The eye-catching opening flourish of the IFPDA Print Fair in November was Robert Cottingham’s 26-part American Alphabet, a project more than twenty years in the making. Cottingham, the well-known photorealist painter, began work on the first gouaches for the Alphabet while at the McDowell colony in 1993, though the photographs from which the images are drawn extend back decades before that. Over the following four years, Cottingham made oil paintings of the full alphabet (the complete group is now in Germany). In 1997 he made lithographs of K and F with Tandem Press, and he has been executing a few letters a year ever since. The last three—U, Y and Q—will be editioned in early 2012.
Cottingham’s 26 letters are a collection, salvaged from a variety of mid-century American commercial signs; most are neon, a handful are molded plastic. They come from all over the country: the C is from Fairfield, Connecticut, the N is from Chicago, the S hails from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; a couple are from recognizable businesses (the seriphed gold W of Woolworths), but most are not. Cottingham describes them as “portraits of odd, colorful characters I found hanging out downtown.”
There is a long American tradition, from Peto to Demuth to Ruscha, of playing with letterforms as fenceposts between abstract meaning and concrete things; the liminal land between body and soul. Cottingham is a distinctly American talent, equal parts Hopper (his first painterly love) and Young & Rubicam (his erstwhile employer.) Cottingham began his career painting cityscapes from life, but his fascination with incidental detail— the bits that are not relevant to the whole, but flavor everything—quickly led him to photography as “a high-speed sketchbook” for his paintings. He began with urban streets, then zeroed in on the signs in the streets, and finally on the individual letters in the signs.
Each of these prints is the result of a lengthy chain of representations: from life to photograph to drawing to gouache to oil painting to print. The lithograph “A,” for example, reconstitutes the painting “A,” but both derive from a photograph of the marquee of the Los Angeles Art Theater, itself the source of Cottingham’s 1971 painting and 1992 lithograph, both titled “Art.”
Writing about the letter H, Cottingham cites Samuel Beckett’s observation that the task of the artist is “to find a form that accommodates the mess.” Visually, there is precious little mess in Cottingham’s world—his surfaces are scrubbed, his edges are sharp, even the light is always clean. No bird has ever nested in his neon. Cottingham’s mess takes the form of inexplicable elements that time and circumstance have left behind and the mute incompleteness of these closely cropped images: the neon tubes run off the edge to continue a message we cannot read; each letter is part of an unknown word, each word is part of a sign, each sign is part of a building, a business, a city, an economy, a moment in time.
In the printed incarnation of An American Alphabet, the gap between these precisely composed snippets and the uncharted universe beyond their margins seems especially large. While Cottingham’s 26 alphabet paintings remain united in a corporate collection in Germany—a complete alphabet, spelling nothing in particular—the prints have been slipping out into the world for 14 years. Some have been set aside to be sold as complete sets, others have been acquired individually or in small groups. Why do people settle on a particular letter or two? Someone’s initials perhaps? A private code? As prints, they can say anything.