On the Edge of Visibility

by Susan Tallman

September 2018

Visual art is meant to be looked at. And yet for centuries artists have made work that is strategically and literally hard to see: too small, too dark or too intricate to make easy friends with the human retina. Such art is difficult to show and even more difficult to reproduce, so this fall, Art in Print is partnering with International Print Center New York to produce both an issue and an exhibition on the edge of visibility (on view from 4 October to 19 December 2018). Included here is an annotated guide to the exhibition, as well as essays and interviews that shed light on the artists and works on view within it.

Viewing is at the heart of this exercise—what it means to see, physically, metaphysically, socially and politically. As with all good art, these works carry multiple avenues of thought that overlap and intersect in myriad ways, but among them one can discern several distinct impetuses.

For a start, there is the Mosaic injunction against images, and the primacy given to language in religions of the book. The millennium-old Jewish tradition of forming pictures from micrographic texts is represented directly by the work of Levi David van Gelder (1816–1878) and indirectly in its adaptation to Christian subjects in engravings by Johann Michael Püchler (1680–1702). In post-Bellum America, William Pratt (1822–1893) applied it to political texts and portraits, while Fiona Banner takes the form forward into our own cinematic era.

In the art of Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967) and Boris Margo (1902–1995) slight differentiations of color or texture configure images that can only be seen once the eye has had time to adapt to their subtlety. Like Susan York’s auratic lithographs, they conjure a kind of perceptual sublime, in which analytic thought gives way to the magic of vision.

The edge of visibility is an uncertain place where things flicker between absence and presence. On the cover of the 24 September 2001 New Yorker, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly invoked the palpable shock of sudden absence with the presence of Twin Tower silhouettes against black sky; in November 2017 Megan Foster screenprinted a silhouetted flag at half mast in darkness—an elegy for democracy itself. Philippe Parreno’s Fade to Black screenprints, seen in normal light, appear to be blank rectangles of color. Turn out the lights, however, and images of the artist’s unrealized projects phosphoresce into view before gradually extinguish themselves. 

The uncanny and the dubious visibility of the paranormal is a phantasmic presence in Barbara Bloom’s UFO watermarks, Christian Marclay’s record jacket collage Untitled (Ghost) and Kerry James Marshall’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. As Bloom has pointed out (and the Internet has confirmed ad nauseam) we don’t so much believe what we see as see what we’ve already decided to believe. Vision is inevitably social and psychological as well as optical.

Race-based invisibility and its consequences are the explicit subjects of Samuel Levi Jones’s black-on-black 48 Portraits, and ofGlen Ligon’s cream-on-cream redux of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.” Walid Raad addresses cultural and historical erasure globally in his spare white-on-white delineations of architectural museum voids.

These are covert pictures. In most cases our initial idea about them will be wrong, and rightly so. Matt Kenyon and Douglas Easterly’s Notepad entered Capitol Hill as an innocuous bit of stationery, but hidden within its ruled lines is documentation of Iraqi civilian deaths never acknowledged by the U.S. government. The Devil Damask wallpaper by the Timorous Beasties design studio uses insidious charm to sneak a certain fallen angel in the door. Chris Ofili’s opalescent Black Shunga etchings and William Kentridge’s Sheets of Evidence lure viewers into situations of unexpected intimacy—beautiful traps waiting to be sprung by our rapacious desire to look. 

Art in Print is deeply grateful to IPCNY and its Board of Trustees and Program Committee for supporting this project and partnership, and to the funders and lenders whose generosity made the exhibition possible. We especially thank its director, Judy Hecker, and her staff—Stephanie Trejo, LJ McNerney and Megan Duffy—and interns for sharing our fascination with this body of work, and for bringing it into the light with such enthusiasm, professionalism and aplomb. Finally, we thank the artists, publishers and printers for creating art that challenges us to think with our eyes.