On Graphics

by Susan Tallman

July 2015

The term “graphic design” first appeared in the 1920s in an essay by the American book designer William Addison Dwiggins, titled “A New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design.” New kinds of printing were also instrumental in changing the art landscape of the ‘60s and for a while the English-speaking art world warmed to the use of the word “graphics” to describe contemporary printed art—it seemed fresher than “prints” and broad enough to welcome production methods that were not quite “printmaking.” It also suggested a willingness to cozy up to realms of commercial art spurned by the original print movement a century earlier.  

More recently, however, makers and keepers of artists’ prints have taken some pains to distinguish art from design—different MFA programs, different museum departments, different distribution networks (once you get beyond Etsy). This is true even though many of the works in question employ the same tools and visual vocabulary. The critical distinction is theoretically the origin of impulse—an artist can use device X to make whatever point she likes, while a designer working for hire would employ device X to promote product Y as required by the client.  This is clearly an imperfect distinction, and enough works violate it to keep the borderlands lively.         

This is the territory investigated by several articles in this issue of Art in Print. Nate Evuarherhe reviews the career of the Anglo-American artist and designer Edward McKnight Kauffer whose aspirations were launched by the 1913 Armory Show but were realized within the newly-named field of graphic design. David Ensminger’s discussion of black light poster design and Elizabeth Savage’s account of an early 16th century gold-printed woodcut of Charles V both address how design questions and novel materials can be applied to carry political and aesthetic implications. Most of the works Ensminger describes would be categorized as pop cultural ephemera, though some were made by artists working within a politicized art context. The makers of the Charles V print, operating within a guild system of artisan designers, block-cutters and printers might have seen themselves as commercial creators (Did they truly love Charles V? Or were their decisions and innovations predicated on an anticipated market?)

The Art Institute of Chicago’s recent mezzotint survey, “Burnishing the Night” (reviewed here by Julie Warchol) meanders between “original” prints, reproductive prints, and botanical and medical images that—if they were made today—would be classed as illustration. Historically fascinating and visually spectacular, these once-scientific images prompt questions about whether the art/design distinction resides in their originating purpose or in the uses we currently have for things.

Joseph Beuys and Richard Long are among the 20th century artists who produced the kinds of editions for which the term “graphics” was made: limited editions, rife with critical art content made manifest through typography, photo/text relationships, and other strategies of graphic design. Beuys of course spent decades attempting to obviate the art/life/design/consumption divides by strategically repositioning commonplace materials and activities. The recent survey of his multiples at Mitchell-Innes and Nash (reviewed by Allison Rudnick) offered a singular opportunity to see the astonishing profusion of his efforts.

For decades, Long’s books and prints used graphic design solutions to convey the experience of specific landscapes through organized texts and images, as well as through the relocation of materials. But as Ina Cole explains in her review of his recent Spike Island Tapes project, Long is now working more allusively, titling the pieces after pop tunes rather and printing with brightly colored inks that evoke rather than represent.

The frisson of the art/design crossover is explicit in the woodcut You Me by Paula Scher, reviewed by Faye Hirsch. Scher is an eminent designer—a principal in Pentagram and creator of the ubiquitous Citibank logo—and her largely typographic print relies on her skills even as it slips into the buzzing ambiguity of reductive poetry.

Other reviews in this issue examine the major retrospective of Luc Tuymans’ seductive, melancholy prints at the Centre de la Gravure et l’Image Imprimée in La Louvière (Kate McCrickard); Aaron Spangler’s densely-packed, enormous woodcuts at Highpoint Editions in Minneapolis (Mason Riddle); the seven-decade-long career of Eldzier Cortor at the Art Institute of Chicago (Andrea Ferber); and the fiftieth iteration of IPCNY’s critically important New Prints program (Susan Tallman).

Our News section includes a report on the new MAD fair of prints, books and multiples, which launched in Paris in May, as well as a round-up of the spring auction season.

Finally, this issue’s winner of the Prix de Print is Karen Kunc’s Oscellation Shift (2015), which juror David Storey describes as an intricate ambitious ode to blue.  Though made with techniques half-a-millennium old, its dramatic scale and chromatic power attract the descriptive term “graphic.” If only we knew what we meant by it.