The Art of Repetition, Pattern and Repetition in Contemporary Art
May 7, 2020

The Art of Repetition

Pattern and Repetition in Contemporary Art


Modern and Contemporary Artists use repetition not simply to improve on an initial version, but as the basis of their art, creating rhythm and regularity within their work.

The years following World War II saw the triumph of the mass production of consumer goods: the long assembly lines of identical cars or washing machines, the food shop windows full of lookalike cornflake packets inspiring Pop artists like Andy Warhol to borrow the materials, techniques, and imagery of mass production for their art. 


Andy Warhol

It's impossible not to associate Andy Warhol with the apotheosis of repetition in art. Working with silkscreens and media imagery, it was easy for the pop artist to recreate his images en masse and, in doing so, to celebrate mass culture - from his iconic prints of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor to his reproduction of everyday products, such as Campbell's soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles, boxes of Brillo Pads and dollar bills.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe. 1967, MOMA

Repetition was central to his work; he would create grids of identical images which were presented much in a similar format to a book of stamps, the only variety lying in his choice of colour. But if Warhol was using repetition to comment on mass production in a consumerist world, he preferred not to say - instead, simply claiming that, 'I like things to be exactly the same over and over again.'


Keith Haring

Another of the many artists that use repetition, Keith Haring was obsessed by semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. Symbolism and Egyptian hieroglyphics were an important source of inspiration for the artist's visual language and appear throughout his oeuvre. "I am intrigued with the shapes people choose as their symbols to create language." Haring said. "There is within all forms a basic structure, an indication of the entire object with a minimum of lines, that becomes a symbol. This is common to all languages, all people, all times."

Keith Haring, Best Buddies, 1990, Screenprint

In the alphabet of picture-words he developed, each recurring image carries its own set of meanings. From his 'radiant baby,' a likely symbol of the future and perfection, to his barking, biting and dancing dogs which developed into an iconic image associated with the artist to the reoccurrence of UFOs and crucifixes.

Despite the violent imagery that is rampant in Haring's work, his fundamental message was one of devout humanism and love. Take his recurring embrace, which is often between two genderless and race-less figures, who are glowing as they hold each other.


Yayoi Kusama

For Yayoi Kusama, artwork and mental health are intrinsically linked, with her use of repetition acting as a treatment for her anxiety and depression. Working across multiple mediums - from performance art to painting, collage to sculpture - the artist uses repetition as a form of therapy to calm and focus the mind.

Her repeat signature polka dot patterns, psychedelic colours and organic forms are ever-present in her art with the artist known to work in 50- to 60-hour stretches, covering sheets of paper with miniscule, repetitive marks to not only fed her love of art, but also help her cope with the stress-induced hallucinations she's experienced from a young age.

Pumpkins are another recurring motif within her oeuvre in a collection of works celebrating the subject's "generous unpretentiousness." Rooted in her childhood, Kusama's love of pumpkins has significantly shaped her practice for over 70 years. Whether cropping up as detailed drawings, public sculptures, or immersive installations, Kusama's stylised interpretations of the humble squash have become some of her most well-known works-and are among contemporary art's most iconic masterpieces.

Yayoi Kusama, Red Pumpkin, 1994, Screenprint

"I love pumpkins," the artist said in 2015, "because of their humorous form, warm feeling, and a human-like quality."

Unlike polka dots and flowers-whose hallucinatory forms frightened the budding artist-Kusama found comfort in pumpkins, noting that she was "enchanted by their charming and winsome form" as early as her first encounter. "The first time I ever saw a pumpkin was when I was in elementary school and went with my grandfather to visit a big seed-harvesting ground," Kusama recalls in Infinity Net, her autobiography. "And there it was: a pumpkin the size of a man's head . . . It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner."


Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst began his 'Controlled Substances' series, more commonly known as spot paintings, in 1988. Based on a simple grid format, the paintings feature circular 'spots' of coloured paint, each representing a chemical, lined up at regular intervals, with the spaces between them always the same distance as their diameter, on a white background.

While the early works are hand drawn and painted by the artist, with visible marks from the compass with which he used to make the dots, many critics were quick to label Damien Hirst as some sort of corporate art machine, after the artist created multiple studios across England to churn out huge numbers of these spot paintings. In 2012 there were over 1500 spot paintings which he would then sell for vast sums but this accusation didn't much bother the artist, particularly when the pieces were already centred on the concept of repetition and pattern.

Damien Hirst, Ethidium Bromide Aqueous Solution, 2005

As he says of Andy Warhol, the original king of repetition, 'Warhol's great. You can't argue with that. And visually great. It's easy, cheap, simple. He certainly doesn't over-complicate things. I think that's good. And in terms of consumerism and all that sort of stuff, art has been in a constant battle for hundreds of years with every other kind of image-making.' And, Hirst might add, the studios of old masters were full of assistants, helping to create the often similar religious works ordered by patrons.


Lefty Out There 

Lefty Out There is a street artist by nature, so it's no surprise to find repetition in the American artist's work; graffiti artists often create a simplistic and repetitive style that's unique to them - their own personal branding if you like. By creating intuitive, repeated shapes, Lefty Out There achieves the rare feat of working in contradictions. His work is both bold and intricate, organic but uniform.


Lefty Out There, Sanguine Amnis Album, 2019

A simple mark makes up a considerably more complex whole. Lefty Out There's signature calling cards are what he calls 'the squiggles' - the lines he employs to create intricate and repetitive pattern work for the fashion, art and design world. "I just got progressively more and more obsessed with the lines. I can walk up to something and the first thing my brain tells me to do is a hook squiggle. It's just natural." Following a spontaneous desire, Lefty's pattern making makes the eye linger and yearn for interpretation - likened to cell structures and organisms, his famous repetition artwork calls for the audience to pay attention to things that they take for granted.



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