Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) infamous statement “Good business is the best art” lies at the heart of Pop Life. Renowned as one of the precursors of American Pop Art, he first shocked the art world in the 1960s with his mechanically reproduced paintings of consumer products, logos and celebrities. His later practice, however – marked by Valerie Solanas’ 1968 assassination attempt on him - centered just as much on public appearances, social climbing, shopping and cruising as it did on making art objects. Blatantly taking the marketplace and publicity as his primary mediums, Warhol’s art from the 1970s until his death in 1987, revolved around a deliberate manipulation of his own self-image. In so doing, he thrust art out beyond the isolated realm of galleries and museums, and made it acceptable for artists to participate fully in all the commerce and spectacle of modern life.
New York-based artist Jeff Koons has mastered the art of publicity, gaining notoriety not only for his work, which brazenly embraces all things kitch and banal, but for the way he has been able to exploit the networks in which it circulates. Infamous for his multi-part piece Made in Heaven (1990-91) that chronicled - in the form of a billboard, graphic photographs and a unrealized major motion picture - his marriage to, and ritual consummation with, Italian porn star and politician La Cicciolina, Koons makes no distinction between the content of his work and the media spectacle it inspires. Promoting his image the way any other type of celebrity would, Koons has actively sought to create a commodity out of himself, where, if “business is the best art”, then the best art is Jeff Koons.
In September 2008, on what would be the eve of the global stock market crash, British artist Damien Hirst orchestrated the sale of 223 lots of his own artwork through Sotheby’s Auction House. Hirst, one of the leaders of the Young British Artists movement, is infamous for his unabashed desire to profit financially from his art, stating forthrightly that “art is about life and the art world is about money.” Titling his auction project Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, Hirst bypassed the traditional artist/dealer channels for this event, considering the total transaction to be a work of art in its own right. The glitzy sale, which included is well-know formaldehyde sculptures, butterfly, spot and spin paintings, and medicine cabinets, grossed £111,576,800 making it - at the time - the highest single-artist auction sale of all time.
Keith Haring was always intent on bringing his art to a mass audience. In the early 1980s, he began tagging the unsold ad marquees in the New York City subways with thick, scrawling chalk drawings that varied between curving abstract patterns and rounded anthropomorphic forms like crawling babies and barking dogs. His work gained incredible popularity and in 1986, Haring moved his underground fame into the mainstream, opening the Pop Shop on Lafayette Street to sell his own merchandise – everything from skateboards to Swatch watches to t-shirts bearing his signature style. His populist approach, intended to bring his work to collectors and street kids alike, saw opponents label him as a sell-out; nevertheless, the Keith Haring brand became wildly fashionable and allowed him to control the way in which his work was distributed to a wider audience.
Takashi Murakami has been called one of the most commercially potent artists of our day. His extra-studio activities that range from designing textiles for luxury brand Louis Vuitton, to running his own international corporation and product line Kaikai Kiki, to curating group exhibitions of rising artists have certainly been instrumental in establishing the Japanese artist within the world of contemporary art. However, Murakami’s business and, moreover, his artistic ventures - sculptures, paintings and videos that exemplify his theory of “Superflat” - should be read as part of artist’s affirmatively critical position towards Western commercial culture. Adopting the Otaku aesthetic, and maintaining a radically egalitarian attitude towards all forms of visual expression, Murakami aims to break down conventional East/ West hierarchies and establish a new paradigm of contemporary Japanese art.
New York-based performance artist Andrea Fraser is best known for her involvement in the Institutional Critique movement, a loosely tied group of artists whose work centers on deconstructing the very establishments – museums, galleries and the market – that support and promote contemporary art. Her work, whether it be “passing” as an overly verbose, irreverent tour guide or mimicking other art-world stars such as Martin Kippenberger, has always been about breaking down and shedding light on the hierarchies and power structures that exist in the world of art. In 2003, she pushed this concept to another level, seeking out a New York City art collector to pay her $20,000 in exchange for sex. The video-taped work called Untitled, exaggerated the cult of celebrity that surrounds contemporary artists, as well as their salability as products in and of themselves. The piece ignited incredible debate when it was first exhibited, and proved to be too transgressive, even for many of Fraser’s peers.
British-born Cosey Fanni Tutti (b. 1951) began her career in the performance art/band COUM Transmissions. Fully intent on pushing all boundaries of social acceptability, their live shows regularly involved explicitly violent, sexual and illegal actions. In 1973, Tutti began a series of solo works, in which she fully inhabited the role of a pornographic model. Wanting to become “one of the girls,” she appeared nude in more than 40 magazines over the next seven years. This was a radical inversion of performance and body art. Hers was not an act meant to criticize the pornographic industry; rather, she endeavored to, and was ultimately successful, in making a career out of her efforts. Her spreads were not revealed as art until they were included in the 1976 exhibition Prostitution at ICA, London to the shock and outrage of civic officials, audience members and even the exhibition organizers, who eventually removed them from public view.
Reena Spaulings is not a real person. She is however, known as an artist, as well as the owner of Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York City. Born in 2004 out of collective minds of the Bernadette Corporation as the main character in their co-authored novel of the same name, Spaulings has become a stand-in or a cipher for the practices of the many different artists who work “for” the Corporation. The collective was formally incorporated in 1994 with the intent to imitate all workings of a functioning business, first as organizers of social events in New York City, then more ambitious activities such as fashion design and publishing. For them, the corporation is "the perfect alibi for not having to fix an identity." In essence, Spaulings is both their brand, and their merchandise - a manufactured good that allows the members to function in complete anonymity, all-the-while challenging the traditional autonomy and identity of the artists.
American born Elaine Sturtevant is known for having turned the very idea of originality inside out. Opting to go simply by Sturtevant, her very name suggests that of a brand that discredits the ideals of authorship. Credited with marking the beginning of the “Simulationist” movement, she painstakingly creates reproductions of contemporary paintings, sculptures and installations made by iconic male artists such as Warhol and Haring. She was subsequently rediscovered in the 1980’s context wherein her work destabilized ideals of authenticity and originality and in turn asserted her own priority in the canon dominated by her celebrated subjects. Sturtevant’s work is set apart from that of appropriation art in that she takes the time to master a given medium and inhabit the process in order to reproduce the piece by hand. Indistinguishable from the originals, Sturtevant’s work destabilizes the notion of originality and challenges standard artistic codes.
American born sculptor and painter, Ashley Bickerton (b. 1959) launched his artistic career in 1986 as a member of the ‘Neo-Geo’ collective called “Fantastic Four” which included Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, and Meyer Vaisman. The group’s work was characterized by a rejection of the neo-expressionist trends, and for Bickerton, more particularly, the appropriation of images and labels from consumer culture. By trading the traditional space of the canvas for industrial manufacturing and corporate branding, Bickerton represented himself as an amalgam of business logos on wall-mounted black containers. Included in the jumble of distinctive labels were his own logos, culture lux and suzie, and his personal motto ‘The best in sensory and intellectual experiences’. Bickerton’s unprecedented form of self- portraiture directly engaged the immediacy of consumer culture and publicity in a literal exchange.
Italian born artist Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960) is an artist who has made a name for himself by courting controversy and staging elaborate pranks. He has cocooned an art dealer to a wall with adhesive duct-tape and constructed a replica of the Hollywood sign above a rubbish dump in Venice for the exclusive viewing of art world figures. He is however most famously known for his satirical sculpture, La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), 1999 which depicts an effigy of the Pope struck down by a meteorite. Cattelan actively confronts themes of death, history and religion with the brevity and wit of a cartoonist. One of his signature images is that of a dead horse, sometimes hanging from the ceiling or with the head disappearing into the wall. He does not however commit to any one of the numerous metaphors and allusions embodied by the figure of a horse. What primarily underpins Cattelan’s work is his repeated efforts to expose the vanity and superficiality of the art world which in return adores him.
Polish artist Piotr Uklanski (b. 1968) sensationalizes identity politics in order to exploit and challenge mainstream cultural assumptions. Self mythologizing is central to his practice as is exemplified in works like Summer Love, (which the artist describes as the first Polish Western) where he deliberately amplifies nationalist and religious cliché associated with his cultural identity in an effort to craft and manipulate a public persona. His piece, The Nazis, has intentionally provoked strong reactions wherever it has been exhibited – vandalized in Warsaw and adamantly reproached in New York. This photographic archive of actors donning Nazi regalia utilizes spectacle as a mode of seduction that invites the viewer to consider the ambiguous morality at play when the entertainment industry exploits historical subject matter. By depicting images that connote horror in combination with Hollywood glamour, Uklanski provocatively explores nuances of the media and our collective appetite for sensational entertainment.
British artist Gavin Turk (b. 1967) brings narcissism to new and nuanced levels. One of the YBAs (Young British Artists), he launched his career with a retrospective entitled Cave, which consisted of only a blue, English heritage-style plaque engraved with the dates of his educational residence and his name outside an empty studio. His work often includes a likeness of himself disguised as that of a more famous person, thereby creating and solidifying a myth of himself as the sacred author and creator. In Pop, 1993 for example, a life-size wax statue of Turk as Sid Vicious alludes not only to the punk legend of Sid and Nancy, but also to the image of Warhol’s famous Elvis portrait blurring the lines of public and constructed identity.
British artist Tracey Emin (b. 1963) and fellow artist Sarah Lucas famously opened The Shop in 1993, in East London wherein they made and sold low brow ephemeral artwork such as t-shirts and mugs with various slogans. The unrefined, hand-made aesthetic of the Shop was in direct opposition to the sensationalized exhibitions being staged by fellow artists at the time. Emin maintained her raw, unrefined aesthetic, and gained notoriety in 1997 with her piece entitled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, a tent appliquéd with the aforementioned names. Despite the suggestion of the title however, this piece is not solely sexual, there is a disarming intimacy to Emin’s confessional work. Similarly frank and deeply personal, Hotel International is a hand-stitched patchwork quilt with felt letters that spell out the names of the artist’s loved ones alongside tender messages. Though consistently both abrasive and openly vulnerable, Emin’s personal narrative acts as an ongoing visual autobiography.
Rob Pruitt and Jack Early attained fame and infamy with their 1992 exhibition entitled Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue. The show consisted of a series of collages mounted on obelisk-shaped canvases featuring store bought posters and images of prominent African-American pop cultural celebrities indiscriminately grouped together in various categories. The canvases were painted with colors associated with the Black Liberation movement or covered in Kente-like fabric and hung on metallic gold wallpaper in clusters without any suggestion of cultural individuality. Intended as a critique of media depictions of popular personalities, the exhibition was read otherwise by critics who lambasted the show and denounced it as racist.
The work of Richard Prince (b. 1949) is often steeped in controversy. Beginning in 1977, his series Untitled (Cowboy) consisted of re-photographs constructed from cigarette advertisements that sparked major discussion regarding both authorship and originality. Taking it one step further in1983, his work Spiritual America featured a re-photograph of Garry Gross’s photo of a ten year old, nude Brooke Shields presented in an elaborate faux-gilt frame and exhibited in an empty storefront in New York’s -then rundown -Lower East Side. The work’s title, Spiritual America refers to a 1923 photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of a gelded workhorse thereby further challenging degrees of originality and authorship. In 2005, Prince hired a photographer to re-shoot the now iconic actress in a similar pose with an updated backdrop and exhibited it once again in the very same location- now a renovated and plush storefront. With Spiritual America IV Prince and Sheilds capitalized on the rare opportunity to reclaim the image from the unrelenting mechanism mainstream marketing.
American artist Peter Nagy's (b. 1959) artistic activities extended beyond those of art production to the role of art dealer. With Canadian artist Alan Belcher, he co-owned and operated the New York commercial gallery Nature Morte through which they were able to infiltrate the banal facets of the marketplace by deliberately emulating its systems. The period catchphrase “subversive complicity” applies fittingly to Nagy’s creative work as well where he made black and white Xerox-photocopy composites on canvas. With the use of this common reproduction tool, Nagy points to the predictability of representation and in turn highlights the identity of that which is represented. By combining multiple elements into a single, flattened image for example, Nagy debases the implicit codes of various icons of modern society and disrupts secular readings. Such reductions and unfamiliar contexts enable new interpretations.
In the early 1980’s, American artist Meyer Vaisman (b. 1960) was a member of the superstar artist group named ‘Fab Four’ which included Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley and Jeff Koons. Vaisman was celebrated as chief proprietor of the famous International with Monument Gallery, yet is primarily known for his exploration and artistic critique of art world establishments and systems. In works like Filler, the artist attempts to distance himself and the viewer from the production of art while alluding to the hierarchical presentation of art world ephemera. Conceptually, Vaisman peels apart and exposes the connotations of value and uniqueness that is expected of artwork.
British artist Sarah Lucas (b. 1962) was part of the generation of YBAs (Young British Artists) in the 1990’s. She began her career using furniture as substitutes for the human body and is known for her appropriation of a broad range of everyday materials often used in the construction of self portraits. Lucas utilizes humor and visual puns to explore issues of gender, sexuality and the body. In 1993, she and fellow YBA Tracey Emin famously opened The Shop in East London, wherein they made and sold low brow ephemeral artwork such as t-shirts and mugs with various slogans. The raw, hand-made aesthetic of The Shop was in direct opposition to the sensationalized exhibitions being staged by fellow YBAs at the time.
German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953 -1997) is known for his prolific creative output of work, in a wide range of styles and media. Famous for his controversial, boisterous and jocular public persona, Kippenberger challenged normative social standards both in his life and his work. He made sculptures of discarded materials, and images that speak to, and even quote the codes of social order in an attempt to disassemble utopian ideals. In 2008, he posthumously, created controversy when his sculpture of a crucified toad titled, Zuerst die Fusse (First the Feet), was allegedly denounced by Pope Benedict as blasphemous.