PRINT December 1965

Three-Dimensional Prints and the Retreat from Originality

NOW THAT THE FULL HORRORS of big time leisure are seeping through to the untrained art public, the possibility of a flabbergasting new entente between artists and laymen is beginning to suggest itself. The desire of the man in the street would be to structure his leisure, with, among so many other things, the visual condiments that are achieving such publicity these days, but are beyond the reach of his pocketbook. The problem for the artist is to reach a vast, lower-echelon market, and to attain a distribution of his products that will only begin to satisfy an unprecedented demand. Undoubtedly, his elite patronage will continue, but to cater to it exclusively, as if art were still an adornment of the upper classes, is to misconceive one’s “creative” role in the second half of the twentieth century. (Besides, that patronage is neither steady nor equitably diffused among deserving individuals.) Much more sensible is it to establish a reliable management of artistic transactions, a profit-sharing plan, so to speak, in which the vision of the artist is syndicated on a cost-effectiveness basis—to his, and the consumer’s mutual benefit.

The major obstacle to this development has been the old notion that art is somehow an activity of one lone man, making or shaping his own materials, and giving the resultant creation the stamp of his unique sensibility. Although knocked down and dragged about for the last five years, this mythic belief still retains some of its potency. If there may be internal reason why artistic privacy is on the wane, there are enormous social and economic pressures that would, and presumably will, do away with it. The disproportion between the great horde of artists throughout the country, a tiny group of collectors, and a limitless, but uneducated potential audience, is too overwhelming to remain unrectified for very long. At various points, the sacrifice of direct handling comes to seem less a sacrifice to the artist than an entrance into a new field, the opening up of a new line.

Since the time of Durer, this tendency has had an honorable lineage, in woodcuts and engravings printed under the highest craftsmanly standards. The revival of poster art commenced by Lautrec was simply another instance of this tradition, imaginatively updated to include commercial functions. Today, at a moment in which we are not stuffy about the distinction between “applied” and “fine” art (the era is, after all, post-Bauhaus), prints are undergoing an expansion they had never known. Better still, the print media have been pried loose from the control of “artistes-graveurs,” the conservative incumbents, to reveal what can be done under the hands of those who shape the history of art itself. Inundated by visual material endlessly proliferated by reproductive means, the spectator has been de-sensitized to the factors of personal touch and manual irregularity—which are being replaced in his awareness by the grain and mesh typical of machine handwriting. Already this is an old, but still intriguing story.

And yet, even this mechanized transformation, magnified and cross-bred as it has become, over-saturates one’s increased capacity for vicarious esthetic experience. It creates a retroactive appetite for the tangibility and the density of material substance. Prints never have quite enough presence to assuage this craving, which they themselves instigate. But three-dimensional objects do. It was inevitable that such artifacts—“multiple-originals,” as they are now generically, but not very distinguishably called—should have been brought forth at this particular instant. We have to do with a burgeoning phenomenon in which assembly line methods (still fairly restrictive), are applied to the production of artifacts whose template was an artist’s design. In this respect, these objects are a species of three-dimensional prints, even if the medium is so exotic as to be vacuum-sealed plexiglass. Both modes are beholden to an initial plate or blueprint of the artist: the one, a seismographic negative of what has been done, translated by means of physical pressure and ink, and the other, a direction which is followed out by die-cutting, mold casting, assemblage, or other forms of small manufacture. The analogy of sculpture casts, say bronze, does not precisely hold in this case, since the casts are effigies in a more durable medium of a full scale model which may be exhibitable in its own right. Yet, casts, of course, are not any the more reproductions than prints are: they betray merely the difference of a re-incarnation compared to an embodiment. And theoretically, they both share that peculiar equivocation in which an intermediary form, taking its cue from an earlier entity, is the “original,” the esthetic object itself—no matter how many identical versions of it are in existence.

The genesis of this development is European, the Swiss Daniel Spoerri being most responsible for its current momentum, as testified by his Edition MAT (Multiplication Arts Transformable), 1959, 1964, 1965. Originally a kit of fourteen objects by artists such as Albers and Agam, and Man Ray, in an edition of 100, the project has spread contagiously, and perhaps infectiously, to be taken up by Swiss galleries, German publishing houses, an American magazine (Art in America), and now a New York atelier-gallery called “Multiples, Inc.” Bolstering and connecting with the latter, was the successful baptism of the Betsy Ross Flag and Banner Co., which created a festive variant of designs by Lichtenstein and Al Jensen, among others, that recalls the rug editions of Matisse in the fifties. Some of the range of this overall manifestation can be gleaned by the materials employed: plastic and felt (Arp), accumulations of waste paper (Arman), metal enamel (Lichtenstein), cloisonné (Miriam Schapiro), hard foam rubber (Oldenburg), and low relief metal wall sculptures (Nivola). Interestingly enough, it can be seen that the methodology is impartial, a mill which accommodates all styles, whether they are retinal, abstract or Pop, as well as attitudes, be they concerned with the detritus or the most advanced technology, of current civilization.

Before examining the gamut of physical metamorphoses taking place by virtue of multiple originals, it might prove valuable to examine some of the changes, implied by the whole concept, that are occurring in the relation between the artist, his work, and his audience. If the basic condition of all artifacts, including works of art, is that they are made by man, what, specifically, distinguishes the artist from the craftsman? In the introduction to his standard text, History of Art, H. W. Janson addresses himself to this problem:

“. . . the making of a work of art has little in common with what we ordinarily mean by ‘making.’ It is a strange and risky business in which the maker never quite knows what he is making until he has actually made it; or, to put it another way, it is a game of find-and-seek in which the seeker is not sure what he is looking for until he has found it . . . To the non-artist, it seems hard to believe that this uncertainty, this need-to-take a chance, should be the essence of the artist’s work. For we all tend to think of ‘making’ in terms of the craftsman or manufacturer who knows exactly what he wants to produce . . . and is sure of what he is doing at every step. And because he—or his customer—has made all the important decisions in advance, he has to worry only about means, rather than ends. There is thus little risk, but also little adventure, in his handiwork, which as a consequence tends to become routine. It may even be replaced by the mechanical labor of a machine. No machine, on the other hand, can replace the artist, for with him conception and execution go hand in hand and are so completely interdependent that he cannot separate the one from the other.”

To the notion, then, that a work of art must register the quality of a man’s performance, as he shapes or juxtaposes materials, is added the requirement that it be an imaginative, searching performance. The twentieth-century master who was earliest and most estranged by these pre-conditions was Marcel Duchamp. In his anomic boredom with all that art had previously signified, he was led to replace performance by an act of will, and to elevate the artist’s choice in designating implausible artifacts as art, above any physical ability to give form: all this affirmed by the device of the readymade. His exhibition of a toilet signed R. Mutt (a pun on the German word “armut”—poverty) is sufficient illustration of his assault on the Janson thesis of art. But in his accent on ends, not means, he re-asserts the art historian’s stricture. The work of the craftsman or manufacturer remains physically what it is, but it is being “consumed” on another, unpredictable level of meaning entirely, by artist and spectator alike. In the end, the area of the “original” and imaginative in artistic endeavor has shriveled to conception alone—the shuffling of contexts—but it still exists in a self mocking guise.

But the word “original” has also the meaning of firstness, first of a kind, a circumstance which does not apply to World War I toilets, bottle racks, shovels, or bicycle wheels. It would be inaccurate, however, to consider these, even as cordoned off by the invisible sensibility of Duchamp, to be the earliest, the original multiple-originals. On the contrary, no matter how commonplace, they were marked creatures, distinguished by their new uselessness. It only occurred to Duchamp somewhat later that he could deflate the second meaning of original by issuing limited editions of his readymades. By giving over, not his design, but his anointed artifact, produced by one manufacturer, to reproduction by another, he canceled his conception, or rather, established himself as the initiating force at ever more problematical and vicarious removes from his audience. Since there was no down-to-earth sensuous excitation involved, the only reality in the esthetic encounter would be in one’s awareness that this was a charade of mistaken identities, a game voluntarily entered into, and variously nuanced by the absurd.

The influence of Duchamp’s gesture, having long ago affected the mainstream of modern art, is now spreading with plague-like virulence. But it imposes upon its practitioners a step beyond, in an attempt to recircuit gesture with invented material, by discovering a new combine. For, the retreat from originality had exhausted its own farthest positive consequences in one leap. To renounce one’s prerogatives once may be an act of great daring; to imitate a career of renunciation is a great bore. Johns and Rauschenberg successfully avoided this by integrating common artifacts in unique, sensuous works of art. Much more nihilistic—and conventional—was the exhibition of a couple of hundred fake Brillo boxes by Andy Warhol. But this denial of personal handling, so orthodox from a Dada point of view, was accompanied by a far more promiscuous acceptance of the outside world as readymade “art.” By the time Warhol autographed real Campbell soup cans, and sold them at twelve dollars apiece, the significance was strictly economic: a common thing, to be sure, has been made a little rarer, but artistic ends have been collapsed into marketing means. Unlike the aristocratic, selective, disdainful Duchamp, Warhol, employing similar methods, merely cheapens his whole role even if he raises the price of a commodity.

This, therefore, is some of the background against which multiple originals are making their appearance. They are allied with the example of Duchamp and even Warhol in that the work of manufacturers usurps practically all but the initiating plan of any given project. Of course, an immediate exception presents itself in those many instances in which the artist supervises the production of the multiple. This, in turn, indicates the rationalistic, and hence anti Dada aspects of the operation. Multiple originals are issued straight, in good faith, as accurate representations or echoes of their author’s intentions. But, with those examples which are Dadaistically inspired readymades in the first place—and there are a great many of them—replication has no rhetorical or artistic meaning at all. Multiple originals are not an absurd comment on twentieth-century technology, but a product of it—three dimensional prints, as I have said—here contradicting, or rather, ingenuously assenting to the contradiction of their own rights. That is, one cannot pluck out some group of artifacts from the commercial stream, dub it art, and viably manufacture or repeat it, without irony. Conversely, one cannot now do what Duchamp did, nor extend his spirit, of issuing editions of readymades, without being esthetically repetitious, without relinquishing discovery. Here, I indict Arman, Spoerri, Man Ray, and Tinguely. Their faulty premises are self-defeating.

A belated objection to the above argument, but from a rather different direction, may come to mind. We know that art, as well as new information, is essentially a repackaging of previous knowledge in unsuspected and fresh combination. Just as the oscillation of plenitude and scarcity creates economic value, why cannot the materialization of one artistic idea in another physical form make for an effective shift in esthetic worth? If this is perfectly feasible, nothing about the current multiple-originals does very much to sustain it. Or, it could be that we do not have as yet the criteria to judge and discriminate visual quality in these works as we do in prints themselves. Chance factors which are programmed into each work, to make the whole series alterable (such as Arp’s arrangeable felt amoebas) only beg the issue. The question presents itself: on what visual basis can the works in this mode be made subject to critical inquiry?

I tentatively advance two factors for discussion: scale, and something far more subtle to talk about, “presence.” No one, looking over the current offerings, can fail to be impressed by their tendency towards miniaturization. (Quite natural, since large works require more material, and hence increase prices.) Additionally, it would be hard to ignore the simplicity, even, in some cases, the inanity of workmanship. (Quite natural once again, since intricate designs demand far more expensive production methods.) The exception which proves the point is a Larry Rivers Dutch Masters banner, so involved in planar complexities that it prices itself out of its own class. But perhaps the Rivers example inadvertently reveals the deficiencies of these new works. Insofar as they are scaled-down versions of previous exercises in other media—and many of them are just that—their esthetic returns are diminishing. Decreased articulation and flexibility in multiple-originals stand out by comparison with their author’s more highly charged solution in assemblage or on canvas. And while certain aspects of graphics, color lithography and silk-screen most notably, can convey a brighter and sharper focus than painting (one thinks of Albers), the objects under discussion appear all too unfortunately as reductions (Mon Levinson, Diter Rot). Even when the object is designed especially for the process, as was Jim Dine’s Rainbow Faucet, and not as a side-product of other work, constraint and modesty are evident. Overall, multiple-originals transmit creative energy weakly and dimly, like game-like stand-ins for conceptually stronger and physically richer alter egos. Although this may very well change in the future, at the moment, one is getting only what one pays for.

Yet, more is involved here than the production of a new set of artistic bagatelles, which is a perfectly legitimate enterprise in its own right. It is evident that even by this expansion of two-into-three-dimensional media (which, moreover, can be mailed directly to the house, are highly portable, and permit tinkering); the public is being emotionally shortchanged. Of deeper concern, though, are the larger, psychological disturbances afflicting the art world, of which multiple-originals are only a related illustration. The mid-sixties is a period witnessing a profound discomfort with the problem of individual creation. Artists become alienated from their own identity in a bewildering series of hectic, stylistic switches which in fact, serve to devaluate the whole concept of style as a stable entity. Mannerism, eclecticism and disassociation undermine the normal longterm investment of an artist in an expandable position. Intermittently, then, but with ever greater frequency, he lashes out at these conditions, this malaise, by some kind of allegory, or even acknowledgment, of the vacancy that threatens him. Duchamp’s whole life is testimony of an artist who was able to feed on the sterility and corruption of consciousness which the machine has imposed upon the nervous system of modern man. But in the hands of others, less steeled than he to the cleavage between the functioning imagination and the consequences of machine technology, art becomes a mindless paraphrase of the commercial operation. Under the crushing pressure to invent, to discover, their techniques become parody, allusion, quotation, imitation, and finally, replication.

This is to say that the “art-work” itself has become negotiable property—not merely dividable and reproducible as, to some extent, it has always been in the modern tradition—but an asset that can literally substitute for a new work of art. A current show in New York, called “pastiches” by its author, Elaine Sturtevant, enacts this proposition with supreme disingenuousness. Her  7th Ave. Garment Rack with Andy Warhol Flowers, purports to be a George Segal plaster cast of a man pulling an array of work by Arman, Stella, Oldenburg, Rosenquist, Johns and Lichtenstein (all false). It is the most pathetic advertisement of an artist’s apartness from herself that I have seen—but otherwise a fairly typical straw in the wind.

An even more alarming incident is that reported by Nan Rosenthal in a recent article:

“In 1960 . . . (Jean) Tinguely put on sale for a few dollars the ne plus ultra multiple: a Do-It-Yourself Tinguely Kit. The kit consisted of a huge blueprint and seven-page booklet instructing the purchaser how to build a Tinguely with materials costing less than twenty dollars. The kit also contained a gummed label which Tinguely offered to sign and mail back if the purchaser sent him a photo of his completed ‘Tinguely,’ by a certain time.”

That is, the artist will confer a bogus originality upon the purchase of any client manipulable enough to want to qualify for a more valuable investment.

Striking a wicked low, Tinguely here solicits for his own signature. But he has by no means hit the bottom in the realm of hard-sell techniques. This unenviable position is reserved for one R. Cenedella, whose campy mouthings announcing the opening of the Fitzgerald Gallery in New York (a gallery specializing in “Yes Art”) read partially as follows:

“A work of art can be made merely by coming across an object that strikes an artist’s fancy, and by signing it, he can make it into art. After all, art is made by artists and no one else. The preconceived notion that for something to be art it has to be a copy of something is utter nonsense and as outdated as Jackson Pollack (sic). Most people who buy brillo boxes couldn’t care less whether they were made by the National Brillo Corporation or by an artist. That a brillo box has been signed by an artist is what’s meaningful and artistic.”

“Yes Art,” a characteristic example of which is a picture of Superman painting a Campbell’s Soup can, brings with it a bonus in the form of S and H Green Stamps, exchangeable for a Waring Blender, or even a “fine oil painting by a master painter.” One concludes that vulgar language, ostentatious fraudulence, and commercial dividends are all devices to head off the vacuity that increasingly stares (or stares back), at the viewer from the gallery walls.

In the absence of vision, an artist can still, at least, autograph his creation, can still possibly lay some feeble claim to it as his own. Just as in prints, where two identical works, one signed and the other unsigned, have unequal value, so too, in readymades, the name, that cabalistic cipher, makes the difference. In graphics, moreover, a rare example by a mediocre artist can fetch more than a common one by a great artist. Quality, at least artistic quality, is not the major consideration. Nor is it in an area where “livres de luxe” increase the preciousness of mechanized illustration, or where reproductions of multiple-originals might yield still further profits from an untapped audience. It is no accident that the economic vagaries of prints and the retreat from originality inseminated by Dada, are being gratuitously confused these days. To change slightly Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil,” one observes everywhere, the banality of reproductions. Eventually, if this keeps up, the accumulation of embolisms in the stream of creative consciousness will make all our future relations with works of art strictly material—the stilted, unrisky dialogue between two mechanically processed agencies.

Max Kozloff