On Domesticity

by Susan Tallman

September 2014

There are many words of faint praise with which works of art can be damned, but “domestic” is surely one of the most condescending. Even if we eliminate the noun’s implication of servitude, the adjective is usually meant to denote things that are small and tame without the compensating virtue of being endearing. Important art, we are told again and again, is large and wild—belligerent rather than accommodating, adventurous rather than homely. In a word: nondomestic.

The obvious gender component to these distinctions has been broadly acknowledged: in contrast to the manly realms of battle, industry, and executive office suites, feminized domestic space has been seen, almost by definition, as less culturally significant—the realm of “decoration” rather than “art.” This is problematic in and of itself, but it has had specific implications for the print. Prints are traditionally domestic in scale and demeanor. They live indoors. And this quality has certainly contributed to their marginalization. At the same time, of course, prints are the most widely traveled, socially gregarious and conceptually complex of art objects. For this issue of Art in Print, we invited writers, artists and scholars to consider domesticity—the domain where art and life intersect most intimately—in all its conflicted glory.

One of the many achievements of 19th century French art was its reassertion of domestic life as a legitimate subject of painting—pictures of casual interiors proliferated at the same time that new print technologies altered the appearance of those interiors. Julia Hendrickson looks at how Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters manipulated printed wallpaper backdrops to serve the modernist reconfiguration of space and representation. Stephen Bann’s new book, Distinguished Images, reviewed here by Hans Jakob Meier, details the slow, meandering drift in 19th century attitudes as engraving gave way to photographic reproduction on the one hand and “original” prints on the other.

Throughout the past century, efforts were made to reclaim domesticity as a domain of critical thought and creativity: Henri Matisse (exhibition review by Chara Kolokytha) famously invited the domestic environment into the picture with his ideal of an art that was “something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” The early prints of Lyonel Feininger (exhibition review by Catherine Bindman) purposefully invoked the small scale and casual intimacy of childhood toys. June Wayne (exhibition review by Sharon Mizota) experimented with “domesticated” art forms from print to textiles.

Jasper Johns’ recent prints (exhibitions review by Allison Rudnick) continue to intertwine the pedestrian and the profound: the loaded title of his Regrets series comes from a rubber stamp the artist had made for declining invitations. Jim Dine’s mammoth new portfolio, which I write about here, bridges impersonal ideology and the artist’s own hardware store of the heart by supplementing found East German lithographs with his own toolbox.

The postwar desire of artists to break down the barriers between art and life prompted a flurry of artworks that imitated domestic objects, and domestic objects that imitated artworks. Among the most quixotic of these hybrids were the “paper dresses” produced in the late 1960s and discussed here by Stamos Fafalios and Vassilis Zidianakis. The “Wallworks” exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin documented a further stage in this trajectory: the appropriation of whole swathes of interior architecture, not as backdrop but as a primary surface for art. Louise Lawler’s recent works seize control of the wall through scalable vector tracings of her earlier photographs of the private life of “great art”—the Pollock in the dining room, the Hirst in the storage space.

The private collection is an obvious nexus of art and domesticity, and Sarah Grant examines a thought-provoking pair of exhibitions: Georg Baselitz’s superb collection of chiaroscuro woodcuts, and Count Christian Duerckheim’s collection of works by Baselitz and other postwar German artists.

The title of Edward Bawden’s 1946 Life in an English Village suggests twee domestic cliché, but as Andrew Raftery shows, the book is both a gimlet-eyed depiction of postwar domestic life and a complicated domestic object in its own right, small enough to fit in a jacket pocket without deforming the seams—modest, unassuming, stealthy and sad. Perilous discontent is similarly the implicit subject of Brian Cohen’s tender portrait etching, selected by Nigel Frank as the winner of this issue’s Prix de Print, in which the gleaming pate of Walter White, Breaking Bad’s milquetoast meth-dealer, emerges from oblivion.

We round off the issue with Jasper Kettner’s review of White Noise, the first major catalogue of the prints of Christiane Baumgartner, whose smart, compelling, rock-solid renditions of ephemeral imagery bring it all home.