"Duplication...is primarily a concept rather than a physical process." statement
"...the concept of duplication made the socio-economic systems and products of the 20th Century possible, including mass production, mass communication (information distribution) and, ultimately, mass/popular culture. Those systems rely upon the practice and concept of duplication and form the basis of modern society."

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Artist's Statement

Duplication/American Original

After completing my Topology project (Chapter 7), which examined the subject of classic western art through digital technology, I began to think about modern and contemporary art as my next subject. It seemed to be a natural progression at that time. However, I was unsure if extending the concept was feasible. Initially, a continuation of the same approach—using digital technology as a vehicle for examining contemporary art—did not seem ideal. But, after some consideration this changed. I realized that if perceiving the full spectrum of art history and culture was my goal, then the effectiveness of one single segment alone may not matter. I decided that it was more important to progress, rather than focusing on the result beforehand. Since then I began this project, Duplication/American Original, which is Chapter 9 in my ongoing Topology of Art series.

The 20th Century, of which I was a part, was a transformative period of social, cultural and technological shifts. Art was an element of the period’s transformations, and the art of the 20th Century reflects its defining characteristics of mass production, mass communication, and mass (popular) culture. These phenomena, primarily American, ultimately shaped the world’s societies, and regardless of ideological preferences, the fact is that the 20th Century was largely shaped by American culture.

In my view, contemporary American art was founded upon certain historical facts: In the early part of the 20th Century, American art was initially given a “conceptual seed” by Duchamp, and later, a “visual seed” by Mondrian. In the ground of mass production, the American art community nurtured these two seeds, and created a new kind of art. Certainly, to the rest of the world, this artwork looks distinctly “American.”

When I began this project, I tried to figure out what could be the most “American” of contemporary artwork and spontaneously, a few came to my mind. One was Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl of 1963, one of his most important works and a work that is significant in the history of American art. In the context of my project, Drowning Girl interested me particularly because of its reference to Japanese art. That is, to The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (circa 1829-1832), by ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai.

When I recognized that Lichtenstein had appropriated Hokusai’s Great Wave something clicked, and I realized that exploring American contemporary art through ukiyo-e could work. At same time, I found interesting connections among American art, European art and Japanese art in Lichtenstein’s work, and I recognized a pattern of interwoven relationships in the art media. A simplified version of this pattern could be:

Considering all of this, it was clear to me that Drowning Girl could be a springboard for studying American contemporary art.

The Great Wave is one of Hokusai’s masterpieces and it is certainly one of the best known works of Japanese art outside of Japan—the image seems to have become synonymous with Japanese art and culture. Initially, the incorporation of the Great Wave was simply interesting for the obvious reason that I am Japanese. Later I realized that it could mean much more than I had originally thought. It suggests questions of the value, status, the hierarchy of art media, commercial value, and cultural issues–all in the context of contemporary art.

It is not lost upon me that art history—the history written and acknowledged by the West—substantially ignores Japanese art. Ukiyo-e, particularly Hokusai’s Great Wave is one of the rare non-western artworks that is recognized in western society at all. Ukiyo-e is well known to have influenced 19th century art, particularly European art. However, in my perspective, one of the most important roles of ukiyo-e may not be its influence upon 19th century art, but rather, its characteristic of “duplication,” in the context of contemporary art.

Duplication, in my sense, is primarily a concept rather than a physical process. A specific application of the duplication concept may involve a physical process, such as, to copy or to reproduce. However, in my definition, duplication does not require physical identicalness. As a simple example, American tract housing developments are based upon this concept of duplication. The process begins with a plan of duplication, and each house is constructed, based upon a common plan. Each individual house is substantially similar to the others, but nevertheless each house has some physical differences as well. Despite their differences, each house was produced by utilizing the concept of duplication.

Duplication is at the heart of modern society. It is one of the most defining features of American culture in the 20th Century. In essence, the idea of duplication was propagated by the American social structure. That is, without duplication, American culture would not have progressed as it did, and would not have had such an influence on the world. In my view the concept of duplication made the socio-economic systems and products of the 20th Century possible, including mass production, mass communication (information distribution) and, ultimately, mass/popular culture. Those systems rely upon the practice and concept of duplication and form the basis of modern society.

Duplication was a driving factor in the transition from the “Old World” into the modern world.
Ultimately, this transition involved the huge shift from traditional, classic Western art to contemporary art. As it has long been recognized, the rejection of originalness/uniqueness as the primary basis of art value is a rejection of the essence of the Old World perspective of art. In my view also, that is exactly what happened in America–with Duchamp and Mondrian playing their respective roles in the transfer and transformation of Old World into the new.

It is important to remember that one of the most significant aspects of classical art is that its value is based on its exclusivity –that is, its status as a singular original. Obviously, this represents the perspective of the Old World, its ideals and its valuation of classical, mostly European, art. However, contemporary art accepts the coexistence of both value and duplication/non-originalness. In modern society, the value of contemporary art is not completely dependent upon exclusivity, and this is evinced, in part, by the expansion of art media such as photography, film, and digital imaging. Because of its duplicative qualities, Ukiyo-e can be perceived as one of the earliest contemporary forms in the history of art.
Roy Lichtenstein selected American comics as the basis of his artwork, a choice of media that developed from graphic art. In turn, graphic art was influenced by ukiyo-e in the 19th century. Therefore, by further extension, some portion of the DNA of American comics is derived from ukiyo-e.

Japanese ukiyo-e and American comics originated in different eras, in different cultures and have distinctive visual appearances, but they are connected. This connection is not solely in the past—new interrelationships between Japanese manga/anime and American comics/animation continue to develop, and they both also relate back to ukiyo-e. (In my opinion, manga and anime reflect the continuity of Japanese art, visually and culturally. In a Japanese context, they are not necessarily direct successors of ukiyo-e, but would not exist without ukiyo-e).

The present-day dialogue between the Japanese and American graphic arts shows that new “art forms,” including manga, anime, comics, and animation, have developed within the context of the history of art and visual culture. The contemporary American visual arts, including that which reflects an interaction with Japanese art, are representative of the new world and its embrace of duplication. This relationship shows a parallel development of non-European visual culture that was distinct from the earlier Western tradition.

Aside from the Great Wave, Lichtenstein also appropriated material from Matisse, Cézanne, (Asian) ink landscape paintings, and the iconic Japanese rising sun. His choices reflect the circular pattern of influence between Japanese and Western art. Considering the significant influence of ukiyo-e upon Matisse, along with the parallel concepts of Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire and Hokusai’s 36 views of Mt. Fuji, Lichtenstein’s choices are particular intriguing to me as a Japanese artist.

Another factor was Lichtenstein’s later works, specifically, a body of work that refers to Chinese and Japanese ink landscape paintings. In the context of my study this is also important because the aesthetics of classical ink landscapes are one foundation of the ukiyo-e aesthetic and it is also an art form that is found in classic Japanese art. Lichtenstein also repeatedly incorporated the rising sun icon in his work, of which it is needless to say, is a well-known Japanese cultural symbol. Lichtenstein’s repeated references to war imagery and to certain Japanese iconography and his personal history are curious. (He had some brief pilot training and he served in WWII, but ultimately, his involvement appears to have been primarily limited to ground based roles in Europe).

Considering all of Lichtenstein’s connections to ukiyo-e (including those indirectly sourced through Cézanne and Matisse), and his references to classic ink paintings, I was encouraged and I came to think that ukiyo-e could be an appropriate tool to explore American contemporary art and particularly the art of Roy Lichtenstein. For me, Lichtenstein’s work seems to reflect the crossroads of European, American, and Japanese art. These mixed influences suggest that his work is like an analogy of American society itself. Of course it is natural that, as an American artist, Lichtenstein would come to this result, and it also makes sense because he is a part of America himself.

Koya Abe
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Topology of Art Chapter 9: Duplication/American Original series images are copyright Koya Abe 2014. All rights are reserved.

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