Mike Bidlo: NOT MARSDEN HARTLEY
May 20 through August 14, 2021
By ERIK LA PRADE, August 2021
INTRODUCTION: Mike Bidlo is one of the foremost practitioners working with appropriation, the strategy of reimagining or replicating preexisting art to make art. His NOT MARSDEN HARTLEY series of graphite drawings—exhibited at Milton Art Bank (MAB) with an accompanying 224-page publication—takes its place alongside his other NOT works, each one an exacting reinterpretation of a twentieth-century masterpiece: NOT Picasso, NOT de Chirico, NOT Brancusi, NOT Fernand Leger, NOT Georgia O’Keeffe, etc.
With the NOT MARSDEN HARTLEY drawings at MAB, Bidlo continues his ongoing practice of challenging the idea of authorship while questioning the modernist canon, and shows he is an ir/reverent enthusiast with a deep personal engagement with his subjects and dedication to both craft and concept bordering on the devotional.
-- Brice Brown, Founder/Curator, MAB
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following “interview” began as the transcript of an actual interview that I did with Mike Bidlo. However, over the course of several meetings following the interview, Mike proceeded to “appropriate” the interview and rework it into the artist’s statements you read below, based on the questions I asked him in the original interview. “Appropriation” is apparently irresistible to this artist; be it the work of another visual artist, or a writer—the temptation to “rework” a piece is Mike’s M.O., and could not have been more apparent than it was during his repeated revisions to this interview.
-- Erik La Prade
ELP Did you read any essays in Marsden Hartley’s book “Adventures in the Arts,” which was published in 1921, or read any of his poetry before you started this series of works?
MIKE I wasn’t familiar with Hartley’s first book when I began the series. I did read “Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley.” (Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Editor. MIT Press. 1998). I also read his poetry as the series progressed. He was a remarkably erudite artist who could read, write AND paint!
ELP Was draining the color from Hartley’s work your original approach to creating this series?
MIKE Yes. It was a conscious decision to explore his beguiling and vibrant body of work—to render his images in black and white.
ELP When you were deep into the series, what were one or two aspects you discovered about Hartley’s work?
MIKE I found out that he was literally and figuratively a nomadic artist who covered the proverbial waterfront. Along the way, he embraced and made significant contributions to many of the seminal art movements of the Twentieth Century.
ELP What drew you to recreate Hartley’s work?
MIKE I was drawn to the directness, symbolic richness and architectonic qualities in Hartley’s extensive and diverse body of work. I read a number of books on his work and life. I guess I’ve always been interested in Alfred Stieglitz and the artists in his gallery, “291.” I had already spent two years investigating Georgia O’Keeffe. So, Hartley was the next artist in this group whose work I wanted to explore. Arthur Dove is a great artist, but after I looked at a lot of reproductions, I realized his work would not translate very well for my project.
ELP Anyone else in the Stieglitz group that interests you?
MIKE Not presently. But you never know. One artist’s work or series can trigger interest in another artist’s work. You never know which way it will go.
ELP You first started doing appropriation art in 1982, which is almost forty years ago. Would you consider it a tradition today?
MIKE Yes. It has a place—and it has struggled to become a part of the post-modern dialectic. It’s been an uphill battle for the “image scavengers.” Thankfully, the groundwork had already been laid by artists like Duchamp and Warhol.
ELP I didn’t get the impression that Hartley had an anti-American attitude when he was in Germany. He was American as apple pie. In his painting, Portrait of a German Officer, and in your drawing, we can see how Hartley created a post-modernist work using military regalia of the period.
MIKE Sure. And this all predates pop art. Jasper Johns used beer cans, targets and the American flag. Hartley also utilized popular imagery, decades before the pop artists emerged.
ELP What was your thinking behind the shift from a one-to-one scale reproduction of works, such as your Warhol “Brillo Box,” to these intimate pencil drawings?
MIKE It was a welcome relief to become a scaled down scribe in a scriptorium! Besides, I really like drawing.
ELP I was thinking about the pictures in your Hartley show and the amount of work that went into them. I think there is as much originality in them as in anything else.
MIKE Originality is overrated. The “NOT HARTLEY” series took well over two years to complete. The time spent allowed for a period of sponge-like absorption. This allowed and made possible an unspoken conversation to evolve.
ELP The way you have recreated Hartley’s pictures without any color, gives them another dimension.
MIKE It allowed for Hartley’s forms to be isolated and examined in their own right.
ELP I suppose someone could say it is just copying, but I wouldn’t agree with them.
MIKE To tell you the truth, I don’t really think too much about what anyone else says because for me this process becomes revelatory.
ELP Would you say this exhibition “adds another layer of meaning” to Hartley’s original works?
MIKE It hopefully adds to Hartley’s continuum. That’s the important thing about it; how it does that and not only adds another layer of meaning to his work, it reinforces Hartley’s iconic status and introduces him to a new generation.
ELP People can now approach his work with an expanded point-of-view.
MIKE Hopefully, the work will lure viewers in.
ELP I was thinking of appropriation art as a subversive activity. Is it?
MIKE No, not really. It’s actually more of an homage requiring long periods of indentured servitude. I don’t like the word “appropriation.” Maybe, someday we can find a better word that’s more constructive and less militant.
ELP Perhaps if you want to replace the term, “appropriation,” you could use the word investigation.
MIKE Yes! I like the word investigation. It’s a better fit for this type of action/research. WM
Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College. Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle. His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010. MidMarch Arts Press. His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS. Olympia, Washington. 2020view all articles from this author