Katonah Museum of Art

Katonah, NY



Déjà Vu: Reworking the Past


In "Déjà Vu: Reworking the Past," a new exhibition opening on January 16, 2000 at the Katonah Museum of Art, many images seem familiar, At first glance, there appear to be a Rembrandt, Matisse, Velasquez, Picasso, Leonardo Da Vinci, Van Dyck and Warhol - among other masters - on the walls. A closer look, however, reveals some surprises: the masters are there, all right, but they have been altered.

"Something doesn't quite fit," notes Dr. Barbara J. Bloemink, curator of the show. "You know you've seen it before, or at least you think you've seen it before, but something is off." No, not because the paintings have been illegally defaced, but because the 28 contemporary artists in the show who created the works have appropriated from the masters. They have borrowed themes, styles, popular motifs, and images from the past to make statements about the present. And that is precisely the point of the exhibition. (left: Kathleen Gilje, Lady With and Ermine, Restored, 1997, oil on panel, 22 x 15 3/4 inches, Courtesy of Gorney Braven & Lee, New York)

"In this postmodern world, artists feel free to move sideways and backwards in art history and readily incorporate all eras into their art," writes Bloemink in the catalogue that accompanies the show. "The re-use of images and subjects from Old and Modern Masters moves beyond tribute to become a conceptual tool. The resulting works challenge cultural orthodoxy and undermine previously held assumptions about the relationship of contemporary art to historical models of taste and significance." Dr. Bloemink is the Director of European and American Modern Art at Hirschl & Adler Modern in New York City. Site has authored five books on art history and, in the past, organized three exhibitions at the Katonah Museum of Art. Déjà Vu will be on view at the Katonah Museum from January 16 through April 2, 2000. The show includes 33 works in various media by 28 artists, among them Roy Lichtenstein, Red Grooms, Kathleen Gilje, Vincent Desiderio, Nicole Eisenman, Elaine Reichek, Robert Colescott, and David Bierk.

This is the first major investigation of appropriation in the visual arts since Art About Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art a little over twenty years ago. "The difference is that these new works of appropriation raise questions such as 'Why did the artist copy this particular painting?' and 'How is the meaning of the work affected by its having been created by a late 20th century Black/Woman/Non-Western artist?', says Nancy Wallach, Project Director, who originated the concept for the show with Yvonne Pollack, former Director of Education at the Museum. "Gender. political, racial, and sexual issues are addressed in depth." She adds that the theme grew directly out of an exhibition the Museum mounted earlier this year Re/Righting History, also curated by Dr. Bloemink, in which contemporary African-American artists re-imaged events from the past and offered alternatives to "textbook history." (left: Alan Magee, Collaboration (Dedicated to George Staempfil), 1999, acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 19 x 24 inches, © Alan Magee, Courtesy of Hollis Taggert Galleries, New York City)

For some of the artists in Déjà Vu , the translation of a master's work or paying tribute is the object of the exercise. For others, appropriation is a means of commenting on the restrictive nature of Western art history. Some appropriate imagery to create metaphorical autobiographies: they insert their own bodies into Old Master figurative compositions, or push poses and extravagant props to the extreme. Others use irony, or reinterpret established motifs and re-enact or re-write history, pointing out the discrepancies between what is recorded in history and what is left out. "And some employ easy recognition of a style or image to trip up audiences whose viewing is cursory," notes Bloemink. "Appropriation speaks not only to the artists' intentions, but also raises questions that relate to the viewer's perceptions." (right: Malcolm Morley, The Last Painting of Vincent Van Gogh, 1972, oil on canvas and assemblage, easel: 78 inches high, painting: 34 x 70 inches, Collection of Larry and Cindy Meeker)

Looking back - reworking the past - is not generally something one anticipates from contemporary artists. We usually expect something radically new. But, "by reflecting on art and history, we (can) capture some collective memory and sense of self to carry into the future. By looking backward, we will gain the perspective to go forward," Bloemink comments.

Dkjb Vu and the catalogue were funded in part by the Westchester Arts Council. which is supported by Westchester County, corporations, foundations, and individuals; and the Exhibition Patrons of the Katonah Museum of Art. Additional funding for the publication was provided by a grant from the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation.

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Text and images courtesy of Katonah Museum of Art.


rev. 11/26/10

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