In "Art about Art," Contemporary Artists Recalibrate Early Modern Masterpieces with Peanut Butter, Toilet Seat Covers, Explosives...

Sept. 27, 2023

Throughout history, artists have created works that reflect the concerns of their time.  Art about Art, currently on view at Art on Hulfish, makes the case that while technique and media change across artists and centuries, these concerns linger. 

Curated by Ronni Baer, Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator and Lecturer, with Peter H. Fox *18, curatorial associate, European art, Art about Art was conceived as a conduit to Princeton University Art Museum’s impressive collection of early modern European paintings, currently residing in storage while the new Museum building is constructed.

Through the lenses of contemporary artists who use photography and video, famous works by “old masters” including Leonard da Vinci, Diego Velázquez, and Hieronymus Bosch, are reimagined in captivating, thought-provoking, and vastly divergent iterations. The exhibition as a whole revels in a space that inhabits the contemporary and the age-old at the same time.


“This exhibition aims to explore some of the ways in which contemporary artists respond to the art of the past. Sometimes witty, sometimes startling, at times beautiful and strange, the works in this show illustrate how artists continue to grapple with issues of identity, the fragility of life, and the nature of perception, using media that their early modern predecessors couldn’t even have imagined.”

– Ronni Baer, Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator and Lecturer

Group in a gallery with a dark image on wall in foreground of exploding flowers

Ronni Baer tours students through the still life section of the exhibition, with Ori Gersht's Untitled 17 (2007), from his Blow Up series, in the foreground (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Areas of the gallery explore specific portions of the art-historical canon: in one section, images of the Mona Lisa reverberate from wall to wall, in another, Velasquez’s Las Meninas is the subject. Two videos soliciting degrees of patience engage with portraiture and still life in a dark back room. And finally, a gallery of still lifes harks back to 17th-century Dutch masters. Throughout, the exhibition represents a veritable banquet of contemporary artists.

Ronnie Baer lectures to a group of students in a gallery

Ronni Baer surrounded by students and three works, from left: Vik Muniz's photograph of his painting using chocolate syrup titled Las Meninas, after Vélasquez (2002), Ori Gersht's video Pomegranate (Off Balance) (2006) just as a bullet decimates the fruit, and Nina Katchadourian's Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style #20 and #21 (2015), which she staged and photographed in an airplane restroom. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Yasumasa Morimura, explores the question of identity in three self-portraits: as the five-year-old princess in Velsasquez’s Las Meninas, as the Mona Lisa, and as Jan Van Eyck himself.  It’s difficult to stand before his vibrant seven-foot Princess A painting-cum-photograph and not join him in his inquiry. Adding a generous dash of wit, Vik Muniz and Nina Katchadourian approach identity and portraiture through unconventional media including chocolate syrup and toilet seat covers.

Photographer Jeanette May, who attended the exhibition’s Open House, commented “What intrigued me about the exhibition is how the curators brought into conversation such a variety of contemporary images that reflect on a specific historical period in art.”

Double image of the famous Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci in red on left and beige on right

Vik Muniz, Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter and Jelly) (1999) from the series After Warhol

“Although I was already familiar with many of these artists,” she said, “I am surprised by the variety of approaches to the subject matter.  It’s also striking how many of the artists in the exhibition take an irreverent approach (from peanut butter to pastiche) to the ‘old masters’ while maintaining respect for early modern painting.”

Four women gesturing toward framed artwork

From left, Jeanette May, a guest, Ronni Baer, and Sharon Core discuss May's work Tech Vanitas: Dot Matrix (2018) (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt) 

May’s work Tech Vanitas: Dot Matrix is included in the still life portion of the show. Reflecting 17th-century Dutch table-top still lifes that served as platforms for showcasing an artist’s virtuosity at rendering a variety of textures while also evoking the ephemeral nature of life, May’s work displays a colorful hodge-podge of technology plucked from recent years that advertises the ever-encroaching threat of expiration. “I found a connection with the 17th-century Dutch economy and the desire for beautiful, imported merchandise. In my still lifes of vernacular technology, I’m engaging with the same lust for domestic goods while responding to the current dilemmas of planned obsolescence, overconsumption, and waste,” said May.

“I particularly enjoyed Jeanette May’s piece and how it engages with the vanitas or memento mori convention through a contemporary perspective,” said Sharon Core, whose work was also featured in the show.  “A composition of dead or obsolete gadgetry reminds us that time races forward, especially in our present technological environment. As the era of AI accelerates, will humanity also become obsolete?”

Three women discussing a work in the background

Artist Sharon Core, left, discusses her work 1606 (2011) with Ronni Baer and Jeanette May, far right. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt) 

Core’s floral still life 1606, from the series 1606–1907, recalls Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Flowers in a Wooden Vessel. Taking her pursuit of realism to the extreme, Core grew in her own garden each flower in her still life, forcing bulbs and refrigerating stems as needed to synchronize her symphony of blooms. In attendance at the Open House, Core explained that she could only achieve the rich, nuanced tones in her work by using an analog camera and film. 

Summing up her experience of the exhibition, Core said: “The history of Western Art is a view into our past as humans and a key to understanding civilizations, their values, and their creations and also a way to experience profound beauty and mastery of descriptive imagery that is pre-photographic. It continues to be relevant to all artists who engage in a dialogue with the past.” “Each person’s view of that past is individual,” she said, “as I think it should be.”

Art about Art certainly succeeds in the aim of calling to mind the Museum’s early modern treasures, currently hidden from view. But it also reaches further, tossing up the timeline we associate with art history and drawing us into questions artists will always grapple with and put before us like: Who are we? What is our purpose? Are we getting life right?    

Art about Art is on view at Art on Hulfish through November 5, 2023.

Panorama in gallery interior with artwork at both ends and a group of students in the center

Exhibition interior showing Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style #20 and #21 (2015) from the series Seat Assignment, by Nina Katchadourian and left and Princess A (1990) from the series Daughter of Art History by Yasumasa Morimura at right. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)