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(Fragment) Jeff Koons. String of Puppies. 1988. © Jeff Koons. Edition of 3 plus AP

Authenticity of a Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction 0

Estere Kajema

As it has been clearly stated in one of my previous articles, “Art As a Simulation: Nothing New”, it may seem that contemporary, but also pre-contemporary art is nothing but a copy of a copy. Let’s face it – no artwork is really original. A self-portrait, however brilliant and authentic it may seem, is always an imitation of a mirror reflection. A landscape is always the desire to preserve a single moment. Artists tend to take real-life events, landscapes, themes and texts as an inspiration and a foundation for their work. Yet, the moment artists begin to take other artists’ work as a main ground for their work, the situation becomes much more complex and problematic.

Artemisia Gentileschi. Giuditta decapita Oloferne, 1614–1620. Uffizi Gallery, Florence

There is nothing new in artists using other artists’ work, too. Let’s take, for instance, Artemisia Gentileschi. She was a daughter of a famous Baroque painter, Orazio Gentileschi. Artemisia was, famously, the first woman to be accepted as a member of the Florence Accademia di Arte del Disegno, but at a time when women were not recognized as potential artists; rather than going to an art college and openly studying fine art, she spent her childhood at her father’s workshop, looking up to his work, his style, and his immaculate chiaroscuro technique. French Impressionist Édouard Manet was inspired by Giorgione’s The Tempest (1508) whilst painting one of his most famous art works, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). The whole idea of “artists’ artists” strongly relies on inspiration and, in some way, reinterpretation.

Edouard Manet. Lunch on the Grass, 1863. Oil on canvas. H. 208; W. 264.5 cm. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Giorgione. La Tempesta, 1508. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

In the late 1880’s, Vincent van Gogh spent several years at Saint-Paul Asylum in France, where the artist admitted himself. Whilst in the asylum, van Gogh was struggling to find sources of inspiration, so he created various copies of works by his favorite artists. Arguably, one of the most exceptional works he did at the time was The Pietà (after Delacroix) (1889). Van Gogh took a lithograph of Delacroix’s painting, and repainted it in his own, very much recognizable style. In Van Gogh’s letter to his sister, Wilhelmina, he writes:

“The Delacroix [painting] is a “Pietà”, that is to say, the dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted corpse lies on the ground in the entrance of a cave, the hands held before it on the left side, and the woman is behind it. It is in the evening after a thunderstorm, and that forlorn figure in blue clothes – the loose clothes are agitated by the wind – is sharply outlined against a sky in which violet clouds with golden edges float. She, too, stretches out her empty arms before her in a large gesture of despair, and one sees the good, sturdy hands of a working woman. The shape of the figure, with its streaming clothes, is nearly as broad as it is high. And the face of the dead man is in the shadow – but the pale head of the woman stands out clearly against a cloud – a contrast which causes those two heads to seem like one somber-hued flower and one pale flower, arranged in such a way as mutually to intensify the effect.”[1]

Vincent van Gogh. The Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Whilst everything – gestures, posture, subject, emotions and the landscape are entirely related, it is clear that Van Gogh extends the work by Delacroix through a prism of his own perceptions and impressions. In the letter, he uses such words as despair, somber-hued, the exhausted corpse – they certainly illustrate and reflect the state of artist’s own mental being.  It is only an assumption, but possibly, even if it was an unconscious decision, Van Gogh could have used a work by one of his most adored artists in order to explore his own despair, his own exhaustion. Even though the two art works are visually similar, it is fair to argue that their timbres carry comprehensively different stories and biographies.

Photography by Ulrike Meinhof in Stern magazine, 1976

Stern (2004), a fascinating painting by Marlene Dumas, is a large painting depicting the deathly white face of a woman. Her mouth is open, her eyes are closed, and there is a black rope around her neck. The woman’s black, dry lips still preserve her last breath. The name of the painting, Stern, refers to a German magazine which on 16 June 1976 published a photograph of Ulrike Meinhof, a German left-wing militant, and one of the co-founders of the Red Army Faction – a terrorist organization. Meinhof was one of the participants in numerous bombings, attempted kidnappings, and bank robberies. In 1974 she was imprisoned, and in 1976 she was found dead in her cell, having hanged herself with a rope made from a towel. It was said that Meinhof had committed suicide, but some other versions claim that she was murdered by members of other militant organizations who did not agree with her radical Red Army Faction views.

Marlene Dumas. Stern., 2004. © Marlene Dumas. Gerhard Richter. Tote (Dead), 1988. © Gerhard Richter

Whilst Stern is a painting that was motivated by a photograph from a periodical, it is also strongly driven by a different painting, the one by Gerhard Richter. In 1988, Richter painted Dead, also a close-up of Meinhof’s face. This painting is, indeed, different from the one by Dumas. Painted in Richter’s recognizable style, Meinhof is hidden behind a grey blur; she is covered with a soft veil. In this painting, Richter truly depicts a “sorrow for the people who died so young and so crazy, for nothing.”[2]

Marlene Dumas borrowed from both images – Stern magazine’s and Gerhard Richter’s – as she often does in her work. For instance, the painting Lucy is based on a painting by Caravaggio, The Burial of St Lucy (1608). Dumas often uses the technique of art intervention, which means that she takes preexisting images and interacts with them – not necessarily transforming the initial message, but always adding a personal description.

This is, certainly, something very different from art forgery; yet, can we say that borrowing ideas, inspirations and motifs is less immoral, or even simply problematic? In some cases, art intervention is treated as seriously as a forgery.

 Art Rogers. Puppies, 1980 

Jeff Koons. String of Puppies. 1988. © Jeff Koons. Edition of 3 plus AP

In 1992, Jeff Koons was sued by Art Rogers, a photographer who in 1980 had taken a black and white photograph of a couple holding puppies in their arms, and had titled the photo Puppies. The photograph was created to be used on postcards and other generic merchandise. In 1998, Koons created a painted wood sculpture, String of Puppies. He removed the copyright label from the postcard that he found, and gave instructions to one of his assistants on how to produce it into a sculpture, demanding as much detail as possible. His intention was to show the platitudes of everyday life. Koons lost the court case because he failed to prove that String of Puppies was a critical commentary on Rogers’ work, rather than an unauthorized copy. For Koons, the generic postcard that was created by somebody who is potentially no less of an artist than himself, had no value. The actual use of an already existing picture does not necessarily carry any additional meaning, at least not for Koons – since he never credited Rogers, and never explained that his installation had any relation to a pre-existing image.

Sol LeWitt. Instructions Wall Drawings

Sol LeWitt, one of the most famous Conceptual artists, wrote down a list of instructions for a series of carefully detailed shape and line drawings titled Wall Drawings. These instructions were created for teams, or for individuals, in order to transfer LeWitt’s vision directly onto the surface of a wall. Draftsmen or artists would execute the drawings, carefully following the directions. LeWitt was once asked how he would feel if someone took his instructions and created a Wall Drawings, but without his permission. The artist answered that it would still be authentic, and that he would treat it as a compliment.

The concept of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings series comes from artist’s fascination with live music. He was mesmerized by how every time different musicians would play music from the same score, the results would be different and unique. His goal was to create something similar, and he managed to perfectly achieve it. By letting different creators use LeWitt’s initial work – the instructions (essentially, a sketch) – numerous times, and in numerous different places, the artist managed to create an ephemeral circle of reinterpretation of his schemes and concepts.

Works by Donald Judd

Not all artists are that noble and generous when it comes to their work being reproduced and reinterpreted. In 1990, Donald Judd wrote an infamous essay called Una Stanza per Panza, translated as A Room for Panza. He begins the essay with a sentence that, essentially, gives a proper definition for the whole paper:

“Giuseppe Panza makes my work himself, contrary to the original agreement that it will be made only under my supervision.”[3]

The artist claims that he had an agreement with an art collector, Giuseppe Panza, stating that Panza was allowed to reproduce and install Judd’s work only in case the artist supervised and approved it. However, the artist writes that in 1976, he got on a train to Milan to have lunch with Panza, and to visit Villa Varese, which belonged to the collector. Judd writes that after the lunch, he was shown “the so-called galvanized iron wall”[4], which apparently was a copy of a work that Judd had shown at Castelli Gallery in 1969. But the work had been created and exhibited without notifying Judd, and, more importantly, without Judd’s supervision. Judd writes that the work was produced incorrectly, with alterations that made it unauthentic.

Dan Flavin. untitled (to Barry, Mike, Chuck and Leonard), 1972-1975. Photo: Art Observed

The question of the reproduction of an artist’s work gets even more complex with the case of German gallerist David Zwirner, and a work by Dan Flavin. The artist did not leave any clear instructions on what should happen to his unrealized editions once he dies, yet, as written in a New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten – “Dealer’s Hand: Why are so many people paying so much money for art? Ask David Zwirner” – Zwirner commissioned Flavin’s estate to complete at least twelve editions of Flavin’s work, and then Zwirner sold them.[5] Whilst Donald Judd did not make any special demands or rules for posthumous works that would be created from his instructions, it is debatable whether the situation remains the same in the case of Flavin’s work.

“A Flavin isn’t a Flavin unless a certificate affirming its provenance comes with it. If you have a Flavin and no certificate, it is no longer a Flavin. It is a fluorescent light.”[6]

The fact that Flavin’s work consists of very-much-temporal fluorescent light bulbs, poses an even more delicate question. How authentic is, or can be, an art work that has a set duration? In the same New Yorker article, Paumgarten writes that, once the fluorescent tubes that are used for Flavin’s work burn out, Zwirner orders new ones from the same manufacturer that made them for Flavin himself. A while ago, I came across a Guardian article by Maev Kennedy – “Call that art? No, Dan Flavin’s work is just simple light fittings, say EU experts”. Again, just simple light fittings. In that article, Kennedy writes:

“...the commission, which found: "It is not the installation that constitutes a 'work of art' but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it."[7]

The bulbs could, and eventually have to, be replaced by new ones. Therefore, according to the article, what actually is art is the effect, the sentiment that a spectator senses whilst looking at the artwork. Here were are faced by two questions, and both of them are large aspects of postmodern theory – the question of labor, and the question of temporality. Walter Benjamin, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, writes:

“In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible. What man has made, man has always been able to make again.”[8]

This should make us think – if a work of art has the potential to be reproducible, what is the artist’s labor? If Flavin’s light bulbs are easy to be found and replaced, what was the artist’s initial work? Is it, as suggested by EU “experts”, an effect? Or is the physical force attached to the installment of the work? Again, if a work of art has the potential to be reproducible, was there a reason for Judd to be disappointed with Panza’s actions?

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Double Portrait'), 1991. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

This opens up space for a broader argument – what is the role of the original? Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Double Portrait') (1991) is an installation that consists of A3-sized and printed sheets of paper that visitors to the new Tate Modern building are invited to pick up and take home. Gonzalez-Torres is famous for his so-called “stacks” of paper and packaged hard candies. A lot of his work was created as a metaphor for the slow process of dying, especially from AIDS. As soon as the “stack” starts to dwindle, the gallery’s management is supposed to refill it. In the case of these short-durational works that are in constant need of regeneration, the crucial question is – What is authenticity, and how important does it have to be? Benjamin also explores the topic of temporality. In the same essay that was quoted above, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, he wrote:

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses, which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.”[9]

Orazio Gentileschi. Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, 1621–1624. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

According to Benjamin, the infinite reproduction, the restocking, the persistent learning and reinterpretation of the original, and most importantly – the fetish of building up endless editions, are all denying the possibility of preservation of the unique existence of the work. Does that mean that every time the “stack” of Gonzalez-Torres’ printed sheets is refilled, the work loses its credibility, and the artist himself becomes less of a creator?

What is real, what is original – an idea, a sentiment, an effect; or an object? Is it a beautifully painted work by Caravaggio, or is it that poignant feeling in your chest that you get when you enter the Rothko Room at the Tate Modern? Is it Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, by Orazio Gentileschi, which incredibly inspired and moved his daughter Artemisia, or is it her own original work on the same subject? Were the sheets of paper that were printed out by Gonzalez-Torres personally, the original? Or can the one that I have hung up high on the wall of my bedroom, which was printed out by the Tate, be an original, too? Can both cases be true?

Questions of authenticity, provenance, and credibility – especially when they concern visual arts and cultures – are almost impossibly, painfully perplexing. These questions are much, much more delicate than a simple “chicken or the egg” dilemma. They are also followed by numerous debates about the value of editions, the credibility of provenance, as well as the issue of artworks recovered from lootings and theft. The easiest thing to do would be to say that artists who use other artist’s work for inspiration and reinterpretation, as well as for critical examination, is something positive; whilst using somebody else’s work for monetary gain, fame, or recognition is something negative. The real question that Walter Benjamin examined back in 1936 is, essentially – What is the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction? And that question has to, repeatedly, remain unanswered.

[1] Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh. 19/09/1889.

[2] Interview with Gregorio Magnani, 1989 in: Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009, p. 222.

[3] Donald Judd, “Una stanza per Panza”, 1990.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nick Paumgarten, “Dealer’s Hand: Why are so many people paying so much money for art? Ask David Zwirner”. 2/12/2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Maev Kennedy, “Call that art? No, Dan Flavin’s work is just simple light fittings, say EU experts”. 20/12/2010.

[8] Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. London: Penguin Books. 2008. p. 3

[9] Ibid, p.5