Archive for Richard Prince

Alma Thomas: On the Shoulders of Giants

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Over the past several weeks our contributors have been on hiatus, in order to participate in SF Open Studios event. With this piece Venetian Red resumes its regular posting schedule.


Alma Thomas, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976,
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/4 x 135 1/2″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In 1924, Alma Thomas (1891-1978) became the first woman to graduate from Howard University’s newly-created fine arts department. Quite possibly, she was the first African-American to hold this kind of degree. She went on to become the first women to receive a Masters’ degree (teaching) from Columbia University. For 35 years, Thomas dedicated herself to teaching art to high school students. She retired in 1960, in order to focus on her own work. In her 70s, plagued by arthritis and degenerating eyesight, she threw herself into her work. In 1972, at age 80, she became the first African-American woman to have a solo show mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Two weeks ago, Alma Thomas made news yet again.

Alma Thomas—Blue Abstraction 1961Alma Thomas, Blue Abstraction, c.1961
oil on canvas, 34 x 40″.
(Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Although the list of artworks the Obamas have requisitioned for the White House collection was released months ago, it wasn’t until a recent  New York Times’ article—“White House Art”—that members of the conservative blogosphere found another excuse to blast the Obama administration. Indignant, they locked their rifle scopes on one painting in particular, Alma Thomas’ Watusi (Hard Edge).  Free Republic and Michelle Malkin posted particularly exemplary pieces, decrying the work as an “almost exact replication” of Henri Matisse’s (1869-1954) The Snail. All Thomas had done, they argued, was to rotate Matisse’s canvas clockwise 90° and change some colors. “An embarrassment for the ‘sophisticates’ who failed to spot a copy hiding in plain sight,” one blogger hissed.

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953
gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas, approximately 113″ square.
(Tate Gallery)

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963
acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8 x 44 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

The outcry was predictably bereft of thoughtful analysis. In the aggregate, the derisive comments—”my two year old could have done that” and “the crap that passes for art”— not to mention downright ugly sneers—”The original itself is a hoax. Most modern art is.”—might otherwise be a sobering reminder that a vocal segment of the population appears truly threatened by modern art. Predictably, though, the commentators revealed themselves to be neither knowledgeable nor interested in the subject of modern art. No, it was pretty clear from the particulars (including some nasty, racially-oriented snips) that Thomas and, by extension modern art, was merely the scapegoat here; Watusi was the vehicle through which the conservative fringe could ridicule, yet again, the President’s alleged lack of judgment. One self-appoint -ed cognoscente snickered: “He can’t even pick real art.”

Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance), 1916-1917
torn-and-pasted paper and colored paper on colored paper, 19 1/8 x 13 5/8″.
(Museum of Modern Art; © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Did Alma Thomas copy Matisse? When it comes to intellectual property, despite  legal guidelines, copying is often harder to prove than it would seem.

Alma Thomas, Early Cherry Blossoms, 1973,
acrylic on canvas, 69 x 50″.
(Michael Rosenfeld Gallery)

On the one hand, as any trained artist knows, examining the world through the eyes of others is a necessary step on the road to developing a “mature” personal style. Indeed, all of human progress has been built on the shoulders of previous giants. Matisse’s cutouts could not have existed without the work of the collagists who preceded him—Jean Arp,  Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch—who in turn owed debts to earlier Cubists, Picasso and Braque. And on it goes.

Henri Matisse, Snow Flowers,1951,
watercolor and gouache on cut and pasted papers, 75 11/16  x  35 7/8″.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

On the other hand, illegitimate copying is real. Both Richard Prince (See VR’s “Prince of Pilfer”) and Jeff Koons have  been sued by photographers for incorporating copyrighted work into their own. Koons lost the Rogers v. Koons case, but won a more recent suit under the “fair use” doctrine.  Readers will remember that earlier this year Damien Hirst threatened to sue a 16-year-old over his use of an image of Hirst’s diamond-incrusted skull, in the process demanding royalties.

Alma Thomas at work in her studio, 1970s?

In the imaginary case of Matisse v. Thomas, interpretations of the “substantially similar” clause suggest many ambiguities that would present a challenge to definitively proving copyright infringement. (Imagined cries of “I know copying when I see it!” from Thomas bashers aside.) Thomas always credited Matisse for the inspiration that produced Watusi. It is obvious that the work launched her on a journey of artistic discovery that produced her unique and forward-looking (if not radical) mosaic style.

To assert that Thomas was “simply copying” Matisse would be to deny the rich and varied underpinnings of her work.  Thomas was deeply impressed by the colors and patterns of the natural world around her.  “Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors,” she once said.

Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches, 1938
oil on linen, approximately 21 x 25″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

At her best, Thomas adeptly fused her own interpretation of the modernist approaches to color with the craft traditions (textile-based in Thomas’ case) of black America to arrive at a style that, while abstract, never quite looses its connection with natural form.  In addition to Matisse, Thomas identified with the work of Cézanne, as well as her teachers Jacob KainenRobert Gates, Joe Summerford, and Lois Mailou Jones.

Alma Thomas, Oriental Garden Concerto, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 68 1/4 X 54 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

If there was any real “crime” committed by the Obamas in the selection of their White House collection, it was that only 6 (!) of the 45 pieces were by women. (Louise Nevelson and Susan Rothenberg also included.)  Worse perhaps, no Latinos/as were represented at all.  Not exactly  “Change We Can Believe In.”

Alma Thomas, White Roses Sing and Sing, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/2 x 52 3/8″.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The Hullaballoo

Michelle Malkin—Do the Watusi: Art, Imitation, and the Obamas—“On Wingnuts on Alma Thomas”

Steven Kaplan—“Watusi vs. L’Escargot: Another Desperate Republican Attempt to Smear Obama”

The Mississippifarian—“It’s Called ‘Having a Clue.’ “

Wider Connections

Holland Cotter—“Colors From a World of Black and White”

Self-taught sculptor William Edmondson was the first African-American to have a solo show in a major US museum. See “Doin’ the Lord’s Work.”

John Elderfield—The Cutouts of Henri Matisse

Merry Foresta—Alma Thomas: A Life in Art

News Grist: Audio Symposium—A Search for Comity in the Intellectual Property Wars

US Copyright Office

The Prince of Pilfer: “Spiritual America” at the Walker Art Center

Posted in Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , on July 9, 2008 by Liz Hager


Richard Prince, “Untitled (Cowbow),” 1989, Ektacolor print, 50×70″ (photo courtesy The Guggenheim)

We’ve just returned from a hot and miserably humid Fourth of July weekend in Minneapolis. Even the mighty Mississippi, which for the most part is actually quite lazy up that way, couldn’t offer much respite from the sweat-drenching conditions. A Saturday morning visit to the grounds of the Walker Art Center to see choreographer Tricia Brown recreate four of her early dances temporarily diverted our thoughts from the heat.  It was a special treat to have the choreographer present, moving here and there among the spectators (shouting directives at us rather than the dancers!). I was introduced to Ms. Brown’s work in the early 80s; all these years later, I still find it fresh and witty. I still have an immediate emotional response.

Later, in the cool dark haven of the Museum, among the temporary exhibits, I found “Spiritual America,” the traveling “retrospective” of Richard Prince’s work. This show generated a lot of controversy when it opened at the Guggenheim last fall. With no plans to be in NY at that time, however, I had more or less written off the opportunity to see it.

I entered the show at the wrong end, and thus made my way through it backwards. Interestingly, that didn’t seem to matter, as the exhibit is organized to reflect the artist’s predilection for working in themes (or the fact that he has no discernible progression of style).  A great deal of what is on display are works of appropriation, the technique on which Prince’s built his reputation. Some, like the ubiquitous nurses and recycled jokes are paintings; others, like the cowboys and biker chicks, are photographs.

As I wandered through the rooms, disappointment grew. The work was doing nothing for me.  Despite, or perhaps because of, this I paused for a long time in front of the cowboy images and pondered my lack of connection. Here before me was quintessentially American subject matter. Surely I must have some response! There had to be something to it; after all, the cowboy image featured above sold for nearly $1.25 million at Christie’s in 2005, a record for a work of photography.

There were certain things I had to acknowledge.  I know that Prince, along with Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and others in the “Pictures” generation, is a figurehead in the post-Warhol, Post-Modern (read: fresh and unique) comment on America’s commodity culture.  I can even appreciate how he has gone beyond Pop Art, which used the symbols of popular culture for its own artistic ends quite effectively. By contrast, Prince has made his mark by  “clipping” (technically re-photographing) whole images, as well as stories and jokes, and RE-presenting them, often virtually unchanged from their original state.  Because the cowboy images were originally part of the Marlboro ads, they immediately evoke the mass-consumed fiction that was served up by the campaign. On a grander plane, the pieces function as mirrors reflecting us to us without the bother of an artistic sensibility.  Ok, I get that. As an artist, I’m intensely bothered by the wholesale appropriation. Sure, every artist borrows, but hasn’t Prince crossed over the line to outright stealing? A corporation holding the copyright on an image (as Philip Morris does with the Marlboro photos) doesn’t make it any less problematic for Prince to use it.   (For a thoughtful discourse on this topic, see James Traub: Art Rogers vs. Jeff Koons.)

Finally, as a mixed-media artist using photography, I am quite sympathetic to the ways in which Prince, along with Thomas Ruff, Jeff Wall, and Hiroshi Sugimoto have pushed the traditional definition of photography in the fine arts world.

In the end, acknowledging all of this was of no consequence, because I couldn’t get beyond the images themselves. Actually, the honest truth is that I found them boring and tired. I want art that elevates above the banal, not glorifies it.

%d bloggers like this: