Artistic theft

A dear friend from childhood asked me a question that I’m often asked: why make copies of other artist’s paintings?

The best analogies are musical. Musicians learn their technical skills through practicing other musician’s compositions. This practice also develops their taste, and introduces them to a range of possibilities. And they compose new things by recreating old things (remixes), and display their unique style and skill by playing their own version of an old favorite (cover albums). The sampling that happens in rap, for example, is both a musical/artistic choice, and one that positions the rapper in relation to other artists.  The rapper is both displaying his knowledge of other musicians, and expressing admiration or homage. Sampling is a way to say, “listen to this, but hear it in the context of my music; look how I can make this old thing new to you.” It’s also an invitation to see the artist in relation to the other artists he or she is referencing.

Artists in earlier periods of history (the Renaissance, especially), copied and stole – or let’s say “sampled” – for similar reasons. Rubens was among the most prolific copyists and samplers. At a time before photography, copying was one of the most obvious ways to collect inspirational images; a very labor-intensive version of Pinterest, or to extend the musical analogy, the itunes favorites list. By consulting his extensive collection of images, Rubens was able to remix other artist’s poses and color schemes to create new and exciting compositions. At the time, this was not only accepted practice, but the norm. While I’m often asked whether my copies are forgeries, it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to accuse Rubens of forgery when he copied Titian’s Adam and Eve, just as it wouldn’t occur to us to accuse Rufus Wainwright of producing a forgery of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

Edouard Manet continued the tradition of covering or sampling other artists, but in a different age. Rather than reproduce the Renaissance attire of Velasquez’s compositions, Manet introduced contemporary clothing and figures, creating fresh images from old ideas, and in the process presenting himself as a modern Velasquez.

I copy in this (somewhat antique) spirit. Copying gives me a familiarity with a painting that I have not been able to achieve by simply looking at an image. As I make a copy of a Titian painting, I see things about the way it’s constructed that I’ve never seen before, and those paintings that I copy are fixed in my memory; I’ve learned them by heart. I also find that copying allows me to see something about my own style that’s more or less invisible to me in my original compositions. By seeing how I differ stylistically or technically from the artist I’m copying, I can see my own tendencies more clearly.

As I develop as an artist, I’m less interested in making straight copies, and more interested in sampling other artists, or covering them in a new way. Right now I’m working on three self-portraits, each of which is a cover of other artist’s self-portraits. It feels very bold to me. “Look at me,” they say. “Look at me and think of these other great artists.” While it can be interpreted as braggadocio, they’re meant equally as an homage to the artists of the past, and what they’ve given me.

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