PRINT March 1978

The Substance of Paper

Of Flax Which Is The Minister Of Mankind That shall be revered and honored, its precepts listened to with reverence and love, which first was bound, broken, and martyrized by many and various beaters.
Leonardo da Vinci, “Parables”

ACCORDING TO A LEGEND about the origins of paper, in A.D. 105 T’sai Lun, an official of the Chinese court, visited a silk works. When he noticed an accumulation of trimmings from the bolts that were being finished for scrolls, it occurred to him that these trimmings might be macerated and reconsolidated into additional sheets. He began to experiment, with silk eventually being replaced by more appropriate fibers, and thus paper was invented. The T’sai Lun legend states, with wonderful concision, themes central to the development of paper. Here we consider how various artists have focused on the nature of paper, articulating those themes.

Paper is primarily a surface for recording information. As such, it exists to be obscured. It aspires to whiteness only in order to make its own obscuring most poignant. And the text it supports is what presses paper completely into the two-dimensional: only an empty sheet of paper has volume.

The papermaker takes elaborate pains to make his material uniform and flat. He is continually demanding that the stuff be uninteresting in itself—blank, forgettable. Each sheet should be as much like the next as possible. As with bricks, the task is to defraud the thing of its distinctions.

The paper-machine, sheeting the pulp on an endless belt (widespread by 1825), brought paper much closer to categorical uniformity. The perfection of this new paper, like other industrial objects, was disparaged by democrats and esthetes. They wanted paper to be less conformist and insipid. The imperfect handmade sheet was appreciated for its individuality, where previously it had been treated only as a practical thing. The texture was caressed, the wrinkles savored and the errant deckle edges admired. Paper began to have an esthetic value as well as utilitarian function. A nostalgia for the handmade, with its emphasis on secondary, nonfunctional qualities appreciated for themselves, brought to attention paper’s three dimensions. Paper began to emerge from the background supporting part it had played into a spotlighted character role. This was the time of the flowering of Romantic watercolor painting.

The acquisition by paper of a voice of its own took another qualitative leap with the advent of collage. Here paper made the transition from field to form. However, paper in early Cubist collage rarely expressed itself as such. The papers used were most often mass-printed, quotidian bits of refuse: wallpaper, wrappers, musical scores and programs and, especially, newspapers. Such paper talks about the new ubiquity of disposable imagery, and it was inevitable that paper should be used to express this.

Recycled rags were the raw material of Western paper, until the first processing of wood into pulp in the 1850s. Here we had a process of making something from “nothing” that demanded extraordinary skill, intricate equipment, special environmental factors and intensive labor. The rags themselves were difficult to obtain. (At the end of the 19th century, Egyptian mummies were given a sort of rebirth when their linen winding-sheets were imported and pulped by desperate American papermakers.) Preindustrial paper was a cherished material. By the end of the 19th century, papermaking had become a huge, capital-intensive, machine industry. Paper was no longer a recycled material. Owing to its availability, it could be acquired and disposed of daily. Cubist collage, in reclaiming a bit of this waste, bore witness to accelerated entropy in a consumptive and wasteful society.

Joel Fisher’s recent paperworks are often metaphors for this entropic aspect of paper. Fisher has eaten fibers (on an empty stomach) and excreted paper. He has recycled his obsolete clothing and artworks into paper. His falling hair is spun into an ongoing strand, underlining the inevitability of his balding. In Cubist collage recycling is a resurrection, whereas with Fisher’s work—sometimes exhibited down on the ground and having the sludge color of homogenized refuse—we are reminded of the Nazis’ more gruesome experiments in recycling. We feel a premonition of failure in Fisher’s attempts to make his work 100 percent himself (by himself and of himself) in order to break the constraints that surround him.

With his self-sufficient impetus, Fisher offers a criticism of the economic history of papermaking. For its first 600 years, the paper industry was an Oriental monopoly controlled by official and religious patronage. The raw materials were wild—and perhaps also cultivated—plant fibers. The production was often the communal work of an entire village pooling its efforts in the harvest season, a system still common in Japan.

In A.D. 750, some Chinese papermakers were forced to reveal their knowledge of papermaking processes to their Arab captors. Thereafter, the craft spread throughout Islam, reaching Europe in the 12th century. The Western industry developed distinctly different modes from the Oriental. Raw material was provided by rag collecting, not harvesting. Official patronage was minimized, the papermaker having a varied clientele. The seasonal and communal system was replaced by year-round private enterprise, while elaborate machinery increasingly replaced labor.

The original transition from fabric to paper, as illustrated by the T’sai Lun myth, made available a more convenient medium for imagery, though one not as durable as cloth. This exchange of quantity for quality is repeated in the transition from hand papermaking, to machine papermaking. It also evokes the traditional Western dichotomy of painting and drawing. Works on cheap and versatile paper are improvisational, experimental, studious, minor, seminal or preparatory. Works on durable linen or cotton fabric are resolved, elaborated, precise, major, gestated and complete.

The Abstract Expressionists began to dissolve this dichotomy of paper vs. fabric. De Kooning painted on paper as if it were canvas, arriving at a new spontaneity (and a conservator’s nightmare). On the other hand, Pollock’s late canvases can be seen as huge-scale drawings. The exposure of the unprimed/unsized surface that Pollock developed seems to derive from conventional techniques of working on paper. Alongside his transposition of drawing to canvas, Pollock retained marked interest in paper as such. He had an ongoing relationship with Douglas Howell, the forefather of the current American hand-papermaking revival. Pollock worked on a variety of sheets by Howell, including multicolored ones and some made of Howell’s homegrown flax. In the work illustrated here, Pollock makes an analogy between this basic paper and the primordial cave wall.

The transitional and ambivalent nature of Pollock’s involvements is also illustrated in his fluctuations between oil and synthetic paints. The confirmed acrylic painter, completing this transition, calls upon the canvas to fulfill the traditional supporting roles of both paper and canvas. Thus acrylic paint has come to be a hybrid of traditional drawing and painting media. A whole range of activities and expressions that were evoked by drawing and painting respectively have been lost in this homogenization.

Motherwell is perhaps our most sensitive connoisseur of paper. He stresses the diversity of different types of paper and the uniqueness of each handmade sheet. He turns the sheet into a gesture through the act of tearing, or into a found gesture when he pastes down an entire “second” (Motherwell purchases the rejected sheets of the papermaker John Koller). Yet if Motherwell’s work is recherché, perhaps other artists are not attentive enough.

Brice Marden favors a mold-made, hot-press Arches paper, a singularly uncomfortable support for his drawing. The drawn rectangle proposes a hand-hewn geometry, a precise and intuitively organized surface, complex and with precisely crafted edges. The paper rectangle presents mechanical dimensions, a regular surface and pseudo-handmade edges. Hence, the paper stands for values opposed to the drawing. Marden appears not to be as conscious of the design of his paper as he is of the composition of his drawing.

Frank Stella’s work on paper can be equally disappointing. After years of relating to paper as the conventional two-dimensional expedient, he seems recently to have had a pang of conscience. The extremes of labor devoted to his paper-castings, which are some of the most laboriously produced sheets ever made, take on the character of penitential acts. The haphazardness of the colors separates them both visually and conceptually from the overworked surface. (Stella perhaps realized this separation, since in his latter work the support has become as haphazard as the color and thus the whole is somewhat more unified.)

One artist who has invented an extraordinary number of metaphors for paper is Robert Rauschenberg. In a given collage, he can make paper symbolize the artist’s craft, the quotidian, or “the media.” As a support, the sheet becomes a riverbed where the stream of consciousness flows; or we see the plane of the paper’s surface as the cross-section of a temporal continuum with its chance collusions. When working with pulp, Rauschenberg posits various axioms: imagery can be in, rather than on, the paper—including olfactory imagery (Link, Little Joe); the tendency of pulp is toward nonrectilinear shapes (Link, Page 2); paper can’t stand on its own, but must lean on, or otherwise gather, support (Little Joe); paper is natural in substance but immediately technologized by human structuring (Capitol); though made of the same material as fabric, paper is constructed differently (Capitol, Little Joe). (These works are included in Rauschenberg’s print editions “Pages and Fuses” [1974] and “Bones and Visions” [1975].)

The fibers of a textile fabric are held in a regular geometric grid, while those of paper are in a random field. The physical joining of the fabric fibers is clearly apparent, while the chemical and physical junctures of the paper fibers are only microscopically apparent. This gives paper a higher degree of unity than fabric. Hence a piece of paper is much more a single thing (and one that is analogous to the body in its monadic nature) than a weave, whose parts are distinct and whose technology is perceptible. A weave intimates continuation; a sheet of paper remains mysterious.

Joshua Neustein’s recent work exploits the visually indivisible, preanalytic structure of paper. The blank sheet is proposed as a unit to be manipulated and as the axiom of a logical progression. The body of the sheet presents an original symmetry which the artist then dislodges. Each of his gestures refers directly to the pristine figure, forcing the viewer, operation by operation, to return to the whole blank page. Neustein never throws away a part he has separated, so that reconstruction could be complete and all the matter is conserved.

The clarity of Neustein’s logic is reflected in the crispness of the paper chosen, in the elegance and refined application of the color, and in the sharp visual contrast between colored and white contingencies. These elements have a decorative and sensual appeal (which can be reminiscent of Matisse’s cutouts); at the same time, they reinforce the austere semantics.

Neustein is part of a circle of artists to whom Robert Pincus-Witten refers in an intriguing essay positing separate developments for modernist and Jewish abstraction.1 The preferred medium of the contemporary Jewish abstractionist is so often paper, the tool designed to carry symbolic information: here, specifically, the Word. Stemming from the tradition of the Holy Book, these artists retain paper as the natural ground for their an iconic imagery.2 Although referring to the aniconic past in their use of paper and sign, they seek a new conjunction of the two. The sign and the paper become inseparable in the tears, folds, cuts, crumblings, gouges and other direct manipulations they employ.3

Pinchas Cohen-Gan’s early paper reliefs epitomize this situation. The whole gamut of gestures is employed spontaneously. Cohen-Gan moves the paper to penetrate, reveal, destroy, score, roughen, edit, shape, delineate, enclose and expose. Flimsy, misprinted tabloids mediate book, drawing and sculpture with a virtuosity motivated by strong emotion, even if, in some of the more visceral, though less intricate, works, the attempt seems to be merely to claw through the book.

Although these artists have been successful in applying sculptural, specifically relief, techniques to paper, its suitability for sculpture seems to have a limit. Paper is essentially soft, flexible, thin and lightweight, and therefore nonstructural. However, origami, corrugated cardboard boxes, laminated-paper furniture and geodesic domes of paper are embodiments of just some of the possibilities for paper as a free-standing structure. These possibilities have not been exploited by sculptors. Artists who do let paper exist in-the-round usually end up with a hesitatingly bound blank-book.4 The impression seems to be that unless one considers the two-dimensional, information-gathering nature of paper, one is violating the medium.

Steven Kasher is a painter and papermaker working in New York.



1. Robert Pincus-Witten, “Six Propositions on Jewish Art,” Arts Magazine, December 1975. pp. 66–69.

2. There is a Judaic law that reflects the reverence accorded the very material of the Book. These laws prescribe the literal burial of obsolete sacred books, in a way analogous to the human funeral, The Talmud, Folio 26, p. 2.

3. Neustein, Cohen-Gan, Benni Efrat and Moshe Kupferman are included in this catalogue.

4. Caroline Greenwald, Charlemagne Palestine, Michelle Stuart, Joel Fisher and Pinchas Cohen-Gan (with remarkable colored wood and paper lectern) are some examples. I envision another essay exploring this genre.