RePost: A Question of Originality (by Clairan Ferrono)

A Question of Originality (by Clairan Ferrono)

Originally Published August 26th, 2007

June asked me to repost this because somehow the comments got locked out the first time, and Jeanne Beck, scheduled to post today, has been called away by a family emergency. So comment away!


Lavender Mist 1953

I have been enjoying Ann Eden Gibson’s book Abstract Expressionism Other Politics. Early on she makes the point that originality was a key element for these artists: “‘Derivative,’ mused Louis Bourgeois. “That is the worst word, just about the worst.” (p 24). However, as Gibson points out, “The criterion of originality was so arbitrary, so contradictory and so subjectively applied that it could boomerang . . .” (p. 22). This set me on a path of thinking about my own perspective on originality, and how complicated and difficult it seems to me to assign originality to an artist.

I am sure you all instantly recognized the painting above as being Jackson Pollock. His style is original and distinctive isn’t it? I love Pollock’s work.


Janet Sobel, The Attraction of Pink

This painting and this artist are perhaps unfamiliar to most of us. Pretty, but derivative? Did you think that? Nobody gets to paint like Pollock — it’s been done. Does it change your thinking to know that this work was done before Pollock poured any of his paintings? (Sobel’s work was created by blowing on liquid paint after it was applied to the canvas.) That Pollock knew Sobel and admired her work? That the most influential critic of the day, Clement Greenberg was impressed by her paintings and knew Pollock was as well. Here’s another of her canvases:


Sobel Untitled c. 1946-48

Is her work as strong as Pollock’s? as interesting? as original? as good?


Resnick Untitled 1945

DeKooning Angels

deKooning Pink Angels 1945

Are these two paintings similar? Which was done first? Which is more original? Does that matter to you in terms of judging each painting’s worth. Does name recognition influence you (pro or con)?


deKooning Untitled#2 1949

What do you think of the above work ? Is it strong and original ? Is it Abstract Expressionism? It was not thought to be so in its day — because the work is Elaine deKooning’s and her work was considered to be derivative of her husband’s, whether or not she worked in a style prior to his having done so!

As artists, how much of what we do is consciously or unconsciously derived from the work of others? Is this a bad thing? Isn’t much of it inevitable? How do we judge our own work and the work of others? Do we instantly think — “Original is good!” or “Derivative is bad”? And how do we actually know when work is original? (How many imitation Nancy Crow’s have you seen — even at QN???) How is our work judged by critics and juries? How are we influenced by that judging (whether it is fair or not)?


11 Responses to “RePost: A Question of Originality (by Clairan Ferrono)”

  1. 1 clairan September 20, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    What if that hed been done in fabric, as, say a quilt, by a woman? How “original” would it have been?

  2. 2 Melanie Hulse September 19, 2007 at 7:46 pm

    Mightn’t the Warhol version of the Che image be thought of as an instance of “the tendency to use the time-honored blocks in a different color scheme ” ? And, if so, that makes the Warhol … what? Art? Not art? Original? Not original? Innovative? Derivative?

  3. 3 Jane Davila September 15, 2007 at 4:00 am

    I don’t know that Picasso was so concerned with originality. One of his famous quotes: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” and there’s a story about him knocking on another artist’s studio door and warning him not to answer if he doesn’t want his ideas stolen. Picasso however, managed to make everything he “stole” his own. But if you look at the very early cubist work of Braque and Picasso, especially when they used the same subject matter, they are nearly indiscernible from each other. There’s one side-by-side example about halfway down this page:

    Maybe an artist needs to “digest” an influence (teacher, style, another artist) before it can be expressed in a more unique way.

  4. 4 June September 14, 2007 at 12:46 pm


    Your post has so many interesting ideas in it that one hardly knows where to begin.

    The neglect of women AbExs is a shame and a blot upon the art historians scutcheon. I’m ever so pleased that you are helping set the record straight.

    As for originality, most of us work at refining what has gone before, or putting it into new modes, like oil painting transferred to stitchery. Sometimes these tweaks are very successful; sometimes they are, as the old saw goes, “like Hemingway, only worse.”

    Once in a while there’s a paradigm shift such as you get with Picasso in the early 20th century and the whole art world lurches onto a different path altogether. Of course the period from 1860 through 1960 was full of lurches. However, even Picasso isn’t working alone and doing his original work without models, recent, next door, and ancient.

    Since then, and for a variety of reasons, originality has become the theme of art history. This doesn’t mean that it’s the only or most important aspect of what is happening in the art world — only that the narrative of art historians currently tends to be about what’s new, original, or at least seemingly original. This may be kin to the narrative of art history of the 1950’s when the wild bad boys of New York are seen to be _the_ history. It is reductionistic when not just plain false.

    In our field, the emphasis on originality, though, may not be misplaced. Because quilters come from a tradition of craft, where originality is definitely not what is sought (what is sought is excellence in technique coming from years of interning and copying and practice doing what other masters did). So for newbies, coming out of the sewing/quilting tradition, sometimes it’s necessary to focus on originality, lest the tendency to use the time-honored blocks in a different color scheme be thought of as art. The traditions of imitating your teacher are not only respectable but important in craft; in art, such action is reserved for the newest students and even a remark as innocent as “your work reminds me of…” can set an art student into a rage.

    For me, the old traditional standards and notions about art (not about atitching and quiltery) are still what I try to guide my work by — the P&E of design, the meaning inherent in the work, the transposition of artistic elements and aims into textile elements and aims. I suspect that I find these classical art concerns new and thrilling simply because they are less obvious in most arty quilts (not, you note, quilt art).

  5. 5 clairan September 14, 2007 at 11:54 am

    My point, Dena, was not that Pollock wasn’t great, but that Sobel was unrecognized.

  6. 6 Dena Crain September 13, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    I have a couple of thoughts I’d like to share.

    First, in other fields of endeavor, it often happens that two or more individuals produce similar work. This has been observed in science and invention that I can think of right off-hand. Why not in art? Why would not two or more artists, especially operating in/from the same culture, perhaps using the same media and tools, and subject to the same psychological influences, produce work that appears similar?

    Knowing nothing more about Resnick and de Kooning as shown here, I would be willing to admit the possibility that they each had no influence on the other, yet produced work that is remarkably similar. In the absence of any evidence of derivation, I would think it a coincidence.

    Second, artists have for centuries, probably even longer, been part of a master/apprenticeship system. Why shouldn’t that carry on today? Each apprentice learns to do what the master does, and then inevitably his/her own inimitable style creeps in. This seems a perfectly natural way to me for learning and growth and the maturation of the artist to proceed.

    Surely the issues Clairan voices here have more to do with the fairness of apprentice works which have yet to fulfill their promise being received and welcomed, even applauded and rewarded, within the limited framework of our relatively small group.

    To my way of thinking, it is not whether a work is based upon studies undertaken with any particular instructor or master, but how far beyond the master’s work the piece has moved.

    If we see another ‘Nancy Crow’ piece, we need to know first exactly what Nancy Crow does and teaches, and then we need to look for the artist’s growth and development far beyond that level. If no such evidence is forthcoming, if the work demonstrates only mimicry with no apparent deliberate effort or demonstrated ability to move far beyond Nancy’s training, then the work is clearly derivative to my way of thinking.

    If Pollock’s work was influenced by Sobel, he clearly moved far beyond what he absorbed from her. He went beyond that – whether for better or worse should be a matter of personal opinion – but his work ought not to be considered derivative, as he meets the test I’ve just described.

    By the way, as I’m a new commenter to this site, thank you for allowing me to join you.

  7. 7 clairan September 13, 2007 at 5:46 am

    No June, quite the contrary. I don’t think my work looks like anyone else’s, and I don’t necessarily think that makes it better or worse than anyone else’s. I think sometimes we strive too hard for originality without doing the work in between, put too high a premium on individuality, and reward people (and the rewards can be very very high for some) who seem to be so original, and then, as we look back in history, are found to be not so very original.

    But mainly I was trying to show how good the women AE’s were and how little recognition they got. I think even now when people see their work, they just think, “oh, derivitive,” because they *assume* the famous people got there first. Not so.

  8. 8 June September 12, 2007 at 9:19 pm

    Gee, Clairan, you don’t ask hard questions, do you?

    First, one underlying theme of your post is that the women were ignored while the men got the credit. Ah the male chauvinist fifties — even I, who love the Ab Exs wouldn’t go back to that time for anything. And women didn’t get credit.

    The Sobel doesn’t look at all like the Pollock to me, although I can see where he could be influenced by it. I’m more familiar with the Pollock, but I like the Sobel very much and in this case, I think I could have reached that judgment without knowing the context. Knowing the context, of course, makes me even more sure of myself.

    The question of originality is a cursed one — there’s nothing new under the sun, and for everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season. Which is to say, it’s an irresolvable conundrum.

    It is partly true that artists almost always have to imitate before they can find their own way — phylogeny recapitulates whatever. But it is likewise true that one has to get beyond the imitating stage.

    Some problems of imitation are because of technique. Nancy Crow’s early techniques were both so unique and so strong that working with the kind of piecing she did resulted in work that almost certainly looked like hers. I remember a discussion with a friend who had been a table mate at a Crow workshop. We were looking at a sample on the design wall behind our table, and I said the sample was mine. My friend, who had borrowed some of my fabric, insisted that it was hers. Neither of us could decide whose it was and we changed roles several times.

    So technique can suck the artist in, as one imagines flinging paint ala-Pollock could suck one in. And then you get spit out.

    New notions (are they called memes?) sweep niche groups, too, so exotic faces became all the rage for a while after the Blue Man was exhibited widely. Layers with sheers took over the group action for a while there, too. and so forth.

    So all I can say is, I know originality when I see it (insert snort!) And I know that I have to be very careful to look at my work sideways to see who I am feeding off of today. Tomorrow it will probably be someone different.

    As for the declarations of history (Sobel/Pollock; deKooning/Resnick), well, history was written by mortals, and often by male versions of the species.

    Do you think you are in danger of trying too hard for originality, Clairan? Or of falling into some kind of imitation hole?

  9. 9 joan September 11, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Great post, Clairan! This is so interesting. Especially, the Sobel work. It is so discouraging to think that Pollack probably borrowed and succeeded because of his gender. And Elaine de Kooning! I got really worked up when I first read this post! I think Melody Johnson wrote a post in her blog about her discovery that her Matchstick Moons were Goldsworthy-ish. As a neophyte, there is always a point where I really start to doubt why I am doing something. It’s all been done before… yada, yada, yada. Great comments, Shiela!

  10. 10 june September 10, 2007 at 8:51 am

    This is Sheila’s comment:
    Sheila Sep 7th, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    I’m surprised no one has commented on this topic. Is it hitting too close to home? My reply is late only because I’m behind on my blog reading.

    Borrowing, stealing, being influenced, this has been going on in the art world for centuries. I don’t think it is all bad. We have to learn somewhere. But serious artists should then be able to put their own unique spin on their work.

    There’s also a finite number of images to work with. Just how many ways can you arrange pond lilies? Even if your inspiration was not Monet, because his are so well known, everyone will assume anything similiar is derivative and think less of that work. I know I’ve done it myself.

    Then there are the times I thought I had a totally original idea. How depressing then, to discover someone else has already done it, I wasn’t fast enough, or the idea so universal as to be impossible to be original. Again, it’s the artist’s spin that has to make it unique. Not an easy thing.

    I think this may be why so much emphasis is put on “doing the work” and not worrying about judges, juries, even the buying public. With any luck, if you truly are doing the work, you will emerge with art recognizable as yours alone.

    And that is a good thing.

  11. 11 june September 10, 2007 at 8:45 am

    A note of explanation: I couldn’t understand why Clairan’s original post hadn’t had any comments, but then I realized that somehow it had gotten “locked.” And Clairan was feeling a bit down because no one had responded. Subsequently we found the “key” that unlocked the comments section and almost instantly Sheila responded (Thanks, Sheila).

    Because Jeanne couldn’t post as she was scheduled because of a family emergency, it seemed the perfect time to repost Clairan’s work.

    So please, respond away. (And we’ll fix the missing photo as soon as we can.)

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