Art

Having Trouble Thinking Outside the White Box

Installation view of "Print/Out" (all images courtesy moma.org)

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about prints. The fact is that for many people this medium is the easiest way we can readily experience art outside of a gallery or museum environment. Since 19th century French culture brought us the mass produced lithograph, art and consumer culture have found a common stomping ground. In our technology obsessed society there are almost as many methods for print making as there are ways to incorporate them into artistic practice. All of this is good for us as a culture, a community and individuals. It means that more art is reaching more people.

MoMA’s latest thematic exhibition Print/Out aims to examine the ways printing has expanded and molded contemporary art practice. As per the press release:

Print/Out explores how these artists have integrated the medium’s defining characteristics — reproducibility, collaboration, and ease of circulation — into some of the most innovative art practices of our time.”

The exhibition is composed of prints from the 1980s onward and divided by theme and artist in a massive display that sprawls over half of the 6th floor. The exhibition space itself is stuffed with materials, display cases an installations.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, "Untitled (rucksack installation)" (1993) and "Untitled 2008–2011 (the map of the land of feeling) I–III" (2008–11)

At its start the exhibition provides a historically fascinating look at work by Ai Weiwei, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Museum in Progress and Rikrit Tirvanija. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ billboard reproduction of an all white bed with the sheets pulled back is immediately confrontational in what might have been a relatively tame exhibition. A lengthy wall text addresses the importance of publishing and printmaking to Ai Weiwei’s politically oriented art practice. Unfortunately, his three Black, White and Grey books, produced for their ability to disseminate information, are totally out of reach behind a Plexiglas vitrine. Not that I blame the museum for protecting them. Books and zines don’t translate easily into the exhibition format as anything other than artifacts of note. Doesn’t this defeat the point that the museum is trying to make anyway?

Rikrit Tirvanija’s corner of the exhibition served as a sort of archive. The artist is best known for his installations, performances and projects that emphasize social interaction. The curators have organized in a vitrine a multitude of the editions the artist has produced in conjunction with these projects. They read as ephemera and point to the artist’s larger practice. Tirvanija’s “Untitled 2008-2011 (the map of the land of feeling) I-III” (2008-11) is a large scale mishmash of drawn and collaged imagery taken from the artist’s passport. The imagery is striking, and it certainly gives an insight into the less talked about commercial side of Tirvanija’s practice.

The exhibition as a whole is punctuated salon style with prints framed and hung directly on the wall. I was delighted to see a number of works by Daniel Joseph Martinez. His text based prints mark only a fraction of the artists overall practice but encapsulate his exploration of personal and societal identity. His sayings like “this funeral is for the WRONG CORPSE,” “she asked him about the medallion around his neck a dog tag from a war yet to come” and “we are dogs in love with our own vomit” provide the necessary anger and skepticism I would hope for from this type of exhibition. Lucy Mckenzie’s series of “posters” including her famous “Olympic Dames” print utilize a variety of graphic approaches. Mckenzie’s prints are often produced in conjunction with performance and art events but push beyond advertising towards social investigation.

Prints by Christopher Wool.
Prints by Christopher Wool.

Though both Mckenzie and Joseph Martinez are fantastic, why not delve a little deeper? Why not include work by the political art collective Just Seeds or the classic feminist group The Guerrilla Girls? Also, I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but what about punk? I know that is a whole can of worms but really in an exhibition about how printmaking has expanded the confines of art making … not even ONE Raymond Pettibone-designed Black Flag poster? What about street art? That movement’s adoption of the wheatpasted print has certainly transformed the environment. It’s not that I’m surprised these players were left out of the conversation, just slightly disappointing.

There were a number of artists in this exhibition that felt irrelevant. I get that Yoshitomo Nara is a great artist, her cartoony prints are awesome but what do they teach us, other than famous artists sometimes also make prints that are awesome? I only harp because the exhibition’s whole point is to expand our understanding. How does a wall full of Julie Mehretu prints do that? Sure they are wonderful contemporary artists, but how does their work add to the exhibition? Christopher Wool’s wall sized prints made total sense, his works, like Mehretu’s are abstract and famous, however in him we see an artist pushing the boundaries of how a traditional print might look or function; monumental in scale, they seem to mimic his paintings and remind me of the inovative print practices of Howard Hodgkin. Also, Damien Hirst? Come on MoMA. You did pretty well on this one, but did you really have to squeeze in so many superfluous bold names at the end? You do great shows, but you seem unable to help yourself sometimes. It’s like watching a toddler ride a bike with training wheels they don’t need.

Print/Out continues at the Museum of Modern Art(11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) until May 14.

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