Take It or Leave It at the Hammer

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In the early 1980s, one of the defining developments in contemporary art was appropriation, artists borrowing images or texts from various sources and re-contextualizing them in jarring ways. The intention was to jolt viewers into recognizing the manipulative and often coded power of imagery. And appropriation is what inspired Hammer curator Anne Ellegood and art historian Johanna Burton to organize the exhibition Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology on view through May 18. But they added a twist by focusing on artists who used appropriation strategies to critique aspects of the larger culture and its institutions.

In addition, they chose to highlight Feminist artists who were among the first to engage in what has come to be known as institutional critique: questioning the decisions that determine who is heralded and why in museums and galleries and other institutions.

This is a bold twist and one that results in a considerable amount of text-based work, photographic representation and video, logical choices for artists looking at the content of mass media: Sherrie Levine, Jenny Holzer, Gretchen Bender, Dara Birnbaum, Judith Barry among them but installations also abound by artists as varied as Stephen Prina, Haim Steinbach, Cady Noland and William Leavitt.


Barbara Kruger, "Untitled (Hello/Goodbye)," 2014


The show is crowded with work by 35 artists who gained attention for their activities some time after the late '70s but who continue their critical engagement through the present day. One of the most impressive pieces is Barbara Kruger's new wall text in the Hammer lobby, a perfect match of artist and site: "Untitled (Hello/Goodbye)." The word YOU fills the two facing walls at either end of the stairwell, enlarged as though seen under a magnifying glass, with a text that reads, in part, "You are here to get cultured. To get smarter, richer, younger, angrier, funnier, skinnier, hipper, hotter, wiser, weirder, cuter, and kinder." While the opposite side reads, "You are here looking through the looking glass, darkly, seeing the unseen, the invisible, the barely there. You, whoever, you are, where ever you are. Etched in memory, until you, the looker is gone. Unseen no more. You too." It is worth going to the show just to see this installation with other texts wrapping around the walls in her trademark black, white and red.

Of course, artists from the late '70s to the '90s were schooled in the preoccupations of Conceptual art, the art of ideas and critical thinking. It is worth mentioning that quite a number of these artists graduated from Cal Arts under the influences of John Baldessari and Michael Asher.

Since the curators have brought fresh attention to the role of the Feminist movement, women whose art used photographs and text to specifically challenge social standards and perceptions, there are key works by such pioneers as Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, and Mary Kelly. This is an entirely welcome development.

Appropriation is interpreted broadly here and so is the idea of institutional critique. Sue Williams’ painting borrows the Playboy cartoon images and jokey texts in the flagrant manner of Richard Prince but uses them to critique sexism in the mass media.


Renée Green, "Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile," 1992–94
Photograph, upholstered chair, wall treatment, wallpaper. Dimensions variable
Photograph courtesy of the artist and Free Agent Media; chair, collection of Eileen Harris Norton;
wallpaper courtesy of the artist, Free Agent Media, and the Fabric Workshop


Renée Green had a charming red and white toile wallpaper and upholstery fabric printed with scenes where the historical pretense upended and traditional figures of goodness and power are represented as black rather than white.


Sue Williams, "Record Profits," 2008
Oil and acrylic on canvas. 70 x 70 in. (177.8 x 177.8 cm)
Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and 303 Gallery, New York
Image Courtesy Sue Williams and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Christopher Williams, whose photographs of photographs are about to be the subject of a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, presents an innocent looking still life as tribute to the late Conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader and Christopher d’Arcangelo. An entire wall is installed with drawings by Matt Mullican exploring his lengthy interest in systems of representation.


Mike Kelley, "Craft Morphology Flow Chart," 1991
Mixed-media installation: dolls and figures, gelatin silver prints, acrylic on paper,
folding banquet tables, folding card tables. Dimensions variable.
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Gift of Lannan Foundation
Photo by Nathan Keay, © Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

In white on a green chalkboard, Nayland Blake has copied the SCUM manifesto written by Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol. It is mounted next to a selection of worn stuffed toys arranged on tables by Mike Kelley, whose oeuvre was relentlessly critical of institutionalized authority. Glenn Ligon’s brilliant take on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of naked black models is a textbook collision of appropriation and critique.

The role of TV is indisputable to this generation of artists, the first to grow up with it, the first to use it as their primary medium in the form of video.

In fact, by today's standards, appropriation as a strategy seems strangely of its own time even though many the artists in this show have continued to use it in their work. So many younger artists today work with some aspect of appropriation or institutional critique that the ideas have been perpetuated into the present though not often with the drive and focus of these originators. Take It or Leave It goes some distance in explicating the history and origins of art that came out of a tumultuous and highly politicized time.

For more information, go to Hammer.ucla.edu.

Banner image: Renée Green's "Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile," 1992-94