On Playing with Repetition and the Compulsion toward Originality – Esther Ruelfs

On Playing with Repetition and the Compulsion toward Originality. The Painting of Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro

For several years now, Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro has been calling his works on canvas “Identical Paintings.” In 1992 1991 he showed them in two parallel exhibitions in Madrid, under the title “Two Identical Exhibitions.” The same thing at the same time in two different places: this would seem to be a paradox.

Any attempt at comprehending Plágaro’s “identical” paintings of recent years by applying an art historical examination oriented on a chronological appraisal or developmental approach would be in vain, however. He has been giving all his paintings this title since 1989. One might almost say that he has been repeating himself for years, if this did not already sound disparaging. In other words: Plágaro eludes the compulsion toward originality by which every artist is otherwise constrained. As a matter of fact, his work consummates a double repetition: for one thing the artist follows the concept of repetition by executing what are actually disparate works series but calling them all “Identical Paintings.” Here, every new series of works obeys the rules of the basic scheme, according to which all works in a series should resemble one another. For another thing, every painting in every series repeats the composition of every other painting in that series. All parts within a single series are thus likewise “Identical Paintings.” Sometimes there are four such pictures, other times as many as fifty. But at least two are always necessary to form a works group.

The viewer’s first impression is one of irritation and bewilderment. Standing before Plágaro’s paintings, we begin almost inevitably to start comparing the individual works in a series. This involuntary search for differences between the ostensibly “identical” pictures stems from the fact that Plágaro combines the serial method with a painting approach and a motif that we otherwise associate with the artist’s individual signature. A series of industrially fabricated metal boxes made of polished steel, like the ones Donald Judd exhibited, would surely give us less pause, because there we would expect nothing less than exact replication. But Plágaro’s paintings mystify us for the very reason that they are unmistakably individual works of art repeated at will. His paintings consist of non-representational compositions: they show abstract, non-geometric forms that split up the canvas in a rhythmic pattern. The paths of the brushstrokes are sometimes aligned with the vertical sides of the picture and sometimes with the horizontal ones; they sometimes run parallel and at other times overlap. In some sections of the canvas, the acrylic paint is applied to the canvas in such a thick coat that it shines as if glazed; on other parts of the same picture the paint layer is almost as transparent as watercolor and the canvas shows through. In many cases, layers of different colors are applied on top of each other like a palimpsest, with various painting tools leaving behind their traces of brush hair, foam or metal.

Upon close scrutiny, one does ultimately manage to find slight variations in brushstroke and color density between the “identical” paintings. These deviations reveal the craftsmanship involved in their production and in the painting process itself, themes that come to the fore precisely due to the constant repetition of the pictorial object. The non-representational forms do not depict anything; they are thus not abstractions of something that went before, but rather they deal with nothing but painting itself.

In some pictures it is possible to discern a penciled grid showing through in lighter-colored areas, which evokes free associations with something constructed and repeatable. No matter how much each painting with its insistent brushstrokes seems to have the nature of an individual, one-of-a-kind creation, which in our traditional understanding of the métier indicates the originality of the artist, the grid still shines through to remind us of the principle of repeatability.

Plágaro calls his pictures “Identical Paintings,”, but can two handmade paintings ever be identical? The first artist to ask this question, and to paint the same picture twice, was Robert Rauschenberg in the experiment that gave rise to Factum I and Factum II, 1957.[1] (Figs. 1 and 2) The two canvases show two pictures that are identical in formal terms. Rauschenberg has made a collage out of various photographic reproductions cut out of newspapers, a landscape photo and a series of calendar pages, and combines these with gestural brushstrokes that leave paint dripping down the canvas. Rauschenberg commented: “I was interested in finding out if a difference in emotional content would emerge between the two pictures. After I had painted both of them, I couldn’t tell the difference.“ Many art historians interpret his dry conclusion as a criticism of the myth of painting as a moment of spontaneous expressiveness, known as Abstract Expressionism, which many artists at that time were beginning to feel was mannerist and mere stylized showmanship.[2] In the process, Rauschenberg sarcastically calls into question the “modernist attitude according to which the originality of the act of creation per definitionem precludes the repetition of the same thing.”[3] Nevertheless, the viewer who looks from one picture to another immediately notices the differences in the gestural brushstrokes in both Rauschenberg and Plágaro. Does this mean that two identical pictures are not identical after all, even though Rauschenberg and Plágaro claim the opposite?

Grid and repetition

If Plágaro had really wanted to create identical pictures in this sense – ones that would be fully indistinguishable for the viewer – he would not have chosen an individual painterly gesture like the brushstroke. The faintly visible pencil grid with which Plágaro covers his canvases and which serves him as replication aid gives us a clue. While the visible brushstroke insists on individuality, the grid points to the mechanization of a signature style. This becomes evident if we look at the serial art of the 1960s, which constitutes an intensive examination of the theme of repetition. While Robert Rauschenberg drew on the individual, expressive brushstroke in Factum I und II, albeit ironically, in examples of the serial art of the 1960s the individual handwriting of the artist is frequently taken to be adverse to the intention of seriality. Therefore, John Coplans, who curated the pioneering exhibition “Serial Imagery” at the Pasadena Art Museum in the late 1960s, while acknowledging the key position of a painter like Ad Reinhardt, discerns a deficit in the way he applies paint. In the early phase of his layering of paint on the canvas, Reinhardt does not seem to him to be “neutral” enough.[4] In the 1960s, the mechanization of artistic production, the grid and also industrial fabrication take on central significance. In Frank Stella’s “Black Series” paintings, executed between 1958 and 1960 and consisting of bands of black color starting in the middle of the canvas and running parallel to the edge, what is apparently a mechanically produced even color density is emphasized.[5] The bands of paint are applied in such a way that no brushstrokes are visible. This principle of repetition is tied to an extinguishing of the individual style and, as in Rauschenberg, conveys a reaction against the purported “uniqueness” of the American Abstract Expressionist painters. In the works of Carl Andres as well, the creative process becomes a “mechanical/machine process”[6] when he arranges industrially produced, identical parts as the components of a work, for example metal base plates arranged to form walk-through sculptures. Thus, in Minimalism, “conceptual production is serialized by developing or setting up a system just once and then repeating it ad infinitem.”[7]

Plágaro leaves this 1960s notion of seriality behind. He does not exclude gestural elements by drawing on industrially produced parts and eradicating every trace of the artist’s handwriting; instead, he underlines precisely what is personal about the painterly brushstroke.

The shifting roles of artist and viewer

This doesn’t mean, however, that with the emphasis on the painting process and on individual hallmarks Plágaro is reviving the traditional concept of the artist-as-genius whose every brushstroke is an intuitive expression of his innermost being on the way toward creating a unique masterpiece. In fact, the principle of repetition as a way of attacking this claim to uniqueness looks back on a long tradition. Plágaro instead insists at the same time on the process of painterly execution of each and every picture. This distinguishes him from a whole series of contemporaries who are much closer to him in time – but not content – than the proponents of Serial Art. The topic of repetition intrigued many 1980s artists as well. The American representatives of Appropriation Art, for example, drew strongly on theoretical concepts and worked to subvert or give up completely the concept of originality, referring among other things to the thesis put forth by Roland Barthes in “Death of the Author.” These artists “appropriate” the works of other artists and exhibit them under their own name, with the meaning to be found in the very gesture of replication. For these conceptual works, the details of execution are usually not particularly significant. In the above-described work by Rauschenberg as well, it sufficed for the artist to execute the experiment just once. In Plágaro, however, the repetition of the painting act becomes the very engine behind his artistic endeavors.

In his concept, Plágaro transfers part of the creative process to the viewer. This happens in two respects: I refer here specifically to the “Identical Paintings” series that was on view at Galerie m Bochum in 2007. The fifty individual pictures have an unusual rod-like format. The length of the lower edge, seven centimeters, almost corresponds to the depth of the wooden frame onto which the canvas is stretched, five centimeters. Through their narrow, high format in combination with the extreme depth of their profile, as well as by virtue of the way they are presented, these pictures take on the character of objects in space. The fifty pictures are arranged on the wall eight centimeters apart. Lined up in a series, the positive elements, picture planes and unpainted side edges visually interwoven with the intermediate wall spaces, the impression arises of a single wall object. This object changes depending on where the viewer is standing. His perception of the work oscillates, the negative wall surface in concert with the unpainted edges changing the look of the picture as the viewer moves in front of it, triggering a kind of optical irritation. This deception of his perceptual faculties involves the viewer in the work.

But that’s not all: the second intervention in the classic role distribution between artist and viewer calls for a concrete act. Plágaro delegates part of his creative authority to the collector, gallery owner or curator. The picture objects in a series are variable in number and the collector or curator is free to choose the desired elements and decide how to arrange them on the wall. There is no need to show the complete series; the paintings can be installed in any number, as long as there is at least a pair. The orientation, i.e. whether they are to be hung vertically of horizontally, and where ‘up’ and ‘down’ are, is likewise up to whoever installs the work. In keeping with the serial character of the works, they do however come with one rule that must be observed: in hanging, the distance between works is defined by their depth. With this involvement of the other – the collector, the gallery owner or the curator – Plágaro takes aim at hierarchical thinking in the roles taken by artist and viewer and makes the viewer co-producer. Because of this process of interaction, there is no longer one, self-contained work. Depending on the specific constellation of elements, the work is continually created anew. A vital aspect of Plágaro’s oeuvre unfolds in this exchange. The principle of Identical Paintings provides a structure in which the individual artwork and, with it, the overarching idea behind these works pass over into a social process. The artist does not definitively conclude his works, but instead hands them over as open artworks to those who install them. The author is not dead – he is merely collaborating with his audience.

[1] The works were originally placed next to one another at Leo Castelli, New York, in 1958. Today they belong to LACMA, Los Angeles (Facktum I, 1957) and MoMA, New York (Facktum II, 1957).

[2] Barbara Rose, 1973, quoted in Viola Vahrson, Die Radikalität der Wiederholung. Interferenzen und Paradoxien im Werk Sturtevants, Munich 2006, p. 42.

[3] Ibid., p. 43.

[4] John Coplans, “Serial Imagery,” Serial Imagery, exh.cat. Pasadena Art Museum, Alhambra 1968, pp. 7-20, p. 12f.

[5] Katharina Sykora, Das Phänomen des Seriellen in der Kunst. Aspekte einer künstlerischen Methode von Monet bis zur amerikanischen Pop Art, Würzburg 1983, p. 122..

[6] Elke Bippus, Serielle Verfahren. Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art und Postminimalism, Berlin 2003, p. 67.

[7] Ibid., p. 67.

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