On Substance

by Susan Tallman

July 2011

A year ago I was chatting with artist Jane Kent about a project she was working on, an innovative construction of text, image and physical stuffs. Both clever and profound, it employed a beautiful story by Richard Ford, and queried the rich relationship between images and words, but it was difficult to see who would publish anything on it. It was too small, too intimate, too particular an endeavor for mainstream art magazines, but also too ambitious and complex to be squeezed into a blog-post. Art on Paper no longer existed and The Print Collector’s Newsletter was long gone. We tutted and tsked and opined that someone should start a new journal. We talked about all the great art, and smart critics, and quirky, fascinating, brilliant facets of pictures-in-the-world that such a journal could tap into. By the end of the conversation, we had it pretty well mapped-out—this job for someone else to do.

We were right about everything except the “someone else.”

Art in Print is the overdue child of that conversation. I mention this in part to acknowledge a debt (hopefully discharged to some extent by the article about Kent’s project in the current issue) and in part because the quandary of the too-small, , too-ambitious artwork illuminates a gap in contemporary discussions of art and culture—namely the tendency to overlook the small in pursuit of the big picture.

In this issue of Art in Print, artist Andrew Raftery writes of examining engraved plates through his Optivisor magnifying binocular headband, the ultimate print geek accessory. Despite the eccentric headgear, Raftery is not oblivious to larger questions about the way images work but—along other contributors here—he reminds us that the seemingly immaterial functioning of “the image” and the clunky specifics of that image’s housing are not separable. The study of prints logically links physical facts to visual effects, to conceptual impacts, to social engagements, and then back again. This can be seen in Christopher Cozier’s rubber stamps, and in 18th century engravings, and in 21st century prints from South Africa. (This chain is also at play in painting, of course, but seems more easily—or in any case more often—ignored there.)

In Prints and Visual Communication, William Ivins taught us to think about “syntax”—the way that any visual message is limited, structured and distorted by the materials and terms of its making. This weighty insight, which had far-reaching implications for art history and for cultural analysis at large, was the result of a career spent observing detail in a manner that was precise, possibly even petty. Ivins had a particular gripe against engraving for having duped the cultured elite into accepting a rigid language of dots and hatches as a substitute for the efflorescence of visible creation. Writing in 1950, he argued that photomechanical reproduction had at last liberated us into a syntax-free world of transparent visual communication, a benevolent WYSWYG visual era. From where we now sit, that seems charmingly naïve. We have the historical distance to notice that Winckelmann looked at an engraving and saw the Laocoön where Ivins saw dots and hatches; Ivins looked at photomechanical reproduction and saw Rembrandt where we see a halftone screen.

And us? Some of us look at pixels and see paintings. The rest of us whip out our Optivisors.