A new exhibit from MOMA’s print collection investigates (and broadens) the meaning of the term ‘print’

Copy Light/Factory, by SUPERFLEX, 2008 (All photos courtesy MoMA, Jason Mandella)
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Ian Volner

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Print/Out, the new show from MoMA’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, is a curatorial wunderkammer, a diverse mash-up of work culled from the museum’s archival acquisitions of the past two decades. Christophe Cherix, the department’s chief curator, has marshaled the disparate output of a host of artists and thinkers into a show that gives shape to the ways in which our contemporary culture has elasticized the boundaries of the print form, if it hasn't obliterated them entirely.

"The thing is to think about print not as a mode of fabrication ... but as a mode of distribution," said Cherix when we spoke prior to the show's opening: in a world of ever-accelerating social and technological change, he pointed out, print can be understood to mean any system that diffuses ideas across the cultural landscape. Many of the objects in the show present not as printed pages or artist prints, but as paintings or sculpture or some other iteration, clinging to “print-ness” only by way of their means of production or theoretical conceit.   

Catty-corner to the show’s entrance is a not-so-recent work that challenges the most traditional ideas of an artist's print. The blown-up photograph of a visibly slept-in bed by artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres certainly seems print-ish enough. But the untitled piece, at left, really grapples with more vexed questions of simultaneity, reproduction, and how museums or galleries interact with artists's "originals" and "copies"—the issues at the very heart of print as an artistic practice. In the case of the bed poster, the print medium receives a conceptual charge because of the artist's explicit instructions regarding the nature of the display. It's print cross-bred with conceptualism. How to convey this? The photograph must, according to the artist, be mounted in various other locations in the city of whatever museum chooses to exhibit it. Accordingly, MoMA has obliged, and the photo can now be seen on billboards in select spots around the five boroughs. It's a slightly more tame model than Gonzales-Torres developed for a series of other works, where prints are stacked on the gallery floor and meant to be taken by visitors freely, and replenished constantly by the museum or gallery or whoever owns the piece.

Once inside, the visitor is confronted with Content on Tour, a series of panels by artist Martin Kippenberger. Looking deceptively like acrylic on canvas, the works are actually screen prints, the final issue of a lengthy procedure. Kippenberger made paintings that were copied and then destroyed; the fragments were placed into plastic cylinders that made them look like see-through garbage-can sculptures; Kippenberger photographed those, then screen-printed the photos in full color, as seen in the gallery view at right. They’re prints, but they’re also much more, straddling an array of artistic modes and investigating each in turn.

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Through work by Liam Gillick, Hans-Peter Feldmann, and artist collaboratives like General Idea and SUPERFLEX, Print/Out perseveres in its search for a new kind of print culture, one that encompasses installations like floating helium-filled balloons and cans of curry paste. Visitors can even participate in a makeshift lamp factory, making paper copies of well-known lighting designs and pasting them to wooden fixture frames dangling from the gallery ceiling, as seen above.

The hunt for a print-outside-of-print even continues beyond the walls of the exhibition itself.  Downstairs from the main gallery space is a sister show, a kind of salon des refusés presenting an alternative (and sub-alternative) take on recent developments in the medium. Printin’ was guest-curated by artist Ellen Gallagher; including pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Martha Rosler, and David Hammons, the show is at once more intimate and more confrontational than its upstairs counterpart. Especially piquant is Simon Fujiwara’s Artist’s Book Club, in which the English artist delivers a videotaped encomium to Huckleberry Finn while affecting a Japanese accent worthy of Mickey Rooney’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The film fairly taunts the viewer, daring you to watch this absurd, semi-offensive spectacle and teasing you with the big question: in what way, or ways, might this be deemed a print? Is it a print because the tape itself is a print? or because Huck Finn is a printed book? Or is it something else again?

In addition to its shadow-exhibition, Print/Out has an exhibition catalogue sufficiently ambitious to qualify as yet another iteration of itself. The catalogue was assembled by Amsterdam-based graphic design partners Linda van Dursen and Armand Mevis. When Cherix invited them aboard last year, the duo was tasked with creating a book that could keep pace with the show’s complex format and premise.

“Something we thought interesting," said Mevis last week on the phone, "was to have a more architectural approach … in the composition.” In consulting with the curators on the planned gallery layout, the Dutch team settled on a motif of outsized dots—something like the Ben-Day dots of old-time comic books—that would appear in select segments of the book and printed directly on the walls of the exhibition. 

These speckled sections of the book, featuring the work of artists like Franz West and Damien Hirst, disrupt the eye in its motion from page to page, forcing pauses and disruptions. "It deliberately goes away form the classical idea of print," said Mevis: some of these pages are even sized differently, proportions from some other book intervening in this one, putting still greater emphasis on the spatial complexity of the book as an object and linking it, visually and thematically, to the show that it chronicles.  The effect is madcap and a little bewildering, but it makes the catalogue a perfect conceptual complement to the show: The book itself is a printed multiple, but its disruptions and distortions defamiliarize it, reawaken the reader to its print-ness."

Rather than a stale presentation of old mimeographs and magazines, the book, and the twinned exhibitions, dilate our sense of print's potential on and off the page.