On Anarchy

by Susan Tallman

March 2012

Five-hundred and twenty years ago, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and failed to wrap his way around the globe. Ten years later, trying for the fourth time, he got as far as Central America (with disastrous consequences for its civilizations), failed yet again to find a passage to India, and effectively proved to his thirteen-year-old son, Ferdinand, that the world is full of surprises.

Ferdinand himself would later try to circumscribe the world in his own way, through a vast library and an encyclopedic collection of prints. Ferdinand’s famous print collection is now lost, but his astonishingly precise inventory, with its descriptions and complex taxonomies, remains, allowing scholars to reconstruct his ambitious endeavor. Prints, like books, offered Ferdinand a dream of completeness. With paintings and other unique objects, existence in one place dictates absence everywhere else. One has to accept lacunae. But the multiplicity of the print makes it imaginable—or at least did in 1520—that one could actually have a copy of everything.

It may seem that not much has changed over the past half-millennium. As Deborah Wye observed in the first issue of this publication, speaking about the Museum of Modern Art: “the philosophy of print collecting is to acquire as much as you can, to amass a library of images.” But unlike Ferdinand, we don’t expect that library of images to reveal a cogent plan. Ferdinand’s thousands of prints represented the cacophony of the creation, but his taxonomy was a statement of faith in an orderly universe. In our post-quantum, post-Heisenberg universe, we have less trust in the idea that completion is possible or even desirable. Ours is a culture of calculus, of derivatives and differentials. For us, prints represent the world precisely because they are so uncompromisingly divergent in their aspirations: they can be cheap and tawdry, prissy and pretentious, spectacular, intricate, rude, informative or mercantile. They are used to make money (both literally and metonymically), and they are used to express the mysteries of existence. They offer an archive of anarchy. In this issue of Art in Print, the last number of our first year, writers and artists examine various slivers of this archive, and ask questions about its uses.

David Ensminger has collected more than two thousand band flyers in an online archive of punk productivity. Most of these works lie on the periphery of what can be considered “the artist’s print”—they were created for a practical purpose, were meant to be ephemeral, and harbored no conscious ambition to be seen as high art. In this they differ profoundly from the terse, formal prints of Alex Katz collected in the catalogue raisonné reviewed here, and not much at all from the Renaissance printed headgear, DIY sundials, and board games discussed in our review of the Art Institute of Chicago exhibition and catalogue, Altered and Adorned.

Annesas Appel, whose new editions are reviewed here, uses statistical data derived from her own library—letter frequency in book titles, color frequency in covers—to generate visuals that describe the data while poetically missing the point. The starting point of Enrique Chagoya’s codices, analyzed by Sarah Kirk Hanley is a lost library—the thousands upon thousands of books once scattered over the Central American landmass that Ferdinand Columbus visited so briefly. Most of these books perished in Spanish bonfires; a few were preserved, in collections very much like Columbus’ own. The question Chagoya asks is, what if it had all played out differently? What if it had been Columbus’ library that got plundered, its remnants turning up as prize possessions of King Nezahualcóyotl?

The German Romantic prints that Catherine Bindman writes about belong to Charles Booth-Clibborn, the founder of Paragon Press, best known for publishing prints by Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, and other YBAs. Booth-Clibborn’s collection is both massive and unexpected – German Romantic prints might be considered a fairly sleepy corner of the universal archive, far from the kicks of contemporary art. But look at the emblematic work of this exhibition, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe’s 1801 Et in Arcadia Ego—an elegantly intertwined half-clad couple, turned away from us in reverie, within a jungle of cabbage leaves the size of elephants and grasses the height of a bungalow. A hybrid of Poussin and The Borrowers, it should be ridiculous, but is unexpectedly touching: Kolbe has taken all the longing and loss and restiveness implicit in the idea of Arcadia, and placed not in some vague dream of Italy, but at the bottom of the garden. There is something inherently printy about his tactics —the small becoming large; the abstract and grandiose being given form in something particular and accessible; and the crazy, abrupt and unexpected confrontation of unlikely things.

Anarchy in Arcadia.