“Walls Are Talking”

The literary critic I. A. Richards once expounded on the nature of poetry with the resounding conclusion, “Poetry is the house we live in.” T. S. Eliot piped up from the audience, “I should rather have called it the wallpaper.” That wallpaper has its poetry, in any case, was already clear enough to modernist painters like Matisse, Vuillard, and Bonnard, for whom its rhythmic patterns had at once a formal raison d’être, functioning as an approximation of what Clement Greenberg would later call the “all-over picture,” “tightly covered, evenly and heavily textured,” which “tended—but only tended—to reduce the picture to a relatively undifferentiated surface,” and a psychosocial one, since its “muffled contrasts” were also those of the claustral interiority of the European bourgeois subject.

Would such paintings have, a century ago, been hung on walls papered with patterns such as the ones they portray? So we must believe on the evidence of the paintings themselves, such as Vuillard’s Woman in Blue with a Child, ca. 1899 (reproduced in the catalogue for this fascinating exhibition of, mostly, wallpapers by contemporary artists), in which a framed painting hangs atop the Art Nouveau flower pattern that dominates the depicted room. Soon enough, however, the hygiene of developing modernist design would banish such patterning from both urbane decor and the paintings such rooms contain. The return of wallpaper might be dated to 1966, when Andy Warhol exhibited his Cow wallpaper at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. But still, as Victoria and Albert Museum curator Gill Saunders—who organized “Walls Are Talking: Wallpaper, Art, and Culture” together with Christine Woods of the Whitworth Art Gallery—remarks in her catalogue essay, Cow’s “simple, unintegrated repeat” is unusual for wallpaper and makes it look more like “a printed filmstrip for a motionless movie.” In time, however, Warhol’s wallpapers began to function as backgrounds for his paintings, as when he exhibited his Mao portraits on Mao wallpaper in 1974—from moo to Mao? Likewise, many of the most interesting subsequent uses of wallpaper by artists have occurred when the paper has been used to envelop other images or objects and unite them into a seamless installation. I am thinking, for instance, of Thomas Demand’s Ivy/Efeu, 2006, originally designed for his exhibition of photographs at the Serpentine Gallery in London that year. At the Whitworth, by contrast, this piece takes pride of place as the only one to cover a room—a vast hall, really—in its entirety. The effect is spectacular; the wallpaper easily functions as an autonomous work, especially thanks to the way it changes so dramatically depending on the viewer’s distance: From farther away, the pattern is crisp and tactile, while up close it softens into a sort of digital-age lyricism.

Of course, there are practical reasons why this all-encompassing installation could not be provided for most of the wallpapers on view. But presenting them as single sheets, as had so often to be the case, turns them into something more like ordinary prints; it takes considerable imagination to envisage the effect they might have as environments. What’s striking is that although Warhol’s inspiration to bring wallpaper into art has been widely successful, few of his successors have followed his motive for using it, his American Zen perception that “the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.” Subsequent artists are much more likely to use wallpaper patterning to hammer home a meaning. They sometimes do this to brilliant effect. I am thinking in particular of Robert Gober’s terrifying Hanging Man/Sleeping Man, 1989. But elsewhere the effect can be as unconvincingly didactic as the edifying messages secreted in the patterns conceived for Victorian nurseries. Even so, “Walls Are Talking” made a convincing case for moving wallpaper from the background to the foreground of aesthetic attention.

Barry Schwabsky