While the drive toward homogeneous and pure visual languages was at the foundation of early twentieth-century utopian modernist art systems, the Dadaist and Surrealist reaction to this utopianism took the form of extreme and often violent hybridity. Marcel Duchamp's 1913 “readymade” of a bicycle wheel placed atop a kitchen stool is a paradigmatic manifestation of the linguistic hybridity characteristic of post-utopian twentieth-century art. In the 1920s Francis Picabia made paintings constructed of separate and discrete layers of images, which, when viewed together, produced an unsettling visual “monster.” Picabia's practice of superimposition was a significant forerunner of prevailing contemporary practices in postmodern painting.
In his essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” philosopher Fredric Jameson (1991) identifies pastiche as one of the main characteristics of cultural production in the age of postmodernism. Pastiche is defined as a work of art consisting of motifs borrowed from one or more sources, an incongruous hodgepodge of materials, forms, and images. In this age of pastiche, what are the options open to artists—to endlessly quote, imitate, or parody existing images and styles, or to construct a new and significant system of meaning?
To discuss the centrality of the principle of hybridity in postmodern art—and in my own artistic practice of the past fifty years—I summoned Theolonius Marx, a fiction of my imagination who helped me handle the dilemmas of conceptual art in the 1970s. In this “conversation,” Theolonius and I ponder how hybridity has placed a challenge to utopian modernist concepts, and what the conditions are for it to thrive today as a relevant and sustainable medium.