by Andrew Russeth
Craig Starr Gallery, one of Uptown Manhattan's great treasure boxes, has created an intriguing booth in which history seems to fold in and around itself...
The reason I’m painting this way is because I want to be a machine. Whatever I do and do machine like is because it is what I want to do. I think it would be terrific if everybody was alike.
-Richard Pettibone, Andy Warhol, Quotation, 1969 (acrylic and Lettraset on canvas; 2 3/4 x 5 inches)
Well, I’ve never made the separation between the museum and the hardware store, I mean I enjoy both of them and want to combine the two.
-Claes Oldenburg, Craft Horizons, 1965
It was perfect coordination because stainless steel was the only metal that would keep the alcohol preserved forever. But I also liked the fake luxury of stainless steel. It has always been the luxury of the proletariat.
-Jeff Koons, Interview, 1992
Our booth will examine the relationships between the works of four Pop artists: Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Claes Oldenburg, and Richard Pettibone. More particularly, it will focus on how these artists transformed the Duchampian readymade in the context of post-war American consumer culture and mechanical reproduction. In addition to sharing related critical methods of appropriation and re-presentation, from the handmade to the industrially fabricated, the work of these artists highlights the speed and efficiency of technology as epitomized by the shift from steam to electricity, from bicycle to train, and beyond. The work of art, the artists’ working processes, the artists and spectators themselves, have coalesced into mobile, never-ending networks of devices, machines, commodities, and their associated socio-political ideologies. These new object-machines are, however, problematic: they continuously contradict, simultaneously succeeding and failing; they are both potent and impotent; they celebrate as well as degrade; they annihilate as they illuminate.
Warhol and Koons share a hedonistic delight in the paradoxes of consumer culture—the self-destructive potential of the desire for social mobility, the glamorous seduction of commercial goods, and the anaesthetizing power of technological reproduction. Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, which includes Electric Chairs (1971) and Tunafish Disaster (1963), explores the numbing effects of repeated macabre images by condensing the serial circulation of mass media into a single viewing experience. Taking strategically selected newspaper images of car crashes, suicides, and electric chairs, among others, Warhol modifies the image (already converted from the original through its conversion to halftones for news printing) through the screenprinting process. The slur of the ink through the varied mesh gauges of multiple screens produces deviations from one work to another, including double images, blur, and muddied information; Warhol further transforms the found photograph with his jarring use of color that associates a gruesome image of death with both the bold chromatic language of advertising and the Abstract Expressionist color fields of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. The result is a chilling visual confrontation with the reality of the image.
Koons similarly exposes the illusionary power of modernity with his Jim Beam – J.B. Turner Train (1986), a gleaming, seductive model of American industrialism that mimics the psychological grasp of modern advertising, driving a cycle of desire that can result in dependence and debasement—much like how the alcohol preserved within it can lead to alcoholism. Each train car is a direct re-casting of a commemorative plastic and porcelain Jim Beam decanter Koons had seen in a liquor store on Fifth Avenue. Struck by a desire to transform the object while maintaining its essence – as a commodity, a collectible, an advertisement – Koons had the suite of cars meticulously cast in stainless steel and sent to Jim Beam to be filled with bourbon, like the original. His version is both a piece of functional memorabilia and a work of art, but the hidden alcohol, if opened, destroys the work of art. According to Koons, “You can drink it and enjoy the bourbon, but you have killed the work of art because you’ve destroyed the soul of the piece when you break the tax-stamp seal.” The train’s glimmering magnetism celebrates the American dream of work, wealth and luxury even as it exploits the false promises of progress and the futility of social mobility.
Oldenburg’s gross enlargements of banal, modern-day objects revel in materialist culture by stretching the boundaries of the ordinary world. Rather than elevate everyday objects to the status of art as in the Duchampian tradition of the readymade, Oldenburg remakes them by hand (before turning to industrial fabrication in 1967), altering their material and scale so that they begin to take on new identities and associations; Study for a Giant Swedish Light Switch (1966) enlarges the functional apparatus to absurd proportions in raw cardboard, its material and enormity rendering the light switch useless. Representative of the modernization that came along with electricity and light, the switch for Oldenburg seems to encompass a positivity that could, in one flick, be turned off. Whereas Warhol and Koons use mechanical reproduction to expose the paradox of progress, Oldenburg explores the potential of craftsmanship to transform objects into sardonic caricatures of modernity that perform the futile banality of the common household item through their droll oppositions—of the sensual and the everyday, of flimsiness and functionality.
Pettibone takes the work of art itself as readymade, making copies of works by Duchamp and Warhol, established masters of the readymade themselves and stated influences on Pettibone—he cites Warhol’s first exhibition of Thirty-two Campbell’s Soup Cans at Ferus Gallery in 1962 and Duchamp’s retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963 as his most important influences. His Marchel Duchamp, “Bicycle Wheel, 1913” (1965) is both an homage to the Dada icon and a comment on originality and imitation.
Like Warhol, Pettibone seizes the pre-existing object as subject for his own remakes, which playfully celebrate both the process and the product of reproduction. Indeed, often his source is not actually the artwork, but the photographic reproduction; Pettibone first encountered renowned works such as Warhol’s Soup Cans and Flowers as print reproductions in the magazine Artforum. His miniature copies are not scaled-down versions of the works themselves, but rather one-to-one copies of the magazine images (the Bicycle Wheel is an exception, being of one-to-one scale with Duchamp’s “original”). Pettibone’s appropriations, however, are “handmade readymades”—meticulous and loving craftsmanship reveal his delight in the process of copying and the aesthetics of the work of art, not just the conceptual idea. If the authenticity of an object is tarnished by its mechanically reproduced copy, then Pettibone restores that authenticity through the physical act of copying itself. Moreover, his performative endeavors embody the spirited wit of his Dada predecessors. In two works that entailed having a train run over a tube of paint and one of his Warhol Soup Can copies, Pettibone demolishes his materials to achieve both conceptual and jokingly practical ends (literally, to squeeze the last bit of paint out of the tube).
Original and copy, craftsmanship and mechanization, luxury and degradation—such oppositions unite the varied practices of the four artists featured in our booth as they expose the successes and failures of the pioneering American spirit. These inherent contradictions are revealed not only in their artistic processes, but are also directly addressed in their subject matter: trains, electricity, modern technology, commercial reproduction. As such, they share an overarching fascination with the paradoxical nature of modern progress, exposed through the manufacturing of speed and splendor, and the potential annihilation that lies in its wake.