Original Copies: ‘The Art of Appropriation’ at MoMA

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The New York Sun

Pipe, glass, bottle of rum: Spoken aloud, the words have the beat of a carnival barker’s cry or a drummer’s rim shot. Connected to Picasso, they conjure charging lines and unlikely angles that somehow coalesce as tangible objects. It’s this genius for design that makes Picasso a legitimate heir to masters such as Cézanne and Goya, but his work fascinates, too, for its extraordinarily inventive use of materials. Around 1912, when Picasso and Braque pioneered the practice of incorporating into their images bits of the external world — newspaper clippings, wallpaper, patterned fabric — they found a new means of exploring the artifice of the representational image.

The more than 100 drawings and prints in “Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Rum: The Art of Appropriation” reflect the countless ways that later artists have commandeered and recontextualized images and materials. Drawn from the Museum of Modern Art’s own collections, these works fill three galleries on the museum’s third floor. Appropriation, it turns out, takes many guises, from intellectual role-playing to hedonistic filching, and a few more wall labels might have helped direct the drift of the nonchronological installation through sometimes loose groupings of conceptual art, Cubism and Pop.

Sigmar Polke’s four paintings on paper (dating to the mid-’60s and mid-’80s) greet visitors to the exhibition. An apt introduction, his chameleonlike mixing of styles shows in images combining expressionistic brushwork and the mechanical textures of low-quality reproductions. Dominating the first gallery, Sherrie Levine’s series of drawings from 1984 precisely replicate works by Egon Schiele and Kazimir Malevich. (Their titles indicate that the hanging is itself a replication of an earlier installation in a commercial gallery.) Nearby, Richard Prince’s “Untitled (Almost Original)” (2006) questions notions of originality in a different way, juxtaposing a Marlboro magazine advertisement and a homespun drawing of a cowboy acquired by the artist at an auction. Most gratifying visually, however, is “Art for Modern Architecture (homage to Ellsworth Kelly)” (2007) by Marine Hugonnier, who has meticulously pasted white and black geometric shapes over the headlines and photographs of six front pages of the London Times; as meditative as Mr. Kelly’s, these shapes serenely separate articles about cancer scares and misplaced plutonium.

Appropriation takes on a splashier air in Pop works in the third gallery. In a 1974 mixed-media collage, Roy Lichtenstein has turned Matisse’s “Dance” into a decorative backdrop for an affectionate, if diagrammatic, view of a studio. Next to it, the artist’s carefully stenciled image of juicy brushstrokes (1966-68) converts the turgid mannerisms of Abstract Expressionism into the conscious clichés of Pop. Richard Hamilton’s collage-like screen print “Interior” (1964) poignantly depicts a lone, startled woman in an ornate but synthetically colored living room. Four works on paper from the mid-’60s by Eduardo Paolozzi intrigue for their enthusiastically high-tech renderings employing images of circuit boards and machine parts; Mickey Mouse appears repeatedly in a grid of beady circles beneath a jazzy tapestry of color, while skyscrapers share the skyline with huge humanoids with mechanical innards.

Among Robert Rauschenberg’s three works, an untitled piece from 1974 stands out for its brazen but cogent design made out of packing tape and mailing labels. Across the way, four comparatively wan drawings by Jasper Johns, ranging from a 1955 American flag to the 1986 “Spring,” tend to privilege complex allusions over pictorial rigor.

Warning: The contents of the second gallery may spoil one for the rest of the exhibition. Simply put, the nine works by Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, Kurt Schwitters, and Hannah Höch have a formal vitality found only occasionally elsewhere in the show. Picasso’s “Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Rum” (1914), the inspiration for the exhibition title, pits repeating horizontals against angling verticals to weight the intervals between a tiny, dark pipe bowl and the pillar of a goblet. In his “Man with a Hat” (1912), bold dislocations between bits of newspaper, colored paper, and outlined portions of the sheet become a portrait in the truest sense: a cohesion of alert and animate tensions. The punctuations of cups and saucers in Gris’s still life (1914) add a baroque flamboyance to another tabletop motif. A smorgasbord of materials — wood scraps, fabric, bottle cork, labels, a broken pipe — gather with intuitive force in Schwitters’s large collage; densely shuffling planes of blue-gray, deep blue, and off-white at the center lead to outflung notes of beige and red.

Filling one wall in the second gallery are five rather didactic works by Malevich that utilize reproductions and newspaper clippings to analyze early Modernist movements. Nearby, Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q. Shaved” (1965) consists simply of a playing-card image of the “Mona Lisa” mounted on a sheet signed by the artist. The artist has left this portrait mustache-less, unlike his infamous “L.H.O.O.Q.” of nearly a half-century before. The witty languor of this “twice-appropriated, once restored readymade” — as the wall text describes it — feels somewhat desiccated next to the earnest Maleviches and the adventurous Cubists.

The theme of appropriation makes the contributions of Duchamp and his followers indispensable. Still, should two entire walls be devoted to Ms. Levine, who makes the very same argument about artistic originality with each of her nearly 50 drawings? The exhibition, moreover, strains in containing the artists’ disjunctive pursuits. What was an intellectual curiosity and a side adventure for the Cubists becomes a burning concern for many later artists. The visual delights that compelled the Cubists appear to be a matter of ho-hum aesthetics for the Postmodernists. When Mr. Prince pairs a magazine photograph with a drawing, he contrasts commercial agendas and individual expression. But does he know how woefully weak the drawing is by historical standards? It isn’t clear. Every work here is grounded in the presumption that art matters, but one sometimes wonders if the artists have acquainted themselves with the unique qualities of art that made it matter in the first place.

Until November 10 (11 W. 53rd St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-708-9400).

The New York Sun

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