On Pictures at Some Exhibitions

by Susan Tallman

May 2012

Prints are so neatly suited to collecting (rarely has an art form announced “collect them all” quite so clearly), that it is easy to forget how poorly they can fare in exhibition. Often small and intricate, they can be difficult to see under glass or at a distance. Then there is the fact that the poetics of reiteration, accumulation and variation that are the glory of print portfolios are usually lost in displays cramped for wall space. And of course works on paper are dodgy about light and must be shepherded back to the safety of Solander boxes at regular intervals. So it is not surprising that museum print galleries are often small, unobtrusive spaces tucked away behind the stairs. The last half-year, however, has seen a number of ambitious print exhibitions—from Harvard’s majestic “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge” to the Museum of Modern Art’s provocative “Print/Out“—that have had profound things to say about the interaction of art, print and culture.

“Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge is one of those grand historical shows that shed light on things that have been lying around for eons without attracting much attention—in this case, the body of printed matter upon which science as a human endeavor was built. These include prints that could be cut and glued to become useful tools; prints that offered evidence of the physical world pictorially (Dürer’s famous Rhinoceros) or schematically (horoscopes, maps, geometries); prints that, like poetry, represented allegorically a particular mode of mind. What might have been a dry display of sheets locked away in vitrines was given life with replicas that could be handled at will, magnifying glasses that seduced visitors to go slow and search for details, and a light-safe cupboard whose doors the visitor had to open for a peek at the vivid colors of Springinklee’s astonishing 1515 astrolabe. The exhibition guest book at Northwestern University’s Block Museum bore the scrawled message, “I loved it!!! ♥ Emma, Age 6.”

The difficulties faced by “Print/Out,” the latest iteration of the Museum of Modern Art’s periodic print overview, were of a different order. In the category of thankless tasks, organizing a high profile, infrequent, international survey of contemporary art must be up there with chaperoning a middle school dance. Viewers expect the show to represent the curator’s personal vision but also to reflect the world as perceived by everyone else; to be global and inclusive, but also coherent and reasoned; to reflect the diversity of the contemporary art scene and still have a central point to make. To its credit, “Print/Out” does not attempt to define the current “state of the print.” Instead it suggests that there is no “state,” rather a diffuse territory lying everywhere and nowhere—a land of Command-P and outsourcing, as well as of acid baths and burins.

The distinguishing characteristics of what has come to be called the “original print” are hard to pinpoint in either of these shows. Was Dürer making original prints when he added images to the celestial maps composed by Johannes Stabius and Conrad Heinfogel? Is Permanent Food, a magazine of pages taken from other magazines, original in the same way? Is originality a function of how something is produced, or how it is perceived by the viewer? For a long time, the original print was defined by exclusion—original prints did not reproduce things created in other media. “CopyCat” at the Clark Art Institute is the most recent exhibition to take reproductive prints seriously as objects of study, deployed historical artworks to address some of the same questions embedded in the contemporary art of “Print/Out.” Meanwhile, the Ellsworth Kelly print retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art offers another angle on the question. Kelly’s early lithographs replicated his paintings, but Kelly is so attuned to the specific properties of visual experience—light, color, weight, shape, scale—his prints quickly became things in their own right. Whether or not the composition exists elsewhere seems irrelevant.

Great prints have always engaged in savvy negotiations between the power of distribution and the power of a specific presence (this paper, this ink, this place on earth). Renaissance printmakers undoubtedly thought of their work in more utilitarian terms than Ellsworth Kelly does his; their images had jobs to do, and 16th-century artists did not have the expansive options of papers, inks, and techniques that make the physical attributes of contemporary prints read as meaningful choices. Nonetheless, we pay those now ancient objects a different kind of attention than we do their commonplace reproductions. The calculus of attention varies with our perception of how rare or how repeatable an experience is.

During the run of “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge” Harvard University Art Museums ran a nifty website with that allowed visitors to explore virtually, and even download an anatomy flap print by Heinrich Vogtherr as a phone app. This is fun, but quite different from encountering the woodcut on its hoary grey paper. The exploration of that difference is core to both “Print/Out” and “Copycat,” as it should be to the thinking of anyone who cares about visual experience.

This is why print exhibitions remain vital. Download the brochure, but go to the museum.