I think of almost everything in terms of collage.
My poems are made up of bits and pieces of words I’ve taken from newspaper articles.
My drawings are simply collages of points, lines, triangles, circles, and squares. I take Saul Steinberg’s faces, Otto Soglow’s hands, John Porcellino’s lines, Lynda Barry’s handwriting…
I myself am simply a collage of my ancestor’s DNA, mixed with the hundreds of thousands of words and images and ideas that my brain has absorbed.
These are all quotes and doodles I abandoned while working on a presentation for next week’s PechaKucha night here in Austin.
Most of these notes were grabbed from my tumblr tags on “collage“, “influence“, and “originality” or “plagiarism.” I grabbed one or two from Jonathan Lethem’s incredible essay, “The Ecstacy of Influence.”
Next time you’re stuck, think of your work as a collage. Steal two or more ideas from your favorite artists and start juxtaposing them. Voila.
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.”
“If you think a man draws the type of hands that you want to draw, steal ‘em. Take those hands.”
“You can’t steal a gift. Bird [Charlie Parker] gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.”
A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
— T.S. Eliot
“In the grand collage that is Dada, past and future are equally usable.”
— Andrei Codrescu
“Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The “newness” in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components.”
“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”
“The choices a writer makes within a tradition – preferring Milton to Moliere, caring for Barth over Barthelme – constitute some of the most personal information we can have about him.”
“If an artist may say nothing except what he has invented by his own sole efforts, it stands to reason he will be poor in ideas. If he could take what he wants wherever he could find it, as Euripides and Dante and Michelangelo and Shakespeare and Bach were free, his larder would always be full, and his cookery might be worth tasting.
— R G Collingwood
“Every idea is a juxtaposition. That’s it. A juxtaposition of existing concepts.”
— Steven Grant
“I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist.”
— Brian Eno
“Really the truth is just a plain picture. A plain picture of, let’s say, a tramp vomiting in the sewere. You know, and next door to the picture Mr. Rockefeller or Mr. C. W. Jones on the subway going to work. You know, any kind of picture. Just make a collage of pictures.”
“Sometimes I think everything I draw is just a combination of all of the millions and millions of drawings I’ve seen.”
“If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”
— Wilson Mizner
“If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!”
— Gary Panter
My hobbie (one of them anyway)…is using a lot of scotch tape… My hobbie is to pick out different things during what I read and piece them together and make a little story of my own.”
“The beauty of the collage technique is that you’re using sounds that have never met and were never supposed to meet. You introduce them to each other, at first they’re a bit shy, clumsy, staring at their shoes. But you can sense there’s something there. So you cut and paste a little bit and by the end of the song you can spot them in the corner, holding hands.”
— Jens Lekman
“To spark my creativity…I often re-use pieces from my other works…basically collaging my own stuff…”
“All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?”
—William S. Burroughs
“I love art, I love being thrilled by art, and I love folding these thrills into my own practice. I love stealing….I absolutely believe my best work lies ahead of me, and lies in the work I’m absolutely on fire to steal from.”
“I was…attacked for being a pasticheur, chided for composing “simple” music, blamed for deserting “modernism,” accused of renouncing my “true Russian heritage.” People who had never heard of, or cared about, the originals cried “sacrilege”: “The classics are ours. Leave the classics alone.” To them all my answer was and is the same: You “respect,” but I love.”
“Some one may say of me, that I have here only made a nosegay of other men’s flowers, having furnished nothing of my own but the thread to tie them.”
“I’m being given a little bit of credit now as being a viable collage artist, which some people think is ridiculous. Like this guy who said, “Wait a minute: You had an art show where you just cut out pictures and then glued them back together?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what it is.” There’s more to it than that. It’s about having the eye for detail, moving things from one environment and reassembling them into new environments….Everyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well.”
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
— T.S. Eliot
“It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
— Jean-Luc Godard
Add your favorites and anything I missed in the comments below.
I tried to keep as many “poems about making poems” out of the book as possible, and so this one got cut. Done from an article about another Midwesterner using collage to make his art, Greg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk).
In the late 1950s, Brion Gysin, originator of the cut-up technique, and his buddy William Burroughs who ran with it, had this idea: writing is fifty years behind painting. And so, they looked to collage.
Having worked at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, and then in New York for two art-world figures at a magazine covering the arts, Barthelme naturally looked to what was going on in painting for a way to get back to the spirit of Joyce and Beckett without merely copying Joyce and Beckett. The method he struck on was collage.
Barthelme, at a symposium on fiction in 1975, said:
The principle of collage is one of the central principles of art in this century and it seems also to me to be one of the central principles of literature.
Which is echoed by Jonathan Lethem in his remarkable plagiarism, “The Ecstacy of Influence“: “collage…might be called the art form of the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first.” (Lethem writes that he heard filmmaker Craig Baldwin say that, in defense of sampling, in the trailer for his documentary, Copyright Criminals.)
But When it comes to the use of collage, there’s a big difference between visual artists and writers. Menand:
The visual artist can deal with almost every kind of material, even sound, but the writer deals with only one kind of material: sentences. The solution, therefore, [is] to treat sentences as though they were found objects.
And just as Caleb Whitefoord, the first writer to make poetry from the newspaper, noted almost 250 years ago, Menand writes that we are already bombarded with juxtapositions of nonsense every day in the daily newspaper:
The illogic, the apparent absurdity, of a Rauschenberg collage or a Barthelme story makes people impatient, because it seems to violate ordinary habits of perception and understanding. But we experience the arbitrary juxtaposition of radically disparate materials every day, when we look at the front page of a newspaper.
Our goal then, with blackout poems, is to treat words, phrases, and sentences as “found objects” and to capture Barthelme’s “faculty of ‘not-knowing'” and to have “faith that, by an intuition operating below the threshold of consciousness…the juxtaposition of unlike to unlike [can] trigger a new kind of awareness…”
I just finished reading Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
In the spring of 1957, when he was eighty-one years old, C. G. Jung undertook the telling of his life story. At regular intervals he had conversations with his colleague and friend, Aniela Jaffe, and collaborated with her in the preparation of the text based on these talks. On occasion, he was moved to write entire chapters of the book in his own hand, and he continued to work on the final stages of the manuscript until shortly before his death on June 6, 1961.
A good bit of this book blew my mind, but especially this part:
I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors.
Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The “newness” in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components.
I answer for them the questions that their lives once left behind. I care out rough answers as best I can. I have even drawn them on the walls.
The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me.
We are a collage—a remix—of our ancestors. We have spiritual DNA, as well as physical, and our lot in life is to answer the questions posed by the people who came before us…
All memory has to be reimagined. For we have in our memories micro-films that can only be read if they are lighted by the bright light of the imagination.
— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics Of Space
Something weird happens when we try to recreate cultural artifacts from memory: the result has less to do with the artifact, and more to do with us.
A year or two ago I got a Bonnie Raitt song stuck in my head. “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” I had the day off and I was bored, so I decided to sit down with my guitar and try to record the song from memory. I didn’t want to bother learning the lyrics or listen to the original. I just wanted to roll tape and see what happened.
On playback, it was the same song, but it wasn’t. The chords were “off,” and I’m pretty sure I left out a bridge. It’s like the filter of my memory took out the musical complexity and stripped it down to its bones. Left only a “cartoon” of the song…
[Dirty Projectors man man Dave] Longstreth went to help his parents move out of the house he grew up in. Among his youthful artifacts was the cassette case from the Black Flag album Damaged. This brought back all sorts of memories— Black Flag was one of Longstreth’s first loves— but the tape itself was missing. So, like the character in the Jorge Luis Borges story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ who sets out to recreate Don Quixote line by line from memory, Longstreth went to the nearest Guitar Center, purchased the cheapest cassette four-track he could find, and embarked on recasting Damaged from memory, without re-listening to a single note or reading any lyrics. The ten songs that make up Rise Above (titled after one of the tracks on Damaged) stem from these four-track demos, recorded at his parents’ house on an acoustic guitar.
“I had to completely inhabit my early adolescence, the time when I used to listen to Damaged,” Longstreth has said. “[I was] trying to access the memory crystals stored from when I loved it back in middle school.”
The beauty of Rise Above is that Longstreth used his memory of the original Black Flag songs as a starting point to create “new” songs. “I wanted to see if I could make this album…not as an album of covers or an homage per se, but as an original creative act.” It was his imagination that made them great.
It frees us to have constraints. I’m starting to believe that the idea that the artist can should sit down and create something “new” is a paralyzing delusion. We can only create a collage of our influences, our memories—filtered through our imagination.
By re-interpreting these artifacts, we come up with something that is uniquely our own.
When drawing characters quickly, from memory, one can be quite inaccurate, almost as if one is inventing new characters, and these “mistakes” can serve as the basis for new character designs. This lets the students see their own styles more clearly. A page full of these doodles can help the student discern certain qualities that are consistent within their set of drawings. These qualities are a clue as to what makes one’s particular “visual handwriting” different or unique, and these should be embraced by the student.
The idea that by drawing from memory “copies” of other work, we can somehow sharpen our own sense of what makes us unique! I love it.
“Sting. Sting would be another person who’s a hero. The music he’s created over the years, I don’t really listen to it, but the fact that he’s making it, I respect that.— Owen Wilson as Hansel the male model, in the movie Zoolander
The Hansel quote pretty much sums up how I feel about the painter John Currin: don’t have all that much interest in the actual work that John Currin is doing, but I really, really enjoyed the article about him in the January 28 New Yorker (unfortunately, not available online, except for a gallery of his recent work). Currin basically paints collaged scenes of images from internet porn sites in the style of the Old Masters (see the work-in-progress, “The Women Of Franklin Street,” above).
“I’d like to get the sex thing over with, but I realized I’m not done with it….You should never will a change in your work—you have to work an idea to death. I often find that the best things happen when you’re near the end.”
His technique is really fascinating:
The basic design of the new painting, his largest to date, was sketched out first in a grisaille undercoat of white, raw umber, and a binding agent of sun-thickened linseed oil, and Currin has just begun to build up the flesh tones. The faces of the women have very little detail as yet. To give me an idea of where he’s going, he brings over a printout of a photograph of the painting, which he has altered with Photoshop, a method he finds more convenient than drawing. Hanging just to the right of the new painting is a small oil-on-canvas study, fairly rough but with more detail and in color. “Actually, I posed for the body,” he says, indicating the left-hand figure in the painting. He often uses his own hands, arms, or face (viewed in a mirror) for the initial image, in preference to hiring live models. “When I get people to pose for me, it almost never works,” he explains. (This does not apply to his wife, Rachel, whose wide-set hazel eyes, pearly skin, and heart-shaped face he has used again and again in his paintings.)
Actually, the collage, Photoshop, the self-modelling…it reminded me a lot of Alison Bechdel’s technique for Fun Home.
I could really relate to what he had to say about meeting his wife:
“Meeting Rachel changed everything….I came to the conclusion that there is no misery in art. All art is about saying yes, and all art is about its own making. I just became overwhelmingly happy.”
And I dug some of the things he had to say about art-making:
“It doesn’t look good now…but a big part of painting is getting used to things not looking good while you work on them….Some [marks] are accidental and some are intentional. It’s great when the accidental becomes indistinguishable from the intentional. That’s when it begins to seem like a living thing.”
Worth tracking down.
The year was 1997. I was 13 years old. Green Day was the coolest band in the world. Two years previous, they’d just put out their album, Insomniac, with an insane-looking cover. I checked out the liner notes, and found out it was done by a collage artist named Winston Smith:
I had a great art teacher, Robyn Helsel, who assigned us a project where we had to pick a contemporary artist and write to them. Most of the class picked their artists out of a catalog. I picked Winston. I used my dad’s e-mail account and sent probably half a dozen e-mails to a gallery curator I found online, asking for Winston’s home address. The curator finally replied: “Stop bugging me, kid. Here’s his address.” I sent Winston a two-page letter using a ransom note font in Microsoft Word, telling him about me and my band, asking him about his technique, his influences…I even had the audacity to include a sketch of an idea I had for a piece he might want to attempt. (I have the letter somewhere…but unfortunately, not the sketch!) A few months went by. As I remember it, nobody in the class heard back from their artist.
Then one day a huge, stuffed manila envelope came in the mail. I ran to the kitchen table, tore it open, and dumped out its contents. There was a 14-page hand-written note from Winston and probably 50 pages of color photocopies of his work and press clippings. I couldn’t believe it. An artist—a real artist!—had written me back!
To me, it was the equivalent of Rilke writing back to the young poet. He told me about his life and his methods. He urged me to always question authority, stay away from drugs, and keep getting straight As so one day I could pay the bills. (An artist—a real artist!—was telling me it was okay to get straight As!) I’d never heard anybody talk about the kind of things he wrote about—art, America, growing up in a small-town—it was like a time-bomb that went off in my brain.
The letter, and I’m not exaggerating, changed my life.
I wrote him back, and he wrote me back. We’ve kept up a casual correspondence since.
I was at my mom’s over the holidays, and decided to use her new scanner to
archive some papers I wanted to preserve for safe-keeping.
I’m not sure if it will interest anyone else, but I’m posting it here as a shining example of great generosity from an established artist to an aspiring artist. It’s one of my most treasured possessions, and I just really freaking love it and want to share it.
I scanned a bunch of drawings out of John Porcellino’s memoir of his teenage years, Perfect Example, to share with you…and then I realized that if I put all the drawings in a certain order, they told a little story:
I don’t think I’ve talked a lot about Porcellino and King-Cat on this blog. He’s definitely one of my favorite cartoonists. It’s amazing to read the King-Cat collection King-Cat Classix and watch his drawings evolve from punk-zine scribbles to zen-like elegant lines. At their best, his comics are pure poetry — nothing extraneous, perfect and simple. Looking forward to his adaptation of Thoreau’s Walden.
“It was my first encounter with the works of the German artist George Grosz, when I was in my twenties, which showed me that drawing need not just be a space-filler in a newspaper: in the hands of an honest man, drawing could be a weapon against evil….Look at [his drawings] and you know the world is sick. You may say that he was sick too — but it is a common mistake to believe that sick drawings indicate a sick mind, rather than a reflective indictment of society. His drawings scream indelibly of human depravity; they are an eloquently barbaric response to life and death, right through the First World War and into the wild, helpless excesses of 1920s Berlin, which rotted away the lives of all those caught up in its suicidal glee.”
My first encounter with George Grosz (1893-1959) was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s glorious show, “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” which we happened to stumble upon during our honeymoon to New York last year. After seeing his work, it was unsurprising to learn that Grosz had a major influence on some of my drawing heroes, including R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman. In the past week I’ve been sifting through a fat stack of his books borrowed from the art library in the hopes of sharing some scans of my favorite drawings. Barring “Pimps of Death” (shown above), the rest of the drawings are presented in chronological order.
“Riot of the Insane” might be familiar to anyone who has a copy of Ivan Brunetti’s Anthology of Graphic Fiction — in the introduction Brunetti analyzes the piece in terms of cartooning:
I have been struggling lately with how to depict space, and specifically, people in space. These drawings are amazing to me because they look like they were drawn by someone who knew the rules but didn’t care about them.
“Family” might be my favorite. The way the baby swings with four legs, the flowers, the dogs, the man’s face (what is he doing there? is he spying? bringing a message?), the crosses, the windmill, the way it looks like the sun is setting over a horizon that is several thousand feet above where it “should” be. And where did that tree come from?
Many of these drawings came from the collection, Ecce Homo, — the words come from the Latin that Pilate spoke while presenting Christ: “Behold the man.” Some artists in Grosz’s circle took this to mean “How pitiable is man”; others “What a beast man is.”
The more I look at these drawings, the more they look less like drawings and more like collages. It’s no coincidence — Grosz collaborated with the famous anti-Nazi photomontage artist John Heartfield.
It’s impossible for me to look at “Cross Section” as just a drawing:
It’s a confection.
From the beginning, the models he looked to were not the plaster casts of antique sculptures he was forced to draw when he studied in Dresden and Berlin; they were, rather, taken from the realm of popular imagery. The figures he admired were not the heroes of antiquity and history but those of dime novels. Grosz studied and collected children’s drawings and toilet graffiti. He was fascinated by garish pictures of horrifying atrocities and catastrophes of the sort displayed at carnivals and riflemen’s gatherings, and he loved the lurid illustrations in western novels and detective stories. And of course he knew the great caricaturists of the past: William Hogarth, whom he explicitly names as a model, Honore Daumier, Wilhelm Busch. Over the years he extracted from these widely divergent sources a unique and characteristic drawing style. With this style, he prowled the metropolis, studying its marginal districts, circling around such subjects as crime, nightclubs, bordellos. He was fascinated by the lower depths of society and of people.—Matthias Eberle
I’ve been reading your blackout poems avidly, and trying and trying to find a postcard I made in 1981. It was kind of a blackout poem except that instead of showing all the black areas, i just took the words or word fragments and re-typed them, using a font as close to the original as I could find. Mind you, this was before personal computers. My rule was that the words or fragments had to be in the same order as the original. I probably have a copy of the original catalogue but I’m not sure where. I do remember that “She” came from “Sherwin Williams” I think it is the only word fragment.
I did the card as a part of Jerri Allen’s Apron Project. My text source was a Sherwin Williams Paint catalogue from 1939. That was also the image source. I processed the image with a Mita 900D copier, which I happened to own at the time, because I lived an hour’s drive from the nearest public copy machine (I kid you not!) Then I added a quote from Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. I published the card under my own imprint, White Mare, Inc.
It’s all on the back of the postcard.
Good Grief, I had to look everywhere to find this one scrap of paper. Thank goodness I found the one remaining copy!
I mentioned how impressed I was by Liza’s elaborate pre-Photoshop method, and she said, “Not only was it before photoshop, it was before any design program. I had the words typeset, and used letraset film for the background. And did cut and paste for the composition. It all seemed very modern then.”