Radical Repetition examines recurring imagery in art since the 1960s, which has led to unexpected stylistic transformations and reinvigorated content. Although the exhibition concentrates on prints, it also includes some extraordinary works in painting (James Lavadour) and sculpture (Marie Watt) that expand this theme.
This exhibition highlights both representational and abstract art, underscoring the innovative potential of repeating imagery for a wide range of artists and approaches to art making. People often associate the word "repetition" with boredom. But in the hands of master artists, repetition leads to unexpected pleasures — compelling and sometimes complex imagery, personal and social insights, and even humor.
John Baldessari's print, titled I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971), documents the artist's handwritten sentence repeated ad infinitum. Although the work never fails to elicit a chuckle, it emerged from a serious questioning of the value of painting in the 1960s. After burning his own paintings, Baldessari took a more conceptual turn signaled by this print. In 1971, the artist invited students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design to write the phrase "I will not make any more boring art" over and over again on the walls of the gallery. This admonition on paper references the site-specific installation and represents his first foray into print making.
By contrast, Josef Albers approached the subject of repetition with reverence, influencing a generation of artists when he assumed the chairmanship of the Yale University Art Department. Each print in his series, Homage to the Square (1967) represents an experiment in the optical and psychological effects of color.
Later artists, including Sol Lewitt, Dorothea Rockburne, and Donald Judd, innovatively reconfigured geometric forms and redefined its importance for contemporary art. In his series, Distorted Cubes (E), (2001), Lewitt examines variations in perspective, line, and color. Carving each shape from a separate linocut block, the artist then fits the different sizes together inside a rectangular frame, much like in a jigsaw puzzle. Before printing, the artist rearranged each unit to generate a varied and systematically organized composition. His alternations in color and scale allow for seemingly endless possibilities, energizing the repetitive structure of the work.
Repeating forms exist in the natural world and have inspired artists from all cultures and periods. Recurring imagery provides continuity and balance to a composition, which in turn may lead viewers to experience harmony and a meditative mood. Within this context, a soft-edged approach to geometry defines the mandala-like circles in the work of Tara Donovan and Kenneth Noland. Contemplation and an otherworldly aura also emerge from the atmospheric and transcendental qualities or color and light in a series of prints by Anish Kapoor and Larry Bell.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein utilized repetition to interpret popular culture. In his American Indian Theme Series (1980), Lichtenstein processes bits and pieces of a generic Native American culture — masks, arrows, canoe, bear claws, and geometric patterns found on baskets, textiles and ceramics — in an improvisational style inspired by Cubism and comic books. Through the repetition of motifs in flat, primary colors, the artist represents native culture as symbol.
Radical Repetition also highlights artists who explore the same motif in different media. Charles Arnoldi, whose stick-like brushstrokes translate into rainbow-colored sculpture and Willie Cole's prints and sculptures, created with an actual iron, a metaphor for the African American experience, expand the iconology of repetition to reflect the realities of modern life.
The way recurring imagery has transformed traditional genres such as portraiture and narrative will be explored through the art of Chuck Close, Mickalene Thomas, Hung Liu, Romare Bearden, and Red Grooms. Either through multiples or repeating units within a single work, their stylistic renditions contribute to the ongoing dialogue with art history.
From Joseph Albers's pioneering Homage to the Square to Andy Warhol's serial prints of Cowboys and Indians, Radical Repetition presents experiments in form and subject that can yield both dynamic and cerebral results.
—Barbara Matilsky, Curator of Art