In the autumn of 1964, The Museum of Modern Art mounted a show of works by 100 artists under the drily descriptive title “Contemporary Painters and Sculptors as Printmakers.” Two years later, a slim catalogue, barely more than a pamphlet, appeared to accompany a traveling version of the show. It was a modest start to what has become something of a MoMA tradition; a periodic attempt by the head of the print department to say something profound about printed art, in both exhibition and catalogue form. In the intervening 48 years, the museum has put on three such surveys, each under a different head curator, each more ambitious than the last. The catalogues have grown from something that would fit in your pocket without disgruntling your tailor, to the 236-page coffee-table object that accompanies the latest iteration of these surveys, “Print/Out.”
“Contemporary Painters and Sculptors as Printmakers,” curated by William S. Lieberman, included 175 prints made between 1950 and 1964. It was a snapshot of a medium and a moment in time. It was also a discretely dropped gauntlet, an assertion by an influential museum curator that the most interesting prints were now being made, not by artists who were primarily printmakers, as had seemed the case in 1944 when MoMA presented “Hayter and Studio 17,” but by painters and sculptors.1
The catalogue itself is a modest thing, less than 50 pages long, and its brief introduction by Elaine L. Johnson is largely concerned with the history of the “original” print as a tool of artistic expression in opposition to mechanical reproduction. Three-dozen works are reproduced (most in black-and-white) and provided with short descriptive paragraphs that range in tenor from the technical to the anecdotal to the vaguely promotional. We learn that Jean Dubuffet found “all matter … fascinating;” that Alberto Giacometti’s favorite model was his brother Diego; and that Sam Francis’ “lyrical print still captures and retains a sense of the creative moment.”
Beyond the titular emphasis on painters and sculptors, there is no particular thesis, no line of argument, no dominant trend, no condition-of-the-world identified as either cause or reflection of these images. There are textbook examples of mid-century printmaking: de Kooning’s big Untitled (1960), Robert Rauschenberg’s Stunt Man II (1962) (Fig. 1), Picasso’s Still Life with Lamp (1962) linocut. Though Johnson acknowledges that this blossoming of the peintre-graveur was tied to the arrival of new lithographic printers in the U.S., she declines to name any and the catalogue entries at the back provide no information about printers or publishers. This reticence suggests that in 1966 the ‘originality’ of the original print still depended on a clear vision of individual authorship and direct, hands-on fabrication by the artist. The write-up for Pierre Courtin’s Chant G (1953) for example, noted approvingly that the artist “considers the inking and printing of the master image an integral part of the creative process and usually does it himself.”
Expressive abstraction is the dominant style, but the show had room for “vital conservative” printmaking (Michael Mazur’s psychotic patients and a pair of terrifying screaming monkey-heads by Thomas Cornell) as well as “daringly experimental” prints. David Hockney is represented by two etchings done as a student—Kaisarion with All His Beauty and Me and My Heroes—whose purchase by Lieberman was later memorialized by Hockney in his etching cycle Rake’s Progress.
Jasper Johns’ Ale Cans (mis-titled “Beer Cans”) sound a distant early warning of Pop with Johnson’s remark that Johns’ use of “commonplace objects in his everyday environment as the subject matter for his paintings, sculptures, and lithographs [has] influenced a contemporary trend.” That trend itself, however, is visible only through two Jim Dine prints (a tie etching and beautifully drawn pair of dentures.) There is no Warhol, no Lichtenstein, no Oldenburg, no Richard Hamilton, no Dieter Roth. The organizers of Contemporary Painters and Sculptors as Printmakers knew that something was afoot, but it was not yet clear what.
By 1980, when Printed Art: A View of Two Decades appeared, contemporary art had been fundamentally transformed by print. “Much of the art of this period,” wrote the curator Riva Castleman, “has been indivisible from print media,” and she was right. In 1970, at the fulcrum of the two decades in question, printing was so essential to contemporary art that the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale was to take the form of a printshop.2
The 1980 exhibition, nearly twice the size of the one in 1964, was promoted by the museum as an important contemporary art survey and was a highly visible component of the museum’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. The catalogue is a larger book than its predecessor in every way: it is physically heftier, the pictures are bigger, the essay is four times longer, and it needs to be. Castleman must explain Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptualism, Minimalism, Photorealism, the artist’s book, the multiple, performance art, land art and serial art, all of which arrived in these twenty years. It was a jaw-droppingly inventive time, and for the first time since the 15th century, prints were absolutely central to almost everything.
Castleman was a smart and attentive curator with a very good eye. She was also fortunate in her timing: “if the fifties were a period of discovery,” she observes, “the sixties were one of explosive development.” Almost every one of the hundred-plus works she reproduces is a major work by a major artist. This is true whether we’re talking about figurative art (Hockney’s quintessential Home from Six Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm); abstraction (Helen Frankenthaler’s influential woodcut Essence Mulberry (1977); conceptualism (the “Xerox Book” published by Seth Siegelaub in 1968); or Photorealism (Castleman missed Vija Celmins, but had Chuck Close’s Keith.) She showed Robert Indiana’s Love (1967), Dieter Roth’s Six Picadillies (1970) (Fig. 3), Roy Lichtenstein’s Reverie (1965), Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963), Marcel Broodthaers’ Museum (1972), and Gerhard Richter’s Canary Island Landscapes (1970-71).
In place of the stylistic smorgasbord of “Contemporary Painters and Sculptors,” Castleman charts a clear trajectory away from the notion of personal gestures as the ultimate carriers of meaning, and discretely derides the “loops of the facile engraving” practiced by followers of “the pervasively influential S. W. Hayter.” Although the title does not explicitly state it, this is also a show of prints by people who do other things: painters, sculptors, computer artists, conceptualists, filmmakers.
The previous book was focused on the role of the artist (“contemporary painters and sculptors as printmakers”), but Castleman is more interested in the functioning of objects (“printed art”). The pictorial section opens, tellingly, with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe Diptych (1962)—a painting, but printed nonetheless. Marilyn Monroe Diptych is, in fact, about printing—the repetition; the shift from color to black and white; the mechanical separation of colors; distribution, proliferation and the disappearance of the real. It was made at the Factory, which Warhol created as the provocative antithesis of the artisanal working methods lauded in the prior catalogue. In Castleman’s view, Warhol’s emphasis on decision-making over hand-facture represented an approach that fundamentally differentiated the art of the 60s and 70s from what came before.
For Castleman, acknowledging the impact of printers and workshops did not diminish the authority of the work produced. She decries the valuing of “handmade over machine-made,” and notes that the late 19th-century promotion of “originality” did not prevent artists from relying on printers, it simply meant that “the printer, whose name had often appeared on the finished product, now became anonymous.” She assiduously credits the printers and publishers of each work, and identifies their influence. This could be seen as an irrelevant (if admirable) gesture, but Castleman is making a larger point: information that had been seen as peripheral—like the logistics, processes, social forces and economies that at least partially determine what the viewer finally gets to see—had been repositioned by artists and transformed into subject matter.
This explains the new relevance of photography, which had been all but absent in the previous show. Here we find it employed as a record of historical events (the dead Che in Joe Tilson’s 1969 screenprint; the dead Martin Luther King in Robert Rauschenberg’s Signs); as documentation of ephemeral performances (Gilbert and George, Christo); as an artifact of mass-media (Warhol); as a subject through which the act of representation is called into question (Richter, Close); and, in the case of Richard Hamilton’s Kent State (Fig. 4), all of the above. These images were not concerned with the formal and aesthetic values that had driven ‘art photography’ for a century; they used photography to point to, as Castleman puts it, “matters extrinsic to their aesthetic content.”
At the height of modernism, the problem for prints had been the fact that they were so naturally good at alluding to things outside themselves—at passing along information, linking the viewer to the “real” thing somewhere else, pointing toward some thing some place else. That flaw became a virtue when artists began looking analytically at that act of pointing. “One must suppose,” Castleman wrote, “that the existence of most idea, narrative and/or conceptual art in printed form is implicit.”
Printed Art made cogent case for the importance of the print within the art world; 16 years later Thinking Print extended that argument to the world at large. Working from the observation that “many of the 1980s artists who made printmaking a major part of their work did so because it offered a way to bring art out of the galleries and into the public realm,” curator Deborah Wye put together a show in which limited editions rubbed shoulders with posters and street stencils. There was a lot of continuity between the shows—35 artists participated in both—and in many ways the art in Thinking Print fulfilled aspirations of the 60s and 70s: the vision of prints as functional objects in the world; the desire to plant art ideas in commercial forms like advertising, billboards or postcards; the emphasis on engagement and strategy rather than beauty and emotional expression.
That said, the art world of 1996 was a different place than it was in 1980s—richer, flashier, more confident, and more diverse. Almost one in three of the artists here is a woman and nearly as many are artists of color. In 1980, it was seven percent women and Romare Bearden was the only black artist, while the 1966 book was, apart from Mitsumi Kanemitsu, an all-white affair. While gay artists participated in the earlier shows, most did not depict that aspect of their lives. In 1996, artists like David Wojnarowicz (Fig. 6) were making work about these aspects of identity and about the invisibility documented—inadvertently—by the prior two catalogues.
Wye’s essay begins with a catalogue of world events: the advent of AIDS, the end of the Cold War, the election of Nelson Mandela, the art market bubble and burst, the rise of the culture wars. The barrier between art and life became more porous in these years. Faced with a mortal crisis in the form of AIDS,3 as well as a moral crisis in terms of the rapidly fraying safety net, more artists engaged in direct political and social action. At the same time, as contemporary art became a juggernaut of moneyed hipness, business and industry became more attracted to art: works like Peggy Diggs’ Domestic Violence Milkcarton Project, manufactured and distributed by Tuscan Dairy Farms in an edition of 1.5 million, found a place in both the museum and the supermarket. Robert Rauschenberg used the sides of busses as vehicles for environmentally aware art (Fig. 5). While these specific topics and formats were new, their transformation into art can be seen as an extension of the “matters extrinsic to their aesthetic content,” that Castleman described.
It could be argued that the main distinction between 1996 and 1980 was less one of worldview than it was one of scale. The largest print in Printed Art was from Robert Rauschenberg’s Hoarfrost series and was 80 1/2 inches tall. “Thinking Print” included both a 33-foot long linocut by Martin Disler and a billboard by Felix Gonzalez-Torres mounted on the inbound side of the Williamsburg Bridge. Everything inflated: the prints; the money; the opportunities; the audience; the ambitions. The “print renaissance” of the 60s became the “print boom” of the 80s.
This meant an expansion of both the number and the kinds of things that got made. Thinking Print roams from the rough-and-ready, autodidactic production of the young Anselm Kiefer slapping crowds of woodcuts onto his operatic books and paintings, to Richard Diebenkorn’s exquisite, elegiac etchings, to Jenny Holzer t-shirts (“Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise”) and Barbara Kruger matchbooks. Kiki Smith was represented by both the sumptuously crafted lithographic suite Banshee Pearls (1991) and a sheet of transfer tattoos. There were new stylistic developments, notably Neo-Expressionism, but even its knowing-wink atavism was hardly a dominant trend.
As Wye points out, style was beside the point: “by the mid-1990s, a new art-world generation would be using the word ‘strategy’ as opposed to the word ‘style,’ to describe an artist’s approach.” Style has to do with form, whereas strategy has to do with problem solving. Photography and printed words, the most powerful components of advertising, surged to the foreground, a reflection of the “increasingly widespread belief that the powerful can manipulate public language and pictures to their own ends.” The word “appropriation” gets bandied about. It is no accident that the book’s cover is a recaptioned version of Barbara Kruger’s I Shop Therefore I Am.
All these things—the battery of styles, the strategic thinking, the suspicion that even the most personal of feelings had been manipulated by external forces and covert agendas—were subsumed under the great conceptual golf umbrella of Postmodernism. The print, with its affinity for reiteration and multipart forms, proved to be an apt metonym for Postmodernism’s fractured and contingent world-view, as well as its critique of “originality.” Lorna Simpson’s Wigs (Portfolio), with its assortment of potentially transformative hairpieces isolated on felt, embodies this succinctly.
The first thing to acknowledge about the current exhibition and catalogue, Print/Out, is that there are few new ideas at play. True to the distinction drawn by Wye 16 years ago, this show is more interested in strategies than style, and most of the exhibited strategies—unexpected juxtapositions of found images; inserting unexpected content into common commercial forms; using images and objects as traces of absent events—are forty years old.
All decades are simply not created equal. Art changed fundamentally in Castleman’s “two decades,” and we have been living in the wake of that paradigm shift ever since. This is more or less acknowledged by “Print/ Out’s” curator, Christophe Cherix, whose introductory essay carefully roots the art on view in earlier concepts and forms: Rirkrit Tiravanija’s multiples echo those of Joseph Beuys, Damien Hirst’s word substitutions echo those of Marcel Broodthaers. Robert Rauschenberg appears for the fourth time in four shows, the only artist to do so. These pages offer moments of déjà-vu: the reproduced posters of Daniel Joseph Martinez are almost indistinguishable from those of Allen Ruppersberg (Fig. 7) in Thinking Print; Rirkrit Tiravanija’s pork sausage apron actually is the one shown in 1996.
Wye got around the paradigm shift problem by tying her show to the relationships between art and events in the world at large. Cherix’s line of attack is more convoluted. He talks about technology and how “since the Renaissance, prints have enabled artists to disseminate their works and ideas throughout the world,” yet the Internet— the single most important change of the last fifty years in the distribution and consumption of images—is essentially invisible. Kelley Walker’s Compass in Hand, a MoMA-owned work designed for free download, is not included, though others of his works are. Trisha Donnelly’s Satin Operator is apparently based on a downloaded photograph, but the reader must dig deep to discover this.
The idea that art has been transformed by digital technologies has been repeated so often that it seems perverse to challenge it, but the actual evidence is thin on the ground. Here we have a show called “Print/Out”—a title that would seem to shout “digital” from the rafters—composed almost entirely of woodcuts (a 14th-century technology), etchings (15th-century), lithographs (18th-century), and screenprints (early 20th-century). A half-dozen works list some kind of digital component, but only a couple actually address the questions raised by digital manipulation and distribution. The Copy Light/Factory project of the Danish collective Superflex (Fig. 8), in which the artists print out pictures of copyrighted modernist light fixtures and build lanterns that gradually fill the space over the course of the exhibition, takes on the single most fundamental issue of image use in our time: who owns what you see.
As a survey, “Print/Out” is, curiously, the smallest of all these shows: a mere 40 artists or collectives. It feels larger because almost every artist is represented by multipart works. Like Wye, Cherix sees the multipart format as essential to the way we think and live today—in snippets of discombobulated experience. That quality would seem to be more essential to his sense of this moment, in fact, than anything to do with technology. It is a feeling that is well-conveyed by the more contentious design concepts employed in the exhibition and the book: the infamous Ben-Day dot wallpaper (repeated in the book as dot-covered pages) and the disbanding of prints portfolios (also repeated in the book).
The earlier catalogues all followed a standard model: a single cogent essay followed by a section of reproduced artworks, generally one to a page, followed by back matter. In Print/Out, however, the introductory essay is succeeded by another ten texts—interviews and profiles of individual projects, printers, or artists. Each of these texts is separated into its own ten-page pseudo-dossier by dotcovered sheets an inch or so narrower than the width of the book. Each dossier contains its own battery of relevant reproductions, and each is separated from the next dossier by ten intervening pages covered with dots and scattered with prints.
These dossiers have their virtues: the one on Jacob Samuel provides real insight into the making of works of art; the sections on Rirkrit Tiravanija and museum in progress present large reproductions of multiple works, neatly contextualized. For those artists without a dossier to themselves, however, things are less jolly. Because the portfolios are broken, in order to see two-thirds of Pae White’s Untitled, for example, one must turn to pages 47, 88, 104, and 107. Big prints are reproduced bigger than little ones, which suggests relative scale but means that small works that require close reading are lost: Thomas Schütte’s intimate etchings show up as little more than vague blobs and Julie Mehrutu’s sublime line is reduced to grey fuzz. All are all robbed of the context and the cumulative build that is the purpose of the portfolio.
One has to assume that the goal of Print/ Out was fundamentally different from that of the previous catalogues. They aspired to be accessible sources of useful information about a selection of meaningful artworks, to remind people of a prior or absent experience. If that were Print/Out’s goal, it is improbably badly designed.4 Instead, its insistent thwarting of communication suggests a different aim. Much of the work that Cherix has selected promises content that it intentionally fails to deliver: Liam Gillick, Franz West, Lucy McKenzie, Slavs and Tatars, all offer poster-like prints that lack the poster’s raison d’etre, clear and timely information. Aleksandra Mir gives us miscaptioned picture postcards, Hans-Peter Feldmann gives us magazines stripped of stories. The Print/Out catalogue accomplishes something similar. If you are looking for beautifully reproduced, easy to find images and a lucid sense of where the contemporary print fits into the world at large, this catalogue is a source of frustration. But, if you are interested in a demonstration of how fragmentary and incomplete the promise of printed matter can be, the catalogue is extremely effective.
In 1974 conceptual artist Eleanor Antin observed, “all description is a form of creation,” and one strain of Postmodern thought has been devoted to pointing out that the re-presentation of information is never transparent, that all reproduction distorts what it purports to report, that there is always a hidden agenda. This slightly paranoid view is well-represented in Print/Out, with its masses of dysfunctional documents.
Looked at this way, Print/Out can be seen as an artifact of a larger trend in which the experience of works of art has been replaced by discourse about works of art. In 1966, Contemporary Painters and Sculptors needed about 38 words per artist to make its point. Print/Out employs some 450. This includes interviews, so some of the words belong to the artists. Nonetheless, it feels like the balance between curatorial voice and artist’s voice has not simply shifted; it is as if an elephant sat down on one side and catapulted the artists out of the park.
In 1980, Riva Castleman claimed that the engagement with print media “ultimately produced a change in attitude toward what art work is.” In Print/Out, Cherix writes, “prints have become so ubiquitous, in fact, that they appear to have been almost fully absorbed into contemporary art practice in general.”
Perhaps the same is true of catalogues.
- In fact, the show did include (though the catalogue did not reproduce) The Big Rock (1961) by Gabor Peterdi, a specialist printmaker if ever there were one.
- The plan was derailed when artists protesting the war in Vietnam refused to participate.
- The toll of AIDS is poignantly visible in Thinking Print in the number of young artists who did not live to see the show: Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
- The catalogue was designed by Mevis and Van Deursen, Amsterdam.