Tales of artists who borrow from other artists are an old story. Peter Paul Rubens modeled the fleshy bodies for which he’s known after the marble statuary of ancient Rome. Francis Bacon took from Velázquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X for his own rendition. Picasso lifted Velasquez’ “Las Menines” to make 44 “studies” - down to the same title. And Van Gogh tapped 21 paintings by Jean Francois Millet.
None of this was a big deal. Artists of the past inspired one another and the upshot was original all around.
But that was then and this is now and cadging imagery seems a huge deal to purists, me included. The best known appropriator today may be Denis de Gloire of Belgium, who has been simulating Jackson Pollock for 10 years and freely admits it. He even uses Pollock’s well-known line, “I am Nature. I am Jackson Pollock.”
As notable are those artists who replicate their own work. Van Gogh did this a lot. You can see examples in “Van Gogh Repetitions,” a new show at the Phillips Collection in Washington, featuring six paintings and three drawings of the postman Joseph Roulin.
Explaining why he did this in letters to his brother, Van Gogh wrote that it was his way of concentrating out of the sun and wind in order to improve his work. You can see this effort in the postman’s eyebrows and expression. Clearly, tagging such a show “repetitions” is a misnomer. Van Gogh’s duplications are more like variations on a theme.
In contrast, there's other self-replicated art that has nothing to do with self-improvement. I’m thinking of Jeff Koons’ “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” - a series of three life-size statues, one of which sold at Sotheby's in New York for $5.6 million. I think it’s fair to say that this kind of self-replicating is less about making original art and more about making money. Izhar Patkin also comes to mind. His life-size aluminum statue of Don Quixote on horseback sold for $100,000. There are five more exactly like it. The duplications are said to challenge the meaning of originality. Most critics accept this. I’m not one of them.