Xu Bing (b. 1955), who is included in any short list of highly influential contemporary Chinese artists, is singular amongst his peers for his deep engagement with printmaking. As noted by curator John Ravenal, the artist is “closely identified with language and printmaking – often joining the two to make spectacular installations” (Xu Bing: Tobacco Project; Duke/Shanghai/Virginia, 1999-2001 [Richmond, VA: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2011], 13]. Indeed, his monumental Book from the Sky (1987-91) is a tour-de-force of print-based installation – a work that had a major impact in China and earned him a worldwide reputation, eventually precipitating his move to the U.S. (resident from 1991-2008; now based in both countries). Yet Xu Bing frequently works on a more intimate scale as well, creating multiples and artist’s books that engage imaginatively and expansively with his chosen materials. Likewise, he is not tied to working within the techniques of printmaking; rather, it is a point of departure from which he begins his investigations into fundamental issues surrounding social history and systems of communication. His interest in these topics are well-matched to printmaking media, which has a long history of being used as a means of disseminating information to a wider audience (interestingly, the technique is also known to have originated in his native country over 2,000 years ago). Whatever the format for his expression, the artist’s rigorous philosophical inquiry into the nature of his materials – thereby opening connections to wider issues surrounding society and culture – is truly the stuff of genius, as recognized by the MacArthur Foundation in 1999 (for an overview of his career, see Joyce Hor-Chung Lau, “Xu Bing: An Artist Who Bridges East and West,” The New York Times, May 19, 2011).
[Ed. note: Sarah Hanley's planned piece on Dana Schutz has been postponed; this week, she takes an in-depth look at the prints of Helen Frankenthaler.]
“Wherever I work, I bring …the same sense of what quality is and what beauty is to every place…”
—Frankenthaler quoted in Thomas Krens, ed. Helen Frankenthaler Prints: 1961-1979 (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1980), 26.
As the public commentary on Jerry Saltz’s recent obituary for Helen Frankenthaler in New York Magazine makes plain, the late artist inspired extreme opinions, both toward her work and her person. Her lush, gestural, saturated abstractions evoke something close to rapture in some viewers, while others completely disparage her fame and accomplishments, solely attributing them to her privilege and art-world connections (details of her biography are available on Wikipedia). Whether her work is of personal interest or not, her achievements – which are neatly summarized in her New York Times obituary by Grace Glueck – are indisputable.
Frankenthaler’s contributions as a painter are generally the focus of discussion, but her achievements as a printmaker are equal – if not greater – in importance. In fact, she continued to make inroads in this medium and garner critical attention for her editions even after contemporary taste had relegated her painting to the margins. In her essay for the catalogue raisonné of Frankenthaler’s prints, Suzanne Boorsch neatly summarizes her achievements, discussing Frankenthaler’s early use of monoprint in the 1964 lithograph Sky Frame “long before the method became fashionable,” her monumental 1971 lithograph Lot’s Wife, measuring 11’ 2” x 3’, and of course, her 1973 breakthough in woodcut, East and Beyond – the elegance and simplicity of which inspired a resurgence of interest in woodcut, which had been relatively neglected for over a half a century (“Conversations with Prints” in Pegram Harrison, Frankenthaler: A Catalogue Raisonné, Prints, 1961-1994 [New York: Abrams, 1996], 11-12). Boorsch also counts among her notable achievements Frankenthaler’s 1982 monotype session at the Institute of Experimental Printmaking, San Francisco, involving the use of torn rubber to embed embossed and debossed forms within the composition; and Gateway Screen, 1982-8, which incorporated three large vertical intaglio prints in a hinged bronze frame designed by the artist in a variable edition of 12 (the prints were also issued separately as a triptych simply titled Gateway). Absent from this list of highlights is Frankenthaler’s 1977 woodcut Essence Mulberry, which marked a watershed moment both for the technique of woodcut and her development as a printmaker. The catalogue ends in 1994, after which Frankenthaler created two more notable breakthroughs in woodcut: Tales of Genji, a suite of six prints completed in 1998, and Madame Butterfly, 2000 (illustrated top). (For a complete discussion of these and other woodcuts, see Judith Goldman, Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts [New York and Florida: George Brazillier, Inc. and Naples Museum of Art, 2002].)
Fantastical narrative is a guiding principle for many artists who have come to prominence in the past decade; Amy Cutler and Dana Schutz are foremost among these. Both possess extraordinary imaginative powers, creating worlds that are entirely fresh and singular. This month’s and the subsequent post of Ink will focus on the prints of these two young artists, respectively, both of whom have created a significant number of prints that directly relate to their paintings and drawings.
Amy Cutler’s world is populated by plain women who hail from an imaginary or bygone era. They wear vaguely traditional dress of the artist’s invention, informed by an amalgam of periods and cultures, and engage in surreal or unlikely tasks, often with serious or sober expressions. Like many contemporary artists (i.e., Enrique Chagoya, Kara Walker, Laylah Ali, Shahzia Sikander), Cutler has reached beyond the history of Modern art for inspiration, finding a new vocabulary in which to address the contemporary condition. The artist has cited Persian miniatures, fifteenth-century German painting, Japanese ukiyo-e, and medieval art as influences in her work, as well as the folkloric heritage of the Brothers Grimm (see Lisa Freiman, “The Marvelous World of Amy Cutler,” in Amy Cutler [Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2006],10). These precedents are certainly apparent in Cutler’s jewel-like compositions that are lavished with minute detail. Her technique is alluringly skilled, but this is by no means the focus (when her process is mentioned, it is usually to note the meticulous manner in which she applies patterning to textiles). Instead, any such description is primarily an enriching factor in the artist’s bizarre narratives that instantly capture the imagination.
Though Cutler’s work has sometimes been dismissed as illustrative (a tendency abhorred by an older generation of critics and artists), this is the very quality that contributes to its beguiling power. Cutler’s attention to detail grounds the work in specificity; the objects and environments they depict are recognizable and appealing. These familiar elements rope the viewer into a process of telling a story to “make sense” of it. This impulse is noted by Freiman and analyzed in further depth by curator Laura Steward in her introduction to the catalogue for Cutler’s recent exhibition at SITE Santa Fe: “your impulse is to imagine a narrative that could take place in the scene she depicts, and further, to imagine what that narrative might mean” (Amy Cutler: Turtle Fur [Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011],12). Yet there is no such meaning to be found; interpretation is intentionally left open-ended.
Cutler thus deftly awakens the viewer’s compulsion to apply “morals” to her tales. One common response is a feminist one – the industriously toiling women of Cutler’s world are often engaged in “women’s work” of an absurd nature, prompting empathy or outrage for their perceived thankless labor. Yet Cutler’s intention is contrary to this understanding. Addressing her proclivity for female subjects in an interview with Aimee Bender, she states “I love the idea of a fictional utopia of women who are strong and self-reliant” (ibid., 23). She also notes that her experience of attending an all-girls school may have influenced this preference. Likewise, she does not espouse the idea that her women are engaged in drudgery. When questioned on this point, she explains, “I think it comes from my fascination with anything that is meticulously crafted – things that are created by individuals with specifically honed skills…I am especially drawn to methodical work that requires a lot of concentration…[T]he rhythm and repetition…lends itself to introspection” (ibid., 22-3).
“At the root of all my work is the recognition that we tend to take most of our experience for granted” (Mel Bochner in “Art in Conversation: Mel Bochner with Phong Bui,” The Brooklyn Rail, May 2006).
Mel Bochner’s recent work barrages the senses with a parade of related words that demand attention. In paintings and monoprints, he blasts the common language of the modern era in capital sans-serif letters across the surface of his choosing, using carefully selected colors that highlight some terms and obfuscate others, sometimes even confusing one word from the next. Though these pieces often provoke an initial response of amusement, even laughter, the viewer is led into a deeper inquiry upon extended viewing. The scale, physicality, and visual impact – coupled with an involuntary compulsion to read the text – provoke a visceral and cognitive response, leading the mind into a labyrinth of free association. These often include collective or cultural connections as well as personal experiences or biases toward the terms on display.
As discussed in detail by Johanna Burton in her essay “The Weight of the Word: Mel Bochner’s Material Language” in Mel Bochner: Language 1966-2006 (New Haven and Chicago: Yale University Press and The Art Institute of Chicago, 2007), Bochner’s work posits questions and opens dialogue rather than provides answers. This seems a natural result of the work of an artist who places inquiry at the center of his practice. “I work by making up hypotheses, ‘What would happen if…’ and then working through the contradictions as they come up” (Bochner in The Brooklyn Rail). Though he has also explored other systems of communication and knowledge (such as measurements, numbers, and spacial geometries and relationships), language has been a central concern from the beginning.
This interest in – and investigation of – language started shortly after he moved to New York in the mid-1960s when he taught at the School of Visual Arts (please see a brief bio here). Though he was a painter, he was asked to teach art history. Perhaps due to his prior study of Phenomenology giants Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty as an auditing student at Northwestern University, this experience prompted him “to think about how visual ideas can be discussed—the relationship between language and images” (ibid.). While at SVA, he also curated a ground-breaking 1966 exhibition (which is now understood as a work of art in its own right), Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to be Viewed As Art, shown at the SVA’s gallery. The exhibition was comprised of four binders that contained photocopies of works by his colleagues and contemporaries in art, music, philosophy, biology, engineering, and mathematics, placed on pedestals.
In its infancy, Conceptual art – which was frequently text-based – was thought to bear no trace of personal expression and to exist in a purely cognitive realm; in other words, it did not need to exist as a physical object. Among artists, “an assumption was floating around that using language in your art was a communicative shortcut, a direct route from one mind to another” (Bochner in “Mel Bochner in conversation with James Meyer” in Burton, et al., Mel Bochner: Language 1966-2006, 133). However, in both writings and artwork, Bochner asserted that language itself is implicitly idiosyncratic and political, and that ideas cannot exist without a material component – what he called a “support” – be it a piece of paper, a wall, or a canvas. His position is best exemplified by the now-iconic 1970 work Language is Not Transparent in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which he painted a messy, drippy field of black paint on the wall and scrawled the words of the title in chalk, as if on a blackboard. Likewise, in the 1969-70 work Theories of Boundaries in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, he explored the relationship between language and physicality.
Fluxus, an international counter-culture collective of artists, musicians, and designers, was formed 50 years ago in 1961/2. Its goals were laid out in the 1963 offset lithograph Fluxus Manifesto (on view at The Museum of Modern Art), which denounces the “bourgeois” preciousness and exclusivity that surrounds art, promotes art “for all peoples,” and calls “cultural, social, and political revolutionaries to united front and action.” Fluxus artists and musicians–who hailed from all over the US, Europe, and Japan–felt that art should be affordable, participatory, and closely tied to everyday experience. In addition to artists who are known primarily for their involvement with this collective–such as George Maciunas, its founder and leader, Robert Filliou, and Ben Vautier (Ben)–a number of artists who began their careers as participants in Fluxus moved on to become influential in the wider scope of Contemporary art, including Christo, Nam Jun Paik, Deiter Roth, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and Claes Oldenburg.
This fall, two survey exhibitions in New York celebrate the birth of this radical art movement: Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University through December 3; and Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions, 1962-1978, at The Museum of Modern Art through January 16. The exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery, which was organized by the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue and will travel to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor early next year. In addition, a number of focus exhibitions are on view at university and non-profit galleries in the greater New York area. Fluxus at NYU: Before and Beyond in the Grey’s Lower Level Gallery and at/around/beyond: Fluxus at Rutgers, at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University (through April 1, 2012) highlight the significant role faculty members of both universities played in Fluxus. Artists Space, Creative Time, and the Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook University, are also all showing related work this fall. In keeping with the spirit of the movement, many of these exhibitions are supplemented by a roster of events, including gallery tours by the curators and artists, walking tours, performances, and panel discussions (please see exhibition websites for details). Finally, the biennial performance art festival Performa, November 11-13, will include a number of Fluxus events.
Fluxus was primarily about ideas, and the goal was to reach the largest possible audience. In a time before internet and email, prints and multiples in the form of artists’ books, ephemera, and mail art played an important role in disseminating the artists’ work, which were often group publications. They also organized festivals, participatory events, happenings, and performances, and created mail art, film, and unique works. Fluxus Editions were primarily produced and hand-assembled by Maciunas in unlimited editions and offered at low prices, distributed at artist-run Fluxshops or by mail-order. The first Fluxus group publication, An Anthology of Chance Operations…, 1961/3, (on view at The Grey Art Gallery), was compiled and edited by the Minimalist composer La Monte Young and designed by Maciunas. In 1962, Maciunas and Robert Watts came up with the idea of “an ever-expanding universe of events” (as quoted by curator Jacquelynn Baas in the introductory text at the Grey Art Gallery exhibition) that could be performed by anyone at any time. Open-ended and minimal instructions for specific actions using everyday objects, to be performed by a single person or by a group, were “composed” by Watts, Young, George Brecht, and others. These were mailed via postcard to colleagues, and a festival of performances was organized the following year, to take place throughout the month of May in the greater New York area. It was called “The Yam Festival” (May spelled in reverse). Maciunas also organized similar events throughout Europe, called Fluxfestivals.
Ann Hamilton’s work is founded on the idea of the line – both in its material form as thread, fiber, and hair; and its conceptual form in written and drawn communication. From this deceptively simple beginning point, she creates subtle and profound worlds and objects that stretch our understanding of contemporary life in a technological age and touch upon the deepest reaches of what it means to be human – in particular, our ability to relate to others, build meaningful relationships, and share ideas through communication. This path of inquiry began over three decades ago from her first love of textiles, then expanded into sophisticated and revelatory installation/performance works, a number of which can be reviewed on the artist’s website. Though she has ventured into increasingly conceptual territory over the years, Hamilton has never lost sight of her beginnings in material culture and the rich presence of the hand-made object. Her work first seduces with its visual and tactile appeal, and then reveals its conceptual underpinnings.
An online interview with Art21 raises the dilemma of ephemerality for Hamilton’s work – the fact that it must be experienced in a particular time and place. This issue is endemic to artists who work in site-specific installation, and it often becomes increasingly problematic as time passes. Though Hamilton has created objects throughout her career, the early examples do not fully stand on their own. Some, such as the body object series of 1984-93, were “performed” and documented with photography (the images were then editioned and published); others are sculptural objects or digital media that played a role in an installation at one time. However, as noted by scholar Joan Simon in her 2008 essay on Hamilton’s editions for Gemini G.E.L., she has recently “turned to different sorts of makings. At one end of the spectrum are … chants and song; at the other reach of the spectrum are the objects that bespeak individually and as ensembles.” (Ann Hamilton at Gemini [exh.cat.], Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl, New York, 2008, 15). The human voice has certainly played a greater role in Hamilton’s recent work, but she has also created objects and architectural structures that are self-contained and have a material presence, including a number of prints and variable editions. This new direction in her work partially satisfies, as it has for many artists, an interest in reaching a wider audience and also presents new challenges and avenues of exploration.
Cy Twombly, who died last month at the age of 83, is frequently described as the outlier genius of contemporary art – a member of the post-expressionist triumvirate of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who followed a unique path that confounded the postwar art world. A painter, sculptor, draughtsman, and sometime printmaker, his work renewed classical themes for our times and explored the expressiveness of line in both written and abstracted form. For several decades, Twombly was understood to be an acquired taste. However, his reception has changed over the past several years and he is now firmly placed within the canon. The trend began with a traveling exhibition organized by The Menil Collection, Houston, in 1989. The same year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired and installed a cycle of ten paintings in a dedicated space in its galleries. In 1994, the Museum of Modern Art organized a major retrospective. The following year, The Menil Collection opened a free-standing gallery dedicated to Twombly’s work. In 2001, he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, and a few years later was listed as one of the ten most expensive living artists. In 2008, the Tate Modern organized a major traveling retrospective of his work. Roberta Smith neatly summarized the high regard in which the artist is now held in her eulogy for Twombly in The New York Times earlier this month.
Though printmaking has been an important means of expression for many artists of his generation, it was a brief endeavor for Twombly. The bulk of his printmaking activity was primarily confined to a single decade of his long career – from the late 1960s to the late 1970s – and his output is modest in comparison with Johns and Rauschenberg, who are each prolific printmakers. In fact, a majority of the editions Twombly produced were a result of his close friendship with the latter. That said, he worked in nearly all traditional printmaking techniques during this period, including line etching, mezzotint, aquatint, lithography, and screenprinting. The prints reflect his general concerns at the time they were created, and edition sizes are generally quite small. Many of them were issued as portfolios, in keeping with his mode of painting and drawing in cycles.
Twombly toyed with printmaking early in his career – a rare impression of his 1952 woodcut The Song of the Border-Guard is in the Tate Collection – but did not work in the medium again until the late 1960s. His first professionally editioned prints were created at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), West Islip, Long Island, as was the case for a number of artists of his generation. Though Twombly had relocated to Italy in 1957, he continued to spend extended periods working in New York, renting studios downtown on Canal and Bowery. During one such stay in 1967, he accompanied Rauschenberg to ULAE and ended up in the “etching basement,” creating a number of intaglio plates over the following months (see Proof Positive: Forty Years of Contemporary American Printmaking at ULAE, 1957-1997, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1997, 26).
Following on the April post for this column, which explored recent works in print-based installation, this month’s Ink takes an in-depth look at Art21 artist Jessica Stockholder’s current project for The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Printmaking — specifically screenprinting – plays a unique and significant role in the final work, titled Hollow Places Court in Ash-Tree Wood. To create this installation, Stockholder collaborated with master printer Gary Lichtenstein of Gary Lichtenstein Editions and furniture-maker Clifford Moran to transform rough-hewn planks of ash wood.
In a break from standard nomenclature, Stockholder refers to Hollow Places Court in Ash-Tree Wood as a “situation” – a term she uses to describe a built environment comprised of pre-composed elements that she places in response to the unique features of a specific space. The artist prefers this word to “installation,” which she finds somewhat overused and generic. It is also meant to differentiate between other discrete approaches in her work, namely her site-specific installations, in which she composes diverse found objects and materials on site (also in response to the space at hand) and her studio works, which are self-contained objects.
The seed for this project began in 2009, when the Aldrich was forced to cut a large centenarian ash tree that stood in its sculpture garden due to infestation from the emerald ash borer, an invasive Asian beetle. Thinking that it would receive new life in the hands of a contemporary artist, the museum sent the tree to a mill and stored the planks to cure for future use. In a recent conversation, exhibition curator and Interim Co-Director of the museum Richard Klein related that the idea of offering the planks to Stockholder – who has worked primarily with man-made and mass produced materials in the past – came about when he was speaking with her about doing an installation at the Aldrich. He mentioned the incident with the ash tree to her as an aside and was pleasantly surprised to learn that she had a deep connection with trees and wood due to her experience growing up in the Pacific Northwest Coast. She spoke of the lush rainforest surroundings populated with old-growth trees and her first memories of sculptures: wood-carved totem poles created by the indigenous peoples of the area. Though the staff at the museum had originally thought to give the wood to an artist known for working with the material, Klein realized that it might be more interesting to see what an artist like Stockholder would do with the planks.
Stockholder, who has recently been drawn to opportunities that present unusual and new circumstances which allow her to stretch her artistic practice (see, for example, two recent exhibitions: Flooded Chambers Maid, Madison Square Park; and The Jewel Thief, Tang Museum and Sculpture Garden), was greatly intrigued and quickly provided a proposal to Klein. In Stockholder’s words, the project is a meditation on the nature of “picture-making and seeing.” It incorporates a repeating eye-like motif, which suggests to the process of looking and what Stockholder calls the “frame of the eye,” or the perspective from which we view the world, which is echoed by the windows of the museum gallery that “frame” the sculpture garden, where the tree once stood. The eye concept was also inspired by the prominent use of eyes in the wood carvings of First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest. The result is a provocative intersection of Stockholder’s two-dimensional and three-dimensional modes of working, which she characterizes as “creating fiction” and “a response to the mundane, matter-of-fact quality of objects,” respectively.
As interest in William Kentridge’s work has grown over the past decade, so has interest in South African art as a whole. Printmaking is a central component of the cultural landscape in this country and it is an important form of expression for many of its artists. In general, South African printmaking is characterized by political and emotional honesty and a refreshing fidelity to the technical roots of the medium. Kentridge, of course, is a prolific printmaker (see the November 2010 post of this column), as are Conrad Botes, Norman Catherine, Robert Hodgins, Anton Kannemeyer, Cameron Platter, Claudette Schreuders, Diane Victor, and Ernestine White, to name a few. The work of these and other artists, who are well known in their homeland, have begun to garner increased attention in the U.S. recently, appearing in art fairs and featured in solo exhibitions at major galleries and museums.
Several exhibitions this year have introduced a wider American audience to the vital printmaking scene in South Africa. Most visible and comprehensive among these is Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now, a group exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art on view through August 14. Earlier this spring, Boston University hosted dual exhibitions in honor of the 25th anniversary of Caversham Press, the first professional printmaking workshop in South Africa. At the same time, the Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa, launched the first major solo exhibition of Diane Victor’s work in this country – an auspicious introduction to this important artist who is becoming better known to an international audience. In March and early April, David Krut Projects mounted “Contemporary South African Prints: DKW and I-Jusi,” a retrospective of I-Jusi magazine (an underground art ‘zine dedicated to South African identity and politics, founded in 1994), and David Krut Workshop, a professional printmaking studio established in Johannesburg in 2002. Later this fall, Jack Shainman Gallery will host a solo exhibition of Anton Kannemeyer’s work.
The MoMA exhibition now on view provides “a representative, quality cross-section of contemporary printmaking activities in South Africa over the last five decades,” as described by exhibition curator Judith Hecker, Assistant Curator in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books in a recent e-mail interview with the author. Drawn from the museum’s collection, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue provide critical insight to role of printmaking in South African culture and politics, presented in terms of the country’s recent massive political changes from an apartheid-ruled state to an evolving democracy. In addition to a scholarly essay by Hecker, the accompanying catalogue provides further information and bibliographic citations on each of the artists, collectives, organizations, and workshops represented. It also includes contextualizing photographs and a timeline of printmaking, cultural, and political events.
The exhibition was inspired by Hecker’s previous work with William Kentridge’s prints (she contributed to the recent traveling exhibition William Kentridge: Five Themes and authored a related publication titled William Kentridge: Trace; Prints from the Museum of Modern Art) and prompted by a curatorial initiative to “expand the museum’s holdings to better represent the breadth of printmaking activities in South Africa” (Hecker in a recent e-mail interview with the author). The first South African artist to enter the print collection was Azaria Mbatha in 1967 but he was the sole representative until the department began to acquire Kentridge’s work in earnest in the 1990s. Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now (and the museum’s holdings) were developed over a period of six years; in preparation, Hecker traveled to South Africa for extended periods in 2004 and 2007. As noted in her introduction, this is not the first scholarly examination of the topic (preceded by Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa, 1997, and Rorke’s Drift: Empowering Prints; Twenty Years of Printmaking in South Africa, 2004, both by Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin). However, it is the first to be made widely available to a U.S. and international audience, by virtue of MoMA’s visitorship and following.
The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are divided into five categories, four of which are technique-based – the final category, Postapartheid: New Directions, shows the openness and experimentation that characterizes recent print production. Due to the nature of the exhibition, artists are generally represented by only one or a handful of works – therefore, it is best understood as a starting point for exploration. In Hecker’s words, “The show, and our holdings, do not aim to be complete or definitive… it reflects a work in progress; we plan to continue to acquire works by South African artists” (e-mail interview).
The first section focuses on the favored status of linocut amongst South African artists, a tradition that began during apartheid. As discussed by Hecker, its ease of use, affordability, and accessibility made it a natural choice for the community workshops and non-profit art schools that served black artists, who were attracted to its stark graphic power. Early practitioners included Azaria Mbatha, John Muafangejo, Dan Rkogoathe, and Charles Nkosi, many of whom were involved in the Black Consciousness Movement founded by Steve Biko. Their work centered around “themes of ancestry, religion, and liberation” (Hecker, Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now [New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2011], 12).
In the early 1990s, the country moved through intense political protest and international political pressure into a peaceable – though contentious – conversion to a democratic nation. Meeting of Two Cultures (1993), a linocut by Sandile Goje, summarizes the spirit of reconciliation that characterized this period. The image shows two biomorphic homes shaking hands: the structure on the left is in the style of the Xhosa people (who were the original inhabitants of the area), at right is a home characteristic of the European ruling class. The linocut section of the exhibition also includes recent prints of stunning technical achievement by William Kentridge, Vuyile C. Voyiya, Cameron Platter, and others. These are less intensely political in their subject matter, though still grounded in the recent history of the nation.
With the onset of spring, renewal is in the air. In the world of contemporary prints, a fresh format that seems to be popping up everywhere is print-based installation. In recent years, celebrated contemporary artists Swoon, Nicola López, Ryan McGinness, and others have pushed the boundaries of traditional printmaking techniques to create unique works that have the power, presence, and conceptual rigor of work in traditionally associated with “high-brow” media.
Like most new trends in art, printstallation has important precedents. Monumental prints have been created since the Renaissance, primarily to commemorate military victories: Dürer’s Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I (1515-17) and Andreani’s The Triumph of Julius Caesar (after paintings by Mantegna, 1599) are two famed early examples – Jacques Callot also etched a number of oversized battle scenes in the early Seventeenth Century. Yet few artists attempted to work on this scale in prints again until the Postwar period, when Andy Warhol created his famous Cow Wallpaper in 1966 (currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building – a later variant in blue and yellow is also on view on the fourth floor mezzanine).
Over the past four decades, other major artists made headway into using printmaking as a basis for installation, including Robert Rauschenberg, Xu Bing, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Vito Acconci, Peter Halley, and Kiki Smith (some examples can be seen in Deborah Wye, et al. Artists and Prints: Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art, 2004). However, Nancy Spero (1926-2009) contributed most significantly to the development of the potential of print-based media as a vehicle for installation work. As discussed in Christopher Lyon’s recent critical survey (Nancy Spero: The Work, Prestel, 2010, 186-192), Spero developed her signature large hand-printed works on paper in the early 1970s in response to her struggle with Rheumatoid arthritis. The disease prevented her from painting and drawing on the level she had previously, and she discovered that printmaking media allowed her to continue to work on the scale and production level she desired. Spero eventually developed a lexicon of over 450 stock letterpress plates based on her drawings, which she used in combination with letterpress typeface to create tableaux of interwoven images and text. Though early work was invariably on paper, over time she began to print on other surfaces and incorporate additional materials into her installations. All of Spero’s work is unique and hand-printed – for installations, she mounted the paper on the wall in panoramic or floor-to-ceiling banners. Her uniquely expressionistic and simple figures – which convey pain, mystical power, and monstrosity – are frequently surrounded by text in French, Latin, or English (some borrowed, some of her own creation). Spero combined these elements to expose the cruelty of political oppression, war, and violence against women – subjects to which she was dedicated throughout her career.