On the Wall

by Susan Tallman

November 2016

Prints are, most commonly, pictures of things. But they are also frequently pictures on things. Take the early 19th-century panoramic wallpaper that opens this issue of Art in Print. It depicts Roman ruins, Roman skies and Roman bushes, but it sits stolidly adhered to the four walls of a dining room in a house in the Berkshires. It offers many illusions—the fantasy of being far away, of being out of doors, of brick and mortar dissolved into blue heaven and rolling campagna—and at the same time, provides the tangible assurance of being exactly what it is: printed paper glued to plaster and lathe. As discussed by Catherine Bindman and by the house’s owners, artists James Siena and Katia Santibañez, the magic lies in this doubling of solid reality and make-believe.

If the term “architectural prints” prompts visions of Piranesi etchings and their many near relations, the centuries of conversation between flat paper and three-dimensional structures have produced a nimble variety of strategies and forms—wallpaper and Piranesi’s views are two, to which we might add architectural blueprints, schematized projections, printed paper models and an endless array of depicted interior spaces.

Contributors to this issue have looked at the many ways that artists negotiate between the space of architecture and the space of the page. In some cases, the connection is clear to see: in her Subjective Catalog of Columns (2015), recently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, architect Ania Jaworska mimicked the didactic crib sheets of architectural orders and styles that have served to educate architects for centuries; Julie Warchol discusses her wry accounting of recent architectural history through the styling of vertical support elements.

A more conceptual—even existential—critique of the discipline is embedded in Fantastic Architecture,the 1970 book assembled by Fluxus artists Wolf Vostell and Dick Higgins. Paige K. Johnston reconsiders this “tripped-out thought experiment,” recently re-released in facsimile form, and its contention that only the unfettered ideas of art could save architecture from the late-20th-century economic forces.

In the project selected by Chang Yuchen for this issue’s Prix de Print, artist Colin Lyons has gone further—not simply proffering a visionary design on paper but building one: his Time Machine for Abandoned Futures (2015) features a roof of composed etching plates and acid that together form a battery to power the electrolytic cleaning of mechanical detritus left behind after the Klondike Gold Rush.

Barbara Kasten is best known for abstract still-life and architectural photographs that fragment the perceptions of coherent space, but her earliest work with photography used the human figure, a bentwood chair, a drafting grid and the architectural-office medium of diazotype; Lauren Fulton reports on the recent exhibition of these seldom seen works.

Other essays and reviews here touch only lightly on architecture, but it is always present. The National Gallery of Art’s survey, Three Centuries of American Prints, reviewed here by Catherine Bindman, charts American visual culture from its early images-as-tools pragmatism to its sophisticated images-as-art dominance, which also means from pictures-in-an-album to pictures-on-the-wall. As is evident from Ivy Cooper’s examination of contemporary printmaking in St. Louis, artists routinely consider the print as an occupier of space, not simply a delineator of it.

The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition of Degas monotypes (so substantial it is covered here by two writers) included no pictures of buildings, yet the artist’s ability to evoke the intimacy of close interior spaces is essential to the power of many of these works, as Vincent Katz  and Joseph Goldyne point out. Katz also reviews the Morgan Library and Museum’s recent exhibition charting Henri Matisse’s involvement with the art of the book, from Mallarmé’s Poésies to his own famous Jazz—a work that can be viewed both in the lap and on the wall.

Finally, this issue contains a survey of recent work by Christian Marclay, an artist who has spent his career elucidating the incongruence of sound and vision. His work isn’t about architecture, but few artists have focused more persistently on our myriad, imperfect strategies for representing one type of experience through another. People often talk about the “failure of representation,” but failure is too pejorative a word. As with the Colosseum over the mantelpiece in the Berkshires, there is space for delight in the gap between experience and its representation—the gap that bedevils and enchants and motivates all the activities we call art.