On Art in Print

by Susan Tallman

May 2011

Leo Steinberg put it best: “without prints you don’t understand the culture of the world.” Steinberg, who died in March, wrote about everything from Christ’s genitalia to Jasper Johns’ targets, but what he collected was prints. Thousands and thousands of them—reproductive prints, original prints, hand-drawn working proofs, unprepossessing documents of lost masterpieces and independent works of visual splendor. He collected prints over their full geographical and chronological range because he was as interested in the ideas that connected these things as he was in the things themselves.

Prints have given us the modern world—the world made possible by what William Ivins called “exactly repeatable pictorial statements.” Once upon a time, those statements were created with weighty slabs of wood or copper or stone, objects that could be hauled out of a closet after a century and a half, inked up and launched back into service (see “Printed Bodies” in this issue). These days the template may be an altogether flightier thing: a jumble of binary markers that requires another jumble of binary markers to be translated into a set of electronic signals that, somewhere down the road, bring into being things we can see. Sometimes those things are not really “things” at all, but evanescent pixels leaping on a screen. Sometimes those things are two-meter-long woodcuts or two-ton stone altars. (see “Christiane Baumgartner Changing States” and “New Work by Giambattista Piranesi”).

We have come to take the action of the template as a matter of course. We don’t expect images, objects, texts or conversations to happen directly. We assume the existence of go-betweens, devices, mediations between the instigator and the recipient. It’s the air we breathe. So it is hardly surprising that many of the essential attributes of printed images have become fundamental to contemporary art. Take a walk through the contemporary wing of your local museum and count the number of works that do not employ print media, imitate print media, or allude to print media. You probably won’t need both hands.

Art historians and curators, meanwhile, have followed Steinberg’s lead and retreated from the masterpiece paradigm that had governed the discipline for decades (singular moment + singular genius = singular masterpiece). Instead, they increasingly look at art objects more as very interesting nodes in a network of cultural exchanges (see “Embracing the Whole Story”.)

All this makes “the print” a topic that is both slippery and urgent. This is why we have founded Art in Print. The plan for this publication has taken shape over the past year through discussion with artists, historians, collectors, dealers, curators, and people who happened to be in print fairs because it was raining outside. Through our website, artinprint.org, we will make available up-to-the-minute information about prints for both specialists and the virtual equivalent of people taking refuge from the rain. Through our journal, we will delve deeper with important writing on prints and print issues, creating a lasting archive of substantial articles and reviews. Though for practical reasons the language of Art in Print will be English, we aim to have a global spread of subject matter, contributors and content.

In this, our first issue, we offer a variety of articles and reviews. Some focus on prints that are centuries old, some on art that was made this year, but all are rooted the dynamic history of prints as, in Vito Acconci’s phrase, “instruments in the world.” We hope that Art in Print will act as a locus for prints and the ideas that flow through and around them.

Art in Print is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) endeavor, meant to serve the print community as a whole, and its success will depend on the support of that community. We invite you to become involved, to contribute content, opinion, suggestions, information, and financial support.