Embracing the Whole Story: a Conversation with Deborah Wye

Deborah Wye recently retired as The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Chief Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at The Museum of Modern Art. Over the course of her 31 years at MoMA, she organized and co-organized many major exhibitions, including Thinking Print: Books to Billboards, 1980–95 ; Eye on Europe: Prints, Books & Multiples, 1960 to Now (2006); and Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art (1988), and published extensively on subjects ranging from Russian avant-garde books to Louise Bourgeois. She was also responsible for a significant expansion of the department’s holdings, particularly in areas of less traditional print production, though for her last exhibition she returned to MoMA’s roots with a close look at the creative process of MoMA’s most axiomatic artist in Picasso: Themes and Variations. Currently she is working at the museum as Chief Curator Emerita, completing the catalogue raisonné of the prints of Louise Bourgeois (MoMA has an archive devoted to the artist’s printed work.)

The following text is excerpted from a conversation between Deborah Wye and Susan Tallman that took place in late 2010.

ST You have spent 31 years at one of the world’s greatest collection of prints. To many print people, that sounds like heaven.

DW It was a great job, I have to say. Every day I learned something new.

ST Can you give us an overview of the collection?

DW There’s nothing like it. MoMA has around 55,000 objects from 1880 forward—Gauguin to the present. We also have a few earlier things, like Goya’s Caprichos and Disasters of War, and Manet’s The Raven, because at one point we acquired a large collection of illustrated books and those were part of it.

ST And there is no desire to deaccession them?

DW We tend not to deaccession works in the print collection unless there’s a duplicate. I think the philosophy of print collecting is to acquire as much as you can, to amass a library of images. It’s a different policy from other collections at MoMA, where they hone their holdings in various ways.

ST It reminds me of those Renaissance print collections that really strove to be universal—to have one of everything—rather than to chart one particular path through things.

Dieter Roth, Hat (1965), screenprint over offset. One of 20 unique variants. The Museum of Modern Art, The Print Associates Fund, 2009, ©Dieter Roth Estate, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Dieter Roth, Hat (1965), screenprint over offset. One of 20 unique variants. The Museum of Modern Art, The Print Associates Fund, 2009, ©Dieter Roth Estate, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

DW In preparing to talk to you, and thinking about my philosophy for this whole endeavor, I kept coming back to Dieter Roth. He seems to be the quintessential artist for prints and books, as far as I’m concerned. He was an incredible traditional printmaker. His etching portfolios include some of the most gorgeous examples of etching you’ll ever find. But then he did his “squashings,”1 like Big Sunset, and his literature sausages, and the tiny books… That range is kind of great from where I sit. And I hope that view of the mediums we represent is what I’ve encouraged for the Department—embracing the whole story.

ST Do you think that attitude represented a change for the Department?

DW Well, curators had different challenges depending on when they took over. I think for MoMA’s earlier print curators it might have been more about legitimizing prints as major works of art.

ST Certainly there was a long period in the 20th century when people felt that the “original print” had to be very carefully defined…

DW There was a lot of that. The Print Council even had a list of what made something an “original print.”2 My first art world job was with a dealer of prints, drawings and rare book named Lucien Goldschmidt. He always used the term “original print” in his catalogues. But I don’t see that very much anymore.

ST I think one of the problems is that the minute you set “originality” as a value you’ve made the print a second-class citizen, because a print is never going to be as “original” as a drawing or a painting. At the very least you’ve got that step of removal with the template.

DW It’s interesting, that whole ‘second-class citizen’ thing and how to deal with it. One of the things that we’ve begun to do at MoMA is to show our prints in conjunction with other mediums. When I first came to the museum, each department was separated from the others by very high walls! We didn’t even consider putting anything but our own medium in the department galleries. But it’s a different generation of curators now. For example, there is usually a selection of prints and books on view in the Painting and Sculpture Galleries.

When I did a Jasper Johns show in the Print Galleries recently, I borrowed major examples of his painting from our Painting and Sculpture Department– a flag, a target, one of the Four Seasons, a catenary – to better explain the way Johns works in printmaking—in other words, how do prints function for this artist? He often gets ideas from prints that appear in paintings, and the other way around, and for most people who saw that show, it felt very right to combine the mediums—his process just snapped into place in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with prints alone.

Of course, we always want to highlight prints, but with a little tweaking the medium can be presented to the general public in a way that allows for accepting printmaking as part of what an artist does overall. Having prints isolated in a gallery can have the unfortunate effect of announcing, ‘oh this is something very different from what’s in the rest of the Museum,’ maybe it even feels more like a library space. We’ve thought that even the sign outside our gallery—“Prints and Illustrated Books”—might confuse people, particularly the “illustrated books” part. So we’ve tended lately to explore the function of prints and artist’s books within a broader practice.

ST How does this affect acquisitions?

DW When I first became Chief Curator we made a wish list—it took 5 1/2 years and we studied about 250 artists and movements—and we still refer to that list all the time. We examined our own holdings, and also what was in the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum, the Met, and the Whitney. There were major things we knew we were missing like Picasso’s Weeping Woman and Olga. Those were obvious, and we now have both those prints, I’m very happy to say. But in looking at the whole picture I was also trying to think how we could make a significant contribution to what was already an incredibly great collection. We decided to document the creative process, since printmaking lends itself to that. Ever since, we’ve tried to get evolving states whenever possible. Also, when an artist focuses on particular themes, we’ve tried to represent a range of examples of those themes.

The results of that acquisition focus were on view in the recent Picasso show. I wanted to exhibit new acquisitions in the context of what we already had, to show how we expanded our representation of Picasso’s creative process. While I was Chief Curator, we acquired 39 Picasso prints, and 33 of them were in the show. Picasso himself was very preoccupied with process. At one point he said that he had become more interested in the movement of his thought, than in any individual thought. In printmaking, it is possible to see that movement. He also talked about printmaking as his own form of storytelling. Through his series, a narrative development becomes clear—like with the Minotaur, where one characterization morphs into the next. Toward the end of Picasso’s life, when he was working with a range of copper plates supplied to him by the Crommelynck brothers, he said he was always anxious to get to the next plate to see what his characters would be doing there.

Similarly, we had the opportunity to get some unusual, very small-scale screenprints by Jackson Pollock, probably done while he was sitting at his kitchen table—in some cases making greeting cards. He experimented with color choices for inks and papers, and changed the orientation of his screens in various compositions. Those prints provide such a different story of who Pollock was as an artist – in this case, he wasn’t the mythic madman pouring paint in a kind of ritual dance; instead, he was working methodically. We acquired a series of those screenprints to allow us to show how he explored his ideas.

Then there are also the Anxiety prints by Munch—we had the black and red lithograph, and a very rare, blood-red woodcut, but we didn’t have the black woodcut. So, we went after that. The three prints together reveal a lot about Munch.

ST It seems to me that people used to be very interested in masterworks, and the whole point of the masterwork is that it is a definitive statement—it stands alone. Its world is contained within the frame and it doesn’t need anything else. But certainly from the 60s on, possibly earlier, there’s been much more interest in—as you said about Picasso—the gaps between the things, the idea that nothing is definitive, that everything is permutational or on its way somewhere else. So a kind of print ethos has entered the mainstream art world.

DW I think you’re right. And I felt my responsibility as a curator of our collection was to try to get people to see that. With the Picasso show, there wasn’t simply a line-up of masterpieces—although they were included. By focusing on the themes and variations of his evolving process, viewers got something that wouldn’t be possible to see in the same way in another medium. It turns out that The Met[ropolitan Museum of Art] did a show of their whole Picasso collection at the same time as our show. At a panel discussion, the Met’s curator pointed out that he had to use x-rays to find out the working stages of Picasso paintings, but that in prints all that would have been visible through evolving states.

I’m also concerned about other qualities inherent to printmaking being understood. I don’t think prints should be presented in a way that says “please accept me, I’m almost like a drawing!” I want people to grasp what a print is about—to know there is more than one example, and that printers and publishers often collaborate with artists. We began putting information about the printer, publisher and edition size on our wall labels and in our catalogues so the audience could become familiar with those essential factors.

ST Your predecessor, Riva Castleman, once said that she didn’t see printmaking as a way of solving the primary problems of art, that it was too fraught with other problems3

DW I would give Riva a fair chance to expand on that if she were here, because I feel that everything we do proves that prints absolutely do that.

ST I think Riva’s quote had to do with working back and forth between print and painting as opposed to working only in print. But it has been interpreted by dedicated printmakers as a slight against them, that if you only work in print you never get to the big ideas; that Johns was able to become a great printmaker because he worked back and forth between printmaking and painting.

DW I see. But I should say that the “dedicated printmaker,” as you describe it, has not been the primary focus of our collection. Early on Alfred Barr wanted to represent artists like Matisse in all their mediums—painting, prints, books, drawings, sculpture. That was the way the Museum collected prints. It was only when Abby Aldrich Rockefeller gave us her own print collection that we became a print room in the traditional sense. But our emphasis has remained on the role of prints in an artist’s practice overall.

Our job is to see as many exhibitions as possible, and to visit artists’ studios and print workshops. We’re interested in what is happening in art, generally, and where prints fit in. In some cases MoMA actually has bought an artist’s prints before works in other mediums. I’ve always like that. Also, there are artists whose prints are considered stronger than their paintings. For instance, MoMA has only one Munch painting, but about 80 of his prints.

At the moment, there are also some interesting artists who, I believe, focus on only printed materials, like Nicola López—she does installations from printed elements strung from the ceiling and walls. And Swoon started out as a street artist whose work consisted of large woodcuts pasted onto public walls. Now, however, she is also doing other kinds of installation and performance work.

ST Most artists today seem to do more than one thing, and it gets harder to categorize. But museums have to because of the department system.

DW Well, MoMA curators are talking to each other more, and there’s definitely a blurring of the lines between the different departments. For example, the artist Cory Arcangel did a group of screenprints—showing the watermark and all sorts of off-register elements—as part of an investigation of color and technical process. But he was undertaking similar investigations with projected images, and with photography. So our print curator discussed the issue with the photography and media curators and the decision was made to do a joint acquisition across departments. That’s a big shift for the institution, but something that is happening more and more.

Also, we recently acquired an incredible Fluxus collection from Lila and Gil Silverman of Detroit—including almost 10,000 individual objects. The Print Department oversees the collection because of the high percentage of prints and multiples, but there are countless examples of other mediums—from film and sound work to drawing, photography, design, sculpture and painting. Actually, it’s been a challenge to document the collection with traditional means. But it’s very exciting, as you can imagine.

elix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Death by Gun) (1990), installation at the Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany, 1997, ©The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, photo: Michael Herling/Uwe Vogte.

elix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Death by Gun) (1990), installation at the Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany, 1997, ©The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, photo: Michael Herling/Uwe Vogte.

ST Are there things that you feel, over the course of your tenure, the museum missed?

DW Certainly we sometimes missed things simply because we couldn’t afford them, particularly historic modern prints. In terms of more contemporary work, it is easier to backtrack. Recently we’ve focused on early Donald Judd. He started out as a painter and transitioned into sculpture. During that transition, he made woodcuts. In one of his early shows, he even exhibited the woodblocks along with the prints that came from them. With this in mind, we acquired one of his blocks and the related print. This is not something we probably would have considered earlier on—so we “missed it,” so to speak.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Death by Gun) (1990), stack of photo offset lithographs, composition 44 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches, 9 inches at ideal height. Endless copies. The Museum of Modern Art, purchased in part with funds from Arthur Fleischer, Jr. and Linda Barth Goldstein, ©The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Death by Gun) (1990), stack of photo offset lithographs, composition 44 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches, 9 inches at ideal height. Endless copies. The Museum of Modern Art, purchased in part with funds from Arthur Fleischer, Jr. and Linda Barth Goldstein, ©The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.

On the other hand, there are some things I’ve been very happy to get early. I was particularly proud, and will always be proud, of the Print Department acquisition of the first Felix Gonzalez-Torres work to enter MoMA’s collection—the Death by Gun stack. It was at the Whitney Biennial and I couldn’t believe how remarkably it fulfilled the potential of prints, especially in terms of distribution. Riva was still Chief Curator then, so I urged her to acquire it for the Department. I’d already rounded up a couple of supporters to help, if she agreed, and I was very surprised. She said “great—do it.”

The piece introduced lots of new issues for us, at the time, in terms of ownership, exhibition, and lending. What we owned was actually a negative, and we printed sheets whenever we wanted to show the piece. When it was requested for loan, I didn’t want to send the negative out to the borrowing institution, so I required that the sheets be printed in New York and shipped. Now, since everything has been digitized, we’re able to send just the file. We consult with the Gonzalez-Torres estate for those kinds of procedures. I had resisted the digitization and felt protective of the negative—just so we had something locked away in storage. That was kind of an old fashioned idea, I know, but letting something go out into the world like that was scary. I’ve had to grow up—also I know Felix would have loved to have it shown as easily and as often as possible.

At the same time, in terms of acquisitions, I’d also have to say that some of the master prints like Picasso’s Weeping Woman and Olga have been thrills for me too. And, Miró did a great set called the Black and Red series, which he made in the studio of Louis Marcoussis who had a printing press. It must have been a conducive atmosphere since Mirό experimented with the full potential of printmaking there, really for the first time.

Joan Miró, plate 1 from the Black and Red Series (1938), etching, 6 5/8 x 10 3/16 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, purchased with the Frances Keech Fund and funds given, ©2011 Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Joan Miró, plate 1 from the Black and Red Series (1938), etching, 6 5/8 x 10 3/16 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, purchased with the Frances Keech Fund and funds given, ©2011 Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

ST You did an exhibition of the Black and Red Series…

DW It was one of my favorite shows. Since the series involved Miró’s response to the Spanish Civil War, we had lots of Spanish Civil War posters. But it also took into account Surrealism’s influence on him, so there were a range of prints, drawings, and photographs by Surrealist artists. It was one of those shows where I felt I really grasped the moment in history. I think the show on Russian Avant Garde books was the same—it encompassed an incredible period with great material.

Eye on Europe was also exciting because Wendy Weitman and I were dealing with contemporary artists. Right after that Glenn [Lowry, Director of MoMA] asked me to do the reinstallation of the Museum’s vast 2nd floor Contemporary Galleries, which showcase art from 1970 to the present. I must say, I had a field day. I loved integrating prints with other mediums on a grand scale.

ST You have also been very proactive in digitizing the collection and in trying to make it available in various ways online…

DW I think we now have 27,000 prints imaged, but we have 55,000 works in the collection. We continue to make an all-out effort to digitize. Recently we received a grant to do all our German Expressionist prints. So that’s over 2,000 works taken care of. We’ve also created a number of ‘curated’ websites on the print collection. Many more people have seen those than can ever visit the Museum.

ST It seems particularly important to do this for prints, which otherwise spend most of their lives locked up in drawers rather than on the walls.

DW Absolutely.

ST So now… you’ve handed over the reins of the Department, but you are still working on projects for the museum, like completing the Louise Bourgeois catalogue raisonné…

DW I have a lot of catching up to do in terms of the literature on Bourgeois. I did the first volume of her print raisonné in 1994, and there has been so much written since then. But it’s a great subject. Also, I’m looking forward to doing lots of other things I haven’t had time for in a while—like seeing all the exhibitions I can!

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  1. In the mid-sixties, Roth began running foods and organic matter through the printing press, “squashing” chocolates, sausages, cheese, and fruit on top of his prints. He was interested not only in disrupting the pristine control that can be typical of printmaking, but also in the way that the stuffs’ inevitable decay would prevent the image from being final or static; it would always be on its way to being something else. []
  2. from the Print Council of America’s booklet, What is an Original Print?, 1961:
    – The artist alone must create the master image on stone, or whatever material is used to make the print.
    – The print—if not printed by the artist—should be hand printed by someone under the artist’s direct supervision. Each impression should be approved and signed by the artist and the master image (the matrix) destroyed or cancelled.
    – The original print is not a copy of anything else, not a copy of a painting or another print. If an artist chooses to copy his or her own work, originally done in another medium, it would be a print done after an oil (or other medium).
    – An original print is a creative endeavor by the artist and, therefore, is as valid as expression as is any other form of visual art—whether it be a painting or a sculpture. The original print is a work of art in its own right. []
  3. “I don’t see printmaking—and never have—as a way of working out the basic problems of art. It’s too fraught with other technical problems.” Riva Castleman in “New Prints of Worth: A Question of Taste,” The Print Collector’s Newsletter 10, no. 4 (1979), p 110. []