Response to Natilee Harren’s “Knight’s Heritage: Karl Haendel and the Legacy of Appropriation, Episode Two, 2012”

To read “Knight’s Heritage: Karl Haendel and the Legacy of Appropriation, Episode Two, 2012” by Natilee Harren, click here.

Penelope Umbrico, Sunset Portraits, 2011, images from Flickr (artwork © Penelope Umbrico)
Penelope Umbrico, Sunset Portraits, 2011, images from Flickr (artwork © Penelope Umbrico)

The filmmaker Kirby Ferguson recently noted, “Most of us have no problem copying, as long as we’re the ones doing it.”1 In the second installment of her essay, Natilee Harren details an episode in which the appropriation artist Karl Haendel seemingly finds himself as the subject of appropriation—by none other than the acclaimed postmodernist Robert Longo. This scenario raises issues regarding the ethical conduct between artists operating in the same cultural sector. Recognizing Haendel and Longo both as authors within the specialized world of contemporary art is crucial, for it challenges the implicit hierarchy of authorial modes that has formed the basis of so much appropriation art until the present. From Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons to Richard Prince to Penelope Umbrico’s more recent sunset imagery, artists have often justified their appropriations by claiming to endow otherwise disposable mass-media products with new meanings that function as metacommentary on the state of the image. While amateurs and other non-artists only produce “types,” artists create meaning. Thus, while Harren writes that “in the wake of the general acceptance of appropriative gestures the distinction between popular and fine seems increasingly arbitrary and artificial,” the reality is that how an artist positions him- or herself discursively is a matter of great strategic importance.

There are exceptions to the authorial hierarchy I describe. Famously, Sherrie Levine appropriated photographic images by Edward Weston, which also pitted artist against artist (Levine discontinued the work after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the Weston estate). More recently, and in a similar critical vein, the artist Lauren Clay borrowed forms from the sculptor David Smith. After being threatened with copyright litigation, Clay eventually settled with Smith’s estate.2 The experience of being appropriated by another artist, then, can test the acceptable limits of the seemingly innocuous act of copying. To his credit, Haendel tried to engage Longo in conversation about their mutual use of the knight image. Such an attempt signals a willingness to understand Longo’s work as less of a “wink, I caught you,” as Harren writes, than as an example of the ideal, dialogical exchange between like-minded authors. Yet central questions remain: Who was the photographer who originally took the knight image? How does he or she participate in such an exchange, if at all?

Nate Harrison is an artist and writer working at the intersection of intellectual property, cultural production, and the formation of creative processes in modern media. His work has been exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Los Angeles County Museum of Art;and Kunstverein, Hamburg, among others. Harrison has several publications current and forthcoming, and has lectured at a variety of institutions, including Experience Music Project, Seattle; Art and Law Program, New York; and SOMA Summer, Mexico City. From 2004–2008 he codirected the Los Angeles project space ESTHETICS AS A SECOND LANGUAGE. Harrison received the 2011 Videonale Prize and the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research. Harrison earned his doctorate from the University of California, San Diego with his dissertation “Appropriation Art and United States Intellectual Property Since 1976.” He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan and a Master of Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts. Harrison serves on the faculty at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

  1. See Ferguson’s film, Everything Is a Remix (2011–12), at, as of March 1, 2016.
  2. See Brian Boucher, “David Smith Estate Settles Copyright Tiff,” Art in America, October 15, 2013, at, as of March 1, 2016.