Transparencies (Two Hands Painting: full text by John Beeson)

Two Hands Painting
“Between 1927 and 1935,” recounts the artist duo HC, “Francis Picabia painted his series of transparencies.” In 2016, HC (Friedemann Heckel and Lukas Müller) started creating watercolors in the image of Picabia’s transparencies. They then exhibited the watercolors with the gallery Lucas Hirsch at Art Cologne in 2017. But on 27 July 2017, HC received a cease and desist letter from the Verwertungsgesellschaft Bild-Kunst (VG Bild-Kunst), a German organization “charged with the administration of the rights and claims of its members.” In this case, VG Bild-Kunst was speaking on behalf of Picabia’s heirs. “According to § 24 of the German copyright act, there exists no free use over the works of Mr. Picabia nor [sic] a mere imitation in terms of style.” Despite HC’s works being watercolors and not oil paintings as well as having a thick, white margin running around each image setting it off from the edge of the canvas, VG Bild-Kunst wrote that “no difference can be found in terms of how the paintings were made.” They demanded HC destroy the watercolors. Clearly they didn’t, because now HC will exhibit the watercolors at Sauvage in Bonn.
It apparently requires some degree of imagination and at least a superficial understanding of art of the past fifty to one hundred years to understand the watercolors as original artworks by HC. But then, HC’s watercolors aren’t ‘original’ in a conventional sense. They carry on a long history of artists who’ve undermined the uniqueness of artworks, ideas, and images. For many, this has been a way to critique avant-gardist myths of authenticity, authorship, genius, etc. In aligning themselves with that tradition, HC is speaking to the specific ways in which originality is contradicted by contemporary technology and our contemporary image culture. HC’s politics of representation mainly have to do with the circulation of images today and with their own legitimacy as artists. Given this, the conflict with VG Bild-Kunst comes as no surprise: The organization depends on conventional conceptions of originality and authenticity for its very existence.
HC responded to the letter from VG Bild-Kunst with one of their own. In it, Heckel and Müller offer a brief overview of Picabia’s work: By borrowing figures and scenes from works of classical art history, often indicating them through outlines and superimposing these citations on top of one another like a photographic double exposure, Picabia was––HC writes––dealing with “transformation, recycling, and citation.” HC’s letter explains how their works, too, bring together “various levels of content” with the goal of establishing “new relations in terms of meaning.” When they appropriate, their letter argues, they put the things they cite in “quotation marks.” The problem was that VG Bild-Kunst couldn’t perceive the quotation marks. Without quotes, it’s theft.
The letter from VG Bild-Kunst is itself a pastel canvas wet with washes of irony. In an attempt to justify their authority, they begin by invoking the rhetoric of originality: “As the only copyright collective in Germany [my italics], VG Bild-Kunst is solely responsible for protecting the copyright and distribution rights of the work of the artist Francis Picabia.” The rest of the letter directly contradicts that logic and instead ably illustrates the various themes of HC’s work: They are solely responsible for the work, but they do so in collaboration with a sister organization in France, which, through a reciprocal agreement, qualifies them to speak on behalf of the artist himself.
VG Bild-Kunst’s letter also evidences a fundamental problem within the artistic tradition of appropriation. While posing a challenge to originality, authenticity, and authorship, appropriation also faces its own challenges in terms of language. Like so many writers before them, VG Bild-Kunst is guilty of slippery terminology: Here, they call HC’s works “copies.” There, Bilder––a German word itself possessing two meanings in English; it’s both ‘paintings’ and ‘images’. And isn’t that exactly part of HC’s point? Their watercolors don’t actually reproduce Picabia’s paintings; they reproduce images of Picabia’s paintings that HC found online. The images are sometimes oddly cropped or pixelated. To this extent, it’s possible for anyone to download their own Picabia image.
VG Bild-Kunst must have come face-to-face with this slippery reality in conducting their own research online to find images of HC’s works. The letter from VG Bild-Kunst cites an Artsy link and a Wall Street International Magazine page, and the letter reproduces images of five of the works by Picabia that they say HC ‘copied’. Two of the five images even include ‘quotation marks’ similar to what HC included in their works (not the same ones) but VG Bild-Kunst couldn’t perceive: The top left image in VG Bild-Kunst’s five-image collage has a printers’ rainbow color bar along the edge of it. The bottom right image clearly reproduces the black frame that the original Picabia painting now hangs inside. The significance of these ‘quotation marks’ may have slipped the author’s mind while composing the letter and accompanying collage, but he or she then had a second chance to acknowledge it, because the five-image constellation is reproduced once again on page five of the very same letter.
And there’s a reason it’s reiterated: bureaucracy. The images on page two are part of the written warning, while the same images on page five are part of the written declaration demanding HC cease and desist. VG Bild-Kunst’s letter is itself an insightful study in difference and repetition. If you look past their rhetoric, you can see they’ve fully internalized an idea of noncompetitive reproduction and the subtleties of context. Who knows, maybe bureaucracy’s compulsive repetitions and inability to reveal self-awareness were some of the reasons artists felt motivated to subvert originality and authority in the first place. Take VG Bild-Kunst’s detailing of three timelines, for example: They don’t resemble one another; they’re literally the same. So on page three, in bold, black letters centered on a line by themselves, there’s the date by which HC and Lucas Hirsch were supposed to sign the declaration and send it back to VG Bild-Kunst: 10.08.2017. And the date by which point they would have to provide information about on anyone who had bought the works––also page three: 10.08.2017. And the date by which point they would have to destroy the works––page four: 10.08.2017. VG Bild-Kunst seems to understand the logic of HC’s repetitions just fine.
I’ll end with an image: Apparently, Heckel and Müller painted each painting by projecting an image of the Picabia work onto a piece of canvas hung on the wall. It was important that the two of them would each work on each canvas in such a way that their own authorship would slip and fade. They wanted to reach the point at which it wasn’t clear who’d painted what. They’d even paint at the same time. With their arms and hands and two brushes casting shadows in the projector light on the canvas, they’d work to fill out the color shapes and draw the lines that Picabia had done in oil without a template, but based on those classical references. The technology allowing reference and reproduction has changed, and the number of hands painting has increased, but the layering and the dissolve remain the same.
Copyright © John Beeson / Monika Leyer Pritzkow and Henning Boecker