On Broadcasting

by Susan Tallman

July 2013

Over the past 150 years or so, as printing came to dominate the visual environment, printmaking became a critical tool for artists seeking the nature of modern experience. Some were drawn to the visual effects of certain techniques, but the critical quality linking printmaking to modern life was multiplicity: the simple, mind-bending ability to be two places at once. Multiplicity can make things cheaper; it can make them ubiquitous; it can help them to crash social barriers and bridge geographical distances; it is—as every entomologist knows—a good strategy for intergenerational survival. In this issue of Art in Print we lay out a diverse array of subjects—from Enrique Chagoya’s glosses on Francesco Goya to the influence of Ukiyo-e prints on Frank Lloyd Wright—all tied, one way or another, to the power of multiplicity.

This issue also introduces a new series, “Treasures from the Vault,” in which we invite a curator, collector or artist to pick a single work to discuss in depth. Our first guest is Christine Giviskos of the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University who examines Henri-Gabriel Ibels’s poster for his own 1894 exhibition. Ibels borrows motifs from his expansive bodies of prints—limited edition portfolios as well as commercial designs that connected serious visual art and popular entertainment, images both of the world and in the world.

This compound role of printmaking in fin de siècle France was also in evidence in the exhibition “The Impressionist Line from Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec: Drawings and Prints from the Clark,” reviewed by Britany Salsbury. Artists gravitated to printmaking because its layered logic facilitated a certain kind of experimentalism (witness Degas’ practice of churning out monotypes to use as the basis of pastel drawings); because its techniques suited the formal simplification, flattening and abstraction that were essential to burgeoning modernism; and because the print functions socially in a way that painting does not.
The ability of the print to broadcast an aesthetic idea is fundamental to the architectural developments documented in “Ukiyo-e in Chicago” by Ellen Roberts.  It also underlies Enrique Chagoya’s cheeky, poignant adaptations of Goya etchings, examined here by Sarah Kirk Hanley. While Ukiyo-e prints were commercially produced and populist in appeal, Goya’s etchings are more ambivalent objects—they describe the plight of common people but have always been collected as “high art.” Chagoya further articulates this paradox as he borrows, adapts, and scrupulously makes images by hand.

The exhibitions and events reviewed here coalesce around the 20th century’s romance between printed images and published poetry, from Henri Matisse’s Mallarmé-induced reveries to Leslie Dill’s channeling of Emily Dickinson. Despite radical differences in style, these works were unified by their willingness to relinquish certain types of control: to begin with another person’s words, to pursue an idea through obstreperous techniques, to expose through publishing something private.

The “original” artist’s print has been a culturally rich territory for the past hundred and fifty years precisely because of—not in spite of—these ironies. Most prints are neither mass-produced nor unique; their family tree includes both illuminated manuscripts and trade paperbacks. Keigo Takahashi’s reduction woodcut, discussed by Elleree Erdos, was printed in an edition of seven, but even that small edition directs the viewer’s attention to the materials and processes used in a way that a simple drawing of the image would not.

These issues—the handshake between art and pop culture; the division of powers between artist, fabricator and audience; the accessibility of art objects; the visibility of process—have been critical to art for the past 150 years and multiplicity has been an important tool in their pursuit.

As Sarah Andress points out in her review of the “1913 Armory Show Revisited” exhibition, even such art historical lynchpins as the famous “International Exhibition of Modern Art” succeeded largely through print: nearly half the works sold from the 1913 show were prints, and the exhibition’s most infamous painting, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Stair, 2, was made infamous by the many printed reproductions made of it. These details are seldom mentioned, but critical to our understanding of how art influences events.

In his critique of Art Since 1900, the current standard text on art of the 20th century, historian Robert Palter documents the contradiction that plagues modern art history: the persistently retrograde—one might even say patrician—disdain for actual multiplicity among even the most forward looking and left-leaning of writers. The 20th century was when mass image production became a critical cultural force; when artists and critics staked their positions—pro or con—relative to pop imagery, kitsch and propaganda; when the social function of art objects in the world became the topic of art itself. Nonetheless, most histories of 20th century art continue to discuss these developments almost exclusively through painting and sculpture, unique objects produced for a tiny a group of highly privileged people. ignoring the passionate attention paid to prints and multiplicity by most of the century’s major artists.

In the end it will be artists who determine how prints matter. In his new book, A Printmaker’s Document (reviewed here by Mel Becker), Jim Dine writes that he has made more than 1000 prints, and adds “I’m not done yet.”  The entomologist smiles.