The Freedom of Information is a concise exhibition of artworks that employ strategies of appropriation, from repurposing or rephotographing mass media images to referencing or copying objects from art history and consumer culture. The exhibition traces a lineage of artistic appropriation that accounts for the variety of its different historical and contemporary models. Here, an intergenerational group of artists “take” materials, often without permission, from sources such as books, postcards, television, or art-specific contexts and manipulate them with cameras, printers, scanners, or other modes of reproduction and display. While these artistic strategies date back to at least the early twentieth century (see the readymade, collage, and montage), it was in the 1970s and ’80s that the critical terms of these ideas were established in the context of a new generation of influential artists. Through landmark exhibitions such as Pictures, an exhibition held at the artist-run gallery Artists Space in New York in 1977 that helped define this group as the so-called Pictures Generation, or Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting, organized by the ICA/Boston in 1986, artistic appropriation was theorized as a means to account for the changing status of the image and the object, especially in relation to radical shifts in the economy and culture. Critical theory was central to the discourse on postmodernism at that time—texts that had recently been translated into English such as Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” (1967) and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981) were influential—and artists and critics invested in this discourse made appropriation a dominant strategy. In this context, different appropriative modes were used to question ideas about originality and authenticity, and in the process sought to reveal and critique power structures underlying social and cultural dynamics. The long history of artistic appropriation continues today, now as a set of divergent practices fully embedded in contemporary art, whose forms are shifting with new urgency thanks especially to the massive dissemination of images on the Internet. Likewise, instances of cultural appropriation, the use or misuse of elements from one culture by another, take on new significance in rapidly changing situations that require thoughtful consideration.
The Freedom of Information displays a broad range of these practices in artworks made between the early 1970s and the present that mark different moments and modes of artistic appropriation. In Andy Warhol’s 1971 Electric Chair series, for example, the artist enlarges and prints a press photograph of an empty electric chair, and through the gestures of repetition and color variation both empties and reinvests the image with emotional and psychological intensity. Works by Dara Birnbaum, Louise Lawler, and Sherrie Levine—artists typically associated with the so-called Pictures Generation—are shown alongside those by Carol Bove, Anne Collier, Leslie Hewitt, and Sara VanDerBeek, demonstrating the evolution of a shared set of concerns that remain pressing. Still other works do not fit so easily into a genealogy; in Concentric Bearings D, 1985, Vija Celmins renders three photographs as prints, employing traditional modes of reproduction that manifest the presence of the artist’s hand, while Klara Lidén, in her Untitled (Poster Painting), 2010, layers appropriated advertising posters, denying their immediacy as images by coating the top one in white paint.
Taken together, the works in The Freedom of Information reveal that while such forms of repetition are historically rooted, artistic appropriation remains a critical and contested means with which artists can address a culture of manufactured desire, one increasingly saturated with images and mass-produced goods.
—Jeffrey De Blois, Curatorial Assistant