Reframes and Refrains: Artists Rethink Art History

Article excerpt

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Chris Burden. Chris Burden! It was May, mild, and late. The television was on. Amid a sea of commercials, I saw or heard--I can't remember which came first--the name of a famous artist. On a blue ground, tiny yellow letters enlarged and zoomed forward, filling the screen, while Burden spoke the name. After two run-throughs of the list, the spot concluded: "paid for by Chris Burden--artist."

I was startled, although I knew Burden's work and taught it in my classes. He was even in my dissertation, which I had just defended. At the time I saw this thirty-second TV ad/artwork, titled Chris Burden Promo (1976), I had finished my first full year of teaching at Columbia University. Among the courses I taught was introductory art history. In a single semester, "Masterpieces of the Fine Arts," as it was then called, touched on major periods and media through examining the Parthenon, Amiens Cathedral, Raphael, Michelangelo, El Greco, Brueghel, Bernini, Rembrandt, Impressionism, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Picasso. Depth, not breadth, underlay this approach, and though short on women, minorities, and the non-Western, I remember the course as exciting and manageable. It worked better than the typical mad dash from the pyramids to Picasso or Pollock (as grad students we wished Paul Klee had greater fame so the survey could be dubbed "from mud to Klee").

I was struck by how much Burden's list resembled Columbia's: Burden picked his artists, excluding himself, from a national survey of the best known. I was especially intrigued by Burden's intervention, his bypassing of textbooks, classrooms, galleries, museums, and the art press, going straight to the people with his pitch as the most renowned artist since Picasso. Although not aired during prime time, Burden's spot, broadcast several times that year, probably rivaled, if not surpassed, the audience for all the sections of "Masterpieces" ever taught at Columbia. I imagined the signals of Promo traveling deep into space, and cultural historians on distant planets mistakenly placing Burden in the pantheon of Earth's greatest artists (Burden still has time to live up to this billing).

By the time Promo was aired, Burden had already achieved notoriety through dangerous performance pieces. But freshest in my mind was a series of collages, consisting of published essays on Burden's work and his handwritten retorts in the margins, arrows pointing to offending text, no underlined. Whether through television commercials or "corrected" analyses of his work, Burden's art prodded the viewer to rethink art history and criticism, and how and by whom such a critical history is constructed.

On some level all works of art are about art and by extension about art history. Some pieces are simply more blatant in their references. Jean Lipman and Richard Marshall based their 1978 Whitney Museum exhibition of post-1950 art called Art about Art on this premise, and Leo Steinberg, in his introduction to the catalogue, reminds us that this practice is nothing new.(1) In a post-Pop period, "Art about Art" read as a roundup of a co-option sensibility. Preceding the likes of Sherrie Levine and Mike Bidlo, it foreshadowed and perhaps encouraged the appropriation mania of the eighties.

To identify the shrewdest reframers and refrains would be futile; lists invite the noting of omissions as much as inclusions. This said, the ensuing pages demonstrate several but hardly all the ways in which art can alter our sense of art history.

Robert Colescott, in racially recasting art chestnuts, sends up Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. (with a nod to Goya) in Les Demoiselles d'Alabama: Vestidas (1985) and Matisse's Dance (and its "art in art" appearance in other Matisse paintings) in Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder (1979). Together they carry a score of references about intermixing: Western and "primitive" sources; high and low; art and life; past and present; white and "colored"; clothed and naked; and inclusion and exclusion. …