University Art Gallery

SIGNED AND UNSIGNED

February 12 - March 23, 2004

Postcards, Posters, Limited and Unlimited Editions, Multiples and Books.


An exhibition featuring signed and unsigned items related to the work of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Per Kirkeby, Joseph Beuys, Douglas Gordon, Ilya Kabakov, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Christo, Frederic Bruly Bouabre, Frank Stella, Jenny Holzer and many others.


This exhibition is about many things at once, but first and foremost about the implications of mechanical reproduction in the visual arts since World War II.

The exhibition contains no original art in the traditional sense – hand-made paintings, drawings or sculptures – though many of the items featured are signed by famous artists such as Jasper Johns, Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.

Most of the items are historically significant, however, which places the exhibition in the context of a history or a library exhibition, while the more recent items place us in the present context of the general dissemination of imagery within the visual arts.
Today a signature might still be required by us individually to authenticate a legal document, although we are fast moving toward computer log-on codes, pin numbers, and other means of identifying ourselves. For a variety of reasons, many artists no longer confer authenticity onto their work by signing it, but, interestingly enough, do occasionally sign postcards and posters at gallery or museum openings, much like an author signs a book. It is examples of these that we have on display.

As soon as mechanical reproduction of visual imagery became a reality in the 19th and early 20th centuries, artists relied on it, incorporated it into their work, collected it, and often made it part of their strategy for reaching a wider audience.

Tentative and limited at first, this development reached a truly extraordinary level in the period after World War II during the economic expansion generated by the new consumer society. That development is at present becoming more and more sophisticated, and again, artists react to it, use it, subvert it, accept it, and in general have become part of it.
Mechanical reproduction has had a transforming impact on our lives. Although not featured in the exhibition, it is worth focusing for a moment on the French artist Paul Gauguin. There are several reasons for this. One is that the exhibition Gauguin Tahiti is on view this spring at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where the artist’s unique hand-made objects – works of art – give us the opportunity to encounter what is a direct, unmediated experience of a significant artist’s universe. A visual feast, in other words, where everything is authentic, providing an in-depth experience of what the German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, referred to as "the aura of art" in his important essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

In looking at modern and postmodern and contemporary art, it is difficult for us to situate an artist within the context and limitations of an artist’s awareness, whether it be the 1880s, the 1950s, or 2004.

Words and thoughts have been printed – commercially reproduced – since the Renaissance, freeing scribes from tediously copying original texts. The rapidly developing industrialized society of the second half of the 19th century, the Western civilization that Gauguin criticized in what was still the early years of the modern period, had only known photography for 30 to 40 years and had only just been introduced to the hand held camera and the snapshot.

It is also worth noting that it was only in the 1880s, while Gauguin matured as an artist, that Edison, for example, finally was able to record – to mechanically reproduce – sound. In the 20th century, the German composer Arnold Schoenberg, who later became teacher of the American composer John Cage, expressed strong reservations when commercial recordings became widely available and broadcast (repeatedly reproduced) through radio. He feared that we would be forced to listen to music whether we wanted to or not, and that contemplation and silence would disappear.

When Gauguin set out to explore and immerse himself in a civilization he hoped had not been destroyed by contemporary Western values and Christian morality, he brought with him, not only books on Tahitian and Marquesan culture and language by contemporary anthropologists and linguists, but also photographs and reproductions of ancient, primitive, and western art, including what was for him at the time contemporary art. This personal, portable museum of photographs and reproductions was in the end what he relied on when he, largely disillusioned in the "destroyed" cultures he encountered, set out to create his own vision of a different, an imagined culture.

The French writer Andre Malraux and, as already mentioned, Walter Benjamin, have both explored the very different way we experience works of art when they are reproduced and presented removed from their original context, and placed within the context of the printed page. We now have what Malraux referred to as a "Museum of the Imagination." Our thinking is informed by books in which reproductions set up a dialogue with each other, where a two inch marble figurine, for example, can be placed next to a fifty foot sculpture carved out of living rock, and both can be presented as approximately equal in size on the page. We might never experience those actual works of art, and the encounter we did experience in the book can only take place there. New contexts, new narratives, are set up connecting all cultural and geographic boundaries.

The period immediately after World War II was still Modern in its sensibility, culturally dominated in philosophy by French Existentialism and in the visual arts by the rise of New York Abstract Expressionism.

What has become truly significant for us today, however, was the rise of the Neo-Dada movement in the mid-1950s, significantly manifested in the US by John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, and in Europe by the Nouveaux Realistes movement of artists such as Arman, Yves Klein, and Piero Manzoni. As a revived anti-art movement, emphasis was again on circumstance, conceptual gestures, non-art materials, and events.

A key figure in these developments was the French artist Marcel Duchamp, who had been especially important in the development of the anti art movement of Dada not only worldwide, but also in New York in the early 1920s, and had since resided there.
Shortly before the revival of Dada, however, the spotlight had begun to focus on Jackson Pollock, who in 1949 was featured in an article in LIFE Magazine. The magazine wasn’t sure he truly was a great new artist, but the desire to see an American artist as a world famous artist was irresistible. As a James Dean type of rebel and outsider, the dramatic act of creating a new type of painting was captured in photographs, and by 1956, when the Metropolitan Museum had a retrospective exhibition of his paintings, one of those photographs was on the cover of the catalog. The myth that grew around Pollock, and the example of a new way of incorporating gesture and chance into the creation of a work of art, cannot be underestimated.

In 1951, the European-centered and the more intellectually and scholarly inclined member of the Abstract Expressionists, Robert Motherwell, put together a Dada Anthology, which for the first time made significant texts, photographs, and reproductions available to the general public.

Important exhibitions on Dada were also launched in New York, especially of the work of the German artist, Kurt Schwitters, first at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1952. It featured a catalog essay by the Dada poet and organizer, Tristan Tzara, written specifically for the exhibition and translated by Marcel Duchamp.

Kurt Schwitters’ importance is in having expanded art into the use of garbage, trash, or discarded objects, and in having created what can be seen as the first installation ever, the transformation of his own house into a work of art, a gesture that further broke down the barrier between art and life.

In 1953 the Sidney Janis Gallery also featured the exhibition DADA 1916-1923, curated by Duchamp and with a catalog designed and edited by him.

More important nationally, in 1952 LIFE Magazine again devoted several pages to a living artist, this time Marcel Duchamp. It featured a double page photo spread of his "museum in a suitcase," a multiple containing reproductions of all of his important work from the teens and twenties up through the forties. Although only devoted to his own work, it is in many ways not much different from the type of portable museum collection Gauguin had put together for personal use in the 1890’s.

The Pollock article had certainly been a challenge to the general public’s notion of art, and Duchamp’s "ready-mades" and "traveling salesman’s suitcase" were even more so.
The renewed attention to Duchamp’s and also to Schwitters’ careers was as widespread in Europe as in America, and can be said to have set the stage for all art to follow, including the art of today.

Many, many artists could have been included in this exhibition, but the focus is generally on larger developments represented by such movements as Pop Art, Minimalism, Arte Povera, Situationism, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Environmental Art, Performance Art, Installation, and Feminism, and on individual great masters deeply influenced by these developments yet transcending them while creating individual careers of extraordinary historical significance, such as Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter.

Also featured are significant young artists such as Mark Dion, Pipilotti Rist, and Douglas Gordon, who not only work out of the general Neo-Dada context and are inspired by masters such as Beuys and Richter, but also present challenging new directions informed by 1980s and 90s postmodern theory.

Much has been written, and much more could be written, about the individual artists and the movements touched on in the exhibition, and many aspects of their work still remain to be explored.

Following up on the general idea of presenting items related to an artist’s career, photocopies of dictionary entries have been posted that present concepts and definitions related directly or indirectly – for example entries such as "Neo-Dada" and "Affluent Society." Some definitions clearly touch on all work and on the period in general, others are more specific. Most definitions come from The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Though, third edition 1999. Others are from A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, 1997.

The exhibition is presented as a "bricolage," an incomplete conceptual project, since no other way exists. The works referred to in the exhibition, like the concepts presented, are still very much alive, debated and transforming.

Also on view are recent monographs on individual artists. They are offered as a general source of information, and also as an example of how luxuriously even young artists’ careers can now be documented and presented. Feel free to take them off the wall shelves and look at them in the chairs provided.

A question this exhibition raises is one of authenticity. Do the commercially reproduced items on view allow us into the "aura" of an artist’s world? Some of the posters and postcards of Christo’s installations, for example, document art events that no longer exist. A photographer was commissioned to take photographs. Are these "original" photographs more a work of art and better at representing Christo’s work than the postcard and the design of the poster in which they were included? Is the portable postcard, the souvenir, more in line with the concept and the actual fleeting presence of the installation – the public performance – that a Christo project truly is?

Also in the exhibition are three replicas: Duchamp’s famous bicycle wheel – the first "assisted ready-made –" Man Ray’s famous iron with tacks attached – another "assisted ready-made" – and one of the French artist Daniel Spoerri’s reading glasses also with attached tacks, a subversive take on Man Ray’s subversive work. All were recreated for this exhibition.

Ready-mades are existing (manufactured) objects that have been found or selected by the artist and placed in a new context – an art dialogue – thereby creating a new awareness. Most of Duchamp’s famous ready-mades no longer exist. Those present in the museums today are replicas from the 1950’s and 60’s, and a direct result of the revival of his career. Although he sanctioned the creation of the replicas, few were made by him. Indeed, the questions are many: Can these "gestures" be replicated endlessly? Was there ever an original? Is it the gesture that matters? And, what exactly happens when Andy Warhol signs a Campbell soup can?

Most of all, the intent of the exhibition is to provide an experience of how fascinating and varied the contemporary art world is. The exhibition also makes it clear that an intense dialogue is continually taking place. Artists interact with their times, and create works of art out of the implications of the works of art that came before, and the work created by their contemporaries. The real question is, can a significant work of art be created today if it is not informed by an anti-art awareness?

Lasse B. Antonsen, Curator

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