Selection by Cindy Peña
What you see is not always what you see

Traditionally, art was taught by asking students to copy existing models while the teachers aided the young artist in their attempt to emulate the masters. Even before art school as we know it today, masters had workshops where apprentices would assist in the completion of commissions, learning the craft in the process. Today, students in art school are encouraged to develop their own styles, influenced by the shift in teaching pedagogies introduced by the Bauhaus. Nevertheless, it is by learning about known works of art that young artists gradually develop their own vocabularies. Still, art history did not become formalized as a discipline until artistic styles were identified and systematically analyzed in context, gradually separating the roles of artist and artisan beginning in the Renaissance and into the eighteenth century.

As a result, art historians began to give prominence to certain artists, artworks, and movements, which in turn allowed the canonization of some artists, artworks, and styles while marginalizing others. The term canon comes from the Greek kanon, meaning “standard,”, but the word also has a religious connotation since it was used to describe the selection of accepted scriptures. According to the art historian Griselda Pollock, “Canons may be understood as the retrospectively legitimating backbone of a cultural and political identity, a consolidated narrative of origin.” 1 Today, the canon is understood as the best, most representative, and most significant texts, objects, or musical compositions, and hence, “what must be studied as a model by those aspiring to the practice”. 2

Of all art forms, painting has been the most widely discussed and canonized, especially in Western art history. In the early 1900s, artists rejected the system imposed by the academic salons, and dismissed the idea of painting as a window to the world and instead began exploring new subjects, methods, and materials. Although Modernism was initially a reaction to the canon, it eventually became the precept, being supplanted by Postmodernism in the 1970s. This cycle has repeated itself throughout history, when artists pause to reflect and reject the accepted style, signaling a change in the accepted aesthetic, cultural, and social values of a culture.

One strategy that artists have used has been to simplify or pare down the elements present in art. In a 1966 interview, Frank Stella stated: “If the painting were lean enough, accurate enough or right enough, you would just be able to look at it. All I want anyone to get out of my paintings is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any conclusion… What you see is what you see.” 3 With this blunt statement, the young artist detached himself from the dominant Abstract Expressionist style, which focused on process but also benefitted from the idea of the artist as a misunderstood genius.

Postmodernism was introduced to the art historical discourse by Douglas Crimp, who claimed, “The fantasy of a creating subject gives way to the frank confiscation, quotation, excerption, accumulation, and repetition of already existing images. Notions of originality, authenticity, and presence, essential to the ordered discourse of the museum, are undermined.” 4 This statement opened up the field of possibility for contemporary artists.

This selection from the Colección Jumex features works that take prior images to examine, illustrate, or subvert a feature of art itself. In looking at works that have become part of the art historical canon, these contemporary artists question how it is established and reveal that the canon remains fluid. The art market, feminism, and globalization are but some examples of our current context that continue to influence the canon.

“The fantasy of a creating subject gives way to the frank confiscation, quotation, excerption, accumulation, and repetition of already existing images".
- Douglas Crimp
In Back to the Future (negro) from 2013, Jonathan Hernández takes the logo of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and erases every trace of information, leaving only the round silhouette with its three vertical stripes. The all black image brings to mind Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), which is considered the seminal abstract painting. With this work, Malevich introduced what he called Suprematism, a style of painting which focused on plain colored geometric shapes upon white backgrounds, rejecting representational painting. Included in The Last Exhibition of Futurist Paintings 0.10 in St. Petersburg along with 38 works, Black Square was hung in the upper corner of the room, occupying the position that Russian icons had in homes. With this defiant gesture, Malevich signaled the importance of the painting as an emblem of his new style. In Hernández’s work, composed of collaged materials, we can make out the circle, cross, and square, all shapes used in Suprematism. The artist points to the continued use of these shapes—almost as symbols of power—in contemporary culture, in this case, in the logo of the dominant political party in the 20th century in Mexico. By titling the work Back to the Future, Hernández alludes to the presidential elections of 2012, which returned the PRI back to power, after two periods out of the presidential seat.
Forty years after Malevich’s painting, Jasper Johns created Target with Four Faces, 1955. Made of encaustic with four plaster faces that can be concealed behind a hinged wooden lid, Johns’ main focus was materiality and process. In works from the same period, Johns used images of flags, maps, numbers, and bullseye targets, building up their surfaces. In his close-up photograph of the work, Todd Eberle reveals the amount of wax buildup on the surface, achieved by lighting the work dramatically. Eberle, mostly an editorial and architecture photographer, lends his keen eye to this series of works where he photographs masterpieces from Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly, all artists who challenged the conventions of painting.
Meanwhile, Robert Longo opted to “recreate” one of Frank Stella’s Black Paintings, a series of works produced between 1959 and 1960 where he painted black stripes, their width dictated by the standard two-and-a-half-inch paintbrush that he used in his day job painting houses. Done free-hand and without much planning, the raw canvas is visible yet muddled, at times resembling the messiness of charcoal drawing. Longo is known for his renditions of iconic scenes from cinema or print media such as his Men in the Cities graphite drawings series where he redraws the bodies of fatally-wounded characters as if dancing. Longo apparently based his recreation of Point of Pines, titled after a promontory in the Massachusetts Bay, on the lithographs Stella made of the Black Paintings series in 1967, much more similar in size than the larger than human-size canvas. In his meticulous graphite drawing, Longo goes small, reversing Stella’s grand gesture and questioning the canon of modernist painting that had by then become mythological.
Modern abstract painting combined an iconoclastic quest, a claim to introduce a new way of looking, and a desire to reveal the objecthood of the painting itself. 5 He style has been associated almost exclusively with male painters, critics, and patrons. Yunhee Min’s practice challenges this association by building on the legacy of the studio practice. Her work, Terra Firma #3, 2000, resembles the stripped paintings Brice Marden began making in the 1970s. While Marden built layer upon layer of paint and wax over perfect rectangle canvases, Yunhee Min plays with the shapes of her canvases to unsettle the viewer. She also uses light colors, a defiant gesture almost as if saying she can use pastel tones and remain a serious painter.

In the late 1970s, one group of artists in New York began reframing images of contemporary culture and incorporating them into their art. Known as the Pictures Generation for the exhibition Pictures organized by Douglas Crimp in 1977, the group “sees representation as an inescapable part of our ability to grasp the world around us”. 6 Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine were part of that group. Lawler photographs works of art in storage or hung in collector’s homes, thereby revealing them in unsuspecting situations, half-way between art works and mere objects. In Bulbs, 2005-2006, she focuses on the object that makes up Félix González-Torres’s works of the early nineties composed of strings of lightbulbs hung or arranged in the gallery to commemorate the lives lost by the AIDS crisis.

Meanwhile, Sherrie Levine would simply rephotograph famous images of canonical photographers such as Walker Evans or Edward Weston, in an attempt to examine the codes of representation inherent in the creation of those images and their attributed value. The idea of the canon as excluding and subordinating women artists while also using it to reinforce gender and positions of power is taken on by feminism and spurred by the focus on identity politics in the 1980s. Levine’s “stolen” images expose the cynicism of the art world as it enshrines male artists while ignoring women. In Fountain (Buddha), however, her adaptation is less subtle. Modeled after Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917, Levine’s version is made of bronze, reinforcing the traditional materiality of sculpture while still poking fun at its position as an “enlightened” work.

Of all art styles, Pop art is the most commonly appropriated, perhaps because of its own strategy of reusing images from the mass media. Andy Warhol’s silkscreened images have been a common motif of many contemporary artists. Mike Bidlo is known for his appropriation of works by Warhol, at one point even recreating his Factory, the workshop where Warhol created his work with studio assistants. In Campbell’s Cheddar Cheese Soupcan, 1984, Bidlo copies Warhol’s work by hand instead of using the silkscreen process but retaining the original dimensions of Warhol’s canvases. Vik Muniz chooses to recreate one of Warhol’s most sinister pictures using only black ink, commenting on the artists‘s use of the print media as source, since the original image for Race Riot was a photograph taken from Life Magazine. The artist collective Claire Fontaine superimpose the phrase ONE IS NO ONE over the printed face of Marilyn Monroe. Warhol’s own Marilyn from 1962 was made shortly after the actress’s death and was based on a publicity photograph made for the film Niagara.
José Dávila strangely modifies Roy Lichtenstein’s Ohhh… Alright… from 1964. While the original features the close-up face of a women speaking on the phone with a speech bubble revealing a fragment of her conversation, Dávila’s version further obfuscates the interrupted narrative, removing the woman from the picture altogether and leaving only her curios reply, “Ohhh… Alright”, compelling the viewer to question the weight of Lichtenstein’s proposal.
While popular culture and mass media have an influence over the creation of images, both by artists and by the media itself, the market has also established its position in this self-generating and never-ending loop. Two examples we might mention reveal how artists respond to the markets’ desires and demands. Peter Max became popular for his psychedelic images made during the 1960s and 70s at the height of the counter culture movement. His imagery was printed on cereal boxes and postal stamps and often depicted American symbols such as the Statue of Liberty. One such image is Mona Lisa, 1992, featuring a cropped Gioconda over a painterly background. Throughout his career, Pater Max has made commercially viable works to be sold at art auctions and through his gallery, building a multimillion estate.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Monk creates works than address the status of the art world and the art market. His work offers a reflection on Conceptual and Minimal art, often imitating the work of Sol LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, and Bruce Nauman. In Deflated Sculpture no. III, 2009, Monk takes one of Jeff Koons’s most known works, Rabbit from 1986, and casting it as a progressively deflating bunny. According to Monk’s gallery, “As Koons raised everyday mundane objects to iconic status, Monk literally deflates this monumentality using a characteristic whimsical twist and a wink to Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures.” 7 In a way, Monk’s work addresses the problem of hastily elevating a work of art to the position of canon, while also warning against the dangers of the artist as “brand”.

Contemporary artists continue exploring and questioning the role of the canon of art. While it can be a useful teaching aid meant to introduce young artists to the diversity of artistic production, it can also be dangerous to take it at face value. The artists presented here use their own practices to reflect upon issues of desire, power, and value that the canon upholds, introducing their re-readings of the former and how specific contexts can complicate it and make it dynamic.

Text by Cindy Peña, Curatorial Assitant.

1 Griselda Pollock, “About Canons and Culture Wars,” in Differencing the Canon. Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 1999), 3.
2 Ibid., 3.
3 Frank Stella and Donald Judd interview with Bruce Glaser, ARTnews, 1966. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/retrospective/what-you-see-is-what-you-see-donald-judd-and-Frank-Stella-al-final-de-la-pintura-en-1966-4497 .
4 Douglas Crimp, “On the Museum’s Ruins”, October, 13 (Summer 1980): 41-57.
5 W.J.T. Mitchell, “Ut Pictura Theoria: Abstract Painting and Language,” in Picture Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 213-240.
6 Douglas Crimp, Pictures exhibition catalogue (New York: Artists Space), 1977, 5.
7 Jonathan Monk: The Deflated Inflated. Lisson Gallery, exhibition press release, 2009. https://www.lissongallery.com/exhibitions/jonathan-monk.