that the space is sacred, unattached, and transcendent.

At the Phillips Collection, all of Rothko’s requests are realized. His color fields are exhibited in a secluded room called “The Rothko Room.” By designating an enclosed space within the rest of the museum, it is physically separated from categorization. Outside of the entrance, there is a description revealing the history and concept behind the curation of the room. Visitors are also informed through a sign that it is intended by the artist to be a meditative space. Therefore, visitors are asked to disconnect from their phones and refrain from taking any pictures inside the room. One bench is placed in the center of the room (as per Rothko’s request), and invites the visitor to sit in stillness. There are four paintings (one on each wall) inside the room, and a maximum of eight visitors allowed inside at a time. This keeps the space from becoming a crowded area. There is very limited lighting inside the room, which also helps limit distractions (as light can be taxing especially when exposed for long periods of time). Notably, The Rothko Room at the Phillips was the first permanent space dedicated to Rothko’s work. The last sentence of the description reads, “the room is the result of a rare understanding between the artist and patron.” Perhaps Rothko managed to preserve the intentions behind his art (a daunting task for any artist) by viewing his work as an experience instead of an object.

A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.”- Mark Rothko

As quoted in ‘Mark Rothko’, Dorothy Seiberling in LIFE magazine (16 November 1959), p. 82 

Image Source:

At the National Gallery of Art East Building, an entirely different space from the Phillips, the goal of full immersion and tranquility is also realized in a different way. The NGA has placed Rothko’s work in the Tower (the highest part of the museum). Walking up the the last level of stairs to reveal the room full of color fields evokes the same initial response as the Rothko Room: a gasp for air. The two main difference between the museums is size and lighting. The NGA has lots of natural lighting (and leads to an outside terrace). Although the National Gallery has ten paintings (more than double the Rothko room) the works still hold a strong presence.  In this museum, the weight of history is felt more than at The Phillips because of the physical journey taken through time and space. To get to the Tower, you have to climb stairs (a masterpiece in its own right) and walk through history leading up to abstraction. The effect is grand because as you travel through modernism, the works become more and more abstract, the final result is freedom— room to breathe. 

@tatimrqs - Tower stairs at National Gallery of Art East Building - Free museum on the National Mall

Stairs to the Tower in the NGA East Building, photo source: @tatimrqs

Image source: National Gallery of Art, East Building. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Value in Networks, Shaping & Influencing Perception Today

Looking at one node within the system (key influencers, styles, or philosophies) reveals connections and patterns through which one can discover meaning. One of the important influences in creating value within the art world are the critics associated with specific movements. New York was the center of the art world during the 1950s and 60s, meaning that Rothko’s location was an important factor in circulating dominant ideas contributing to abstract expressionism. Along with location, art critics and curators played a large role in choosing artists to develop relationships with and promote by exhibiting their work in the top gallery spaces. The art we know wouldn’t be art if it were not for it’s audience. For Rothko, collector Dominique De Menil’s interest in his work lead to further credit and recognition of his name. In unity with his vision, she remarked that his paintings “evoke the tragic mystery of our perishable condition,” and ended up commissioning  him for one of his largest projects, the Rothko Chapel (The Art Assignment, 2015). Additionally art critic Clement Greenberg was a strong influence in Rothko’s career as well as for the movement of abstract expressionism. These final examples show how networks and relationships are key to cultural reception and meaning making within the art world. 


Through unpacking Rothko’s process (rather than the elements within the picture) it is clear that his color field paintings act as an interface to the meaning behind his work (and the abstract expressionist movement at large). As such, his paintings become meaningful when placed in a dialogic context. The conversations he participated in within his community (questioning form, depicting reality, the problem of the two-dimensional surface, and translating the deepest emotions of the human condition) lead to his final response: color field paintings. The example of Rothko’s  letter to the New York Times uncovers his thoughts and purpose behind the work  — he was driven by questions. The key question was how to eliminate the obstacles between the idea and the painter, and between the idea and observer. He eliminated the first obstacle through “stripping away cultural and artistic clutter to get to the essential philosophical and pictorial elements” (Rothko, 2015). At the same time, he eliminated the obstacle of painter/observer by achieving “direct, sensual communication of human emotion”(Rothko, 2015). If we view these works as a conversation, rather than a one-way process, we are no longer separate from the work. This unity makes the idea behind the art visible.

“The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees” – Mark Rothko

Works Cited

Arnason, H. H., & Mansfield, E. C. (2012). History of Modern Art(7th ed.). Boston: Pearson. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018, March). Semiotic Foundations – Visual Semiotics. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018). Bakhtin: Main Theories. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018). Irvine-Bakhtin-Dialogism-Intertextuality-rev.pdf. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018, March). Art and Museum Interface. Retrieved from

Mark Rothko: Classic Paintings. (1998). Retrieved from

Mark Rothko: Early Years. (1998). Retrieved May 3, 2018, from

Mark Rothko: The Artist’s Reality. (n.d.). Retrieved from

O’Doherty, B. (1986). ODoherty-Inside_the_White_Cube-1-2.pdf. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press. Retrieved from

Rothko, C. (2015). Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out (1st edition edition). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

The Ten Whitney Dissenters. Retrieved from

The Art Assignment. (2015). The Case For Mark Rothko | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios. Retrieved from

The Rothko Room. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Works Consulted

Biography of Mark Rothko. Retrieved from

Edwards, S., & Woods, P. (2013). Art & Visual Culture, 1850-2010: Modernity to Globalization. London: Tate Publishing and The Open University.

Martin, T. D. (2010). Psychosis and the Sublime in American Art: Rothko and Smithson. Tate Papers, 13. Retrieved from

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986

Wolf, J. The Art Story: Theory – Flatness history. Retrieved from


Inspiration and Influence in the Age of Paul Klee

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Adriana Sensenbrenner

Klee builds himself a little house of art in a realm somewhere between childhood’s innocence and everyman’s prospect of infinity. – Duncan Phillips c.1938


The following paper will explore the Phillips Collection exhibition on Paul Klee, titled “Ten Americans: After Paul Klee.” Klee was a Swiss-born artist whose paintings have inspired artists and painters in Europe and America. He aided in the cultural exchange or migration of European art ideas in America, where at the time American wartime and post-war generations were seeking new inspiration and new meaning after World War II. My analysis will seek to approach Paul Klee’s influence in terms of layers of reception within an invisible dialogic network to piece together the artist’s inspirations, influences, mentors and followers. What emerges is a fusion of styles, ideas and concepts that are all derived from a single source. Klee becomes one node within a network of nodes where such a network becomes visible within the walls of the Phillips.


Paul Klee’s exhibit in the Phillips collection can be used as a case to apply discovery methods to extrapolate how meaning and understanding emerges. Through layers of reception and the invisible functions of the museum itself, artist and artistic conversations converge becoming nodes within a larger dialogical framework. My paper will uncover each one of these layers; the institutional/ physical layer of the museum, Paul Klee’s network in Europe and America and the subconversations happening around primitivism and “child-like” art. Such affinities coupled with the personal life of Paul Klee and the importance of the museum as a mediating institution brings to life Paul Klee’s artistic career and work. The meaning behind Klee’s collection emerge through such nodes within a larger dialogic network of contexts and communities, piecing together an irreplaceable image of the 20st century “painter-poet”.


Georgian Revival House, the original look of the Phillips Museum


The Phillips Collection was founded by Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), the son of Major Duncan Phillips. He was close to his old brother Jim, whom he graduated from Yale in 1908. Duncan and Jim were both avid art collectors and writing extensively on art. Duncan published his first book “The Enchantment of Art” in 1914. A few years later in 1917, Duncan’s father and brother Jim died from influenza that left a lasting mark on Duncan (Phillips Collection). As a response, Duncan and his mother founded the museum, originally named the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery. Duncan married Majorie Acker in 1921 a few months before the museum opened. Both of them worked close together until Duncan’s death in 1966. The building itself has been renovated from the original Georgian Revival house to accommodate more galleries and office space. The large renovation and expansion project in 2006 opened more than 30,000 square feet of space to include not only galleries but also an auditorium, library, outdoor courtyard, art conservation studio and an expanded visitor entrance, shop and café (Phillips Collection).

Duncan Phillips and his wife Majorie Acker

Duncan first acquired Paul Klee back in 1930 with Klee’s masterpiece Tree Nursery (1929). Phillips became an avid collector of Klee shortly thereafter, assembling 13 of Klee’s finest works in oil and watercolor that spanned the artist’s career. The following two decades saw an ever- growing presence of Klee specifically at the Phillips, where Klee’s masterpieces became grouped into a central place in the collection creating the “Klee Room”.[1] After two solo exhibitions in ’38 and ’42, the Klee Room became a permanent residence to the painter’s masterpieces and persona. Serving as an abiding source of inspiration for American abstractionism, the Klee Room attracted American visitors and painters alike who sought to better understand the painter’s whose personal life was as eclectic as his paintings.

As tribute to the “painter-poet”, the Phillips Collection created an exhibition titled “Ten Americans: After Paul Klee” to explore the seminal role of the Swiss-born artist on the development of 20th-century American art. The exhibit explores how influential Paul Klee was on artistic figures in the American Abstract Expressionist and Color Field movements. Each of them adapted Klee’s art- either visually or ideologically- into their works of art. The ten Americans are as follows; William Baziotes, Gene Davis, Adolph Gottlieb, Norman Lewis, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Jackson Pollock, Theodoros Stamos, Mark Tobey and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Each of them drew on Klee in their own way, without seeking to emulate or copy his style yet used him to create visible and invisible synergies. The exhibition highlights how influential one painter can be, creating waves not only in the United States but also in Europe. Such a transatlantic exchange illustrates the larger dialogic network in which Paul Klee was working in as an artist.

Paul Klee

Paul Klee was born in Switzerland in 1879 to a family of artists. With a father as a musician, Klee was musically inclined as a violinist but ultimately chose painting in 1898 and went to Munich to study. Among the first Klee’s works that formed an integral part of his creative work were his etchings in 1903-06, that combined various artistic movements into one; the technical precision of the German Renaissance with the linearity of Art Nouveau and mad fantasy of the Expressionists (Mansfield, p. 12). He was part of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group that was later dispersed from Germany’s entrance in World War I. However, his artwork and work persisted in the midst of the war. Klee was part of an exhibition 1912 called Galerie Der Strum by Herwarth Walden that survived only a few years. His formidable years were when he was a teacher at the Bauhaus in Dessau. As a teacher, Klee strengthened his “resolve to discover and elaborate rational systems for the creation of pictorial form. He recorded his theories in his copious notes and in publications of great significance for modern art, including his 1925 Bauhaus book, Pedagogical Sketchbook.” (Mansfield, p. 282). He re-examined his own paintings through a different perspective as a teacher. For example, he used arrows to indicate lines of force for his students arrows where such arrows began to creep into his work (Mansfield, p. 282).


Phillip’s Collection Space:  

Observing any of Paul Klee’s masterpieces requires an analysis of the exhibition itself, extrapolating the physical layer of the museum. According to O’Doherty, modern gallery space is “constructed along laws as rigorous as those of building a medieval church where the basic principle is that the outside world must not come in[..] walls are painted white.” (O’Doherty, p. 7). Understanding the inner workings of the gallery space can be found not within a history of art but within the history of religion. He refers to a modern gallery space as a “white cube”, a transitional device that ultimately embodies a Zen space that enables the modern work to have its purity and clarity. As soon as you enter the gallery space on the third floor, the walls are lined with an introductory piece of the exhibit- a piece on Paul Klee and the motivation behind creating the exhibition. Walking past the entrance of the exhibit, the walls are lined with all ten of the artist’s works, each grouped thematically. One such theme that I will further explore in this paper is the concept of primitivism and archaic signs and symbols creating a sort of universal language for all to interpret at their own will.


Architectural layout of the Phillips Collection

Indeed, the exhibitions are grouped with such themes in mind yet the themes are stagnant- one can impose their own ideas as to which piece goes in which thematic room, leaving room for the visitors’ imagination and ideas. Such ideas recall the teachings of Malraux’s musée imaginaire, an abstract, ideal meaning system that “generations implementations of the conceptual and ideological system that actual museums and art history books realize in their selections and structures of the organization and validation” (Irvine, p. 4). Malraux arranged photographic exemplars on the floor much in the same manner as the painting on the walls of the Phillips exhibition are arranged- they are arranged in a certain order to extrapolate a certain meaning, creating a visible “cultural encyclopedia” for all who visits (Irvine, p. 6). Yet anyone can impose their own meaning on Klee’s exhibition, creating a recursive interpretation and re-interpretation. As such, the exhibition highlights the dialogic principle of how meanings are un-finalized and contextually situated in ongoing social conversations or dialogues (Irvine, 5). The gallery space of Paul Klee becomes “the medium through which these ideas are manifested and proffered for discussion” creating an interface to explore their ideas of art, beauty and aesthetics (O’Doherty, p. 14). It becomes a pre-interpreted space where the visible and invisible converge. The visible as the space itself and the invisible as the experience that is already interpreted in this kind of interface.


Paul Klee’s Network:

Paul Klee’s work in conversation with artists from Europe and America adds to the already multiple nodes within a larger dialogic network surrounding the artist. His works pre- Bauhaus and during his Bauhaus years reflects Klee’s osmotic artistic ability; fusing together so many different artistic and musical approaches within his art work that put him in conversation with artists in Europe and America. In 1920 Walter Gropius invited Klee to join the staff of Bauhaus at Weimar, seeking to combine fine art and craft that would provide design models for industrial production. As Aichele aptly states, Klee’s work places the artist within a broad theoretical context that includes references to “one of the systems of color theory taught at the Bauhaus, to the basic principles of twelve-ton music (Kandinsky) and aspects of his teaching curriculum of recapitulation from previous completed exercises” (Aichele, p. 75).

Paul Klee, Kettledrummer (1940)

Wassily Kandinsky, Esquisse pour Autour du cercle, 1940. Oil on panel. 15 ½ x 23 ⅝ in.

Such an improvisatory approach to art puts into conversation his long-time friend and fellow Bauhaus teacher Wassily Kandinsky. He became Klee’s muse, influencing the artist through his musically inclined artwork. Klee internalized Kandinsky’s musical metaphors, such as the “note/chord”, as seen in his masterpiece Kettledrummer (1940). This painting reflects synergies in the traditions of Russian Suprematism, Constructivism, Dutch de Stijl as well as naturalistic observations. Klee’s improvisatory approach to art stems from his belief that music reached a flowering point in the 18th century, particularly in the polyphonic music of Mozart and Bach. He aspired for art to achieve the effect of polyphonic music, characterized by multiple voices or melodies played simultaneously (Mansfield, p. 284). Klee wanted to bring about the harmonious convergence of the architectonic and the poetic, emphasizing geometric structure and abstract form mainly influenced by Bauhaus’ constructivist mentality. His later works like the one above emphasized bold and free black linear patterns against a colored field, executed with “brutal simplicity, thickly painted on a rough background” (Mansfield, p. 284).

The 1930s and 40s proved an increasingly complex and dangerous political climate in Germany, where both artists were thrown in the crux of such turmoil. Both artists were dismissed from the Bauhaus and labelled “degenerate” artists by the new government. Unlike most German artists, Klee stayed in Germany and moved to Berlin (whereas artists such as Kandinsky fled to Paris). A few people played major roles in the cultural exchange of Paul Klee’s artworks with the American public. Alfred Barr, the Museum of Modern Art’s Director, visited Berlin in the Weimar Period and was particularly interested in purchasing art later labeled “degenerative” by the Nazis (Deschmukh, p. 581).

Adolf Hitler, accompanied by Nazi commission members viewing the “Entartete Kunst” show on July 16, 1937. (Gardner, p. 765)

He was exposed to the works coming from the Bauhaus and more importantly, works of Paul Klee. Barr ended up mounting a major Klee show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930 that played a formidable role in the cultural transmission of Klee’s artworks in America. The exhibition “paved the way to a greater acceptance of modern German art for it had attracted favorable reviews and large number of visitors” who saw how different and new Klee’s works were (Deshmukh, p. 582). The art dealer Emmy “Galka” Scheyer also served as the sole American-based art dealer promoting the works of four painters of which includes Klee. She named the “Blue Four”, reminiscent of the group’s name Blaue Reiter, and espoused these artists works throughout California and organized exhibitions in the 1920s and 30s. Such exhibitions introduced west coast artist like Diego Rivera to Kandinsky and Klee who saw the greatness in Klee’s work and bought several of his works for his friend Frida Kahlo, citing how Klee’s work was “not for the same broad public that Rivera always had in mind” (p. 54).

Paul Klee’s Reception in America:

American audiences embraced Klee’s art due to its spirit of whimsy and childhood wonder- poised between the material world and the transcendence. To American artists, Klee “symbolized fluctuating and even apparently contradictory roles of the artist in the modern world; to be uniquely and only oneself, uncategorized, to be private and inward and to be open and accessible to the public” (Zentrum, p. 53).  Thus it is helpful to think of Klee’s influence in terms of conversations rather than styles. The output from the various conversations happening during this time do not have the same visual styles but rather seek to reveal a similar method, a shared attitude towards the artistic process. Such conversations piece together a dialogic framework that is visualized within the exhibition at the Phillips. Each painting is in some way in conversation with Klee’s artistry and artistic technique.

Norman Lewis, Untitled (1947)

Take for instance Norman Lewis’ Untitled (1947), the only African-American artist among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Lewis was very much concerned with how art shifted social engagement to the meta-political level, creating a canvas that is anti-hierarchical “asserting that the aesthetic of a specific African people has a status equal to that of dominant European modes such as social realism and expressionism.” (Craven, p, 515). He is using the same artistic techniques as Klee such as geometric forms of the point and line as well as color. For Klee, color “was a source of energy that carries an emotional element to it, establishing the mood of the painting” (Mansfield, p. 282). Lewis uses Klee’s notion of color to establish a dark yet powerful mood, with heavy notes of black that surround the edges of the canvas almost as if it is engulfing the lighter-toned colors and geometric forms in the center of the canvas. The overall look of the painting looks like a storm is coming, probably citing the upcoming civil rights movements in the 50s. Lewis is therefore using Klee’s artistic techniques to advance his sociopolitical agenda to reach the public, just as Klee is an embodiment of an accessible and public artist.



Making the Invisible, Visible: Automatism, Primitivism and Child-like Art

Such relations among artists like Klee and Lewis form a dialogical network of correspondences and relationships. Another such relationship, or “node” if you will, is that between Gottlieb and Klee that highlight the third layer of subconversations happening around primitivism and “child-like” art. Gottlieb first was in contact with Klee when he purchased the monograph Paul Klee that Hermann von Wedderkop published in 1920, where such works like Erection into the Air(1938). served Gottlieb as source of inspiration. Together with Rothko, Soloman, Bolotowsky and Graham (“The Ten” group), Gottlieb strove to create a certain “dogma” that combined differing avant-garde styles into a unique pictorial language where such merging is reminiscent in Paul Klee’s paintings (Zentrum, p. 23). Gottlieb’s other source of inspiration rests on various abstract forms developed from acquiring tribal art in the mid-1930s on. He sought to synthesize these trends that he saw in the tribal art with the art that was being discussed during this time. Above all was Klee’s late works like The Man of Confusion (1939) that Gottlieb drew off of to create masterpieces such as Seer (1950)(p. 24).


Paul Klee, The Man of Confusion (1939)

Adolf Gottlieb, The Seer (1950)

Gottlieb was able to learn from Klee how “mythological subject matter and characters could serve artists in describing contemporary phenomena as well as illustrating unconscious feelings, the “inner world” of one’s psyche” (p. 24).  There thus became a common thread between the artists, both seeking to consciously create something from the unconscious. Gottlieb sought primal images as a way to understand ancestral images that embody nature’s primal forms. He ultimately began to draw a biomorphic pictorial language inspired by these images that include fossils and other natural formations. As previously mentioned, the The Seer (1950) is one example of Gottlieb’s pictograph. A further analysis of this pictograph will extrapolate how both artists reference mythology together with signs and symbols. His masterpiece is an exemplar of how Gottlieb emphasized the primitive content of his pictograph by using colors derived from cave paintings and Native American art- gray, tan, black and clay-colored. The boldly drawn signs look almost totemic in nature, thickly applied on the canvas in broad strokes. They resemble hieroglyphs floating freely on the picture plane (Phillips Collection).

Such tribal art also looked childish, in the sense that they looked improvised. Klee was a firm believer in making the invisible, visible- coining the term “automatic drawing: as a way to draw without conscious control of the will to achieve free and direct expression (p. 27). Liberating the line is a creative process that would begin to draw like a child. Children, according to Klee, are like “the insane and ‘primitive’ peoples, had the “power to see”. He let the “pencil or brush lead him until the image began to emerge and of course, his conscious experience and skills came back into play in order to carry the first intuitive image to a satisfactory conclusion” (Mansfield, p. 282). Such a relationship between Klee and Gottlieb reinforces the dialogic process that characterizes Klee’s network.


Paul Klee’s work were sources of inspiration and awe for a whole range of American artists and painters alike, each contributing to the every growing network that has formed around the artist. Above all, Klee’s openness and versatility offered the artists a different way to express themselves on canvas, away from the classic artistic language of cubism and surrealism offered by their contemporaries. Klee became the ultimate anti-dogmatic artist that created a new kind of pictorial language based on the primal, unconscious, childlike mentality. He captured the zeitgeist of American artists, inspiring them to look beyond the conventional towards the genesis of art.



Aichele, K. Porter. “Paul Klee’s ‘Rhythmisches’: A Recapitulation of the Bauhaus Years.” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 57, no. 1, 1994, pp. 75–89. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery SpaceBerkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: focus on Chapter 1, pp. 13-34.

Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Volume II. 14th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2016. [Excerpts on the development of modernist traditions.]

Mansfield, Elizabeth. and H. H. Arnason. History of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. [Excerpts]

Irvine, Martin. “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art“.

Deshmukh, Marion F. “The Visual Arts and Cultural Migration in the 1930s and 1940s: A Literature Review.” Central European History, vol. 41, no. 4, 2008, pp. 569–604. JSTOR, JSTOR,

CRAVEN, DAVID. “ʺIntroduction,ʺ ʺAbstract Expressionism and Afro-American Marginalisation,ʺ and ʺDissent During the McCarthy Periodʺ.” Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, edited by Ellen G. Landau, Yale University Press, 2005, pp. 510–526. JSTOR,

Flattening the White Cube: Freeing the Creative Process

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Dina El-Saharty


This paper examines in what ways the Google Arts and Culture project remediates the functions of the physical space of the museum in a digital space. While the online platform makes artworks more accessible by creating rich visualizations, this paper shows what such a project entails for the function of the museum and evaluates its role within the art world. Drawing on visual culture and museum curation theories, including but not limited to Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire, O’Doherty’s White Cube, and Benjamin’s concept of the aura, this paper unpacks the effects of creating an online digital platform that showcases artworks in a space that ultimately lacks context. The analysis reveals that, while exhibiting works on a website completely removes the works of art from their historical and social context, it allows for visitors to develop their own interpretations with the limited amount of basic information they are given.

What is the Google Arts and Culture project?

In 2011, the Google Cultural Institute launched the Google Arts and Culture project, an art initiative seeking to grant access to artworks to the general public online and worldwide for free. With the collaboration of art institutions and partner museums, the online platform provides access to high-resolution images of artworks. Within one year of the launching of the project, the Google Arts and Culture platform featured 32,000 images of artworks from 46 museums and had partnered with over 150 museums from 40 countries (Smith, 2012). To deliver a high level of detail, the images are reproduced using ultra high-resolution, and some of the works are captured using the Google Art Camera, which reproduces a gigapixel image (i.e. over 1 billion pixels) and can even bring out details invisible to the naked eye.

So, why does it matter?

By making museums’ artworks more accessible, the initiative fits well with Google’s mission statement, which is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (“Google: About Our Company”, 2018). The problem with this reasoning of creating an encyclopedic art collective knowledge database is that it fails to recognize the interpretations embedded in artworks that derive from traditional art spaces such as the museum. This posits the following questions:

Can the art world’s information be universally accessible, such that those who do not have an art history background or any connections to the art world can make use of the works and extract coherent meanings and interpretations? If so, in what ways does the Google Art Project remediate the functions of the museum – as an interpretive reception context, an interface, and an institutional means of transmission? Finally, to what extent can the Google Arts and Culture effectively remediate these functions within a digital space as opposed to the physical space of the museum?

Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre was motivated by the transmission of ideas and cultural meaning, as well as communication across distances and borders. Similarly, the Google Art Project succeeds in granting online access to digital representations of artworks, as well as background information surrounding the works, the artist, and the movements to those who cannot obtain or retrieve this form of knowledge online and by extension worldwide. Both primarily act as interfaces that hold an educational value. Irvine writes, “The ideas for reflexive gallery meta-paintings emerged in the context of understood cultural encyclopedic knowledge or information, and the motivation to construct interfaces for accessing and learning not only the content of the knowledge but also how a society’s knowledge and archived memory were conceptually organized” (Irvine, p.9). That is to say, meta paintings aimed to not only provide access to knowledge and information, but also to unpack the way society adapted these forms of knowledge by extracting meaning and organizing them, and to ultimately reveal the way society reintegrated these forms into society over time. While the Google Arts and Culture project provides online, fast, and easy access and consolidates all artworks and art knowledge in one place, the platform needs to be more than just putting digital images on a website and giving basic background information.

How can the platform communicate content, historical context, and dialogic networks?

Assuming its aesthetic role, the museum provides a contextual framework in which the work is embedded and can be understood. In this respect, the museum also functions to collect, becoming the “single viewpoint (cultural and visual) from which works can be considered” (Buren, 1985). The museum adds cultural weight to the work. That is to say, the space in which the reception of the work is done heavily shapes the cultural meaning and supplements multiple layers of interpretation.

For instance, there are different architectural styles of buildings and spaces that give us cues on what and how to think. Gordon Bunshaft’s circular design of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden signaled certain cues of interpretations and imprinted a meaning onto the works of art that are showcased there. When visiting the Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s exhibit, the circular space echoed the idea of finding oneself in a whirlwind and endless loop of commodity fetishism and consumerism. The cylindrical building imposed on its visitors to interpret the exhibit and the artworks as a time where one was overwhelmed with the ubiquity of billboards, advertising, and media culture. Similarly, the Roman architecture and feel of the National Art Gallery associated a classical and traditional meaning to the artworks and the artists in the exhibition Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting.

The design of the architectural space in which the artwork is received becomes increasingly symbolic: they give enough background for visitors to construe more or less the same meanings from the art pieces, the artists, and the movements at play, extracting one overarching homogenous meaning.

At a first glance, the Google Art and Culture platform – because of its flat design – seems to flatten the artworks themselves, as well as the historic and cultural context that the works carry. Because the works are detached and completely removed from a contextual space, visitors are free to interpret the artworks in whatever way they can – depending on their art history background and relationship with the art world in general. This lack of boundaries and context multiplies and fragments the meanings of the pieces.

But what if the white digital space of the Google Art and Culture project is like that of O’Doherty’s white cube?

According to O’Doherty, the modern gallery space removes the artwork from its aesthetic and historical context. Because the sacredness of the work of art is contingent on its context of reception, the white cube became part of the work itself. Therefore, he argues that the white cube is not a neutral container, but rather a historical construct inseparable from the artworks displayed inside it (O’Doherty, 1986). O’Doherty’s analysis of the white cube goes on to show the power of context and how it defines the content. Perhaps, the white cube was necessary and became a reflection of the modernist wave that overcame the art world, such that modernism required the viewer to take an active role in interpreting the work and to abandon conventional ways of thinking.

The art world is a constant reflection of the social, the political, and the economic – irrespective of the era. We live today in a digital age, in which information is endless and is at a press of a button, forcing us to critically think for ourselves but also to make sense of the abundance of information shoved down our throats. Digital online spaces are not concerned with how much you know, but rather they deal with the question of what kinds of connections, meanings, and understandings are you making given how much you do know.

What if with the increasing use of digital media and abundance of information with which we are bombarded every day, art is meant to be conceived in a similar manner, and demands this free-thinking space completely detached from its historical, social, and political contexts?

Malraux’s “Museum Without Walls” calls for the displacement of artworks from their physical art object (i.e. materials used) and art space (i.e. the museum) by photographically reproducing them (Irvine, p.3-4). As such, Malraux places more emphasis on the creative curatorial aspect of art, rather than the artistic production of an artwork, such that the organization, indexing, and assembly of artworks are privileged over the presentation and appreciation of the artwork itself (Malraux, . In face of digital reproduction of art objects, the Google Arts and Culture project resembles that of Malraux. Like the museum, both serve as encyclopedic functions as they each organize cultural and artistic knowledge. In this respect, the Google Arts and Culture project is perhaps the closest to and largest digital iteration of Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire.


The platform organizes its content using several categories deriving from the art world, such as museum collections, artists, mediums, art movements, historical events, historical figures, art movements, but also the current geographic locations of art pieces. It attempts to circumscribe and provide an artistic hub in the digital space. Still, the database is incomplete: paintings such as the Mona Lisa are not featured on the platform. This goes on to show that the collection’s completion is contingent on the participation of all the museums and galleries (i.e. physical spaces), and their compliance to feature the pieces in their collection online. In other words, compiling a robust encyclopedia that contains all the artworks ever created is certainly an ambitious goal, but not impossible.

But until then, where does that leave the Google Arts and Culture project in terms of the artistic and creative process?

Irvine writes that Malraux’s “selection and arrangement of photographs of art objects for a view of art history was governed by the idea of the museum as an organizational system, a musée imaginaire (the imagined, i.e., idealized museum)” (Irvine, p.3-4). That is to say, the function of organizing art content is in itself an artistic creative act, which the online platform exemplifies. It attempts to constantly create and recreate an extensive and comprehensive taxonomy of cultural and artistic knowledge, using sorting methods that organize content in either alphabetical order or chronological order. The “all” sorting method is not specified, but users can assume that it is organized by popularity and not randomly. When the same page is refreshed multiple times or accessed at different times, the order of categories remains the same. Similarly, when viewing an individual artwork, artist or art movement, the dialogic relations and positions suggested at the bottom of each page do not change, but are rather static. This goes on to show that the Google Arts and Culture as an organizational system follows a specific structure and flow depending on the choices made by software developers and coders. Here, code and algorithms become digital curators.


Can a programming language communicate dialogic networks?

The collection function of the museum asserts the configurations of possible dialogic positions and relations through simplifications, but also the establishment of connections and relationships between different works, artists, movements, and schools of thought. It imposes a web of meanings between dissimilar elements and creates a vast network, solely constrained by selection (Latour, 2011))–or “curation” in terms of museums. While collection can emphasize certain works, artists, and art institutions and their dialogic contexts when considering a group of works, it can also “flatten” them when considering a single body of work. In this case, the work is conceived without subjectivity or without reference to anything outside of itself, and here, the museum functions to emphasize the juxtapositions within the body of work, highlighting its “genius” and again, increasing its sales value (Buren, 1985). Similarly, the Google Arts and Culture platform gives way to highlight the juxtapositions within each work of art, individually and exclusively, without any reference to other artworks or artists. The absence of dialogic networks leaves room for questioning of the ingenuity of the art piece.

According to Buren, one of the functions of the museum is to provide refuge for the works, since it functions to select, collect, and protect. This reinforces the role of the museum in embodying the mystical dimension of art (Buren, 1985). Buren writes, “The Museum is an asylum. The work set in it is sheltered from the weather and all sorts of dangers, and most of all protected from any kind of questioning” (Buren, 1985). In other words, when a work of art is received in the context of a museum, the work is validated and authenticated as “art”, instead of being received for example on Instagram – where the content is user-generated and cannot be granted “art” status unless received in a museum. The Google Art Project does not fall short in this respect – works that are displayed have been carefully subjected and have already acquired “art” status.


The content is not user-generated, but rather museum-generated: museums and exhibits give access to the Google Art Project to their art collections, making it available worldwide. To have an artwork published on the Google website, it needs to have been already considered art. However, once having arrived in the digital platform, the artworks are placed in a space where constant questioning is formulated. When observing a painting such as the Starry Night in such a digital space, one cannot help but wonder what makes the painting an Impressionist masterpiece, and why Vincent Van Gogh is considered an artist whose ingenuity could only be recognized posthumously? The Google Art Project gives adequate answers to these questions – extracting its textual content from the Modern Museum of Art’s text label from 2011, where Starry Night was and is currently being exhibited.

But, does this mean that the platform cannot provide refuge for the artworks from being bombarded with questions and questioning their artistic significance? Can the Google Art Project maintain the “art” status quo?

To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the impact of the reproducibility of art in the modern and digital era we live in today. In his book “The Work of Art in an Era of its Technological Reproducibility”, Walter Benjamin argues that artworks have lost their “aura” in face of modernism, due to the fact that art has become increasingly reproducible. The aura of a work refers to the idea that it is present in time and space: it is connected to authenticity and authenticity cannot be reproduced (Benjamin, 1939). When the original artwork is exhibited in a museum, the aura, uniqueness, and authenticity of the work are firmly planted in and connected to the sphere of tradition.

In contrast, when an artwork is reproduced in a poster, for example, the artwork is extracted from its historical, cultural, and geographic context. It becomes completely detached from the historical continuum in which it was firmly rooted, losing its ingenuity and depreciating its value (Benjamin, 1939). In this respect, the aura of a painting such as the Starry Night lies in its three-dimensionality. Transferring a work from a physical space into a digital space flattens the work into a two-dimensional space, and by extension flattens the aura as well. Museum space becomes a website. Exhibitions and galleries become web pages. Curators become algorithms and code. This type of interface depends on graphical and pixelated reproductions of art, and as such, erase cultural meanings and relevance of artworks.

By removing the work from the mundane, and exhibiting it in a space that is consecrated to art and culture like the museum as opposed to an online digital platform, the artwork undergoes a process of selection and of being privileged. It becomes an object of choice and divine favor, or even – dare I say – “sacred”. Enabling its exposure and promotion in order to abide by its economic role, the museum works to preserve the artwork such that its sales value increases (Buren, 1985). In aiming to preserve the work, the museum assumes that works can be affected by time. Therefore, one of the functions of the museum is to preserve the artwork, protecting it from the effects of time, but also, to prevent its cultural meaning from eroding, granting the illusion of eternality to the work (Buren, 1985).

The impression of immortalizing the artwork is inherently flawed. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which had been completed in the late 15th century, had already begun to deteriorate by 1517. Many details have been lost, including Jesus’ feet and Judas spilling salt (Van Luling, 2014). Similarly, the colors of the Mona Lisa were not originally of brownish and yellowish hues, but rather of vibrant blues and reds (Van Luling, 2014). Paintings can undergo destruction, and colors can be subjected to deterioration. Thus, this idea that paintings cannot be worn out by time and be shielded from corrosion and depreciation is misleading. Certainly, there are conservation and restoration methods that can be taken, but then,

What happens to the aura – or “timelessness” – of the work? Do these restoration efforts partake in the authenticity and uniqueness of the work, or do they take away from it?

The timelessness or “auras” of works of art can never be fully preserved, especially in the age of photographic reproduction: the more time passes by, the more the work of art becomes removed from its historical context and becomes less and less embedded in its original sphere of tradition. Instead, the work becomes a part of multiples spheres of tradition, and its meanings and interpretations become numerous and endless. To this extent, the Google Arts and Culture becomes just another attempt at preserving the aura of art. For example, it can show what the original colors and brush strokes of an art piece looked like when it was originally conceived. While the aura cannot be fully transmitted through digital reproduction, the Google Art and Culture can work alongside other art and cultural institutions, which together can preserve the aura that has been already decaying since their inception. Analogously, these interfaces can serve to include the numerous meanings and interpretations, which digital reproduction has fragmented.

Benjamin argues that reproduced artworks are consumed in a distractive manner as opposed to being consumed in a contemplative manner (Benjamin, 1939). For example, when one is walking around the National Gallery of Art and is examining the intricate details of Ter Borch’s brush strokes of satin in his artworks, the artwork lures and absorbs the examiner. To appreciate the genius of Ter Borch’s painting technique, one needs to be able to stand so close to the painting that one’s nose is almost touching it. However, when examining a painting on the digital platform, the examiner absorbs the work of art. The user can zoom in and zoom out, change the sizes of the artwork depending on the device’s screen size, decide to focus on the details of the brush strokes or examine the work as a whole. These levels of interactivity rooted in scalability, that the Google Arts and Culture initiative offers, distracts the audience from letting the artwork lure them in. What the user winds up observing is not the hidden meanings of artwork, but rather the pixelated representations of the artwork – neither paint nor a canvas but pixels. The platform creates rich visualizations, albeit it cannot visualize the intangible and hidden meanings within each artwork.

What could be done to provide a better interpretative experience using the interface beyond just presentation of images and a little bit of data?

The Google platform cannot remediate all of the museum’s functions, however, there are possible configurations that can be implemented which would enable people to explore while making distinctions and understand works through dialogic relations and positions. While not everything cannot be remediated in the same way as the museum space, the platform provides a different interpretative framework. The Google Arts and Culture project provides a basic foundation for those interested in learning about the art world, but it can never fully remediate the interpretive framework that a museum provides for its visitors. While the platform allows for users to formulate their own interpretations given the limited amount of knowledge they are presented with, the information is not sufficient for art enthusiasts to study in depth the artworks and for them to be able to establish connections with other works, artists, and movement. Further research is usually needed. Perhaps, generating more links at the bottom of each page of each work can be a step closer to developing a network of nodes surrounding the work in question or creating a literary library that can solidify one’s art knowledge. Still, the art world is too vast and too complex to be able to organize it and curate it in a way that can render a cohesive meaning. As humans, we have the tendency to categorize and classify everything, but the allure of the art world always resides in providing a means of escapism for its members. The art world is not concerned with closing in one meaning or one idea, but rather with expanding one’s ability to think, to express oneself, and being presented with endless opportunities of connecting and finding relationships between objects and concepts. That being said, the Google art project should not be seen as a platform that is limiting our expression and thinking, but rather another space in which free-thinking and free-expression should be unrestrained, and in which creating a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations is welcome.

Works Cited

Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: focus on Chapter 1, pp. 13-34.

Bruno Latour, “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Gerard ter Borch. (c. 1660-1665) The Letter [Oil on Canvas]. Royal Collection Trust: London, UK. The Google Arts & Culture Insititute.

Google: About Our Company. (2018). Retrieved from

Google Arts & Culture. (2018). Retrieved from

Leonardo da Vinci. (c. 1503-1506) Mona Lisa [Oil on Poplar Panel]. Musée du Louvre: Paris, France. Wikipedia.  

Leonardo da Vinci. (c. 1495-1498) The Last Supper [Fresco-Secco]. The Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie: Milan, Italy. Wikipedia.

Martin Irvine, “Malraux and the Musée Imaginaire: (Meta)Mediation, Representation, and Mediating Institutions”. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Martin Irvine, “Art and Artefacts as Interfaces: Meta-Representation and Meta-Media from Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project”. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Rosetta Smith. (2012). An Online Art Collection Grows Out of Infancy. The New York Times. 

Todd Van Luling. (2014). 7 Famous Artworks That Are Actually Supposed To Look Completely Different. The Huffington Post.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Oct. 22, 2017 – Jan. 21, 2018

Vincent Van Gogh. (1889) Starry Night [Oil on Canvas]. MoMA – The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. The Google Arts & Culture Insititute.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939). (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.) Focus on sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.


Barbara Kruger: Slogans that shake the art world

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Yang Hai

Barbara Kruger: Slogans that shake the art world


Barbara Kruger, an American conceptual artist, is best known for laying direct and concise captions over black-and-white photographs. At the time of the 80s, where the golden era of contemporary art in the United States, Kruger pop-up to the storefronts and redefined how art could be made.  In this paper,using several Kruger’s famous pieces including I shop, therefore I am (1987) and Your body is a battleground (1989) and her interviews as the main source, I would explore how does Kruger develop her iconic visual language that conveyed a direct critique about consumerism, feminism, and political issues and how does her art act as an interface that blurred the lines between art, entertainment, and commerce. 


Since the 1970s, she has explored the power of image and text. Her bold works combing black-and-white photography and white-on-red slogan have become the icons of the contemporary art. In this paper, I will introduce Barbara Kruger and her artworks. Specifically, I will focus on several aspects. By introducing the background of the ’80s, in which the art and commodity culture brought to new era of contemporary artist like Kruger, and analyze Kruger’s several major works I shop, therefore I am (1987) and Your body is a battleground (1989), I would like to propose the following thesis question:

How does Kruger develop her iconic visual language that conveyed a direct critique of consumerism, feminism and political issues?

How does her art act as an interface that blurred the lines between art, entertainment, and commerce?

“I came to the art world much later than most.” – Barbara Kruger

Barbara Kruger inadvertently got her training as an artist the hard way: through jobs as a graphic designer and picture editor for Mademoiselle magazine, Vogue, House and Garden, Aperture, and other publications. This background in design is evident in the work for which she is now internationally renowned. While she was working there, the routine in the work is “paste-up-type and pictures using someone else’s photography, and she works to put text on it” in which made her developed a fluency in it. Yet Kruger realized that she is not cut out to be a designer, “there’s just no way I’m cut out to create someone else’s image of perfection as a profession” (Bollen, 2013). Kruger doesn’t have any degrees and was painfully intimidated by the codes of the art world until her early 30s.“I came to the art world much later than most,” Kruger said. “I didn’t consider myself an artist in any way that would be meaningful to me” (Stoeffel, 2018).

In 1981, Kruger’s art appeared in a group show titled “Public Address,” alongside work by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jenny Holzer. There, she débuted her now iconic style: white Futura text in red boxes. Kruger considered her photo work with words comes full-on from her job as a magazine designer, not informed by the art world at all. “They were bigger, they were one of a kind,” said Kruger, in which her 48-by-72 inch giant work first showed, people got shocked (Bollen, 2013).

The age of  ‘80s

During the early 1980s, with the experience of work at the magazine empire, seductive and powerful fusion of fashion, class, money, and status became Kruger’s enduring subjects for her early art pieces. Kruger layers found photographs from existing sources with aggressive and often ironic texts that involved the viewer in the struggle for power and control that her captions speak to (Art 21). Among them, the most well-known one proclaimed “ I Shop Therefore I Am.”

I Shop Therefore I Am: Consumerism

Kruger’s work during the ‘80s “cleverly encapsulated the era of “Reaganomics” with tongue-in-cheek satire” (The Art Story). Displayed in the Hirshhorn museum exhibition: Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Kruger’s work  I Shop Therefore I Am (1989), revealed the time of 80s that deeply examined the consumerism. “ The iconic decade when artwork became a commodity and the artist, a brand.” A throwback to thirty years ago, where “ the seismic shifts in politics, economics, and technology brought a golden era of contemporary art in the U.S (Hirshhorn)”. The introduction of MTV, financial crisis, gentrification, Reaganomics, and the height of the AIDS crisis, all of these were significant moments in the ‘80s, artists exploited the growing consumerism culture and redefine their position within it.  

Kruger revealed that before making it, she read Walter Benjamin, and paraphrase a quote: “If the soul of the commodity existed, it would want to nestle in the home and hearth of every shopper that passed its way.” Kruger realized that Benjamin was a compulsive shopper who always shopping for something. She thought that she needs to address the social phenomenon of consumerism culture into her work if she was developing this commodity status (Art 21).

Consumerism is never an outdated topic, it was rising thirty years ago, and it is ongoing prosperity till now. Kruger’s work is still reflecting the cultural discourse that is prevalent now. In 2010, Kruger’s show at the Guild Hall Museum, slogans “ Money makes money and a rich man’s jokes are always funny” and “You want it/You need it/You buy it/You forget it”is presented. Kruger implied that the desire behind wanting and shopping is not limited to the power elite, and we’re all more and more in thrall to consumer culture (Spears, 2010). It’s about the culture we live in, the media. It’s about everything around us. This is Kruger’s unique code of message, where she conveys her own style of the message that questions the stereotypical ways mass media influences society’s notion about certain value, like consumerism.

The Pictures Generation

During the ‘80s, in a reaction to the success of neo-expressionism and its nostalgia of figurative painting, artists came together to form their own complex commercial entities and began as satire quickly grew to become the determinate moment in the contemporary art (Hirshhorn).  

Kruger was intimidated and also curious when she joined the other artists who formed the group of Artists Meeting for Cultural Change in the ‘70s. It was formed before she joined and did protest against the museum and the politics (Bollen, 2013).

Later, a rented loft on Reade Street introduced Kruger to other artists, including the first graduates of CalArts, a cohort now known as the Pictures Generation.

The Picture Generation was a loose affiliation of artists that emerged in the 70s and 80s whose works were united by the appropriation of images from the mass media (Artsy). Influenced by conceptual and pop art, they experimented with a variety of media such as photography, film, and video. By reworking well-known images, their art challenged the notion of authorship, which made the movement as the form of postmodernism. “The artists created a more savvy and critical viewing culture, while also expanding notions of art to include social criticism for a new generation of viewers saturated by mass media” (The Art Story). Their works blur the lines between high art and popular imagery.

Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989)
Using a silkscreened frontal photograph of a model’s face, Kruge gave the artwork additional meaning by dividing the large canvas it occupied into two sections. From left to the right, the image reversed from positive to the negative. From top to the bottom, the face is divided by the words. It presented an inner struggle of good versus evil. The model’s face stares straight ahead through the print, connect to the viewer by her gaze and the words on her face.  “Kruger critiques the objectified standard of symmetry that is applied to feminine beauty and perpetuated by media and advertising” (The Broad).

Designed for the 1989 reproductive rights protest, the March for Women’s lives in Washington D.C., this piece addressed the issue of feminism, connecting the physical body of female viewers to the contemporary conditions that necessitate the feminist protest (The Art Story). This artwork as the form of postmodernism because of the authentic graphics and dramatic use of the image not only critique the social issue of female struggle but also call for a response from the society as a whole.

“I’m fascinated with the difference between supposedly private and supposedly public and I try to engage the issue of what it means to live in a society that’s seemingly shock-proof, yet still is compelled to exercise secrecy,” Kruger explained of her work (Artnet).

The direct connection to political movements in Kruger’s work is not new. While some other artists fear of their work showing standing about politics and reading as propaganda, Kruger defended herself by saying that her work has always been about power and control and bodies and money, and all kinds of stuff (Bollen, 2013). As a person who doesn’t set the boundary of the idea, it is only that for this time, she decided to be more specific rather than be abroad in the message that she conveys through the art piece.

“You” “I” “We” “They”

Kruger’s captions in her artworks are not only declarative but always include the pronouns such as “You,” “your”, “I”, “we”, and “they”, addressing cultural constructions of power, identity, and sexuality. For the viewer, the usage of these words facilitate a direct communication with the viewer, it’s like every word is speaking to you. It’s a characteristic of Kruger’s style, which she tended to make the viewer to think about the slogan and address them with the given context, to think and rethink, to care about the society, the economy, politics, gender, and culture.  

For instance, The New York Times on Saturday, November 24, 2012, might have come across, on page A21, in large white Futura type on a black background, a piece from artist Barbara Kruger. Under the title “For Sale,” the work read: “You Want It You Buy It You Forget It” (Bollen, 2013).

How to interpret the word “you”? Here, it indicated the reader- a shopper, a consumer, a part of the capitalist enterprise, guilty of impulsive buying habits. But the “you” is also a general composite—that annoying, far more guilty every person-and the reader sides with the artist in condemning this sector of the population who is greedy, wasteful, and irresponsible (Bollen, 2013).

While the viewer is experiencing the process of being judged and judging, agree with the statement or charging others. This internal transition and confusion are interesting, Kruger confuses us as we don’t know if we should position ourselves as the victim, oppressor, or the witnesses. Yes, we are all of the above. It made viewers stand on the side with her and against her simultaneously when we see the pieces by Kruger from 1981 to 2009, “Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face,” from 1981; “Not Cruel Enough,” from 1997; “Plenty Should Be Enough,” from 2009,” and it made viewer’s mind to shift back and forth (Bollen, 2013). This is how Kruger’s building of meaning and the construction of re-meaning works to the viewer and to the society who watch it.  

Feminism, consumerism, and propaganda

Most of Kruger’s artwork questions the viewers about feminism, classicism, consumerism, individual autonomy and desire. The use of image and a declarative statement that delivered a direct communication with the viewer and catches viewer’s attention. She’s not selling the product, but the idea to the viewer to make people reexamine and reconsider people’s thinking in the context.  

“I never say I do political art. Nor do I do feminist art. I’m a woman who’s a feminist, who makes art. But I think what becomes visible and what work remains absent is always the result of historical circumstance. ” — Barbara Kruger (Bollen, 2013).

Because of Kruger’s work usually convey a direct message and feminist critique, there is the perception of tie her to certain tags like  “ ‘80s feminism.” While Kruger herself revealed her thought toward the stereotyped thinking. In Kruger’s mind, the ‘80s began in 1975 and ended in ‘84 or ‘85, where the market changed and things heated up.

“Who is seen and who is not seen is always a result of historical reckoning, social circumstances, and good luck,” said Kruger (Stoeffel, 2018).  From Kruger’s perspective, artists always are the reflections of times that they are situated. For her, there was the real historical change and women for the first time has entered the marketplace and haven’t been marginalized in the works. In my opinion, the historical change and the given context provide the artists environment to create artwork. To some extent, artists and the society are interdependent to each other. Things are changing so rapidly, saying the art world, and the society.

Museums, buses, buildings, billboards as interfaces  

The famous art piece by Kruger has a wide distribution, in the forms of umbrellas, tote bags, prints, T-shirts, posters, photographs, electronic signs, and so on, which at first confuses the boundaries between art and commerce and call attention to the role of advertising in public debate.

Kruger’s artwork is held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among others. Moreover, her work appeared on magazine covers or in giant installations that cover walls, billboards, buildings, buses, trains and tram lines all over the world. Her work has swallowed the whole bus and buildings and has become part of the landscape of skylines.

While works that placed in the public outdoor open spaces, like bus posters or digital screens are seen as purposely settled for advertising. While in the past, the boundary of art and commerce is still firm, now within thirty years, advertising has evolved, so do people’s perception. Kruger once mentioned that nowadays advertising has been so clever and smart. When she went to London, advertising had a really elevated place in culture (Bollen, 2013).

Artist and the viewer

As Kruger’s pieces getting famous worldwide, the text pieces are translated into the language of the countries in which they are being shown and installed. The words deliver the same idea to the viewers no matter in what language, in other words, Kruger’s work may seem like the universal message to the world’s audience.

Kruger once mentioned that she was totally outside the art discourse at first. She went to the gallery to see conceptual art and saw people’s marginalization from what the art subculture is because they didn’t crash the code. Now, after all these years as being the artists, she got to crash the code, understand and support all the work. She feels that she is related to the viewer who doesn’t know the secret code word (Bollen, 2013).  

Kruger’s work is described as eye-catching, easily transmitted, and frequently ripped off (Stoeffel). She has a short attention span before it was cool which is a characteristic that she believes is beneficial for her artist work, and help her relate to the audience especially people who are outside the art world. She considered her art form is more easily to be decoded by the viewer as compared to other forms of art.

For every exhibition or work being presented in public, Kruger always would go in and do a quick read of the place and then do a work locally with the people there (Bollan, 2013). This kind of site-specific art creation is really interesting, accommodate different viewers with a different background, and create the site design artwork is the artist like Kruger who is passionate about her work.

While artwork maybe varies in different locations of the exhibit, Kruger’s main spirit, and concerned issues are always there, the issues of consumerism, the place of women’s bodies. Kruger would read and get to know the issues in the place of exhibit.

As Kruger’s career progressed, her work expanded to include site-specific installations as well as video and audio works, all the while maintaining a firm basis in social, cultural, and political critique (The Art Story). She had her live performance, a recurring event titled “Untitled ( The Drop)” took place at a former American Apparel store in SoHo last year. This is one of the four Kruger works throughout NYC. The commission includes a billboard in Chelsea, a roving yellow school bus, a limited-edition MetroCard, and an installation at the skatepark in Coleman Square Playground, which pose questions like “Who owns what?” on red vinyl decals wrapping the ramps(Keiles, 2017).

Because Kruger’s format of the art piece is easily copied by others, in 1994, he downtown streetwear brand Supreme cribbed Kruger’s red-and-white Futura for its logo—teasing the boundary between homage, parody, and theft (Keiles, 2017). While Supreme launched its weekly product “drops” that draw a long line outside its stores. And in 2013, Supreme sued the clothing brand for infringing its red-and-white Futura logo. “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers,” Kruger response to the lawsuit.”

Kruger’s “Drop” is a pop-up shop in Soho where you can wait in line to buy Kruger-branded merch made in collaboration with Volcom. With the name “Drop” and the similar installation, Kruger’s live performance seems to target at Supreme on purpose. On the other hand, it is interesting to see the powerful influence of Kruger’s iconic style of artwork toward the society, the fashion industry, and the cultural discourse.  

Then and Now

“Something to really think about is what makes us who we are in the world that we live in, and how culture constructs and contains us.” – Barbara Kruger

The world is changing so fast with the rapid growth of the society. Kruger mentioned that one critic in around 2002 wrote about her “I Shop Therefore I Am” piece and said things are so different now than they were when she made that work. Kruger denied this statement. “Things are like they were but multiplied in terms of the intensity of commodity culture and how the digital world has intensified that to a certain degree” (Bollen, 2013).

At the age of seventy-two, Kruger never stops absorbing new material and keep up with the latest trend of the world. Throughout her thirty years of career path, Kruger always brought new surprise to the public, from individual works to streets to buildings to newspapers to commercial products to installations in the earth. As an artist whose work is about the skewed representation of reality, she keeps her finger tightly pressed to the pulse of popular culture. Watching reality shows to know the current trends that can tell how media portrait value, materialism, and consumerism (Rosenbaum, 2012).

In addition, she follows Twitter and Instagram even though she isn’t active use it and she can quick name the brands her students like. She made efforts to be immersed in the mass media and the popular culture, see how her work is changing in this era of digital times (Art 21).  


Best known for laying directive slogans over black-and-white photographs that she finds in magazines, Barbara Kruger developed her own visual language that was strongly influenced by her early work as a graphic designer. Her works that concerned the issue of consumerism, feminism appeared not only in the museum and gallery but also exist among public places. Her iconic style blurs the lines between high art and popular imagery. In a rapidly changing society with commodity culture, Kruger never stopped to keep up with new ideas and create powerful works.


Works Cited

“Barbara Kruger.” Art21. Accessed May 04, 2018.

“Barbara Kruger Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. Accessed May 04, 2018.

“Barbara Kruger – Feminist Artist – The Art History Archive.” Frida Kahlo – The Mexican Surrealist Artist, Biography and Quotes – The Art History Archive. Accessed May 04, 2018.

Bollen, Christopher. “Barbara Kruger.” Interview Magazine. February 13, 2013. Accessed May 04, 2018.

“Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s.” Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden | Smithsonian. Accessed May 04, 2018.

Keiles, Jamie Lauren. “Barbara Kruger’s Supreme Performance.” The New Yorker. November 12, 2017. Accessed May 04, 2018.

“Resisting Reductivism & Breaking the Bubble.” Art21. January 1, 2018. Accessed May 04, 2018.

Rosenbaum, Ron. “Barbara Kruger’s Artwork Speaks Truth to Power.” July 01, 2012. Accessed May 04, 2018.

Spears, Dorothy. “Barbara Kruger in Europe, Toronto and the Hamptons.” The New York Times. August 24, 2010. Accessed May 04, 2018.

Stoeffel, Kat, and Barbara Kruger. “Barbara Kruger Forever.” The Cut. February 02, 2018. Accessed May 04, 2018.

The Broad. Accessed May 04, 2018.

“The Pictures Generation.” Artsy. Accessed May 04, 2018.

“The Pictures Generation Movement, Artists and Major Works.” The Art Story. Accessed May 04, 2018.

Yotka, Steff. “Was Barbara Kruger’s The Drop a Success?” Vogue. December 08, 2017. Accessed May 04, 2018.

Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

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CCTP 802 Art and Media Interfaced

Prof. Martin Irvine

Yinghan Guo

May 4th, 2018.


Situating Rei Kawakubo’s fashion exhibition in a museum context, this paper questions how should be understood the relationship between the museum and the exhibits, and how does the museum work as an interface between the exhibits and the viewer. The first part of the paper gives a brief introduction of Kawakubo and her most famous collections. The following three parts discuss the function of the museum, the Metropolitan exhibition, and whether the museum makes fashion an artwork. This paper aims to show that the Costume Institute’s curation of the show creates enough room for the viewers to make their own interpretations of the exhibits, and that the museum space contributes to the making of Kawakubo’s haute couture artworks.


Rei Kawakubo is a Japanese fashion designer who is often seen as an artist as well, though herself never acknowledges. Behind Kawakubo’s blurring identity is a larger debate about whether designers are artists and whether fashion is a form of art. Daphne Guinness gives a definite answer to this question: “the best of our designers are indisputably artists; it just so happens that they have chosen fabric as their medium instead of paint or clay. Whether or not they regard themselves as ‘artists’ is another question entirely” (Smith and Kubler 8) Guinness’s contribution to this debate is that she separates the roles of a fashion designer as is viewed by the general public and those as is understood by the fashion designers themselves. What complicates the debate is that fashion has been gradually taken into museum space—be it contemporary art galleries or traditional art museums—since the end of the last century. This trend sparks more discussions about the relationship between fashion and art.

Taking the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2017 retrospective of Rei Kawakubo’s work for example, this paper explores how fashion might be viewed as art in a museum context, and how the museum creates an interpretive framework for haute couture to be viewed as an artwork. This thesis aims to show that the museum promotes the idea that fashion can be seen as art, and argues that the museum space not only promotes cultural transmission and dialogue, but also participate in the meaning-making of a work of art.

Rei Kawakubo

Rei Kawakubo was born in 1942 in Tokyo. She enrolled in Keio University in the same city eighteen years later, where she studied fine arts and literature. Kawakubo was not officially trained as a fashion designer, but her exposure to Asian and Western art as she studied the history of aesthetics inspires her design in her later career, which incorporates both Eastern and Western elements. After her graduation from college, Kawakubo worked in the advertising department of Asahi Kasei, a textile company, and then as a freelance stylist. In 1969, she established her own fashion brand Comme des Garçcons, meaning “like some boys” in French, and incorporated the label in 1973.

Kawakubo had her first Paris show in 1981. Together with another Japanese fashion designer, Yohji Yamamoto, Kawakubo brought fresh air to the European fashion world. In the early 80s, fashion “was dominated by the high glamour of Gianni Versace and Thierry Mugler.” (Hyzagi). Kawakubo and Yamamoto, however, went against this trend by using “deliberate holes woven into crinkled fabrics, irregular hemlines, side seams that were often ragged and unfinished, and loose-fitting layers that fell aimlessly over the body” (Mears 99).

Using formlessness to conceal the body, Kawakubo went against the dominant tight-to-the-body fashion trend. “I built my work from within,” says Kawakubo, “instead of satisfying a demand for sexualized and ostentatious clothing.” Her non-conformism generated distinct reactions of the viewer, some of whom gave her generous praise, while others dismissed the collection as “ragged chic” and labels it as “post atomic.” This demonstrates how meaning is made through difference, and how fashion as a sign is read and interpreted differently.

Both the trend that Kawakubo rejected and the critique she received provide crucial context to understand her work. Martin Irvine summarizes that “an expression, utterance, or any form of discourse is . . . always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in chains or networks of ongoing cultural and political moments” (1). If Kawakubo’s rejection of the fashion trend is a dialogue with the past, then the critiques is a response in the future which her design anticipated when they were made. Since meaning emerges from dialogues, be it conversation or controversy, Kawakubo’s design acquires meaning as we read it in relation to the fashion trend. Her rejection to the popular and the norm, and her relentless seeking for the new and the groundbreaking gave her design a unique feature, which allows her to enter into the dialogue of fashion conversation with a distinct voice.

Kawakubo’s 1997 collection, “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress,” demonstrates the sign value of her design, which, I argue, blurs the boundary between fashion and art. Being referred to also as “lumps and bumps,” this collection includes “dresses, skits and jackets in bright, stretch gingham checks that came with enormous goose-down-filed protuberances suggestive of tumors, shoulder pads, pregnant bellies or outside fanny packs—and in all the wrong places” (Smith).

It is obvious that those lumps and bumps are not functional, because no one would wear them in daily life. They only appear in fashion shows and are appreciated because of their sign value, or the ideas that they express. “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” is a collection through which Kawakubo attempts to explore the relationship between clothes and the body. When the models put on the clothes, the lumps and bumps become a part of the body. Rather than seeing clothes as materials that cover the body, Kawakubo proposes a more intimate relationship between them. The lumps and bumps that give the clothes a special form (physical deformation) become a sign through which the viewer interprets Kawakubo’s ideas about the relationship between clothes and the body.

This collection also invites us to ponder over Kawakubo’s design in another dialogue, that is, with her own past. Though she claims time and again that she never goes back to her past ideas or designs, it is impossible not to. Indeed, “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” in no way resembles the styles of the clothes she made for her 1981 Paris runway debut, as the former is characterized by bright colors and tight skirt while the latter is shown in black loose form, however, there are critics pointing out the spirit that they share in common. Alexander Fury, for example, argues that this collection presents Kawakubo as “a lone voice against fashion’s flow of skinny, unstructured tube dresses and bias-cut slips”—a critique that is also shared by Kawakubo’s 1981 show also received. It suggests that there is an overarching theme that rules over each of Kawakubo’s collections, and those meta-narratives, though seem to be distinct from each other in every way, also subject to a grand narrative.

Kawakubo’s 1997 collection poses the question about the relationship between fashion and art, as the clothes are presented as more ornamental than functional. Fashion, traditionally understood as a form of popular culture, is moving towards art. Mitchell Oakley Smith and Alison Kubler suggest that “the traditionally existed hierarchy of ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms” of art and fashion is now collapsed” (10) As early as in 1917, Marchel Duchamp had already made ordinary daily life objects into art, as is exemplified in his famous “Fountain.” In the 1950s, artists like Andy Warhol also turns mass-produced advertisements into artworks. Likewise, fashion began to show up in museums and art galleries by the end of the last century. In 2017, Kawakubo becomes the only living fashion designer after Yves Saint Laurent whose work was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This exhibition urges us to treat and examine Kawakubo’s fashion design as artwork.

The Functions of the Museum

Before examining Kawakubo’s retrospective, it is necessary to understand how the functions of the museum help us to read art and fashion in a museum context. Mark Lilla, Edward Alexander, and Mary Alexander discuss the cultural function of the museum. The Alexanders point out that the aims for the museums in the last century are “exhibition, education, or interpretation,” which is in essence a “conveyance of culture” (10). Underlie this claim is the interface that the museum creates between the object on display and its viewer. Exploring the nature of the museum’s cultural function, Lilla regards the museum as “an ‘empowering’ institution”, which is “meant to incorporate all who would become part of our shared cultural experience” (25). He focuses on the resonance that each viewer has with the exhibition, and discovers the trans-cultural bound between the viewers through their shared experiences. Sharing the same view, Andrew McClellan suggests that “we learn to see ourselves in a larger flow of human experience and to empathize with others through a shared appreciation of beauty.” Our willingness to accept other cultures and ability to understand them are the preconditions for the transmission of meaning.

Apart from the cultural function, critics also read the museum as a space for dialogue.  Duncan Cameron notes that “museums occupy two ends of a spectrum from a ‘temple’ to a ‘forum’ in the early 1970s,” which looks back at “the premodern form of a museum as a site for musing and for discourse” (189). Cameron interestingly points out two seemingly paradoxical nature of the museum, which is nevertheless both necessary for the viewer to comprehend the meaning of the exhibit and then transmit it. Musing is the process in which the viewer opens himself or herself up to comprehend the possible meaning of an unfamiliar object. Discussion with fellow viewers after their own musings helps each to understand the exhibition with more diverse perspectives and on a deeper level. Stephen Weil, however, slightly expands the scope of the “discourse.” He suggests that “museums have moved beyond collections and collecting so dominant in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to become institutions rooted in interpretation in its broadest sense, actively seeking to provoke thought and the exchange of ideas between the museum and its visitors” (229). For Stephen, the discourse not only happens between people, but could also happen between people and object, as well as people and the whole cultural tradition behind the objects on display. The museum puts the exhibit and the viewer into a dialogue in which meaning emerges.

To have a more comprehensive understanding of how the museum transmits culture, we also need to study the relation between the museum and the artwork it displays. Exploring the museum’s aesthetic purpose, Daniel Buren proposes that “the museum is the frame and effective support upon which the work is inscribed/composed. It is at once the centre in which the action takes place and the single (topographical and cultural) viewpoint for the work” (189). By pointing out the museum’s framing and supporting function, Buren makes it inseparable to the artwork’s meaning-making. The objects are put in the museum because of both the curator’s choice and their own values. The fact that the works are chosen and put into the museum gives becomes an acknowledgment of their status as artwork. In other words, as the boundaries between art and popular culture or commodity become murky, it becomes increasingly hard to tell a work of art from a non-art object. Under this circumstances, museums define a thing as an artwork by admitting it and including in an exhibition. This function of the museum is especially helpful for defining the nature of fashion, given its ambiguous position between art and a popular form of culture. The functions of the museums, including cultural transmission, promoting dialogue and defining the objects as artworks, create meaning as it interfaces between the communication between art and the viewer.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2017 exhibition Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between was curated by Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Costume Institute. It examines approximately 140 examples of Kawakubo’s womenswear for Comme des Garçons since the early 1980s. Through these examples, the galleries explore the space between boundaries in the designer’s revolutionary experiments. In the exhibition, objects are organized into nine themes, including Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti- Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. The exhibition aims to illustrate how Kawakubo breaks down the imaginary walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness.

As we learn from Matthew Schneier that Bolton “structured the exhibitions around pairs of binary themes . . . to show how Ms. Kawakubo’s work could be both and neither, in between and somewhere else entirely” (Schneier). One of the interesting questions to ask about the exhibition is how the space of the museum and the installation of the exhibits help achieve Bolton’s intention and discover meaning. In the actual museum place, to one’s astonishment, there are no directions given to guide visitors through the galleries, and there are no wall texts to explain Kawakubo’s designs and ideas. One of the reasons why there is so little information given for the show is that Kawakubo hates providing interpretations for her own work. Since the exhibition is conducted by the collaboration of the artist and the curator, the latter had to compromise and design the show in a way that does not explain yet still allows the viewer to extract meaning from the exhibition.

Bolton ingeniously creates an interface between the exhibits and the viewers through the manipulation of the museum space. The retrospective of Kawakubo’s work is categorized thematically and by color, rather than chronically. In the gallery’s introduction video, Bolton reveals that Kawakubo “doesn’t want one grand narrative to be imposed on her work, so the actual display itself is presented as an artistic intervention.” The retrospective is thus broken into different meta-narratives, with each cluster of the exhibits occupying a place and displaying one theme, showing no apparent relation to other clusters—that is to say, the connections are left for the viewer to make. Bolton also explains that the show is “mazed almost like a playground. You’re encouraged to experience at your own pace, in your own route.”

The absence of the wall texts is aimed at engaging the viewer’s active participation. “I think Rei’s work is poetry,” says Thierry Dreyfus, who is in charge of the lightening for the show, “it is like when you read Whitman—you participate, and then you share something; but nothing is said, nothing that can be explained” (Yaeger). Rather than having the designer defining the meaning of her work, the show engages the viewer into an interpreting process in which the meaning of the work is produced by the collaboration of the artist and the viewer. One could have a postmodern experience viewing this exhibition. because no overarching guidelines are given to the interpretation of the work, that is to say, each viewer has to create his or her own pattern to participate. More importantly, since the artist intends to have her clothes speaks for themselves, each individual viewer participate in the making of the meaning of the work on display.

The relationship between the exhibits and the viewer are bilateral. As the viewer becomes the interpreter, they also change the nature of the objects—the interpreting process turns the clothes into artwork as they read fashion as signs. According to Daniel Chandler, “signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts of objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning” (13). As the viewers interpret the signs, they participate in the objects’ meaning-making process. Bolton’s curation of the retrospective could also be explained by Charles Sanders Peirce’s argument of sense-making: “the meaning of a sign is not contained within it, but arises in its interpretation” (32). The museum’s framing and supporting function are thus confirmed through Kawakubo’s case: it provides a space for the exhibits’ meaning-making process.

But then, it is also worth considering they seemingly lack dialogue in this retrospective. In other words, does the show demonstrates which system Kawakubo’s signs belong to? Mikhail Bakhtin argues that “the utterance is filled with dialogic overtones,” because “our thought itself—philosophical, scientific, artistic—is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought” (Speech Genres 92) The dialogue or conversation, however, is not explicitly shown by the retrospective. Moreover, there seems to be a lack of conversation in all individual exhibitions. Buren discusses the museum’s collecting function, arguing that it “makes simplifications possible,” because the collection can be used “to show a single artist’s work, thus producing a ‘flattening’ effect” (190) Is it legitimate, then, to argue that the Comme des Garçons exhibition is flattened because the show is all about Kawakubo’s design?

It is true that the exhibition does not include many backgrounds that could situate Kawakubo’s design in a fashion context, yet, there are still alternative conversations that circles around the show. First of all, critics’ comments suggest that, even Kawakubo claims that all of her works are original, it does not mean that she was not influenced. David Salle points out that Kawakubo’s design demonstrates a multicultural influence, from the Elizabethan court dress to the Belle Epoque, and from the France of Versailles to the Japanese battle dress. Stephanie LaCava also notes that Kawakubo’s designs in her 1981 Paris show took inspiration from Japanese folklore. The critics’ observations make up the dialogic background behind the show, which might offer the viewer more help were they offered by the Costume Institute’s curation.

In addition to a dialogue with other cultures from which Kawakubo got her inspiration, she is also in conversation with the future. “Continually questioning, encouraging individuality and looking to the future,” claims Kawakubo, “this is Comme des Garçons’ approach to creating clothes” (Frankel 158). Her anticipations of the future virtually make up part of her present discourse. Bahktin proposes that “the world is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation with any living dialogue. The orientation towards an answer is open, blatant and concrete” (The Dialogic Imagination 280). Each of her new collection is her attempt to look into the future, and all of her haute couture is in conversation with the anticipated responses in future. One may situate Kawakubo’s exhibition among the past fashion exhibitions that the Constume Institution concocted, such as the ones featuring Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander MacQueen. However, it seems to me that Bolton deliberately eliminated the conversation in order to foreground Kawakubo’s artistic genius and creative attempts.

Fashion or Art?

A fundamental question that the Comme des Garçon exhibition poses is that whether Kawakubo’s haute couture should be understood as fashion or art? I propose that the answer is both. As is suggested by the subtitle of the retrospective: Kawakubo’s work is an art in between. Haute couture, defined as clothes produced by hand or for a specific body, is a form of high fashion as is differentiated from popular fashion. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin discuss the “aura” of authenticity that makes something art, and argues that it disappears in the age of reproduction (218). According to Benjamin, popular fashion is not art, because the mass-produced clothes bear no “authenticity” of artwork. Haute couture, however, could be understood as art, because it is made by hand and thus preserves an “authenticity” of an artwork. Germano Genoa notes that “the idealized view of artistic creation as the poetic manifestation of individual genius which transcends the banality of daily life is at odds with this correlation of art production with mass-market mechanisms” (Firenze 88) It seems that haute couture reconciles this contradiction as the clothes become the embodiment of the designer’s ingenious creativity. Haute couture takes on the “aura” that has been lost in the age of mass production.

Haute couture’s high symbolic value also makes it a form of art. Instead of the functional value that is emphasized by popular fashion, haute couture is characterized by its symbolic value. Since the materials themselves do not produce meaning and do not make themselves fashion or art, meaning emerges from the interpretation of the symbolic value that is attached to the clothes. Bolton argues that “fashion isn’t just about wearability or about the pragmatics of clothing, but also about ideas and concepts. . . Fashion is a vehicle to express ideas about the subject. And that, too, is what art is all about” (Smith and Kubler, 160). Though there are no tangible features that make certain clothes high fashion, each design that makes up a collection is unique, and each season is exclusive. It is the differentiation that makes them recognizable, and expensive. The fact that a great number of people cannot afford high fashion design gives more symbolic value to it, because wearing haute couture demonstrates one’s wealth and social status. Haute couture shares aspects of artworks because of the high symbolic value it gets from its recognizability.

Exhibiting haute couture in the museum reaffirms its artistic quality. When being asked how to evaluate whether a designer is worthy of selection for an exhibition, Bolton answers that they select “designers who really have advanced fashion in one way or another, whether through techniques and constructions, or conceptually” (163). The museum acknowledges haute couture’s artistic value by holding exhibitions for it. In the same fashion, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also corroborates the artistic quality of Kawakubo’s fashion design. Yaeger comments that Kawakubo’s avant-garde parade is closer to performance art than fashion show. Salles even calls her a “combinatory formalist.” Kawakubo turns concepts into objects, which is exactly what an artist does. Her groundbreaking or even grotesque design explores the area in between fashion and art, pushing the boundary of the former one step closer toward the latter.


The Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between exhibition exemplifies how the museum interfaces between the exhibit and the viewer and how it makes fashion possible to be read as art. The museum creates frames of dialogues for artworks, and also participates the meaning-making process. The museum also transmits culture. Kawakubo’s design already shows a fusion of Japanese culture with Western culture. By holding this exhibition at the center of the New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art showed this unique fashion to visitors from around the world. The museum perpetuates the idea and concepts that Kawakubo’s fashion embodies through collecting and displaying the haute couture. This process, which acknowledges fashion as artwork, also adds a new layer of meaning to high fashion.

Works Cited

Alexander, Edward P., and Mary Alexander. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Second edition, Altamira Press, 2007.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist, Translated by Caryl Emerson, Reprint edition, University of Texas Press, 1983

—. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, translated by Vern W. McGee, 2nd edition, University of Texas Press, 1986.

Biennale di Firenze, et al. Art/Fashion. English language trade ed., in cooperation with Skira editore, 1997.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations, edited by H. Arendt. Schocken. 1969, 217–251.

Buren, Daniel. “Functions of the Museum,” in Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz. Later Printing edition, Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Cameron, Duncan. “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum,” Journal of World History Vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 189-204.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2 edition, Routledge, 2007.

Frankel, Susannah. Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers. V & A Publications ; Distributed by H. N. Abrams, 2001.

Fury, Alexander. “7 Key Themes in Rei Kawakubo’s Career.The New York Times Style Magazine. Apr 28, 2017.

Hyzagi, Jacques. “Rei Kawakubo’s Radical chic.” The Guardian, Sep 20, 2015.

Irvine, Martin. “Dialogue, Dialogic, Dialogism | Intertextuality, Intermediality | Remix: A Student’s Guide.”

LaCava, Stephanie. “The Radical Success of Comme des GarçonsThe New York Review of Books. Jul 11, 2017.

Lilla, Mark. “The Great Museum Muddle,” New Republic, April 8, 1985.

McClellan, Andrew. The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. First edition, University of California Press, 2008.

Mears, Patricia. “Exhibiting Asia: The Global Impact of Japanese Fashion in Museums and Galleries.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, Mar. 2008.

Oakley Smith, Mitchell, and Alison Kubler. Art/Fashion in the 21st Century. Thames & Hudson Inc, 2013.

Salle, David. “Clothes That Don’t Need You.” The New York Review of Books. Sep 28, 2017.

Schneier, Matthew. “Rei Kawakubo, the Nearly Silent Oracle of FashionThe New York Times, May1, 2017.

Smith, Roberta. “The Met’s Rei Kawakubo Show, Dressed for Defiance.”  The New York Times, May 4, 2017.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Weil, Stephen E. “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: the Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum,” Daedalus, 1999, pp. 229-258.

Yaeger, Lynn. “On the Eve of the Comme des Garçons Retrospective, the Notoriously Reclusive Rei Kawakubo Speaks Out.” Vogue, Apr 13, 2017.

Works Consulted

Bolton, Andrew. Rei Kawakubo/Comme Des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Slp Har/Ps edition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.

Godtsenhoven, Karen Van, et al., editors. Fashion Game Changers: Reinventing the 20th-Century Silhouette. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2016.

Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture.”The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies. Edited by Eduaro Navas, Owen Gallagher, and xtine burrough. Routledge, 2015, pp. 15-42.

Kelly, Cara “Is Clothing Art? Who Cares, You’ll Love the New Met Exhibit Either WayUSA Today, May 4, 2017.

Shapton, Leanne. “Rei Kawakubo, Interpreter of Dreams.” The New York Times, Apr 26, 2017.

Thurman, Judith. “The Misfit: Rei Kawakubo is a Japanese avant-gardist of few words, and she changed women’s fashion.The New Yorker. Jul 04, 2005.

Waters, John. Role Models. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Yaggy, Amanda. “Channeling Rei Kawakubo at the Met.” The New Yorker, August 26, 2017.

Installation art and artists’ interventions with the museum

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Lei Qin

Installation art and artists’ interventions with the museum


As a genre, installation art is totally dependent on art world institutions and viewing spaces, especially museums. My final paper will mainly discuss how installation artists use their artworks to mediate, to question or to reaffirm the function of the museum. The focus of this paper will be on the evaluation of different approaches of interventions in a museum taken by installation artists. My paper will not cover all types of interventions in the art world but rather, it will be a kind of phenomenological responses to installation arts in the museum. I will bring together three case studies: Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koon’s balloon dog installations in Versailles and Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik. Diverse as these cases may seem, all three artworks have at least one thing in common: artists who have made these artworks intervene in museum exhibitions. Research questions such as how installation art has evolved as an art genre in the art world, how museum installations can affect the nature and message of installation art and how are the artworks organized to create a dialogue and context for viewers to make connections and create some basic meanings will be explored.


In the modern world where so many different art forms have been born, evolved, explored and even forgotten over time, almost no other practice of art is more impressive and immersive as installation art. Compared to traditional painting, sculptures or any other art form, installation art has a natural advantage in engaging spectators, activating viewer’s perceptions and encouraging participation. The visitor is no longer a passive recipient of content, but an actor in a dialogic multisensory process of communication with his/her surroundings, in which he/she is fully immersed. The ‘gaze’ towards the object in the museum ’treasure house’ (Witcomb, 2003) becomes one aspect of an enveloping bodily experience within a complex environment. The museum no longer acts primarily as a place for presenting the pre-existing objects or the authoritative representation of a given context, but for the gathering of different forms of experience (Falk & Dierking, 1992).

Installation artists’ involvement with intervention may take various forms. It can take the form of using museum itself as an art form, as in the case of Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei discussed below. Alternatively, artists can question and reaffirm the function of the museum by changing the infrastructure setting of museums, such as light, sound or scent. One such example is Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik. Another way of intervention is Jeff Koon’s exhibition in Versailles.

A short history of installation art

Although a marginal and experimental art practice at the beginning, today installation art has become the mainstream in contemporary artistic practice. Roots of installation art can be traced back to the great Conceptual artists like Marcel Duchamp, the first to place a standard urinal into the “fine art” setting, and Kurt Schwitters, the artist who created an environment of several rooms created in his own house in Hannover. Duchamp’s “readymades” and Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau thus became precursors to this genre along with other early influencers like the avant-garde Dadaists, who were the first Conceptual artists who chose to focus on making works that generated questions rather than crafting aesthetically pleasing objects. Those artists’ emphasis on real materials and everyday life rather than depiction or illustration remains the prevailing mode of communicating ideas in today’s installation art. In 1942, Marcel Duchamp set his famous installation in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York, threading the entire space of the gallery with his so-called “Mile of String”. The gestures of Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, and other precursors gave utopian ideals to artists at the time to create three-dimensional environments. About 1957 onward, the earlier version of installation art emerged out of environmental installations made by artists such as Allan Kaprow and Yves Klein. In Kaprow’s Words (1961), he constructed an Environment of painted words with rolls of paper on the wall of galleries and played audio recordings for the audience as they moved through the room. Yves Klein was another pioneer of the curated environment, although his approach was a much sparser one. In The Void, an installation made by Klein in 1958, Klein emptied the room and painted it white. Guards were sent to stand outside the room. Anyone without invitation was charged entrance fee if he or she wanted to go inside. By doing this, Klein wanted to validate space as an object worthy of artistic attention. From the 1960s the creation of installations has become a major tendency in modern art. By the end of the 1990s, there were a considerable number of artists creating installation art in Europe and the United States.

Installation view of First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, showing Marcel Duchamp’s His Twine 1942 Gelatin silver print. Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother Alexina Duchamp Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by John D. Schiff

What does the term ’installation art’ denote exactly? During its early stage, installation arts has been created under various headings. In 1958, Allan Kaprow coined the term ’Environment’ to describe his room-sized multimedia works. From the 1960s, a few scholars began to identify an increasing tendency for artists to create the room-sized works of art. They variously called these works environments, happenings, art spaces, or situations. In the 1960s, the word ’installation’ was employed by magazines such as ArtforumArts Magazine, and Studio International to describe the way in which an exhibition was arranged. For example, the photographic documentation of this arrangement was termed an ’installation shot’. For artists associated with Minimalism who rejected the messy expressionistic ’environments’ of their immediate precursors such as Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg, the neutrality of the term ‘installation’ was important. Gradually, artists used the word ’installation art’ to describe the works that occupied the whole space. The Oxford Dictionary of Art (1988) defines installation as a “term which came into vogue during the 1970s for an assemblage or environment constructed in the gallery specifically for a particular exhibition.”

“Words” by Allan Kaprow at Smolin Gallery, New York, 1962. The image is part of the Getty’s recent acquisition of the archives of Robert McElroy, a photographer who documented New York’s performance-art scene in the 1960s. Photo By Robert T. McElroy / The Getty Research Institute

Even though the term ’Installation Art’ has been extensively used, it remains ambiguous and unspecific in the definition. Reiss (1999) writes: “It refers to a wide range of artistic practices, and at times overlaps with other interrelated areas including Fluxus, Earth art, Minimalism, video art, Performance art, Conceptual art and Process art.”  Certain characteristic features of installation art, however, have been discussed and analyzed in detail from different angles by several scholars. The essence of installation art is, according to Reiss, spectator participation. In Julie Reiss’s book From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art, she highlights some of installation art’s salient features, one of which is that ‘the spectator is in some way regarded as integral to the completion of the work’. In her further explanation, spectator participation ‘is so integral to Installation art that without having the experience of being in the piece, analysis of installation art is difficult’. Julie Reiss and Claire Bishop believe that an installation is not completed until it has been taken by recipients. Thus, the viewer or spectator’s participation becomes a constitutive and decisive element in installation art. Another feature of installation art is site-specific. Unlike sculptures, paintings, and similar pieces, installations are usually dependent on the configurations of certain sites, from rooms in galleries and museums to outdoor spaces. The physical characteristics and properties of the space thus play important roles in communicating the meaning of an installation work, that is to say, if one installation artwork gets removed from its original location it loses all or a substantial part of its meaning.

In recent years, development in information and communication technology have influenced the conventional concepts of space and time inside installation art greatly. Consequently, much installation art has become more compounded evolving into interactive multimedia events. Displays of work now combine a flexible method and it contains a product of machine-based audiovisual technology, such as video projection and computer-generated images. However, some installation artists argue that because contemporary multimedia installation art contains electronic media, (existing only as light or electronic signal), which is considered non-physical material, it cannot be categorized with previous forms of installation art.

 From Object to Project: Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei

With the growth in consumer goods after the World War II, the art world has witnessed an artistic tendency to gather together large quantities of society’s found objects. From early instances of the Surrealists’ urge to use supplies of working materials such as castoffs from streets and dustbins, to pop artists’ practice of borrowing the materials, techniques, and imagery of mass production for their art, the ideas and systems traditionally embodied in the museum display, archiving, classification, storage, curatorship have been challenged greatly by contemporary art practice. Installation artists appropriated and interpreted the way they present their work in their own ways to activate spectatorship, to increase immersion and to trigger a public inquiry.

Artist Ai Weiwei holds porcelain sunflower seeds from his installation Ai Weiwei/Tate Photography

In Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) 2008, Ai Weiwei filled the enormous Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, an industrial building-turned-contemporary art space, with more than 100 million tiny, handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. The seeds installation tipped the scales at 150 tons. For viewers whoever entered Turbine Hall, the scenery was a marvel, at least mathematically, considering the millions of facsimiles of the titular item cast in porcelain, then decorated by hand. Each is both a mass-produced multiple and an individual painting. The audience was invited to physically walk over and lie on the seeds covering a vast expanse of floor to the depth of about four inches. The black-and-white sunflower seeds crunched delightfully underfoot, and the whole thing resembled an indoor pebble beach, with people strolling about and then plunking down to sit or recline.

A demonstrator surrounded by posters lies in Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds exhibit in the Tate Modern. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Sunflower seeds evoke a warm personal memory for the artist, who recalls that while he was growing up, even the poorest in China would share sunflower seeds as a treat among friends. Sunflowers also represent the citizens of the People’s Republic of China because Communist propaganda optimistically depicted leader Chairman Mao as the sun. Ai Weiwei asserts the sunflower seed as a symbol of camaraderie during difficult times. These sunflower seeds were hand-crafted in China,shipped across the oceans and presented in London. Viewers can freely walk and play in the sunflower seeds beach. Many of them may not have the memory of the Cultural Revolution in China, nor do they understand the warm feelings that Ai Weiwei have with friends in his childhood. But when viewers interact with the work inside Tate museum, they were just like kids come to the beach and sit down, play, and grind. This kind of inspiration and interaction span culture, politics, and language. Compared to more traditional types of art, installation art regards its viewing subject not as an individual who experiences art in isolation but as part of a community. In this way, communication between visitors who are present in the space is generated.

Looking through the lens of technology: Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik

Artists like Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, and Andy Warhol explore an obsessive repetition of form in their installations and sculptures. While some installation artists focus on combining contemporary technology such as videos with art, or altering the infrastructure that once enabled visitors to simply gaze at objects on display, such as light, image, sound or scent. Visitors who stepped in the third floor of American Art Museum in the east wing found themselves facing a fantastic sensory overload — Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik. The exhibit is a map of the United States. Each state is outlined in the neon light tubing and filled with closed-circuit television screens. Non-stop TV programmers are chosen specifically to represent the states. Some screens are tilted to better fit the state (such as within New Jersey and Wisconsin), and television size varies depending on the size of the state. Colorado and New Mexico, for example, each have six screens of equal size. TV programmers also vary according to 50 states’ features. For example, Iowa’s appears to be a tourism ad featuring celebrities and politicians such as Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, which is perhaps an homage to Iowa’s essential role in our political nomination process. Kansas plays The Wizard of Oz and Missouri’s is Meet Me in St. Louis. Texas’ video consists of cowboys and horses. New York is not representative of the whole state, but rather an image of the Empire State Building.

Consisted of 336 televisions, 50 DVD players, 3,750 feet of cable, and 575 feet of multicolored neon tubing, the only thing you can do it stare at it in awe when you first see Electronic Superhighway. When I first saw this masterpiece, I felt my brain was working as hard as the generators to make sense of the quick, flashing screens and competing sounds. This masterpiece is the only artwork in the alcove. Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway works against the tendency of formal categorical groupings that sort individual pieces into cohesion in American Art Museum (for example, the grouping of color field works together in museum), focusing viewer’s attention on the singularity of the objects on display and avoiding effacing the differences between digital media sources displayed in the work.

Unlike other artists’ video installation work, this work does not immerse the viewer in whole darkness. In Claire Bishop’s book Installation Art, he explained that “Dark space (with its mystical and mystifying atmosphere) would run counter to the focused rationality and concentration needed to investigate and elucidate these narratives.” The neon light outlines and nonstop TV screens stand out against the dimly lit background in the whole room, seducing and simultaneously producing a critically perceptive viewer. Due to its massive size and abundance of digital media, viewers are invited to walk through the map and to enjoy the content of every television programmers according to the state. Nam June Paik’s use of multicolored neon light, TV screens and curator’s use of background highlight the approach of every viewer to the work. When I visited, many viewers would step close to move along neon light borders of states and focus on on-going TV programs on the screen.

Commonly known as the father of video art, Nam June Paik transformed video into an artist’s medium with his media-based art that challenged and changed our understanding of visual culture. As Paik wrote in 1969, he wanted “to shape the TV screen canvas as precisely as Leonardo, as freely as Picasso, as colorfully as Renoir, as profoundly as Mondrian, as violently as Pollock and as lyrically as Jasper Johns.” Paik’s installation just like a painting that uses electronic media as a brush to draw and to depict what we used to leave home to discover. With audio clips from screen gems, Paik suggests that our picture of America has always been influenced by film and television. In such installation, certain materials and medium that compound the artwork become activated, generating the dialogues between artist and viewers, between artists and curators and between museum and viewers.

The beauty of contradiction: Jeff Koons’ exhibition in Versailles

Like Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway intervention that engages viewers in a hypnosis surrounding in the American Art Museum, Jeff Koons’ large-scale balloon sculptures, including Balloon Rabbit, Balloon Swan, and Balloon Monkey in Versailles also evokes viewers of an unrealistic dream. The artist’s intervention with space is so important that it would be impossible to understand and interpret the exhibition Jeff Koons Versailles without understanding the institution or space surrounding it. All his works presented in this exhibition have been selected specifically to be situated in different rooms in the Royal Apartment (Les grands appartements ) in Versailles and in the gardens of the Castles, highlighting an inner relationship between each artwork and the theme of the room, or the specific features of the work and the decorative details and the furnishings of the location.

“Balloon Dog” by Jeff Koons at the Château de Versailles exhibition. Photo ByThe New York Times

Balloon Dog, one of his huge polished steel sculptures that imitate the balloon sculptures made for children’s parties, posed amid the solemnity of allegorical paintings and marble veneer of the Salle d’Hercule.

Balloon rabbit was located in Le salon de l’Abondance, the antechamber of the ancient cabinet des curiosités ou des raretés. The work is one of the most well-known and emblematic Koons’ creation. Cast in mirror-bright stainless steel, an inflated cartoon bunny reflected the futurist, utopian aspirations of modernism. The small salon de l’Abondance (Drawing Room of Plenty) was built in 1680 for Louis XIV to store his rare paintings. Under Louis XVI, the room became le salon de jeux du roi (the games room of the king). Salon de l’Abondance was reserved for au buffet les soirs d’appartement on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. In its childlike vulnerability, innocence and eagerness to please, it exudes a feeling of new possibility.

Jeff Koons’s “Lobster,” in the palace’s Mars Salon. He called the exhibition “so profound — the high point of my artistic life.” Photo By Alcock for The New York Times

Lobster was hang from the ceiling at Le salon de Mars, dedicated to the Greek god and, at the same time, to the planet. The colorful shape and design of the work derive from the inflated children’s pool toys, but the material used by the artist – polychromatic aluminum – transforms this everyday object into works of art.

Mr. Koons’s “Split-Rocker,” now residing in the palace gardens. Photo By The New York Times

The exhibition will also include the gardens of the Castle, in which one important work Split-Rocker, a sculpture created by ten of thousand flowers, was installed in the Parterre de l’Orangerie. Flowers are recurring elements throughout Koons’ work: they are a symbol of life and grace. The work combined two different profiles of rockers – a blue rocking horse and an animated dinosaur – and these split parts are sustained by an interior architectural structure. Koons said he was inspired by the Sun King when he created Split-Rocker. In a video, Koons said that “this is the type of work that Louis Quatorze would wake up and have a fantasy that he’d want to see and he would tell his staff, and voila! He would come home and in the evening, there would be Split-Rocker.”

Even though Koons has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques. The contradict itself between Koons’ sculptures and the surroundings make the exhibition unforgettable. On the walls of the queen’s antechamber hang portraits of Marie Antoinette surrounded by her children. In the middle of the room is Koons’ exhibit, Hoover Convertibles, a collection of 1960-style vacuum cleaners. A marble statue of Louis XIV shares space with some unlikely interlopers: Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles, sculpted in porcelain. There can be thousands of interpretations of Jeff Koons’ work in Versailles. The statue of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey Bubbles before a statue of Louis XIV could be a gentle reminder that pop stars are today’s royalty. The Balloon Rabbit, again in stainless steel, stands on a marble plinth amid Baroque portraits, black marble busts, and green velvet, like a bunny laughing at the pomp of official portraiture. The touching personal intimacy that Balloon Rabbit has could suggest the function of the room as a game room. Koons also put his white marble Self-Portrait, the artist’s head in a mass of marble shards, popping up cheekily in the Apollo Salon. The piece in the Hall of Mirrors, the most famous room in the palace, seems rather conservative compared to his works in other rooms. He has hung a three-meter-wide round balloon at the far end in the sparkle of all its mirrors and chandeliers and sheer scale of its 73-metre length. Interestingly enough, as you admire your reflections in its convex form, it does feel a little like being in a ball at the court of Louis XIV.

As with any juxtaposition between historic and modern, the contrast with Koons’ colorful shiny world is also a chance to rediscover the château itself and of course its gilded decorations, colored marble, crystal and oil paintings. These hilarious, oversize sculptures are still viewed as subversive mock commodities, satirizing the infantilism and banality of contemporary imagination. The dialogues between Jeff Koons and viewers of his works can only be generated by understanding the surroundings, Versailles.


Many installation artworks, in which so much money and energy are invested, are not made primarily for art collectors, but for the visitors who will perhaps never have an interest or enough money to buy art. As the art system is becoming a part of mass culture as an exhibition practice that combines with architecture, design, and fashion, it is becoming increasingly difficult today to differentiate between the artist and the curator. Thus, the idea of the artist’s intervention has been turned inside out by collaborative practice. From an unwelcome intrusion into the museum by artists, the intervention has become a curatorial practice of the museum itself. Institution and intervention are bound together in this process. Whatever forms of artists’ intervention with museum might be, the aim of such interventions is quite similar – to activate spectatorship, to increase immersion, trigger public inquiry and to generate dialogues.


City as Museum, Art as Interface: Mural Art in Washington D.C.

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“Kindred,” mural commissioned by MuralsDC project in NW Washington D.C. Alberto Clarencia, 2017. Photo credit: MuralsDC.


In this project, I identify key ways in which the mural arts in Washington D.C. act as an interface to the city’s deeper identity by providing representation for marginalized groups and by highlighting the city’s history. Because not all viewers have the necessary context to make use of murals as interfaces, I also propose a concept for a mobile app that would provide better access to the information encoded in these murals.

Marilyn Monroe looms large in Washington D.C.

Literally, that is. On the wall of a hair salon in Woodley Park, a larger-than-life painting of the star overlooks commuters turning onto Rock Creek Parkway and a steady stream of tourists searching for a bite to eat.

The mural is one of hundreds in the nation’s capital that have sprung up since the 1970s. A 1994 New York Times article highlighted the importance of the art form in the city: Alex Simpson, then assistant director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, told the paper, “Murals provide a public service and add to the community. You find that the people raise a hue and cry if you try to take them away” (“In Washington” 1994). That mindset continues today, with countless organizations sponsoring murals across the city.

These murals provide artists with an opportunity to make visible the unseen or underrepresented parts of the city: its history, its values, and its identity. Here I address the specific ways in which murals can act as an interface to the city, and ways in which that interface can be improved through technology.

A Different Kind of Artworld

“Art in Bloom,” commissioned by the MuralsDC project on wall donated by Hi Market. Student artists, 2011. Photo: Elvert Barnes, 2013.

The traditional artworld is a network of institutions, actors, and norms that serve to reinforce the existence of Art as a defined category. Artists produce artworks that are evaluated by museums and their curators and are either deemed worthy of being displayed as Art to the largely educated, largely middle-to-upper-class public, or confined to the fringes of the artworld. If worthy, they are sold in galleries to educated, largely middle-to-upper-class consumers who can display them as a show of their social and financial capital. The nodes in this network all interact with each other constantly, reinforcing each others’ roles and affirming the existence of the system itself (Irvine 2018).

Mural art still exists in a network, but the key players are very different. Murals exist in the open air, rather than in ticketed museums; their audience is not just those who seek out Art but anyone who passes by, regardless of education or class. Instead of buyers purchasing artworks to own, you have funders—whether public, private, or somewhere in between—funding art for all. In lieu of museum curators determining what should or should not count as Art, you have a complicated milieu of stakeholders whose opinions are only sometimes considered: the property owner, nearby businesses, neighborhood residents, local governments. Perhaps the only constant is the artist; indeed many muralists, in D.C. and elsewhere, cross back and forth between the two worlds, showing their work in galleries as well as on the walls of the city.

(It is worth noting here that I am speaking of large-scale murals made with the approval of the wall’s owners, not of street art more generally, which is often underground or illegal—not because illegal street art is less meaningful or impactful than its legal sibling, but because it has a world of norms all its own that deserves, and has received elsewhere, separate attention.)

There are countless differences between the two networks, then, but a select few stand out. The first is the role of physical space. Much has been made of the “white cube” of the gallery space, as O’Doherty (1986) describes it: “The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall.” It is hard to imagine a space further removed from that of the gallery than the urban street. In O’Doherty’s white cube, artworks’ “ungrubby surfaces are untouched by time and its vicissitudes,” but a muralist works with the knowledge that no mural will be ever look as pristine as it did on the day of its unveiling (15). She is unable to control the work’s visual, aural, or (alas) olfactory surroundings, or the ways in which others (people, animals, the elements) will interact with it. It is an inversion of the white cube: where galleries contain even the most disruptive art within a heavily mediated space, murals insert a carefully considered image into a chaotic one. Irvine (2012) describes it as a “turn[ing] inside out: what was once banished from the walls of the art institutions (schools, museums, galleries) is reflected back on the walls of the city. Street art is now the mural art of the extramuros, outside the institutional walls” (7).

Rather than providing a refuge from the outside world, as museums often aim to do, mural art inserts itself into everyday life. This ties into issues of access as well: Once freed from the constraints of opening hours and admission fees, artworks can reach a much larger audience. In the 1994 article, the New York Times interviewed longtime D.C. muralist G. Byron Peck. “Although he also shows his paintings in galleries, Mr. Peck prefers murals. ‘With a gallery opening, you’re there and you have this flashpoint for one night for a one-month duration,’ he said. ‘But this gives you almost daily exposure to a lot of people who don’t have the chance or the desire to go to a gallery’” (“In Washington”).

Posing in front of a wall near Union Market in NE D.C., a popular photo backdrop. The mural was created as part of the one-year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” initiative. Photo credit: Jordan Moeny, 2016.

Another inversion of the artworld arises with regard to the capital—both economic and social—of art. Traditional artworks provide economic capital, in ideal circumstances, to their creators, and in this respect they are similar to murals. Muralists are (also in ideal circumstances) paid directly for their work, whether by the property owner whose wall they are adorning, by a nonprofit, by a local government, or by some other sponsor. The economic exchange is more direct than that in the traditional artworld, where it must be mediated by a dealer lest the artist seem to have “sold out,” but it is similar nonetheless. Social capital, however, is another matter. Traditional artworks lend social capital to those through whose hands they have passed: dealers, museums, buyers (Bourdieu 1993). The same is not necessarily true for murals. Many do not clearly “belong” to a particular business or person, and most are not clearly marked with the name of their funder. Instead, they provide capital to those who interact with them. They provide a level of status—often proportional to how new and trendy the mural is—to those who post Instagram selfies in front of them, and even moreso to those who live nearby. Murals are a form of art in which capital is distributed amongst the community, not kept to the individual.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the traditional and mural artworlds, however, is the role of the institution. Institutions exist in each system: museums and art schools in the one, governments and other funders in the other. Both act as gatekeepers for their networks: city-sponsored mural projects are often a major funder of large-scale murals, and receiving their funding requires creating something that can be approved of by politicians and bureaucrats. Even when not publically funded, murals with any institutional sponsor will go through some sort of approval process just as a piece in a museum might.

The key difference is that in the mural artworld, institutional control is far from complete. An artist can’t simply walk into the Louvre and hang up her painting, but with enough paint, a laddder, and someone willing to donate their wall, anyone can create a mural. From the sidewalk, it’s impossible to know which mural was financed by the city and which was created by a business owner with a love of color and an artistic friend. The city removes barriers between that which is authorized and that which is not, placing all murals on the same playing field.

Though street art more generally is not the focus here, it is worth mentioning that murals can seem like a sanitized version of underground street art—not defined by their quality or their messages, but by whether or not the artist asked to use the space first. Approving street art in advance removes the aspect of rebellion and the symbolic role of graffiti as an act of protest. In a city like D.C. in particular, it can come across as a gentrified version of “real” street art, like the luxury condos that bear the names of black artists and local pioneers while pricing out the people of color who made the neighborhood what it was.

But the analogy isn’t perfect. Where gentrification pushes out thriving communities, most murals aren’t hiding something like 5Pointz, a collage of artistically varied, aesthetically interesting artwork. Oftentimes, murals turn a purely blank wall into something more interesting. Other times, they take the place of a cycle of destruction and reconstruction wherein walls are graffitied, repainted, and graffitied again, ad infinitum until the wall is a patchwork of new paint on top of old. This cycle leads only to frustration among the property owner, the graffiti artist, and the community; murals offer a chance to break that cycle and put something more productive in place.

“Frederick Douglass,” mural commissioned by MuralsDC on wall donated by Bread for the City. Aniekan Udofia, 2011. Photo credit: MuralsDC, 2011.

Painting the Federal City

As the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. has a reputation for being stuffy, a city of bureaucrats in gray suits and politicians in black cars. The sites most associated with the city are, generally speaking, a collection of white marble neoclassical buildings and white marble memorials to long-dead white men.

Yet beneath the surface lives a thriving community that is far removed from the “federal city”: one that, like any other city, is made up not just of lawyers and office workers but of artists, cashiers, activists, baristas, actors, bus drivers, teachers, and more. According to the D.C. city government, 1.57% of area residents are “professional artists and creatives,” a percentage three times that of New York City (D.C. Cultural Plan 2018, 58). This isn’t a new phenomenon; in the early part of the 20th century, Washington D.C. was a hotspot of culture—particularly black culture—and played host to figures like Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes before they made their names in New York (Kovacs 2005). D.C. has always had an identity beyond its face as the nation’s capital and continues to do so today, but it’s not one that is easily seen in the tourist attractions. In an essay on the changing face of his hometown, Uzodinma Iweala (2016) writes, “[D.C.] is a city fractured by its infatuation with official remembrance (as seen in its monuments and museums), and its seeming indifference to the personal memories of the permanent residents whose lives have truly shaped it.”

Public murals offer one possible interface to those memories. The city recognizes this: The draft of the first-ever D.C. cultural plan suggests a strategy of “recogniz[ing] the role that murals can play in providing platforms for artistic entrepreneurship and expression of community heritage, enlivening space and creating opportunities for audience dialogue” and recommends strengthening mural-creation programs (74). Even in their current state, such programs are doing fairly well; MuralsDC, a project of the D.C. Department of Public Works, celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017 and has to date produced 75 murals across the city (DC DPW 2018). The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities funds additional murals outside of MuralsDC, and the nonprofit and private sectors more than keep pace. Perry Frank, who catalogs D.C.’s murals on a site funded in part by DCCAH, estimated in 2016 that there were around 600 murals across the city (Bahrampour 2016).

With that many murals, and more popping up regularly, it’s no surprise that there’s a fair amount of variety. Plenty are largely decorative, featuring attractive patterns rather than specific images. But others offer a link to different aspects of the community—particularly ones that may not be obvious to tourists or newcomers.

Carrying the Torch: Representing D.C.’s Black Community

“The Torch,” mural commissioned by MuralsDC on wall donated by Ben’s Chili Bowl. Aniekan Udofia with Mia Duval, 2017. Photo credit: MuralsDC, 2017.

Washington D.C.’s history is one of diversity. The city’s African-American population peaked at 71 percent in 1970, a high-water mark in half a century of a black majority in “Chocolate City.” That majority slipped away only in 2011, and black residents remain the largest racial group (Tavernise 2011). The D.C. region is home to the largest Ethiopian population outside of Africa (Schwartz 2016), and the second-largest Salvadoran population in the U.S., after Los Angeles (Terrazas 2010).

Yet as the 21st century moves forward, the city is growing whiter. While the black population is growing, the white population is doing so as well, and at a faster pace (Hudson 2017). Even though the overall population is today about 49 percent black, among native Washingtonians that number jumps to 80 percent. In a recent article about the subject, WAMU’s Ally Schweitzer (2017) points out that this too ties into the federal/local divide:

“No one is from D.C.” is one of those things you hear in “official” Washington—land of Congress, the White House and K Street. Go to a happy hour in official Washington and you’ll meet people from everywhere except D.C. But in hometown D.C.—where people have lived, learned and raised families for generations, usually beyond the bubble of politics—it’s a given that your next door neighbor grew up here and maybe even went to high school with you. In hometown D.C., people don’t utter such ridiculous things as, “No one is from D.C.”

Even in neighborhoods like U Street—once known as Black Broadway—that have become increasingly expensive and increasingly white, murals offer a reminder of the city’s roots. One of the city’s most famous walls is that of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local institution that has been called “a symbol of the city’s resilience,” having survived six decades in a neighborhood once devastated by riots and neglect. A previous mural featured Bill Cosby, among others; though the owners claim that the decision wasn’t based on charges of sexual assault against Cosby, they decided in 2017 to give the mural a complete overhaul. Both the new mural and the original were sponsored by MuralsDC and painted by local artist Aniekan Udofia (Lefrak 2017).

The new version features 16 individuals, living and dead, all black and many connected to the city. At one end, Barack and Michelle Obama grin at passers-by and Harriet Tubman provides the mural’s title (“The Torch”). Toward the other end, D.C.’s non-voting Congresswoman Eleanor Norton Holmes stands in front of the skyline, a D.C. flag streaming over her shoulders like a superhero’s cape as she looks off into the distance. Featuring national celebrities like Prince and a young Muhammad Ali alongside local ones like longtime news anchor Jim Vance, the mural is an unapologetic reminder of D.C.’s status as a capital of black culture (Lefrak 2017).

“Work It, Gurl”: Queering the City Landscape

Side of Whitman-Walker Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center. Painted by No Kings Collective, 2017. Photo credit: Ted Eytan, 2017.

Just down 14th Street NW is a tribute to another side of D.C., past and present. The city boasts a larger LGBT population, proportionally speaking, than any state in the country (8.6 percent in 2015-16) and a long and storied history of queer activity and activism (Cooper 2017). In summer 2017, queer-friendly clinic Whitman-Walker decided to mark the start of a major redevelopment at their Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center with a new paint job that took over not just all exterior walls but the parking lot adjacent to the building. With the phrase “Work it, gurl” splashed over a background inspired by the pink-and-blue trans flag, the highly Instagrammable mural is an ode to the trans and gender-nonconforming community that Whitman-Walker has served for decades. Elsewhere, a black-and-gray pattern frames“members of the Whitman-Walker family,” whose portraits fill the building’s streetside windows (Jackson 2017). Though many of the facility’s patients are still stigmatized—particularly those who are HIV-positive, a group Whitman-Walker works with frequently—the display serves to humanize them and remind the clinic’s neighbors of the large role the queer community plays in the city.

Work on the redevelopment started in October 2017. Each day on my way to work, I walk past the Whitman-Walker building, now sitting at the edge of a massive construction site. Though the historic facades are staying put, the interiors have been gutted to make way for a 155,000 square foot mixed-use building that will include an expanded facility and office space for the organization (Chibbaro 2017). In a city full of construction, where cranes and scaffolding are a daily sight for most people, this isn’t unusual. What is unusual is that the murals are still there, the parking lot boldly reminding me to work it, gurl. A large development of that type has the potential to be an eyesore for the community and an ugly reminder of how fast the city is changing. Instead, the murals provide a pop of color and cheer that distracts from much of the construction. From behind the construction fencing, the faces of Whitman-Walker watch over 14th Street, as if to say, “We’re still here, and we’ll be here when this is all over.”

Building History: An Interface to the Past

“28 Blocks,” mural commissioned by D.C. Department of General Services. Gavin Baker, 2017. Photo credit: Amaury Laporte, 2017.

On the side of an unused building in Northeast D.C., another mural added this summer draws attention from pedestrians, cyclists, and visitors passing by on the train from New York. From afar, the grayscale mural seems to focus on the Lincoln Memorial, but as viewers get closer they see that the true subjects of “28 Blocks” are the larger-than-life figures of the men who built D.C.’s most popular tourist attraction. Black workers—only 50 years removed from the end of slavery—quarry and transport the 28 marble blocks that make up the statue of Lincoln, while Italian immigrants carve those same blocks into the President’s likeness (Stein 2017).

For artist Gavin Baker and the D.C. Department of General Services, which commissioned the mural, the image represents all of the unsung work that has gone into creating not just D.C., but the United States. Baker says that it is intended to highlight “The hands and the struggles, the hopes and the dreams that went into building this country, and all of the immigrants and slaves and sons and grandsons of people who were brought to this country in chains and are now free men and women” (Trull 2017)

“28 Blocks” shows how murals can offer an interface to the city’s history. The stately marble memorials on the National Mall were created to seem timeless and seamless; for the casual viewer, the Lincoln Memorial may as well have emerged from the earth fully-formed. Standing next to the 19-foot statue, it is hard to imagine that it was created by ordinary men. The mural provides a dose of reality, reminding viewers of the work that went into the city around them. So far, it seems to be working: “It’s beautiful,” one viewer told the Washington Post. “It’s very creative. Now I’m thinking I need to go back and look up all this history” (Trull 2017).

Developing the Cultural Encyclopedia Through Technology

Mural of Marvin Gaye in NW Washington D.C.. Aniekan Udofia, 2014. Photo credit: Elvert Barnes, 2016.

Understanding art, whether in a museum or on the street, requires drawing upon a cultural encyclopedia of knowledge (Irvine 2016). Without the proper context, a viewer may not realize that the soulfoul singer on a wall in Shaw is Marvin Gaye, let alone that Gaye was a native Washingtonian. Murals can be a tool to teach viewers about the long and nuanced history of the city, but their lessons often go unnoticed.

While a museum can often provide that context through wall labels and curatorial statements, that option isn’t always present for murals, where small signs may be missed or may wear rapidly in the elements. Several alternatives exist already: DC Murals, Perry Frank’s website, offers an partial catalog of local murals, and one organization offers occasional tours of murals in the U Street and Shaw neighborhoods. Both, however, require citygoers to seek them out, when one of the great benefits of the mural as an art form is that, unlike museums and galleries, it is accessible to all people whether or not they make a point to track it down.

A potential opportunity is a mobile-friendly website or app that would make information about murals more quickly and easily accessible to those who pass by. To be succesful, such an app would need to involve several components:

1. Location, Location, Location

A map showing local murals is a good start, but with modern GPS technology, an app could easily notify users if they are within a few blocks of a mural. Settings could allow users to select their own level of interaction by choosing whether or not they want to receive such notifications, and if so how often. Constantly? Only on the weekends or after work? Only on the first time they pass a specific mural? Giving users the ability to adjust the number of notifications they receive could keep more casual users from deleting the app in frustration, while providing hardcore mural-hunters with the information they’re seeking.

This also at least partially solves one problem of street art: that without titles, not all are easily identified. Without the help of a label, viewers might not catch the artist’s name, or might not remember later which business the wall belonged to. A map with a location function would allow users to pull out their phones and quickly see which mural is closest to them, keeping them from having to try to look up more information by Googling “DC mural flowers photo.”

2. Entries in the Cultural Encyclopedia

While Perry’s website offers some information on the works listed there, the details are often sparse. Other murals are featured on their artists’ or funders’ websites or in local media, but the information is scattered and requires more research than a casual commuter might be willing or able to conduct. A well-designed app could consolidate such information, presenting it in one place. One affordance of an app is that images can also be interactive; users could tap various points to identify, for example, who each musician in Shaw’s “DC Jazz Heroes” mural is.

3. Public Input, Private Research

With hundreds of murals across the city, the key to the success of such an app would be public feedback. Users would be able to submit suggestions for murals to be added, ask questions about murals already in the app, and submit more information about a murals whose entry is still lacking.

However, public feedback cannot be the only source of information, and this is where my proposed app diverges from previous attempts. In 2010, the ArtAround app was launched in D.C. to identify local artistic sites—murals along with monuments, statues, galleries, and more—but while the project expanded to other cities, it ultimately fell short of its goals (Sollinger 2013). Crucially, it relied too heavily on the community to generate its content. While crowdsourced projects can be successful, new additions often become less and less frequent, which in turn discourages new users. The most recent D.C. murals on the app were created in 2015, and before that in 2013. Apps that rely solely on crowdsourcing are also at risk of being incomplete to the point of irrelevance. Even well-known murals like the Ben’s Chili Bowl mural are missing from ArtAround’s map, and the descriptions are generally no more than a few sentences, if that.

This is where private research comes into play. A researcher tied to the app could consolidate information from multiple sources to provide thorough descriptions of murals’ subjects, artists, and histories. Given sufficient time and funding, the app could even become a platform for unique content like interviews with muralists, property owners, and community historians.

Murals as a Rallying Cry for Identity

Mural of Marilyn Monroe on the wall of Salon Roi in Woodley Park, Washington D.C. John Bailey, 1979 (refreshed 2001). Photo credit: Adam Fagen, 2012.

Irvine (2012) writes on street art that “The city location is an inseparable substrate for the work, and street art is explicitly an engagement with a city, often a specific neighborhood” (4). This is clear in Washington D.C.’s murals, where the images reflect the history and culture of the city on whose walls they are painted.

The painting of Marilyn Monroe in Woodley Park is one of the murals that doesn’t have a clear connection to the city’s history. The salon’s owner, Roi Barnard, was a fan of Monroe’s and had a friend paint the mural to brighten up the “bleak” building for his 40th birthday in 1979 (“In Washington”). Since then, the mural has become something of a local landmark. In 2001, neighborhood businesses contributed funds to restore the fading mural and illuminate it after dark (PoPVille 2014).

Like most of D.C.’s murals, it’s hard to find much information about the painting—there’s certainly no consolidated source for it. It takes some digging to discover that unlike other stars who grace the city’s walls, Monroe never lived in Washington D.C. But her image has come to represent a side of the city that isn’t reflected in the monuments and memorials: a vibrant city with a creative identity, where history is important but symbolism isn’t always the point, and where anyone with a wall and some paint can add their mark to the city’s landscape.

Works Cited

The Art of the Aids Crisis: Cautionary Oeuvres From the 1980s

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A 1985 protest in New York City, the hub of the AIDS epidemic and the corresponding art movement. Source:


This essay will analyze the artwork produced in the United States during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, and engage with the following question: What were the dominant messages and intentions of the paintings and posters that emerged from the 1980’s AIDS crisis? Using a modest sample of case studies, this essay will demonstrate how the AIDS epidemic inspired still artwork of many styles, all inspired in their own right by one of the greatest nationwide scares of the late 20th century. The essay will also establish the sociopolitical forces that shaped the artwork of this era. For instance, what was the federal government’s role in and response to the AIDS crisis, and how did that influence the manner in which chief political figures (particularly Ronald Reagan, who was president throughout most of this period) were portrayed?

By visually analyzing a number of paintings from this period, as well as consulting the scholarship related to them, this essay will reveal what elements of the AIDS crisis most inspired the resulting artwork of the era.




Just as Picasso did with Guernica and Van Gogh did with The Potato Eaters, artists across America produced works which visually encapsulated a period of great sorrow and suffering: the nationwide AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.

Early on in the decade, the Center for Disease Control reported the first cases of a strange new illness, which had affected five previously healthy gay men living in New York City. Although the disease remained mysterious in many regards, physicians could recognize that it was “a blood-borne and sexually transmitted disease, probably viral in origin” (Caldwell, pg. 203). By 1984, the disease was given a formal name— “AIDS,” which stands for “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”— and identified more thoroughly as “a deadly new blood-transmitted viral disease that was primarily striking down young men, particularly homosexuals and drug users who shared contaminated needles. (Reeves, 2005, pg. 211).

The causes of this disease were not all that were being recognized— so was the ever-mounting death toll. According to the United States Public Health Service, “AIDS deaths had gone from one in 1978, to 151 in 1981, and 1,145 in 1983.” (pg. 306).  “The disease, which had been identified early in Reagan’s first term, had killed more than 4,000 Americans by 1984,” (pg. 212). “By the end of [1987], more than twenty-nine thousand Americans— predominantly gays and minorities— had already been killed by the disease” (Bunch, 2010, pg. 111). As AIDS claimed more and more lives, and left many others grievously sick, the epidemic evolved “from headline to hysteria to global pandemic” (Moffitt & Duncan, 2011, pg. 229).

AIDS remains without a cure and globally widespread— over 37 million people are now living with the disease, with about 1 million fatalities per year, according to the World Health Organization. Yet the medical world has responded— thanks to antiretroviral therapies and other contemporary medicine, the annual death toll is now scarcely half of its 2005 peak of 1.8 million — and so has the arts community. “Because of the scope and gravity of the AIDS crisis, cultural activism pertaining to it has assumed every imaginable form,” author David Deitcher observes (1995, pg. 194).

Plays like The Normal Heart, As Is and Safe Sex “played an activist role throughout the 1980s, not only drawing on popular perceptions of the disease, but contributing to them by increasing both education and compassion.” (Moffitt & Duncan, pg. 244) Rent continued that process in the 1990’s, and anti-AIDS activism also raged on television and in literature. Films like Living with AIDS were nationally televised on PBS and other stations, while Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On “established the vocabulary with which popular discussion [on AIDS] has been conducted ever since.” (Mills, 1990, pg. 202).

Furthermore, a number of paintings and posters rank among the most stirring cultural projects to emerge from the height of the 1980’s AIDS crisis. These works ranged considerably in terms of style and artistic qualities; yet all emerged from their authors’ intense feelings of sadness, anger, and fear from a period that freely triggered such emotions across the nation. The main body of the essay will engage with a number of such paintings, while determining their similarities and differences as works of art and sociopolitical statements.

The conclusion of the essay will return to the primary research question of what sort of consensus statement, if any, was made by the art created in response to the 1980’s AIDS crisis.




Our first case study is the piece which inspired this whole essay: He Kills Me, a 1987 street poster which Texan-born artist Donald Moffett created in memory of his deceased friend, Diego Lopez. Our class trip to the Hirshhorn Museum to visit the exhibition Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s was very memorable, and seeing this piece on display was both powerful and unsettling. I became keen to place He Kills Me in conversation with other works inspired by the AIDS epidemic, so as to determine how political and accusatory they were by comparison. I was also curious as to whether the arts community portrayed Ronald Reagan as the consensus villain of the era, the way that Moffett so explicitly does.  

Moffett made this poster on behalf of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and the three-word slogan he chose “concisely communicated the group’s thoughts about the President’s effect on AIDS patients” ( ACT UP’s basic feelings were shared by other activists and advocacy groups of the era: as severe as the AIDS crisis had grown, Reagan was nonetheless “ineffectively responding to the disease. In particular, they were concerned that the administration was underfunding AIDS research and obstructing prevention efforts by opposing sex education” (

Academics are seemingly divided on the merits of these accusations. As the title of his book suggests, political journalist Will Bunch is fiercely critical of the president in Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future. He agrees that Reagan “failed to address issues such as AIDS and homelessness in any meaningful way” (pg. 20) and that “on AIDS in particular, Reagan’s lack of leadership was appalling— it would not be until 1987, when the disease had already claimed thousands of American lives, that the president even uttered the words in a prepared speech” (pg. 97). Bunch promotes Reagan’s severe mishandling of the AIDS crisis as a clear example of how “in pushing his nostalgic and rose-colored vision of the country he marginalized many groups of Americans” (pg. 97).

In his book President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, historian Richard Reeves recognizes that Reagan was criticized for “refusing to acknowledge the lethal spread of AIDS across the nation” (pg. xvi). However, Reeves remarks that one of the most inflammatory accusations levied against Reagan— that he was “ignoring the disease because most of the victims were homosexuals or drug users, ready targets of the Moral Majority and other religious fundamentalists” (pg. 306)— both upset him and ultimately inspired him to respond to his critics more deliberately.


The day after his 1985 inauguration, Reagan spoke to the Department of Health and Human Services, describing the search for a cure for AIDS as “one of our highest public health priorities” (pg. 308).  A few months later, in a speech to the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, he declared AIDS to be “Public Enemy Number One” and that “government-financed progress toward a cure was being made faster than similar drives in the past against polio and hepatitis.” (pg. 389)

In certain respects, Reagan was right: “Federal spending on AIDS research, which had been $5.5 million in 1982, would reach almost $400 million by the end of 1986” (pg. 306) and the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic was established the following year. However, Reagan’s critics still blasted him for not reacting to the AIDS crisis until it had claimed many lives (“his proposals were seen by many as too little, too late,” Bunch writes (pg. 111)) and for allowing his conservative and religious values to undermine his commitment to fighting AIDS. “Until the Reagan administration realizes that the government’s responsibility is saving lives and not saving souls, we will continue to see the virus spread through the society,” Dr. Neil Schram, head of Los Angeles AIDS Task Force, wrote in response to Reagan’s remarks to the HHS Department (Reeves, pg. 389).



As would be the case for any Commander-in-Chief, Reagan was antagonized in a great deal of artwork throughout his presidency. Keith Haring, Moffett’s colleague at ACT UP, created several slanderous pieces with titles like Reagan: Ready to Kill. A poster which this group released in 1987 placed Reagan’s face behind a giant pink label, “AIDSGATE,” with many horrifying statistics about the consequences of AIDS sprawled underneath. “What is Reagan’s real policy on AIDS?” the caption asked. “Genocide of non-whites, non-males, and non-heterosexuals?”

Based on a survey of other artwork of this theme and era, other artists tended not to demonize Ronald Reagan as explicitly as did Moffett, Haring and the rest of ACT UP. For instance, the book Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS features images of an extensive amount of artwork created in response to the AIDS epidemic; Moffett’s poster is the only piece that includes Reagan’s face at all. The same is true of the book After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images, which also features many images of AIDS-related material from this era. Again, Reagan’s face appears only once: on the “AIDSGATE” poster produced by ACT UP.

Overall, it seems like the art community had more than Reagan on its mind, and the bulk of AIDS-themed artwork from this period reflects that mentality. Perhaps ACT UP, in an effort to draw attention to its cause as an emerging political advocacy group, employed inflammatory images of Reagan far more forcefully than the average artist of the era cared to do. If not the President of the United States, though, who else might these artists have meant to target in the works?




Keith Haring is the artist most often associated with the AIDS epidemic, not only because he was the most famous one to succumb to the illness, but because he made AIDS such a prevalent theme throughout his body of work. Given that the disease ultimately claimed his life, such a theme may come across as eerily prophetic. Yet it also demonstrates how forcefully many artists of the era wished to convey the disease that was killing off many of their peers. “I’m not really scared of AIDS,” Haring wrote in his journal on March 28th 1987— the year before he was diagnosed with the virus. “I’m scared of having to watch more people die in front of me…. If the time comes, I think suicide is much more dignified and much easier on friends and loved ones. Nobody deserves to watch this kind of slow death” (Haring, 2010, pg. 163).

Terrifying thoughts of this nature, as well as awareness of his own mortality— “I am quite aware of the chance that I have or will have AIDS,” he confides in his diary (pg. 162) — had a direct impact on Haring’s late-career catalogue. In the years before he died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, Haring produced an extraordinary number of paintings inspired by this epidemic. This process proved to be quite cathartic for the artist— “Haring painted in the late eighties to save others and keep himself alive,” Robert Farris Thompson observes in the introduction to Keith Haring – Journals (pg. xxxi).

This section of the essay will consider two such paintings: one produced in 1989 named Silence = Death, and another produced in 1988 which, like many of Haring’s works, remains untitled. These pieces features Haring’s recognizable trademark of simple, faceless figures which he graffitied across the New York subway in his early career, and then on canvases once his resources allowed for it. “His style of references were intentionally simple in order to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible,” (Haring et. al., 2011, pg. 206), and that same style has since “been cloned into international graphic vernacular” (Haring & Sussman, 2008, pg. 12). In this particular case, such simplicity proved effective in communicating how urgent it was for everybody to recognize and respond to the early AIDS crisis.



Silence = Death also presents us with two further trademarks: the slogan in its title and the colored shape at its foreground. Originated by a six-person collective in New York in 1985, “Silence = Death” had become ACT UP’s provocative call to action. They now passed out merchandise featuring these words at their rallies, and also displayed them proudly on their shirts and posters. As the group’s manifesto explained, “silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival” (Maggiano, 2017,

This slogan is featured in the painting’s title, and one of the dominant images to emerge from ACT UP and the entire AIDS epidemic is placed at its foreground: the pink triangle. During the Nazi regime, this colored shape had been applied to homosexuals the same way the Star of David had been applied to Jews— first as a public badge of shame, and then as a means of making the deportation process one degree easier.

ACT UP’s website provides the history of what happened next. “The pink triangle was established as a pro-gay symbol by activists in the United States during the 1970s… the appropriation of the symbol of the pink triangle, usually turned upright rather than inverted, was a conscious attempt to transform a symbol of humiliation into one of solidarity and resistance. By the outset of the AIDS epidemic, it was well-entrenched as a symbol of gay pride and liberation” ( ACT UP adopted this symbol as its own, implying that the onset of AIDS, too often met with societal and governmental neglect, had now led to another extermination of the gay community.

The painting’s title and central image forge an unmistakable connection to ACT UP and its central message, although Haring denied that his art should read as works of propaganda. “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination, and encourages people to go further,” he said (Leary, 1990, pg. 1). Propaganda or not, one of the chief intentions of Silence = Death was certainly to “encourage people to go further” in the fight against the AIDS crisis, which had reached a fever pitch by that point.


Untitled, 1988 was not produced specifically for ACT UP as Silence = Death was, and so it is missing the fierce politics of the latter piece. Nonetheless, it is every bit a product of the AIDS era, as it portrays that incurable virus in the form of a “demon sperm,” as the artist termed it, with tentacles wrapped around its victims like a giant squid ready to consume its prey.   

The monster “bursts from the egg, like a giant horned insect,” Robert Farris Thompson observes in the introduction to Keith Haring – Journals (pg. xxxii). “Its horns break the frame of crimson, as if escaping from the paper.” This creepy being wound up appearing in a good number of Haring’s paintings throughout this period. Its recurring and gruesome presence throughout his catalogue served as a frightening metaphor for the lethal, incurable HIV virus. “He probes the terror in extreme promiscuity,” Thompson notes, by employing “a machine of desire that gives itself to death, achieving completion by means of grasping, coiling, licking, and opening” (pg. xxxi).

Both Silence = Death and Untitled, 1988 offer clear commentary and penetrating metaphors of the AIDS epidemic. Yet unlike He Kills Me and AIDSGATE, Ronald Reagan is nowhere to be found here. There are a number of possibilities for this shift in tone: perhaps ACT UP had decided to move on from attacking Reagan directly, especially after his administration made visible gestures to respond to the crisis in the late 1980’s. Or perhaps they eventually deemed it unwise to single out Reagan as a culprit, when really it was nationwide indifference to the suffering of AIDS victims that allowed the crisis to become as severe as it did.

“Most Americans, which of course means straight Americans, didn’t flinch as the bodies hit the ground,” Charles E. Morris III writes in Remembering the AIDS Quilt (2011, pg. xli). “Out of apathy of hatred, the “general population,” as it was then invidiously and disastrously called, and every institution of power at every level, moralized, demonized, ostracized, neglected, and stalled” (pg. xli).

Haring’s famous style of placing all of his subjects on a visual common ground helps to express some important and dismaying realities about the period of the AIDS crisis. Stripping all of his subjects of their facial and physical features serves as a powerful representation of how AIDS affected all of its victims indiscriminately, and how the suffering of those it struck was so often met with indifference by the general public. Life has essentially been removed from these people along with their identifying traits. They’ve become so reduced by the disease that they now are merely “ghostly silver figures” grouped together into a crowd (Haring, pg. xxxi).

Overall, the ominous features within these two paintings— the demon sperm and the infamous logo— coupled with the faceless, featureless victims make Silence = Death and Untitled, 1988 powerful statements about the disease that ravaged the nation in this era and ultimately claimed the artist’s own life.




He Kills Me and Silence = Death feature provocative text and imagery, but other artwork went further in offering suggestions as to how the average person might do their part to prevent the spreading of AIDS— namely, by practicing safe sex.

This was one of the prevalent messages to emerge from the 1980’s AIDS epidemic at large, and the gay community took especially forceful measures to promote this practice. A comprehensive survey of the paintings and posters from the era reveals a variety of ways in which this idea was communicated. One comic book-style poster produced by ACT UP shows Dick Tracy and Clark Kent kissing, with the crude caption reading “Clark Wants Dick, Dick Wants Condoms.” Another poster, issued by the AIDS Council of New South Wales, featured a naked man seen from behind, with the painting’s title placed in the caption below: “Some of Us Get Out of It, Some of Us Don’t. All of Us Fuck With a Condom, Every Time!” One of the most common slogans across these posters: “Men: Use Condoms or Beat It.”

Much of the art to come from the AIDS movement is considerably profane in such a manner, both through its use of foul language as well as nudity and explicit sexual references. Masami Teraoka’s AIDS Series: Geisha in Bath (1988) carries on this grand tradition. Geishas are usually portrayed respectfully in Japanese artwork, as they were associated with purity and the upper-class, despite their promiscuous activity. Teraoka, whose catalogue features many spoofs of Japan’s iconic ukiyo-e woodblock prints, disregarded that standard entirely.

Geisha in Bath features its main subject topless, ripping open a condom package, “her gesture re-enacting that of a traditional courtesan biting on a cloth to symbolise unrequited passion” (Watson, 2012). The Japanese scripture on the wall behind her reads: “”It won’t open, no scissors, and I don’t want to borrow from next door. Well, I’ll open it with my teeth … oooh, what’s that smell – spermicide? Slippery too. This must be extra-large export size. It sure won’t fit my boyfriend!” (Ibid).


With his AIDS Series, as well as the Tale of Thousand Condoms series that soon followed, Teraoka created work which fit in quite well with the rest of the art inspired by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. His work ditches the classy standards of traditional Japanese artwork for the vulgarity and attitude of the gay activist movement. Like his contemporaries, Teraoka touched upon taboo subjects— particularly anal sex and condom usage— which he believed were urgent to address, given the seriousness of the epidemic.

His artistic passion was similarly driven by disdain for the federal government. “He was enraged that governments, such the administration of US president Ronald Reagan, were suggesting abstinence and monogamy for prevention before condom use,” wrote The Australian, when the AIDS Series was put on display at the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art in 2012 (Watson, “He wanted to get AIDS out there in a popular kind of way and talked about. So he used the condoms and the geisha because they were some of the first people who would have probably experienced AIDS, because they were in the pleasure quarters and obviously slept with numerous people” (Ibid).

Connecting the dots between Teraoka’s art and other work that emerged in response to the AIDS epidemic is very illuminating. It reveals how even a person who lacks the characteristics most associated with the activists of the era— Teraoka was heterosexual, HIV-negative, and a Japanese-born Hawaiian resident— was still moved by the destructive impact of the disease, and employed similar tactics to get his message across.




Frank C. Moore was a member of the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus— the group most famous for launching the Red Ribbon Project and granting AIDS activism its most prominent symbol— and his catalogue drew marked inspiration from the illness that ultimately claimed his life in 2002. One example of his AIDS-influenced artwork is Arena (1992), the final painting which this essay will consider. It bears both important overlap and discrepancies with the other works that have been analyzed here so far.

The lethal nature of the epidemic haunted Moore just as it did Moffett and Haring, and those dreary thoughts are visually conveyed in the works of all three artists. Arena’s ominous circular labyrinth recalls the vortex of death featured in He Kills Me. Like the demon sperm in Untitled, 1988, skeletons are included in Moore’s painting as symbols of death and doom, albeit more traditional ones. Another element which makes the painting even more eerie is that the labyrinth features nine circles, the same number as those in Dante’s Inferno. Like Moffett, Haring, and many others, Moore explicitly wanted to convey in his art that the AIDS epidemic was no laughing matter: it was a plague that would claim many lives as long as it raged unhindered.

More so than the other artists we have encountered, however, Moore’s work features an extensive panorama of the various elements that characterized the era of the outbreak of AIDS in America. As noted by Rob Baker in The Art of AIDS, “he fills his canvases with the entire iconography of the AIDS epidemic… all sorts of signs and symbols, including representations of the virus itself, of PWAs as well as of their tormentors and their caregivers. The canvases are bold and bright and alive with detail, but they are never crammed or crowded, just brimming with life” (1994, pg. 156).



Moore keeps this practice alive and strong in Arena. Within the labyrinth’s inner circle can be seen a figure who is curiously absent from most of the other paintings and posters that emerged from this era: somebody actually suffering from AIDS. In this case, the patient is lying on a hospital bed, getting treated by a doctor. This scene was not often conveyed in much of the activist propaganda and artwork at the time, although images like the famous 1990 photograph of David Kirby on his deathbed later brought the horrors of such settings to heightened public attention. “Many other scenes of the AIDS epidemic take place around or inside the labyrinth,” Moore observes. “Bodybuilders pose, demonstrators march, Buddhists meditate, a Buddhists meditate, a mother carries her son, whose body has suddenly deflated like a painted balloon” (pg. 159).

Arena stands out from other artwork of this era in the breadth of details it contains of the AIDS crisis. Also unlike the bulk of his contemporaries’ output, Moore’s paintings evoke a certain sense of hope. These paintings are “brimming with life,” to quote Baker— life which contradicts the prevailing theme of death that defined this era. As art critic David Hirsh observed when Arena was featured at a New York art gallery in 1993, “buried in the structure of this tangled scene of death is the hope for gentle care which includes respect for an ill person’s ability to, in some sense, transcend his illness. Arena suggests that learning how to care for the AIDS patient could, proceeding back up through the nine circles, change humankind’s knowledge of and functioning within the world for the better” (pg. 159).

Overall, Frank Moore expresses the gravity and lethal nature of the AIDS epidemic as vividly as Keith Haring and Donald Moffett did in some of their works. Yet concealed in this landscape of skeletons and dying AIDS victims is a certain sense of optimism that is absent from much of the art produced in the same vein as Arena. That optimism proved to be well-founded in the end: thanks to emerging medical technology and more cautious sexual practices, AIDS-related deaths in America managed to decline sharply from the mid-1990s onwards. Throughout the rest of the world, sadly, the fight to halt the spread of AIDS is still far from complete.




What were the dominant messages and intentions of the paintings and posters that emerged from the 1980’s AIDS crisis? Having now analyzed five pieces in depth, and learned a great deal about this period through my research, I can conclude that the artwork made in response to the AIDS crisis had the following purposes in mind:  

  • To shock and scare audiences about the dangers of this disease.
  • To identify culprits, both individual and as a group.
  • To urge safe sex.

Be it by skeleton, horned sperm, or Ronald Reagan in boogeyman form, artists of this era employed a number of creepy characters as scare tactics. These figures represented the grave danger which AIDS posed to the gay community, and artists wanted to express to their audiences, no matter what their orientation may be, that they had full reason to be alarmed. The use of colorful language and taboo images of nudity and condoms further contributed to the goal of unsettling viewers and stirring them into action.

Next, artists often wanted to recognize the causes for the outbreak and spreading of AIDS. The consensus they settled on was the apathy of the federal government and of the general public. Whether it be singling out Ronald Reagan as the guilty ones, or implying that AIDS victims were without personality or defining traits in the eyes of ordinary citizens, artists of this era experimented with abundant ways of conveying what had set the stage for this deadly virus to run its course.

Finally, many artists were unsatisfied by simply conveying the horrors of AIDS; they wanted to offer a solution as to combat the disease. There do not seem to be many calls for advanced medical research throughout the artwork of these times— I suspect that artists were keener on reaching out to everyday citizens and expressing how they might do their part to halt the spread of AIDS. Safe sex seems to be the consensus solution: Masami Teraoka’s paintings deliberately promoted the usage of condoms, as did many posters and public service announcements of this era. This was deemed the most effective weapon the average citizen had to fight against AIDS, and artists wanted to send out that message in their creative products.

These are three of the primary objectives of the paintings and posters inspired by the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, and all are concealed, in fascinating and intricate ways, throughout the case studies chosen for this project.  




  • Ashton, Jean. Aids in New York: the First Five Years. New-York Historical Society in Association with Scala Arts Publishers. Inc., 2015.
  • Baker, Rob. The Art of AIDS. Continuum, 1994.
  • Bunch, Will. Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future. Free Press, 2010.
  • Dance, Amber. “Pathways to a Cure for AIDS.” Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews, Annual Reviews, 9 Mar. 2018,
  • Deitcher, David. The Question of Equality: Lesbian and Gay Politics in America since Stonewall. Scribner, 1995.
  • Finkelstein, Avram. After Silence: a History of AIDS through Its Images. University of California Press, 2018.
  • “Frank Moore.” Frank Moore – Artists – Sperone Westwater Gallery,
  • Gott, Ted. Dont Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. National Gallery of Australia, 1995.
  • Haring, Keith, and Elisabeth Sussman. Keith Haring. Skarstedt Gallery, 2008.
  • Haring, Keith. Keith Haring Journals. Penguin, 2010.
  • Haring, Keith, et al. Keith Haring: 1978-1982. Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2011.
  • “He Kills Me.” International Center of Photography, 3 Mar. 2016,
  • “HIV/AIDS.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 2 Mar. 2018,
  • “Homepage.” UNAIDS, 3 May 2018,
  • Leary, Timothy. Keith Haring Future Primeval. Abbeville, 1990.
  • Maggiano, Chris Cormier. “Silence = Death.” The Huffington Post,, 8 Sept. 2017,
  • Mills, Nicolaus. Culture in an Age of Money: the Legacy of the 1980s in America. I.R. Dee, 1990.
  • Moffitt, Kimberly R., and Duncan A. Campbell. The 1980s: a Critical and Transitional Decade. Lexington, 2011.
  • Morris, Cindy E. Remembering the AIDS Quilt. Michigan State University Press, 2011.
  • Oisteanu, Valery. “FRANK MOORE Toxic Beauty.” The Brooklyn Rail, 4 Oct. 2012,
  • Ramer, Andrew, and Anastasia James. “The Pink Triangle: From Shame to Pride.” The Contemporary Jewish Museum, 20 Apr. 2017,
  • Reeves, Richard. President Reagan: the Triumph of Imagination. Simon & Schuster, 2007.
  • Roth, Benita. The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • “SILENCE = DEATH.” Why We Fight by Vito Russo,
  • Teraoka, Masami. Masami Teraoka: Early Works,
  • Visual AIDS. “Frank Moore.” Visual AIDS,
  • Watson, Bronwynn. “Masami Teraoka Fires Rubber Bullets to Get AIDS Message Across.” The Australian, 2 June 2012,


Modern Language Association 8th edition formatting by


Jeff Koons & The Chicago Imagists

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Catherine Boardman


In my final paper, I examine Jeff Koons by peering into his work titled Gazing Balls. I will share my contextual discoveries from his interviews about how his oeuvre can be an interface to our current system of values. Through investigating Koons’ networks of influence via interviews and artistic comparisons, I will unpack Koons as he presents himself as an artist and the institution that mediates his work – The Museum. All art is polyphronic – coming from many voices, incorporating many styles, perspectives, references and assumptions. Often people question the validity of Koons’ work as art because its subject matter and meaning seems superficial; however, I argue that his artworks can be an interface to the systems of meaning that make what we see possible. The “context is not just intrinsic to the artwork’s meaning, it is the provider of its meaning” (Pledger, 2014, p. 1). Starting with a brief history of Koons’ life, I will show how Koons interacted with a lesser known group of artists – the Chicago Imagists – and how their influence was a catalyst for making him one of the most famous artists in the world. Much is known about the life of Jeff Koons due to his willingness to be in the public eye and intentional self-branding; however, as Picasso once said, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them” (Rowlandson, 2007, p. 115).

As the Whitney’s Donna De Salvo said, “If Jeff Koons didn’t exist, we would have to invent him” (Brooks, 2014, p. 1).


Artworks are “interfaces to the systems of meaning transmitted in institutions and in the cultural capital of groups and classes with knowledge of the Cultural Encyclopedia” (Irvine, 2018). As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” and no artist better represents the current rapidly growing desire to brand ourselves using social media than Jeff Koons (Yefremov, 2014).On greater scale not only of art, but also of showmanship, the work of Koons can be seen as an interface to the cultural values of our social system. Although his enterprising and masterful approach to self-promoting is unprecedented, art’s relationship with branding is not entirely a new concept. From the Roman Empire, to Napoleon, to Hitler, art collections were used to demonstrate a nation’s power, intelligence, skill and civilized society (Alexander & Alexander, 2007). As collections grew, democracy spread, and public access granted, the museum became a place where all could engage and share a nation’s cultural capital. As a place where cultures intersect, the curator holds much power in his choice of what and what not to display (McClellan, 2008). Museums have adapted over time and to this day they remain like “a cultural coral reef, always growing and changing” (Alexander & Alexander, 2007, p. 38). However, with globalization and growing commodification of the Artworld, becoming a successful artist today requires a wider skillset than just mastery of the craft. Koons stresses “connecting” with people, engaging the public in a dialogue, all while simultaneously promoting his “brand” (Miller, 2015), most likely because connecting emotionally to the public is a key branding technique.

Jeff Koons

Dressed like he still works on Wall Street, speaking like a politician, and self-promoting like an Instagram star, Jeff Koons is a ball of contradictions (Brooks, 2017).  His spectrum of art goes from risqué subject matter like pornography to as childish as mounds of Play-Doh; household objects like vacuum cleaners to “exact” replicas of Old Masters; covering all aspects of our mediated experiences. Coming from a humble beginning in Pennsylvania, he is now one of the world’s richest artists turning cheap objects into expensive cultural artifacts.

He claims his time in Pennsylvania was the inspiration for the Gazing Balls series, but I believe the layers of context go much deeper. As Baudrillard believed, we cannot know our own reality because what we experience is impacted and filtered by language and culture. Traditionally, artists create art as a form of expression, but Koons is an anomaly. As the face and spokesperson of his “brand” he has infiltrated the art world, popular culture, the music industry, and the fashion industry forming a culture of “Koonsurmerism.” His hands-on approach to his brand contradicts the fact that he rarely creates his art himself. In order to understand Koons and his Gazing Balls, contextual history is essential to elucidate how we give his art meaning and attach our own personal experiences and cultural encyclopedia of knowledge.

As the artistic personification of the American Dream, Jeff Koons rose from a middle-class town in Pennsylvania to becoming one of the most successful living artists today. Born to the owner of a home decoration store, Koons began his habit of appropriating art at the age of seven by creating replicas of Old Masters work signed with his signature: Jeffrey Koons. It seems that throughout his entire life, Koons has always been creating art and selling something simultaneously. He attended art school at the Maryland Institute College of Art and School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he furthered his knowledge of art history and soon thereafter he moved to New York City. Beginning his love affair with the Artworld, Koons began working for the Museum of Modern Art selling memberships. According to MoMA’s website, “Koons had a habit of wearing somewhat outlandish accessories–such as inflatable flowers and paper vests–while at the membership desk” (Harvey, 2010). To support his art, Koons began selling stocks on Wall Street. Although merely speculation, I believe Koons not only entered the realm of Wall Street to make money and learn the ins and outs of the market, but also to gain entrance into the network of the wealthy in New York City.

Beginning his career in a generation of postmodern artists in the 1980s, Koons’ first studio was very Warhol-esque with mirrors lining the floors and inflatable objects strewn about. Later, he moved to a bigger space in Chelsea so he could accommodate numerous assistants to create his work (similar to Andy Warhol) and for producing works of art within series or in themes. Like Warhol, “Making the touch of the artist irrelevant to the authenticity of the painting is one significant element in the conceptual revolutions that made the art of the twentieth century so different from the art of all earlier centuries” (Galenson, 2009, p.198). Classified as “Neo-Pop,” Koons avoids hidden meaning in his work; he wants his art to be whatever the viewer wants it to be. His claim that he“tries to reach a widest possible audience by using familiar objects with sentimental value… [and that it is] his mission to make the viewer confident of his own judgment and taste” (Koons as cited in Wikipedia) contradicts accounts of his meticulous way of creating art. Considering Jeff Koons is a ball of contradictions, how are we supposed to believe what he says?

Gazing Balls 

Upon first glance and without prior knowledge of Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, one may have mistaken Gazing Ball (Manet Luncheon on the Grass) by Jeff Koons to be the original. However, Koons walks the line between overt copyright and homage to art history intentionally in order to implement one of his many artistic tricks. Koon’s Gazing Balls references influential artists of the past, such as, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rubens, Manet, and 32 others, by recreating their works on a larger scale. Koons elaborates that everyone was referencing each other. Rubens was referencing Leonardo da Vinci, Manet was referencing Titian, Picasso was referencing Manet and Titian; “everybody’s in this dialogue of connecting with each other” (as cited in Miller, 2015, p. 2).

Starting from the beginning, Koons’ foundation of his artistic career began with replicating Old Master’s work. Therefore, it is unsurprising he would circle back to this idea because “the more you make things, the more your voice will become a collection of those influences and start to feel unique” (Riley, 2017, p. 1). The layers of influence appear to be simple with a chain of thought that follows along the lines of: “all artists are influenced by their predecessors, one of Koons’ predecessors and influences was Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp who also appropriated art by adding his own twist, Koons typically works with metal and the metal here resembles his Balloon Dogs. However, it is not just that simple. The Artworld and appropriation has an interesting dichotomy and although it only recently became acceptable, artists are always influenced by the continuum of interpretations (Irvine, 2018). Once you change an artwork, it loses its “aura” of authenticity (Benjamin, 1935).

Museums have traditionally been the context we associate with consuming art; they “are the frame and effective support upon which the work is inscribed/composed.” (Buren, 1985, p. 189). We trust in museums as an institution to present us with authentic work, which affords us the ability to examine Old Master’s ability to transcend the viewer. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history it has experienced” (Benjamin, 1935, p. 4).

Standing in front of an original involves a transcending experience of time-traveling back to the presence of the painter himself. Koons’ hand-painted reproductions that he claims are exact except for the size (Miller, 2015) may have some merit because “reproductions claim to teach us simply what an object looks like” (Beil, 2013, p. 22). In a way Koons is democratizing great works of art by giving them new attention; however, our attention and gaze is blocked by a gazing ball. Similar to Samuel Morse’s Gallery at the Louvre, the viewer is pushed to reflect on not only Koons’ talent, but the talent of great artists of the past who have impacted the trajectory of art history and our socialization within the Artworld. The only way masterpieces like Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” can go away is if we as a human race stop valuing what it stands for as a cultural artifact. Koons reminds us of this by placing us face-to-face with our reflection in his glass ball. Creating his works using the same medium as the originals, Koons increases the size of the oil on canvas and he (and his assistants) places a shelf adorned with a Gazing Ball.

Gazing Ball (Manet Olympia)
oil on canvas, glass, and aluminum
55 1/4 x 81 1/8 x 14 3/4 inches
140.3 x 206 x 37.5 cm
© Jeff Koons

Édouard Manet
Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe), 1863
Oil on canvas
82 × 104 in
208.3 × 264.2 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Download Image













There is hidden meaning in these Gazing Balls.The “blue glass bauble popularized by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and now more often used as garden ornaments […] were specially hand-blown in Pennsylvania” and each one is unique. (Needham, 2015, p. 1). Without the viewer’s actual presence, Koons’ reflecting balls have no effect. Being in the museum allows for viewers to walk around the art and engage with the gallery. Placing balls on shelves like painting on walls, Gazing Balls makes a commentary on the Artworld itself.  As the Artworld’s “puer aeternus”says, the gazing ball references “everything” and is the “apex of the objective readymade dialogue” (Frank, 2015, p. 2). The controversy with Koons’ appropriation is that he can make millions as an artist without picking up his paintbrush or creating his own work. This reflects the socio-economic dilemma he was brought up in and the one we are in today. He references “great artists” when he himself is a “great artist” making the whole discovery as cyclical as a spherical gazing ball. When examining Koons’ oeuvre, Roberta Smith (2014) highlights that despite Koons’ irregularity in medium, he often circles back to themes to expand on ideas. Maybe Gazing Balls is just him returning to his childlike days of copying art.

Koons combines high art and the old master’s ability to transcend us into another world with our desire to find ourselves in the art by reflecting our image through the glass ball. Maybe Koons’ implementation of gazing balls symbolizes how he wants to be remembered through history, that he is un-reproducible because anyone who sees his works of art will see something different within the gazing ball. Maybe he is commenting about how these works are received differently now. Maybe he is commenting on time travel and the durability of art thanks to the museum, which is reflected in the gazing ball. By looking into the gazing ball, one can imagine what the future of these great works looks like. Koons however, offers this explanation:

I love the concept of the gaze. People put gazing balls in their yard. It’s such a generous thing to do! It’s informing you, it’s bright, it’s informing you of where you are. It’s a GPS system. Because it reflects almost 360 degrees and it tells you everything it can about where you are in the universe. Your brain is always secreting chemicals because it wants to know where you are in the universe – Jeff Koons (as cited in Miller, 2015, p. 1).

Avoiding the obvious references, one would make such as, to “Gazing Museums,” fortune teller crystal balls at carnivals, time travel and seeing your future; instead he compares it to a GPS system. What is he trying to say?

To him, the balls remind him of his neighbor’s lawns on his hometown of York, Pennsylvania. However, Koons is a somewhat deceiving here, which leads one to think that everything he says cannot be trusted as the full truth. For example, his son who is named Ludwig – like the King of Bavaria (which is present day Germany) – was born in Munich because Koons and his mother were living there at the time. Furthermore, glass balls like this somewhat resemble the crystal balls you would encounter visiting a psychic. With this realization of correlating facts, is the intention truly to reflect the viewer, or is Koons reflecting himself? No matter the answer, by reflecting our image with the Artworld we become a part of his appropriated art.  As Freud observed, human intentions are unconscious and I believe the self-promoting genius in him cannot hide all of his unconscious intentions. Koons wants to be an old master and he believes he is changed by experiencing these works:

“I’m a different human being since I saw Manet’s paintings,” Koons said. “My genes have changed. And it’s a fact that through ideas you can morph your genes. Now they don’t know how long you can do that, but Eric Kandel, the Nobel Prize–winner neuroscientist, told me that they domorph, they change.” Kandel won the Nobel in 2000 for his work in “the molecular biology of memory storage.” “Now whether you can pass that on,” Koons continued, referring back—I think—to a person’s morphed genes, “that’s another story. I believe you can. I think that you can. I think that you become a completely different human being and that’s what this is about—that through ideas you can become who you would like to be. You can connect in a dialogue with history, and penetratehistory, and realize the depth and meaning of humanity through ideas and that you can also change your future, and put your foot intothe future through your ideas. And this type of connecting parallels, kind of, the reality that we’re in” – Jeff Koons (as cited in Miller, 2015).

By replicating works as a child to now, he attempts to associate his name with theirs, weaving it into the collective consciousness of the public.

Chicago Imagists 

For an artist who is not shy about sharing his influences, Koons neglects to mention his experience working in the Chicago art scene. After seeing Jim Nutt’s show at the Whitney in 1974, Koons decided to spend his senior year away from the Maryland Institute College of Art and transferred to School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Lopez, 2008). Influenced by popular culture like advertising painted on window shops, childlike phenomenon like comics and pinball machines, and artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, Jim Nutt would introduce Koons to a new way of thinking and a new group of artists. The Chicago Imagists under the curator Don Baum, distinguished from the New York art scene at the time, originated as a collection of 5 artists with nothing in common visually about their artistic style, but a lot in common idealistically (Buchbinder, 2015). Baum encouraged the artists to do what they pleased, creating a low risk environment for their artwork. Koons clearly noted this in an interview with Chicago Magazine:

I loved Ed Paschke’s work. After I saw Jim’s show, I became aware of the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists. On the first night in Chicago, I went to the Ink Well Bar that was across from the old MCA, and this guy came in, this tall man, and I thought, “That has got to be Ed Paschke.” I ended up becoming his assistant and I would stretch his canvases and help him in the studio. That’s what I remember and that I loved so much about Chicago, those moments in the studio, just talking to him. – Jeff Koons (as cited in Lopez, 2008).

Femme Noir by Ed Paschke, 1987.













For their first few shows at Hyde Park Center, the group created comics for their catalogue of the artworks. Koons would most likely have seen every one of these catalogues while at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and working in Paschke’s studio. Their comics as a form of self-promotion could have me the impetus for Koons’ self-promoting success. On The Jeff Koons Show, Mary Boone, gallery owner and director, said “the way in which Andy [Warhol] predicted celebrity, Jeff [Koons] predicted branding” (as cited in Chernick, 2004). For a man who is seemingly extroverted, he is seldom transparent about where his ideas truly come from or his desire to be a famous, influential artist.

During the Chicago Imagists’ short-lived popularity, the East coast began to notice. Although not all reviews were positive, one can make links between their oeuvre that influenced Koons. In the documentary Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists(2014),Peter Fuller from Aspects is quoted describing the group’s work as “Art of degradation, banality, perversion, and formless despair” (Buchbinder, 2015). Koons’ series, following a formless fashion, are titled Luxury and Degradation, Banality, Easyfun, Celebration, Made in Heaven, and Inflatables and all incorporate some perversion. Even with the direct correlations, this tension of influences within the artist is seen in his interview with Chicago Reader. Returning years later to Chicago for an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago, Koons gives us a glance into this internal dilemma when he says:

I really had no interest in the New York scene, dominated by art critics like Clement Greenberg, who seemed too concerned with rules. Inspired by surrealism and Dada, I was interested in dealing with intuitive thought. But I did want to be part of my generation of artists” – Jeff Koons (Elliot, 2015).

The postmodern generation Koons is referencing is one that assumed the conversation of Greenberg, making Greenberg’s argument contextually important for understanding the artwork that followed. In “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” Greenberg (1961) writes, “To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide” (p. 10). In reaction to Greenberg’s writings, postmodern artists reacted by embracing all that popular. Koons’ grasped onto their idea, following the likes of using humor and irony like Claes Oldenburg and cultural icons like Andy Warhol (Jenkins, 2018). However, without exposure to the rebellious Chicago group and their distaste for the New York art scene, Koons may never have found his style. Koons’ recipe is one of a paradox: on one hand he wants to be remembered throughout history as an artist worthy of ‘Greenbergian’ critique and on the other hand, Koons hides his experience with a less famous group of artists who exposed him to certain ideas in the first place.

Cotton Mouth, 1968, acrylic on Plexiglas with aluminum, cotton, and enamel on wood frame, 39.5 in. x 27 in.
Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Regardless, Koons carried his experience with Paschke in Chicago with him to New York and Paschke’s inventive use of media images and popular culture would impact his art forever. Demonstrating his ability to multitask the many roles in the Artworld, Koons curated a show of Paschke’s work at the Gagosian in 2010.

Central to my work is what I refer to as the law of opposites; I believe that there are polarities between things […] Positive/negative, the idea of pacing a painting in terms of complexity and simplicity, the idea of public versus private, are elements that have always interested me and that I’ve always tried in some way to build into the character of the paintings. —Ed Paschke (as cited in Gagosian, 2010)

Paschke was provoking. He took photographs of fat women, carnivals, anything nearby and his attention to detail must have influenced Koons. Although the group had temporary success, surrealism became untrendy and the group was too entrenched in the art scene in Chicago that they were ignored by New Yorkers (Chernick, 2004). This could explain why Koons left Chicago for New York. Sensing their demise whether consciously or not, Koons did not take any chances being forgotten, he wanted to be a modern old master; therefore, he went straight to the source, the Museum of Modern Art, and asked for a job. His art trended towards the New York art scene as he desperately tried to maintain selling something (memberships, stocks, etc) while creating art. Although his artwork has little visual traces of the Chicago Imagists, the most essential parts of what makes Jeff Koons the prototype of branding artists has its influences in his experiences with Paschke.

Like any modern artist, the weight of art history is immense as a result of the affordances of mechanical reproduction. What Michael Baxandall called “the period eye” or culturally learned ways of interpreting visual data can vary from person to person according to our prior experience (as cited in Beil, 2013, p. 22). In his art classes as a child and at the college level, Koons must have encountered numerous genres, types, and styles of painting in art catalogues and art history textbooks which is an affordance of mechanical reproductions. “Technologies need to be mobilized for democratic principles, and used with an awareness of the dangers and misrepresentations when artefacts are reduced to reproductions” (Irvine, 2018, p. 3). As Benjamin and Malraux argued, experiencing art in technologically mediated form does not have the same effect. Photographic reproductions diminish the size, flatten the texture, and decontextualizes the work, resulting a loss of the “aura of authenticity” (Benjamin, 1935). Although Koons’ art history knowledge is vast thanks to photographic reproductions, the experiences of encountering art first-hand while working with Ed Paschke and at MoMA must have had more an influence than he chooses to admit.

Vincent van Gogh
Wheatfield with Crows, 1890
Oil on canvas
19 9/10 × 40 3/5 in
50.5 × 103 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Gazing Ball (van Gogh Wheatfield with Crows)
oil on canvas, glass, and aluminum
46 x 96 1/8 x 14 3/4 inches
116.8 x 244.2 x 37.5 cm
© Jeff Koons











Koons’ essence is one of reproduction. He reproduces objects from popular culture by changes the scale. We often can see ourselves in his art, which mirrors the current issue within the Artworld today that is the fear of mechanical reproduction lessening the museum’s importance within society. In her Ted Talk,“Art in the Age of Instagram,” Jia Jia Fei explains that although museums have fought against the selfie-generation and the distractions of mobile phones, photographic reproduction has made the Artworld more approachable thus, spreading public participation and engagement with art. Experiencing art mediated through Instagram has the power to sparks one’s interest, encouraging them to have the authentic experience for themselves. This is one of the Artworld’s most interesting paradox: the authority of the Artworld fights against mechanical reproduction even though it is (and has been since the camera obscura) an essential way of thinking and seeing that affects the artistic process. For a photographic to stand out today it must be impressionable and the majority of Koons’ work is Instagram-worthy. However, the Gazing Balls series is less eye catching because the original works have been photographed over and over again. Is this one of Koons’ many tricks?Just as the Chicago Imagists transformed themselves over and over again (Chernick, 2004), Koons this work by Koons is unlike any other.

By referencing ‘prototype’ artists, Koons executes his goal of “connecting with humanity” (Miller, 2015), whereas referencing the niche group of Chicago Imagists would strike a less impactful chord. He claims he wants to connect with humanity, but maybe he just wants to connect with the Artworld so profoundly that they cannot write him out of the texbooks. The Chicago Imagists copied who they loved – and there is nothing wrong about that by current Artworld norms. Koons also copies from who he loves, but leaves out the Chicago Imagists from his list of inspiration for a number of reasons. Whether an unintentional or conscious attempt to secure his name alongside a historically significant artist, or fear out of admitting that some of his genius was inspired by the rouge group of artists whose impact is largely forgotten, Koons’ choice is a product of his socially constructed reality. He is the GPS of his own life; he is the one gazing into the ball trying to predict his future.

Koons’ wide range and contradicting choices of subject matter, such as, “kitsch and high culture, religion and eroticism, weightlessness and mass,” opens his art to connect with people across a wide spectrum of values and beliefs. Gazing Balls can be appreciated by conservative fans of the Old Masters, his Banality series could decorate a children’s room, and his “Made in Heaven” series can appeal to the mavericks of society. Just about anyone can relate and find different meaning in his Balloon Dogs and that is the point. With his themes and series titles aligning with the Chicago Imagists, his tendency to play tricks with his art, and his heightened sense of self-promotion, Koons’ ambiguous statements about his influences may not be as accurate as I once believed.

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 24: People look at the art work of Jeff Koons during a media preview of his retrospective at The Whitney Museum of American Art on June 24, 2014 in New York City. Nearly the entire museum will be filled with four decades of Koons’ work; it opens to the public June 27th. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Koons’ actual self-congruence between the art he makes and the art he sells reflects his mastery of showing his ideal self – an eternally famous artist – mixed with his actual self – a product of the American Dream myth – resonates with the viewer. According to Malär, Krohmer, Hoyer, & Nyffenegger (2011), those who practice actual self-congruence will have the greatest impact on emotional brand attachment (p. 35). That is what makes Koons’ decision to cast himself as a populist so brilliant. He spoke to the audiences who were sick of art world elitism, but also rose to become one of the highest paid artists. As Ruth Epstein (2018) writes, “Somewhat paradoxically, his embrace of bad taste has won over the most discerning and ostensibly elitist audiences. By collecting Koons, collectors and museums show that they can take a joke” (p. 1). Contradiction is not only visible in his artwork, but also the joke is a part of his brand. People go to see Koons to be shocked, and to marvel at the brilliance of his self-promoting, whether they realize it or not. I first saw a Jeff Koons work in Bilbao at the Guggenheim. Although the shiny, balloon looking, larger than life-sized tulips did not have the same emotional impact as seeing a Velazquez in real life would, I did remember the tulips. And that’s what Jeff Koons wants: to be remembered.

Jeff Koons
Tulips, 1995–2004
High chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating
203 x 460 x 520 cm
Version 4/5
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

However, history tells us that society tends to rediscover artists who were largely irrelevant during their lifetime. Maybe in the future the Chicago Imagists will be rediscovered just as Van Gogh was and they will re-enter into the collective memory. When filming the documentary Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, Pentimenti Productions and Loudmouth developed their interactive archive “to provide a freely-accessible resource for students, teachers, artists, researchers, and art enthusiasts who want to learn more about Chicago Imagism” ( interface and archive is a great example of how to incorporate curating style and selection, archival records, and interactive design to lead to discoveries. With such an extraordinary interface already in place, the possibility of the group of artists being rediscovered is much higher.

Chicago Imagists Interface

Works Cited

Alexander, E. P. & Alexander, M. (2007). Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press.

Beil, K. (2013). Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye. Afterimage, 40(4). Retrieved from

Benjamin, W. (1936). The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility. (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.) Focus on sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.

Brooks, K. (2014, June 28). Jeff Koons: An Artist, Wrapped In A Mystery, Inside Shiny Stainless

Steel. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Buchbinder, L. (2015). Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists. Pentimenti Productions NFP.

Buren, D. (1982). Function of the Museum. Theories of Contemporary Art, 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Chernick, A. (2004). The Jeff Koons Show. Rainbow Media. Retrieved from

Elliot, A. (2015). A Conversation with Jeff Koons: “For me art has never been about money.” The Chicago Reader. Retrieved from

Epstein, R., & The Art Story Contributors. (2018). Jeff Koons Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works. The Art Story. Retrieved from

Frank, P. (2015). Today In Art, Jeff Koons Is Placing Blue Balls In Front Of Famous Paintings. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Fei, J. J. (2016). Art in the Age of Instagram. TEDx Martha’s Vineyard, TEDx Talks. Retrieved from

Gagosian. (2010). Ed Paschke Curated by: Jeff Koons. Retrieved from–ed-paschke

Galenson, D. (2009). Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art. National Bureau od Economic Research, 20.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Greenberg, C. (1961). Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Art and culture: critical essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Harvey, M. (2010). “ART WORK”: Famous Former Staff. Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018).  Student’s Guide to Mikhail Bakhtin: Dialogue, Dialogism, and Intertextuality.

Irvine, M. (2018). André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art

Jeff Koons. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Jenkins, S. (2018). Postmodern Art Definition, Overview and Analysis. The Art Story. Retrieved from

Lopez, R. (2008). Conversation: Jeff Koons. Retrieved May 1, 2018, from

Malär, L., Krohmer, H., Hoyer, W. D., & Nyffenegger, B. (2013, May 29). Emotional Brand Attachment and Brand Personality: The Relative Importance of the Actual and the Ideal Self. Journal of Marketing: 75(4). 35-52.

McClellan, A. (2008). The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA.

Miller, M. H. (2015). ‘These Are Works That I Enjoy’: Jeff Koons on His Amazing Blue Balls. Gagosian Gallery Art News. Retrieved from

Needham, A. (2015, November 9). Jeff Koons on his Gazing Ball Paintings: “It’s not about copying.” The Guardian. Retrieved from

Pledger, D. (2014). Circles of context: giving a work of art its meaning. The Conversation. Retrieved from

Riley, M. (2017). The Paradox of Originality in Art. ART + Marketing. Retrieved from

Rowlandson, W. (2007). Reading Lezama’s Paradiso. p. 115. Retrieved from

Smith, R. (2014). ‘Jeff Koons: A Retrospective’ Opens at the Whitney. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Yefremov, I. (2014). Art in the Age of Instagram. Mind This Magazine. Retrieved from

Works Consulted

Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1991). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Penguin Books. Chapter 2 – Society as Objective Reality.

Klosterman, C. (2016). But What If We’re Wrong? New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

Latour, B. (2011). Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist. International Journal of Communication(5). 796–810.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

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I was planning to switch my topic to the Costume Institute’s 2017 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which examines the works of Rei Kawakubo, a Japanese fashion designer.

Kawakubo was born in 1942, who was not trained as a fashion designer, but worked successively in a textile company and as a freelance stylist after her graduation from Keio University, where she studied fine arts, literature and “the history of aesthetics.” In 1973, she established her own brand, Comme des Garçons. In 1981, her design shocks the European fashion world. From then on, her “voice” is constantly heard in the global fashion world. In 2017,

Topic: Fashion as a Form of Art When Displayed in the Museum: The Curation of a Non-Traditional Exhibition

Research Question: What is the motivation of this exhibition? What does this exhibition want to tell us? How does it tell us through both online curation and the actual arrangement of the space and settings of the exhibition?

Tentative Outline:

  1. A General Introduction
    1. The designer Rei Kawakubo
    2. Kawakubo’s fashion brand Comme des Garçons
    3. How Kawakubo’s style changes and develops

[Resources: articles about Kawakubo from The New Yorker, NY Times, The Guardian, and several published books]

  1. The Interfaces of the curation of the exhibition
    1. The website: What information does it provide? How does it help the actual exhibition?
    2. The exhibition: How to evaluate the nine themes? How does it help the viewer to understand Kawakubo’s work?

[Resources: The Met’s official website, text, visual image and videos]

  • Fashion, Fashion Designer and Museums
    1. Fashion as an object of art in Exhibitions (a tentative conversation where I situate my project—need to know more about the academic conversation about this area and more materials)
    2. Kawakubo’s show in the Met: this is The Costume Institute’s first monographic show on a living designer since the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition in 1983. Andrew Bolton is the curator of Kawakubo’s show.

[Resources: Andrew Bolton’s interview, … ]

Problems: Don’t know if I found a suitable conversation for my project; might need more materials that inform the larger conversation or contexts of this exhibition