The Role of the Copy

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Alexandros of Antioch, Venus de Milo, 150-125 BCE

We’re pleased to present a series of excerpts from Jane Ursula Harris’  forthcoming book, After: The Role of the Copy in Modern and Contemporary Art. Harris’ survey assembles key examples of the copy from the onset of modernism to the present, and explores the copy’s relationship to the western canon. The following is the first of a two part exploration on the history and influence of the Venus de Milo. 

See Part I, and On Jasper Johns.

On Venus de Milo (Part II)

The appropriation of the Venus de Milo continued to find currency in the work of the Nouveaux Réalistes (1960-1970), a group of artists often considered to be a French variation of Pop Art. Nouveau Réalisme (new realism) sought to bring life and art closer together through the use of mass culture and media, and as their second manifesto, “40° Above Dada”, made clear, their interest in the vernacular was influenced by Marcel Duchamp. One of the group’s more famous adherents was Jean Tinguely, who like Dali, functioned as a bridge between the late Surrealists of the 1950s and the burgeoning Pop scene of the 1960s.

Members saw their approach as a collective effort to deconstruct notions of the real through a poetics of the everyday that emphasized banal, non-art materials —found objects, junk and debris, etc.—in collage and assemblage formats. The group’s founder,  art critic, Pierre Restany, called the approach new “urban folklore”, a description exemplified by the artist Arman (born Armand Pierre Fernandez), who in 1958 began a series of collections of common objects.

Presented according to type—rubber stamps, gas masks, hair combs, cameras, and the refuse of friends—these vast “Accumulations” of like-objects were grouped together, artifact-style, in boxes, assemblages, and plexiglass sheets:  “In his Accumulations he piled up identical salvaged objects, modifying their meaning by repetition and giving [these constructions ironic titles], as with the accumulation of gas masks, [which he called] Home Sweet Home (1960; Paris, Pompidou).”  One of the more famous examples was his 1960 installation, Le Plein (Full Up). Conceived in response to fellow Nouveau Réaliste, Yves Klein’s Le Vide (The Void), an exhibition of nothing, it consisted of a gallery stuffed floor to ceiling with trash from the streets. The installation enshrined a critique of consumerism, waste, and mass production. 

Klein quickly distanced himself from the movement as he became more interested in phenomenological pursuits involving the body and performance: “a phenomenology without ideas, or rather without any of the systems of official conventions.” His legendary Anthropométries series exemplified these pursuits, and literal entangled the female nude in the modernist dialectic between innovation and tradition. 

Utilizing the ultramarine pigment he trademarked as International Klein Blue (IKB), Klein turned naked women into human brushes, directing them to press their pigmented bodies against paper and canvas. He believed these performance-cum-paintings held “the most concentrated expression of vital energy imaginable,” and seemed oblivious to the sexist implications of their power-dynamics. Instead he described his role as generative and officiating: “I stand there, present at the ceremony, immaculate, calm, relaxed, perfectly aware of what is going on and ready to welcome the work of art that is coming into existence in the tangible world.”  

Lesser known are the painted plaster casts of classical statuary that Klein made contemporaneously, which included the eponymous Nike of Samothrace, 1962, and Venus Bleue (Blue Venus), 1962. The latter, headless, armless, and undraped, merged references to the Venus de Milo with her original source of inspiration, Praxiletes’ Aphrodite of Cnidus. Her truncated form, analogous to the abstracted torso and thigh imprints of his Anthropométries, seems to float, as Elizabeth Prettejohn noted, “released from the gravity of ancient marble.”  

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Yves Klein, Venus Bleue (Blue Venus), 1962

In the wake of Klein’s untimely death at age 34, Arman, his close friend, began applying his “Accumulations” theory to the classical icon. His many and various configurations of the Venus de Milo rivaled Dali’s obsession, and were made over many years. 

During the late 1960s, they consisted of headless torsos of the Venus de Milo made of transparent polyester, within which he “installed” a variety of like-objects: mannequin hands with red painted nails (Cold Petting, 1967); dollar bills (Venu$Wife 1970); men’s shaving brushes (Bluebeard’s Wife, 1969); etc. At the time, Arman lived part of every year in New York at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, and had befriended Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. The influence of Pop, conceptual art, and assemblage is evident in these works, accordingly, but as the artist also acknowledged, they were also indebted to “the general ideas in the works of Magritte regarding a displacement of the significance of the object.”

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Arman, Cold Petting, 1967; Venu$’ Wife, 1967; Bluebeard’s Wife, 1969

Bronze versions based on the full statue (cast in various scales) featured everyday objects such as spoons and coat hooks that protruded from the Venus like aberrant limbs, recalling as well the arrows of Saint Sebastian, and his martyrdom.  Other subjects included Joan of Arc, Zeus, and the Statue of Liberty. 

The artist’s “transsculptures” were even more disfiguring, slicing bronze Venuses into vertical segments between which guitars, cellos, elevator gears, etc., were interspersed. Fragments de Venus, 1989, for example, depicts the goddess’s head sliced open in a systematic dissection evocative of Cubism, if more grotesque. Similar to his sculptural works made from burned musical instruments and period furniture, these sliced bronzes employed destruction as the ultimate creative act out of which a new reality for the objects could emerge. This strategy was part of a zeitgeist shared not only by his fellow artists in the movement, but those of Viennese Actionism, Art Corporel, and the extreme, body-based performances of artists like Marina Abramović and Chris Burden.

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Arman, Fragments of Venus, 1989.

Given the general second-class status of women artists in the early 1960s, the appropriation of the Venus de Milo by Niki de Saint Phalle—the only female member of the Nouveaux Réalistes—remains particularly prescient.  Saint Phalle, self-taught, also sought the cathartic impulse of destruction, and is best known for her “shooting”  paintings and sculptures in which the artist fired a rifle upon containers of liquid paint.

“I was shooting at myself—I was shooting my own violence and the violence of the times” Saint Phalle said of these works. These performances typically took place in public, and in her 1962 performance at the Maidman Playhouse in New York City—as part of Kenneth Koch’s collaborative play, The Construction of Boston— she took aim at  a white, life-size plaster replica of the Venus de Milo.

Dressed in the uniform of a Napoleonic army officer, Saint Phalle exploded small bags of red and black paint, which splattered blood-like across the stage. Transforming the ubiquitous symbol off feminine beauty into a corpselike effigy, her proto-feminist gesture marked the first time a female artist took on the legacy of the Venus de Milo in art.

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Niki Saint Phalle, Venus de Milo, 1962

George Maciunas made Venus de Milo Barbecue Apron, 1973, a serigraph on vinyl, in the wake of the seminal 1972 feminist project, Womanhouse, organized by artists’ Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro. The latter was a series of installations and performances by women artists that elevated craft, the realm of the domestic, and personal experience to the status of art. Maciunas was a founding member of Fluxus, another Dada-inspired group, that emphasized the role of of chance and the everyday in art as a means to straddle and erase the line between high and low. In reproducing the popular Venus via a commercial art process Maciunas echoed the mechanical principles at work in Warhol’s factory enterprise as well, critiquing the commodification of art from a D.I.Y. perspective.

The use of art historically charged subjects in art became a distinct trend in the 1980s, as specific masterworks, and the canon in general, were routinely questioned. Feminism, identity politics, and queer theory, in particular, re-evaluated the canonical standards underlying notions of great art, and revealed the agendas they served. As Helen Molesworth summarized it, “much of the art of the 1980s was involved in a shared project of expanding our understanding of identity and subjectivity, exploring the possibility of politics in a mediated public sphere, and offering increasingly nuanced and complicated versions of history and memory.”  

Within this postmodern context, historicism and stylistic pluralism were employed to destabilize modernist notions of originality and authorship, and reject the anxiety of influence. Like the Romans whose copies of classical Greek architecture and statuary entailed not just faithful imitation of the lost originals, but the selective employment of its various expressive capacities, and the pastiche of past styles, much work made in the eighties spoke to the cultural concerns of the moment. 

In the art world, those concerns were often manifest in contradictory impulses reflecting the polarized politics of the Reagan era, and the Culture Wars they fermented. The Neo-Expressionism of Julian Schnabel, for example, sought to return authenticity to painting while benefitting from the market-driven interests of Wall Street. It formed in reaction to 1970s Minimalism and Conceptualism, as well as the media-driven strategies of the Pictures Generation, whose artists—Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince, among them—denounced Romantic claims for art through appropriations of advertising and art history alike.

Intriguingly, three artists who deployed the Venus de Milo in their art of this period, Joel-Peter Witkin, Andres Serrano, and Jim Dine, conflate these contrary positions, marrying historical quotation to personal vision. Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph, Madame X, San Francisco, 1981, for example, renders the Hellenistic goddess as an intersex, hermaphroditic being. Witkin, whose bizarre tableaux vivants have little precedence in photography outside the outlier, Pierre Molinier, began to gain public notice in the 1980s for his morbid use of “delicately posed corpses and bravely naked mutants, floridly arranged in beaten-silvertone, antique nightmare-scapes.” Made with NEA-funded grants, these disturbing images featured all manner of freaks, libertines, and outcasts, and reenact art historical, literary, and mythic subjects through a perversely erotic lens. Transgender models were used in a number of them as yet another cipher of deviance.

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Joel-Peter Witkin, Madame X, 1981.

Witkin masks the model’s eyes, and presents her armless in imitation of the Venus de Milo. A low-slung drapery has been added to enhance the contrast between the exposed penis and the full breasts, exaggerating the fantastic “otherness” of the body. Both the black-and-white format and faux-aging, which involved painting, scratching, and printing it through tissue paper to get the blurry effect, challenge the veracity of the photographic image, and recall the one-of-kind process of painting.  

One is reminded of the perverse, fantasy realms of Hieronymus Bosch and Goya, as well as Symbolists like Jean Deville, and Felicien Rops. As with much of Witkin’s work, the mise-en-scene is dark and abject, conjuring an underground owing as much to the sensational crime scenes documented by WeeGee as the dungeons of Sade. Under the spell of Witkin’s fetishizing gaze, the blinded Venus de Milo, made of flesh and blood, stands stoic before us, her intersex body confronting the viewer with a new ideal of beauty.

Andres Serrano’s vivid cibachrome photographs of the 1980s used religious as well as canonical imagery to undermine photography’s claims of realism, and explored the artist’s complex personal relationship to Catholicism in the era of AIDS. His infamous photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, Piss Christ, 1987, became a lightning rod in the Culture Wars, decried as blasphemous by conservative critics who held up classical notions of art—as inspirational, uplifting, edifying, and moralist—as benchmarks for “worthy” art. Work that engaged the politicized body was declared base and inferior by comparison. When Serrano submitted the Venus de Milo to the same sublime golden bath (Female Bust, 1988), he surreptitiously cultivated a similarly pious, classical serenity designed to underscore how aesthetics-as-propaganda continue to peddle cultural ideals.

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Andres Serrano, Female Bust, 1988.

For Jim Dine, the Venus de Milo was a chaste, universal archetype, a “figure of enchantment” whose form inspired more variations in his work than Dali or Arman.  Dine’s career was forged in the fertile and pivotal period between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art under the influence of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Claus Oldenburg.  His early paintings incorporated everyday found objects that were often personally symbolic, and imbued with an expressive materiality that referenced the body.

As with the Surrealists, the Venus de Milo entered his oeuvre through a cheap plaster replica bought in the 1970s at a supply store in Paris. He too would alter it to suit his needs: “After removing the figurine’s head and reworking its surface by scratching and scraping into it, he ordered an enlargement in clay; he further manipulated this resized copy and then cast it in bronze to produce Venus in Black and Gray (1983)—just the first in a long series of sculptures of widely varying materials, sizes, and groupings dedicated to the theme.”  

In contrast to the smooth curves of the original, Dine carved expressive, cubistic surfaces from wood that are deliberately rough-hewn, sometimes looking burned, and when cast in bronze, painted them in dense impasto-esque layers of color, or alternately, with the green patina of aged metal. Many are rendered in monumental scale, and like Three Red Spanish Venuses, 1997, and Primary Ladies, 2008, are presented in triad formats, redolent of a Greek chorus, the Judgement of Paris, and the Three Graces.

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Jim Dine, Three Red Spanish Venuses, 1997

Dine’s impulse to enshrine the classical icon in an amber of timeless beauty, like Witkin’s desire to pervert it, echoes the polarized views of the Symbolists.

It also reveals the influence of art historian Kenneth Clark’s book, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, 1956, which distinguished nakedness from nudity, and set aesthetic interest apart from the profane: “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body reformed.”  As such, the role of the female nude in art was safely ensconced in lofty allegorical aims, whereas nakedness, deprived of such an association, became synonymous with the base and pornographic.

Laura Mulvey’s seminal article, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1975, redressed this dubious distinction with its concept of the male gaze, which exposed Clark’s pretense of a disinterested or “aesthetic” contemplation of the female nude as a veil for prurient interests. The essay highlighted the voyeuristic mechanisms by which male privilege operated in the cinematic realm, and underscored the dialectic of shame and provocation—once invoked by the venus pudica (modest venus)—that circumscribed the female body. “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance,” she wrote, “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”

Edouard Manet’s infamous painting, Olympia, 1865, depicting a contemporary prostitute in the guise of a traditional reclining nude, who stares out at the viewer rather than look away, was vilified for revealing the same mechanism in fine art. The pathology implied by her sexual agency, however, was never questioned. Like the ancient Greek poet Hesiod’s conception of Pandora, the first mortal woman created by Zeus, as “kalon kakon” or  “a beautiful-evil thing” (Works and Days), and the Judeo-Christian origin myth of Adam and Eve that followed, female agency—sexual or intellectual—is always dangerous in the western canon. Consider Pliny’s account around 70 BCE of the power of Praxiletes’ Knidian Venus, in which “A certain individual, it is said, became enamoured of this statue, and, concealing himself in the temple during the night, gratified his lustful passion upon it, traces of which are to be seen in a stain left upon the marble.”

Whereas Mulvey sought to make “political use” of psychoanalytic theory in her critique of the male gaze, other feminists of the 1970s countered it with a female gaze, archeological evidence of goddess-worshipping cultures, and female-centric sexuality. From spirals to vulvas, symbols drawn from prehistoric and pre-patriarchal societies informed the ritual and body-based work of artists like Judy Chicago, Mary Beth Edelson, and Ana Mendieta. Rather than reconfigure the Venus de Milo within this context, artists turned largely to paleolithic and nonwestern sources, inspired by fertility figures, Mother Goddess archetypes, and their own bodies—the revisionist possibilities of the classical icon, it seems, were too limited. Its absence within an entire corpus of Goddess imagery is a compelling indictment of its patriarchal origins. 

In the 1990s, works made “after” the Venus de Milo reflected the currency of identity politics, and revisionist critiques of the western canon. Mary Duffy, for example, an Irish performance artist born without arms, transformed herself into the statue to confront the other-ing she experienced as a disabled woman: I “hold up a mirror,” she explains, “to all those people who had stripped me bare previously… with naked stares.”  

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Mary Duffy, 1995.

Duffy, who begins the performance in darkness, recites all the offensive comments and questions she been subjected to, purging herself as she claims wholeness despite her missing limbs.  The contrast between the aesthetic and the particular, the abject and the idealized, creates a spectacular tension: “This is not the medicalized body stripped naked for diagnosis before the clinical gaze, nor is this the tawdry sideshow or dime museum hawked by barkers and gawked by starers. Rather, this is a radical tableau vivant, a living in-your-face Venus ready to provocatively challenge dominant notions about how we look—in both senses of the phrase.”  

To look and be looked at, to be both subject and object, is the predicament of all female artists using their body, and for many an opportunity to abrade the male gaze. To this effect, Judith Shea’s Midlife Venus, 1991, presents a life-scale bronze cast with a restored left arm. A large bolt of white silk cast from its hand unfurls across the floor. There is a visible pattern on the latter for a young girl’s dress, but it remains uncut, no longer relevant or necessary. Similarly, Jimmie Durham’s “A Stone Bra for the Venus de Milo,” 1998, which juxtaposes a photograph of the famous sculpture with a large plaster bra, asks us to consider the futility of the classical ideal. “The curves of carved marble do not look like human bodies’ curves except in crass form”, he said. “If you saw a person the color of that white marble, you would be sure it was a supernatural person or some sort of robot.”

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Jimmie Durham, A Stone Bra for the Venus de Milo, 1998.

Yayoi Kusama’s Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets, 1998, though it exists outside social critique, expresses nonetheless a dissolution of subject and object that seems at least in part about gender.  A continuation of the artist’s ongoing and obsessive desire to lose herself in process and pattern, it consists of a fiberglass statue of the Venus de Milo, and a matching acrylic canvas, both covered with her signature nets. It is one of thirteen works from a related series produced that year, which were painted in color pairings optically designed to disorient—blue and white, pink and green, green and black, etc. The series harkens back to the artist’s New York period of the 1960s in which nude performers, including herself, were painted in vibrating polka dots. Originally exhibited in a circle of ten, the life-sized work envelops the paragon of beauty in a field of psychedelic pattern, which—as the title suggests—obliterates its form. The uncanny illusion can be seen as both a conquest of, and a submission to, the forces of history, and the lifelong hallucinations Kusama has suffered due to mental illness.  

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Yayoi Kusama, Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity, 1998

Jillian Mayer’s video, H.I.L.M.D.A., 2011, part of a triptych, Everyone’s Been Lost at Sea, features the artist nude above the waist, painted white, and wearing a white sarong-like swath of fabric.  The action quickly turns bloody as she tugs and rips at her left arm, pulling it off in a macabre display before turning to the right arm, which she chews at until it too falls off. Her self-mutilation enacts a scene both triumphant and monstrous, the transformation of fleshy self into ideal archetype achieved through violent, slapstick sacrifice. She is the masochistic offering Man Ray and his fellow surrealists fantasized about, but as Amada Cruz has noted, her evident pride in “throwing back at us the antiseptic, white marble version made flesh by her and all too human…implicates us in the construction of this gruesome paradigm.”  

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Jillian Mayer, H.I.L.M.D.A. (video still), 2011

Nonetheless, the persistent use of the Venus de Milo by male artists as a standard of beauty to dissemble and satirize persistently sidesteps Mayer’s indictment—and all the issues of gender and race it subtends. Hans- Peter Feldmann’s 5 foot, 5 inch Venus, 2012, for example, exaggerates the garish colors of the  original with kitschy aplomb. Matte paint “restores” to it bubblegum pink skin, bright yellow drapery, and a grass green base to—as one gallery press release conveys—“debunk their exalted statures, placing them firmly in the sphere of mass-marketed, consumerist marginalia”.  

Far more compelling in its allegorical complexity, if equally parodic, is the Chinese sculptor Zhu Cheng’s replica, Venus de Milo, 2010, constructed from Panda bear feces mixed with plaster and vegetable-based glue. The two-foot bust, made with the assistance of nine school children in the central Chinese city of Chengdu, site of a large panda breeding center, plays with the role of pandas as “China’s national treasure.”

Similar to Feldman’s critique of mass-marketing, Cheng is in part satirizing the commodification of cultural symbols by referencing the tourist tchotchkes made from panda dung—including paper products, fans, puppets and brush pots—that are sold in the gift shop at Chengdu’s Research Centre for Giant Panda Breeding. The conflation of waste with the preciousness of art may be a nod to Piero Manzini’s infamous work, Artist’s Shit, 1958, and Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, 2000-2007 though the artist has never acknowledged this. Rather, it is the copious amounts of excrement produced by pandas each year—over 200 tons—and the resolve to turn that into something valuable that serves as the work’s raison d’être. “Venus is a beautiful figure,” Cheng explained to the LA Times, “but by creating the statue out of excrement, we set up an internal conflict between beauty and waste that makes for a magical work of art.”  

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Zhu Cheng, Venus de Milo, 2010.

The decision to present the yellowish bust on a pedestal under glass hyperbolizes this conflict, and suggests irony as well. By co-opting display systems designed for rare objects, it playfully mocks the art market’s ability to capitalize on spectacle and novelty, and seems to anticipate its own successful assimilation as such (it quickly sold to a Swiss collector for $45,000). More significantly, Cheng’s work attests to the ubiquity of the Venus de Milo as a symbol or short-hand for aesthetic value, which in turn underscores the impact of western imperialism. From the beginning, the story of the Venus de Milo was one of collusion between classical scholarship and imperialism. If not for French imperialist interests, which maintained its classical status despite knowledge of its Hellenistic origins, it would not even exist as a canonical work: Ancient Greek texts never mention the statue. 

It is only in the travelogue writings of the French ambassador, Comte de Marcellus, that the Venus de Milo is born, emerging as a cultural construct designed to serve political interests:  “Marcellus transforms the ‘banal hostility’ of power negotiations into an exotic tale of rescuing the vulnerable beauty Venus from the barbarian hordes (ignorant and superstitious Greeks and fanatical Muslim Turks alike) and transporting her to the safety and civilization of Paris, where she would allow the French to compete with their English foes, who had smugly led the race for ownership and representation of antiquity with the Elgin Marbles.”

No doubt future artists—western and nonwestern—will continue to redefine the legacy of the Venus de Milo, whether through postcolonial and feminist critiques, explorations of its stylistic and ideological hybridity, or allusions to its origins in appropriation. Will that change her iconic fate as paragon of beauty, and eternal muse to all? Unlikely. As Matthew Gumpert declared, “All of us are carriers; members of a cult. She is everywhere.”

Jane U. Harris is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to publications from Art in America, Bookforum, and The Paris Review, to The Believer, the Village Voice, and Time Out New York. She has also contributed essays to various catalogues including Participant Inc.’s M Lamar (forthcoming—2016); Hatje Cantz’s Examples to Follow: Expeditions in Aesthetics and Sustainability (2010); Phaidon’s Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (2005), Universe-Rizzoli’s Curve: The Female Nude Now (2004), and Twin Palms’ Anthony Goicolea (2003). Ms. Harris is a member of the art history faculty at School of Visual Arts.

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