It all began during the early Renaissance when a young Raphael Santi forewent the long-held tradition of co-operative art making under guild systems to autograph his first painting, “The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine.”
While Raphael was modest in breaking long-established customs, obscuring his signature within decorations behind a Virgin Mary figure, his male successors centuries down the line would not remain as bashful. The signatures of Picasso and Keith Haring are far more familiar than that of, say, Helen Frankenthaler. Perhaps the reason for this inequity lies within the systemic treatment of women within art institutions. Museum collections are still disproportionately male. In fact, only 12% of artists within major US museum collections are female. Even worse, women of color occupy a mere 1% within these institutions. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that signed artworks by male artists fetch astounding prices in the secondary market as compared to their female counterparts. A recent study states that “For every £1 a male artist earns for his work, a woman earns a mere 10p.” The same study also states that “while the value of a work by a man rises if he has signed it, the value of a work by a woman falls if she has signed it, as if it has somehow been tainted by her gender.” Female artists have long been conscious of this gender disparity, with some feeling paralyzed against the market and choosing to forego their signatures to make their works more “collectible.” Are these artists signing away their autonomy too?
I spoke to Baseera Khan about these troubling statistics. A femme artist of color, they were the subject of a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2021. “No, I don’t sign my works. I think it’s an old tradition” they declare. “I don’t think I’m valued because of my gender, because I’m a femme artist, quite not as much as the male artists — and that’s a fight.” They add that being a non-male artist and having to police their prices is exhausting. In fact, artists Julie Torres and Ellen Letcher, who operate LABspace, an artist-run gallery in Hillsdale, New York, often find themselves in awkward positions, having to ward off collectors who demand signatures from their artists and sometimes even return works for them to be signed. But for others, like Lucia Hierro, whose work was recently acquired by the Guggenheim Museum, and who often does not sign her pieces, says she will stand her ground. There is a finality to signatures, she says, which she dislikes.
When I spoke to Xayvier Haughton, an emerging artist from Jamaica who recently exhibited at the Spring Break Art Show, I brace myself for his harrowing response. An installation artist, he despises signing his works. While he makes art that is difficult to collect, he feels defenseless in the face of powerful collectors who make sure to somehow obtain his signature before acquisition. He acknowledges this as a conscious decision on his part. Installations are notoriously difficult to collect, and that in itself is an anti-market statement. “My works are a way of resisting colonization and capitalism. I want to disturb the white cube. I want institutions that understand and support my work but as an artist, I have very little autonomy.” While Haughton wants to adhere to his principles, he doesn’t want to be blacklisted in the art world — which he feels is the fate of artists who defy the desires of collectors. In this fickle art-world bubble, he’s attempting to hold onto his autonomy by foregoing his signature.
But some disagree with this sentiment. Bhasha Chakrabarti, also an emerging artist, who works in painting, sculptures and installations, is a skeptic. “I find the idea of making installation with the motivation of evading the market to be disingenuous…. If you make art and are functioning within the gallery system, you’re not evading the art world,” even though, she adds, she feels suspicious of the art world’s deep stake in capitalism. When I mention the Eurocentric history of asserting ownership via signatures on artwork, she counters, citing Sufi mystic poets who claimed authorship after each recital. She is steadfast in her principles, reluctant to give authority to White male artists and as a South Asian myself, I can’t help but appreciate her convictions.
Artist Chiffon Thomas approaches the dilemma more philosophically. Thomas, whose solo show Staircase to the Rose Window was on view at PPOW Gallery in Tribeca last year, says he draws inspiration from his life for his art. It makes sense, then, to impress these works with his signature. Over time, he explains, he stopped signing his works and acquired an existential approach to art-making. He realized he wanted to capture a sense of universality in his art, to the extent that he grew uncomfortable using his childhood, his family, or any personal signifiers. Eventually, he says, “I didn’t feel like the use of my signature was significant to what I was trying to do as a creator.” I ponder the profundity of what Thomas tells me; I feel that he is almost trying to negate himself in his works and remove his authorship to express the universal condition of human existence. He says he wishes to find an anonymous space within his work. With this anonymity he believes he can find a safe space to show vulnerability, rawness, and authenticity.
But perhaps the most compelling response comes from a young artist, Dylan Rose Rheingold. As more painters shy away from signing their works on the front of their canvases, Rheingold realizes this is an empowering act as a woman. Nevertheless, she will occasionally sign as “Dylan,” a traditional male name, although she also uses the more feminine “Dylan Rose,” and lately she is using her full name, Dylan Rose Rheingold, boldly asserting ownership over her art. Her resolve strengthens when she explains passionately a recent encounter she had with a “big collector who owns a big gallery in New York.” “When I met him, he told me that I should drop my middle name because my work would be a lot more valuable. People would not assume I’m a woman.” She countered with “I’m happy to take my chances.”