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The Art of Repetition: Top 10 Pattern Artists

Escher Pattern Artists
M.C. Escher at work on Sphere Surface with Fish in his workshop, late 1950s

By Shira Wolfe

“I think you get meaning through repetition.”

Damien Hirst

Repeated forms and regular arrangements have been used in art from ancient times. The simple act of repeating the same unit over and over again creates new narratives and interpretations. From art inspired by ancient architectural patterns to the development of serialisation in Op and Pop Art, we highlight 10 pattern artists who used repetition in their art, each in their own different way.

Gustav Klimt, The three of Life
Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life, 1910-11

1. Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt, known for his ornate, decorative style and the use of luxurious gold leafing, often used patterns in his artworks. The motifs were inspired by Byzantine, Greek and Egyptian art. In The Kiss (1907-8) for example, flat areas of irregular patterns compose the entire painting. The man’s body is created using a repeating rectangle motif, and the woman’s body is composed of circles. In cartoons for the execution of a frieze for the dining room of Stoclet House in Brussels (1910-11), we see a recurring swirling motif that makes up the Tree of Life. The figure on the left side of the tree wears a dress with triangular patterns, while the figure on the right, in the midst of an embrace, has several different shapes on his robe: circles, squares and triangles. In fact, even the gold leafing Klimt used so frequently in his paintings provides a dazzling patterning, clearly visible in his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907).  

M.C. Escher Pattern Artists
M.C. Escher, Hexagonal tessellation with animals: Study of Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles (1939)

2. M.C. Escher

Dutch artist M.C. Escher came to his signature style following a trip to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. He carefully copied the geometrical tilings covering the facade of the palace and from that moment onward, his artistic production became much more formally inventive. He started to develop art following the principles of tessellation (covering a plane using one or more geometric shapes, with no overlaps and gaps). At first, Escher explored working with the basic patterns, but then he moved on to work with all sorts of creatures resembling fish, birds, lizards and insects, stemming from his love for the natural world. Escher arranged his shapes across a flat plane such that the spaces between his figures would create other recognisable shapes. In these images, the viewer can choose to see one or the other set of shapes as the foreground at his or her will. 

Anni Albers pattern artists
Anni Albers, Untitled, 1969. Serigraph on paper. © Anni Albers. Courtesy National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

3. Anni Albers

Born in Berlin in 1899, Anni Albers received her education at the Bauhaus in Weimar, before moving to the United States where she started to create mass-producible fabric patterns. Albers worked with striking geometric patterns and bold colours, helping to pioneer the Modernist movement. 

Albers’s revolutionary “pictorial weavings” were influenced by Pre-Columbian art and textiles, which she studied during her trips to Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s. In both her textiles and her prints, she created intricately patterned, complex compositions built upon geometric motifs and repeated elements. After 40 years of creating her iconic woven works, Albers started printmaking in 1963, just when the Op and Pop Art movements were in prominence. In one of her serigraphs, Untitled (1969), we see a hard-edged geometric composition characteristic of her prints. Hundreds of identical turquoise blue triangles are set against a red background, and by rotating individual triangles, Albers energised the composition and revealed various red shapes.  

Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych
Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962, silkscreen ink and acrylic paint on 2 canvases (Tate) © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. 2015

4. Andy Warhol

Legendary Pop Artist Andy Warhol is known for working with repetition in his silkscreen prints inspired by the imagery of popular culture and mass production but also worked across a wide range of media besides printmaking, including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, music and film. He became famous for his repetitive images of soup cans, soda bottles, dollar bills, and portraits of celebrities including Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor. He would often repeat the same picture in one piece, differentiating between them with various colours. In essence, Warhol was creating his own repetitive patterns, and these became some of the most iconic images of the 20th century. 

Keith Haring pattern artist
Keith Haring, Tuttomondo mural (1989) at the church of Sant’Antonio Abate in Pisa, Italy

5. Keith Haring

1980s street art phenomenon Keith Haring became known for his graffiti tags of interlocking bodies that he would mark the black poster mounts in the New York City subways with. He soon created a recognisable set of images and symbols that he would repeat over and over again as enigmatic and colourful patterns, all across town in New York City as well as in his paintings and prints. Famous Haring themes are his line-drawn radiant babies, barking dogs and human figures. With the increase of his public recognition, Haring started creating large-scale murals that addressed political and societal issues (like his Crack is Wack mural from 1986), always using his personal iconography and the repetition of these symbols.  

“I would cover a canvas with nets, then continue painting them on the table, on the floor, and finally on my own body. […] the nets began to expand to infinity. I forgot about myself as they enveloped me.”

Yayoi Kusama

6. Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama is one of the most famous pattern artists alive today. She started developing her groundbreaking visual language in the 1950s with her Infinity Net paintings – made entirely from repetitive semi-circular brushstrokes creating lace-like patterns that cover the canvas and suggest an expansion into infinity. In her words: “I would cover a canvas with nets, then continue painting them on the table, on the floor, and finally on my own body. […] the nets began to expand to infinity. I forgot about myself as they enveloped me.” This idea of infinity through repetitive patterns has been fundamental for Kusama’s further artistic production. No matter the medium in which she creates, be it painting or sculpture, Kusama always continued to use the same motif: endless dots. The dots first came to her at age 10, when she had hallucinations in which she saw light flashes, fields of dots and auras. Kusama successfully merges her own inner world with the outside world as her impressive, whimsical sculptures filled with her dots can be found all over the world.

7. Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst, the most famous of the Young British Artists (YBA), is another lover of patterns and repetition in his art. Aside from his notorious formaldehyde works and his diamond skull, Hirst is known for his use of patterns. Series such as his Kaleidoscope paintings (composed of thousands of butterfly wings placed in intricate patterns) and his Spot paintings (consisting of countless coloured spots) are Hirst’s answer to the art of repetition. “I think you get meaning through repetition,” Hirst explains. Of the 13 sub-series in Hirst’s Spot painting category, his Pharmaceutical paintings are his most prolific, with over 1000 of them in existence. Hirst works with assistants to produce these works, removing any physical evidence of human intervention so that the works appear to have been constructed mechanically. 

8. Sarah Morris

New York-based British artist Sarah Morris uses the strategies of architecture (namely distraction and scale) to create her fascinating abstract paintings and films investigating “urban, social and bureaucratic typologies”. Her works are based on different cities and stem from a close inspection of architectural details combined with Morris’s sensitivity to the psychology of a city and its inhabitants. Her city-inspired paintings are created using household gloss paint on square canvases, and she employs rigorous, repetitive and often kaleidoscopic grid-forms referencing architectural motifs, signs or urban vistas. Through the vivid colours she uses, each city’s unique essence and dynamic is evoked. 

9. Bridget Riley

British artist and designer Bridget Riley is one of the most celebrated Op artists, using colours, shapes and patterns in such a way that an optical illusion is created. She became inspired to explore optical effects when studying Seurat’s pointillism, some of whose works she also copied in immaculate detail. Riley’s works combine clean lines, colour arrangements, geometric precision and repetitive patterns to create optically compelling visual effects. Of her work, she once said: “The eye can travel over the surface in a way parallel to the way it moves over nature. It should feel caressed and soothed, experience frictions and ruptures, glide and drift. One moment, there will be nothing to look at and the next second the canvas seems to refill, to be crowded with visual events.”

10. Takashi Murakami

We conclude our list with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, the proponent of the innovative “Superflat” aesthetic, which combines classical Japanese art with contemporary Japanese pop culture. Murakami works consistently with the repetition of the same or similar patterns and symbols, all exploring the links between traditional printmaking techniques and Japanese anime and manga. His visual iconography consists of images of candy-coloured cartoon-like characters – smiling flowers, colourful mushrooms and creatures with bulging eyes popping out at the viewer to cause an overflow of colours and cuteness. His art challenges the boundaries between what is considered “high art” and “low art”, bringing the aesthetic of advertisements and cartoons into the high-end gallery and museum world. Murakami’s art of repetition extends perhaps the most of all the artists on this list to the world of consumerism through mass-produced items that he sells through his own company Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd. In this sense, the repetition of Murakami’s patterns is endless. 

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