On Taxonomy

by Susan Tallman

September 2016

Sitting in a café, Catherine Oliphant, the central character in Barbara Pym’s 1955 novel Less Than Angels, hears two office workers discussing a predecessor:

“Just you guess what she’s filed it under,” said one in a tone of triumphant anticipation.
“I really can’t think,” said the other, pandering to her friend.
“M. M for miscellaneous, I suppose! Did you ever hear of anything so silly?”
“I always believe in plenty of cross references. When I leave there won’t be the slightest difficulty in finding things.”
Ah, but there will, Catherine thought. Understanding somebody else’s filing system is just about as easy as really getting to know another human being. Just when you think you know everything about them, there’s the impossible happening, the M for Miscellaneous when you naturally assumed it would be under something else.

Pym’s observation applies to any attempt at precisely parsing information, whether in the form of carbon copies, PDFs or paintings on canvas. The greater the abundance of items and the more numerous the conceptual grappling hooks they throw out, the more heroic the challenge. Not surprisingly, prints, with their inexhaustible profusion, have both lured and repelled those of a tidy frame of mind. Among other heroic efforts, prints gave rise to Adam Bartsch’s 20-volume Peintre Gravure (1803–1821), a work described by Peter Parshall as “one of the most astonishing accomplishments in the history of cataloguing works of art,” and also as “the giant mouse that would eventually consume the field of print studies.”

In Parshall’s view, Bartsch’s focus on minutiae and rarity effectively disconnected this most connected of art forms from its essential raison d’être as “a unique kind of binding matrix in the history of art.” In a 2013 essay for the Print Council of America newsletter, and in his lecture to the Association of Print Scholars last year, Parshall opened up debate about the status of prints as a specialized domain. To what extent do medium-specific organizations—museum departments, scholarly bodies or periodicals such as this one—offer productive opportunities for discovery and to what extent do they enforce isolation? The impassioned response—pro and con—that greeted Parshall’s observations was an indication of how vital these questions remain.

A slightly revised version of Parshall’s APS lecture anchors this issue of Art in Print, where it appears alongside responses from other scholars and related reviews of exhibitions and books. In one essay, Patricia Emison champions the physical particularity of prints as well as their conceptual connectivity, asking us to consider the print room not “as the castle keep but as the engine room of our culture.” Ad Stijnman argues for a distinct approach to material understanding in the field, proposing that art historians be trained not simply in the observation of physical appearances but in the techniques used to produce them.

Parshall and Emison both take note of the dizzying variety of object types, materials, social uses and aesthetic aspirations that are lumped together under the heading “prints.” Kenneth Alfred, selected by Kate McCrickard as the winner of the current Prix de Print, is the very definition of a peintre-graveur, but how should we categorize the genre-bending, print-based animations showcased at IPCNY (reviewed by Elleree Erdos)? Or the 19th-century mass-market woodcut of the Hindu goddess Kali that is the subject of Faye Hirsch’s article? The unique, miracle-working icon that is the subject of Lisa Pon’s recent book (reviewed by Evelyn Lincoln) and Camille Henrot’s new, esoteric UV print on rubber (reviewed by Laurie Hurwitz) are both somehow prints despite sharing neither methodology nor substrate. The woodcuts in Antony Gormley’s recent exhibition (reviewed by Ina Cole) were produced with somewhat the same means as the icon, but their ambitions as art would likely be incomprehensible to the earlier work’s maker.

For art historians, the wrinkle with prints was always whether they were things to read through for the information they provided, or to be cherished for the objects they were. Bartsch’s giant mouse sat down firmly in the latter camp, but the great contribution of the 20th century was a more encompassing embrace. “The Power of Prints” (reviewed by Catherine Bindman) celebrated the centenary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s great print department as well as the genius of its first two guiding lights, William Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor. “I’m happy to say that I was never specialized,” Mayor observed. “One can’t be in prints. Because they leak out into everything, into city planning, into the law, into dynastic history, into all the technologies.”

Ivins and Mayor were prescient: by the 1960s the tension between that-which-is and that-which-points-elsewhere was the dominant subject of contemporary art, as it remains today. It is there in Paul Coldwell’s prints and sculptures (reviewed by Christian Rümelin); in Bruce Connor’s monumental “Life of Christ” tapestries, derived from the artist’s delicate collages of 19th-century Bible illustrations (reviewed by Charles Schultz); and it underlies the astonishing arc of Frank Stella’s printmaking career, documented in Richard Axsom’s expanded catalogue raisonné (reviewed by Roni Feinstein).

Finally, in his Art in Art in Print project, Alex Massouras has etched small, Polaroid-sized portraits of plaster casts—three outmoded technologies of reproduction encased in a contemporary one: the digitally printed pages of this journal. File under C for Classicism, P for Plaster, or M for Miscellaneous.