On Visibility

Claude Mellan, detail of The Veil of St. Veronica (1649), engraving, 17 x 12 1/2 inches.

There is a certain joy in organizing thematic issues for this journal—watching how artists and writers breathe life into a topic through unexpected research, vantage points and tangents. But unplanned issues, such as this one, offer a different, serendipitous pleasure. We don’t direct, we simply wait and leave it to the reader to draw inferences or detect trends among the scatter of closely studied works and events. In these cases, the Editor-in-Chief is simply one of those readers, and the array of connections that I might see are personal and contingent—just one option among many.

Among the essays presented here I was struck with how many touched on questions of visibility and invisibility in both the optical sense (what we can see) and the cultural sense (what we choose to see).

In the most unusual of them, artist Peter Milton and ophthalmologist Michael Marmor discuss the impact of Milton’s visual acuity and color blindness on the development of his allusive art and its ambitions. Here vision is considered as both perception and conception.

Elsewhere thresholds of visibility can be identified both as a poetic subject matter for the art and in the art historical problem of things overlooked. Three articles look at artists born in the early 20th century who produced prodigious bodies of prints that have never received wide public exposure. In the case of Theodore Roszak (1907–1981), the prints he made enthusiastically, if briefly, at either end of his career have been overshadowed by his success as an expressionist sculptor. Linda Konheim Kramer surveys these two very different sets of work. Cécile Reims (b. 1927) has enjoyed a long career as an artist and as one of the few remaining reproductive engravers—a field in which the artist is often hidden behind the arras; Kate McCrickard examines both situations and the work they produced. In her essay, Christina Weyl looks at the late prints of Ellen Lanyon (1926–2013), which offer a lifetime summa through clinically rendered knick-knacks. Reims and Lanyon were born within 11 months of one another on different continents, led quite different lives and made very different work, yet they share a fascination with illusion, transparency and the syntax of the printed image in all its poetic and historical complexity.

In her study of Edgar Degas’ etchings of Mary Cassatt, Whitney Kruckenberg examines the ways in which the artist chose to pull the curtain back on private processes of revision, reconsideration and development. Meanwhile, Cassatt herself was surely the most celebrated artist to appear in the New York Public Library’s recent exhibition on the history of women as printmakers. Britany Salsbury reviews this important show, which brought little-known works to public attention and jump-started a conversation that went beyond the usual acknowledgements of historical gender inequality to consider the still persistent role of distinctions such as amateur/professional (often effectively a proxy for gender) in ascribing value.

The unusual portfolio Concinnitas, reviewed here by Julie Warchol, comes at the question of visibility from a profoundly different position, seeking to make sensual sense of the fundamentally nonphysical beauty of mathematical statements. The winner of this issue’s iteration of the Prix de Print—Carey Maxon’s dreams for the recruit 103 (2016), selected by Marc Schwartz—takes up another problem: the simultaneous conveyance of the individual and the mass, though in entirely abstract terms.

In book reviews, Megan Liberty reports on three recent volumes that address the recent history and present state of artists’ books, zines and other forms of alternative publishing, especially the strategies they employ to remain invisible to standard inventory systems while pursuing other types of distribution.

Reviewing recent exhibitions, Janina Ciezadlo writes on Corey Hagelberg’s social and environmental portrait of a particular Great Lakes biome, while Matthew Coleman looks at the interaction of binary code (not visible in itself, of course) and the printing template (a mechanism of visibility) in the work of artists at Portland’s Upfor Gallery.

Finally, reminding us that the physicality of art objects resides in properties we cannot see, as well as those we can, this issue includes two pieces on paper conservation. Marlen Börngen explains the treatment of a paper dress from the 1960s, and Angela Campbell reviews the Getty’s recent publication, Historical Perspectives in the Conservation of Works on Paper.

The art discussed here, and the approaches taken to it, varied widely in terms of style, ambition and motivation. Have a look.

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