BY Jeppe Ugelvig in Opinion | 08 DEC 22

Stories We Missed: Adam Pendleton and the Issue of Originality in the Digital Age

Jeppe Ugelvig reflects the growing technology of ‘moodboarding’ and how art and fashion are inextricably linked through appropriation

BY Jeppe Ugelvig in Opinion | 08 DEC 22

Back in October, the art world experienced its own quarrel about intellectual property infringement when the prolific American artist Adam Pendleton accused British fashion house Alexander McQueen of copying his art for the design of a clothing line. What an article in The New York Times dubbed ‘McQueen Graffiti’ – printed patterns of close-up, spraypainted scribbles in black and white, applied to dresses, handbags and a particular skirt worn by Vogue editor Anna Wintour – looked remarkably like the artist’s canvases of densely layered graffiti. Pendleton, whose public visibility is underscored by his representation by blue-chip galleries Pace, David Kordansky and Max Hetzler, sent a letter through his lawyers to the fashion house. McQueen promptly promised an investigation, assuring that the house ‘takes claims of intellectual property infringement very seriously’, according to The New York Times. The response, however, showed little remorse: it was quickly concluded that these designs were, in fact, ‘created independently’, and no acknowledgment of the artist was due.

Clothes from the 'McQueen Graffiti' line. Screenshot via Alexander McQueen

This blip recalls the trite push-and-pull of originality and copying that has preoccupied the digitized fashion world for some time now, leading its central arena, the Instagram account Diet Prada, to amass a whopping 3.3 million followers since 2014. On such forums, the potential socio-political gravity of copyright infringement (relating to the exploitation of minority and independent creatives) is weighed against the opaque and anonymized mechanics on which corporate fashion is mass-produced – namely, that corporate fashion refuses to publicly discuss such mechanics at all. If not entirely ignored, official responses to these kinds of accusations most often variously echo a particularly memorable retort by Kylie Jenner (paraphrasing her older sister Kim Kardashian) when fellow influencer Amanda Ensing accused the make-up mogul and reality-television star of directly lifting an auspicious pose from her digital grid in 2019: ‘You’re not on my mood board, but I did get my inspo off Pinterest.’

Adam Pendleton, ‘Adam Pendleton: Toy Soldier’, exhibition view, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Maag Areal, Zurich 2022. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, New York/Vienna/Zurich

Jenner’s snappy statement is helpful in addressing the most arbitrary and banal ways in which art and fashion are connected through appropriation in the era of aggregator consumer capitalism. ‘Moodboarding’ is not only a pervasive logic of mass digital consumption, but a central methodology in contemporary fashion design and styling, famously drilled into its budding workers in educational institutions such as London’s Central Saint Martins and Royal College of Art where many of the world’s top fashion houses, including McQueen, source their talent. The violence of the moodboard (if we would go so far) entails treating everything as a potential visual reference to be sourced from a visual network and amalgamated into a history-less yet hyper-specific ‘mood’. Jenner’s statement denies theft but acknowledges the reliance on the most advanced moodboard technology of all – Pinterest – where images, thanks to user uploads of JPEGs, live in various stages of pixelation and miscropping, entirely without an original source. As such, moodboarding constitutes an altogether different conceptual field of copying than standard theft, artistic appropriation and counterfeit. The point is not whether Pendleton’s paintings were on the McQueen moodboard but rather that Pendleton’s paintings already exist in a viral visual ecology of aggregate imagery that can and will be used to form products that claim originality: products such as a skirt.  With the arrival of digital AI image aggregate technologies such as Dall-E and Google’s brand new ‘moodboard search’, we seem to be crossing yet another threshold. The fact that the artist frequently posts close-ups of his paintings to his 30,000 followers on Instagram is the most evident proof of his wilful participation in this ecology of ‘moods’, which is increasingly a prerequisite for all artists in successfully competing in a market-driven, digital art world.

Accessory from the 'McQueen Graffiti' line. Screenshot via Alexander McQueen
Accessory bag from the 'McQueen Graffiti' line. Screenshot via Alexander McQueen

That Pendleton is exceptionally invested in visual aggregation as a critical strategy makes this particular case even more interesting. The artist’s work gained traction in 2009 when he started synthesizing ideas of Blackness and institutional critique by Xeroxing hand-copied passages of texts from a variety of artists and thinkers, including Hugo Ball, Stokely Carmichael, Sun Ra and Gertrude Stein. ‘The new work has become an alternative means of historicizing and organizing information,’ he explained in an interview for Art in America in 2009; the outcome, his lauded book Black Dada Reader (2017), was about ‘radical juxtapositions’ of voices in a way that disrupted established history and hierarchy between image and language. Conjuring an avant-garde tradition of montage and appropriation, the artist even went so far as to say: ‘I like the idea of authorship as a chance operation. Visually, systemic processes often result in some of the most rewarding outcomes. If you look at what I’ve actually done – how I’ve constructed the work – that is where the most information exists.’ Pendleton has since refined this technique of critical ‘organizing’ (what I would call aggregating) information in his signature printed canvases where spraypainted words appear off-kilter, overlapping or cut off, particularly as a result of perpetual copying (photographing, layering, re-printing). Unrecognizability, in other words, is exactly the point: it is the literal motif of the artist’s high-priced canvases, even if they are underwritten by a critical methodology of montage and appropriation. That Pendleton’s ultimate outcome looks much like actual graffiti propels his work into yet another visual tradition, one that famously has been contingent on wilful and strategic obscuring of authorship – not for reasons of critical appropriation, though, but due to issues of legality.

Adam Pendleton, Black Dada Reader, 2017, book cover. Courtesy: the artist, König Books, London and KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

The irony that it was Pendleton’s canvases which might have ended up being ‘moodboarded’ by a corporate fashion brand is not lost on the artist himself, it would seem. In a statement to The New York Times, he observed: ‘I believe visual cultural exchange is vital, necessary, happens all the time and should happen. But this is about how we assign and acknowledge value. It is basically someone saying: “You’re not worthy. What you do is not worthy of an acknowledgment.”’ Pendleton is evidently resistant when art is eclipsed by fashion at its own game because the critical condition of production is effaced or lost somewhere in the post-industrial supply chain. What is considered valuable and where is exactly the tender point, of course: both art and fashion make luxury products, but only one is afforded the distinction of criticality.

‘Adam Pendleton vs Alexander McQueen and the Issue of Originality in the Digital Age' is part of a series of short essays on the events and trends we missed in our coverage of art and culture in 2022. Read more – and last year’s stories – here

Main image: Adam Pendleton, Untitled (WE ARE NOT), 2022, silkscreen ink on canvas, 3.05 × 5.94 m. Courtesy: the artist 

Jeppe Ugelvig is a curator and critic based in New York. His first book, Fashion Work, was published by Damiani in May 2020.