In 2011, I was visiting a retrospective of art by Julien Hudson (1811–1844) at the Worcester Art Museum. There, I learned that his paintings were often hard to identify because, after the calcifying of anti-Black laws in 19th-century Louisiana, he and other Creole artists were increasingly marginalized. That also meant that Hudson’s signature was erased from certain works and often replaced with the signatures of White artists. I remember that specific case because I’d encountered the stories of other minoritized artists who had suffered similar fates during times of persecution. It brought up a larger question that I continue to ponder, namely, “What’s the value of artists’ signatures and why do they matter?”
The obvious answer is provenance and money, but the value of a signature comes down to more than that. A great example of this is the curious story of Joseph Kyselak (1798–1831). In the early 19th century, Kyselak was an Austrian civil servant and mountaineer known to “tag” his name in some prominent locales during his hikes around Central Europe and elsewhere, even climbing Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador and leaving his moniker there. While he wasn’t an artist, his story gives us some insight into why people might feel the urge to leave their names behind, even when they are not affixed to artworks. We see similar things with the more recent history of graffiti, which emerged at a time when corporate billboards filled the walls and streets of cities, later emulated by young marginalized graffiti writers who weren’t seeing their world represented on the same billboards and wanted to see their own names on the walls of their neighborhoods.
In this special edition, I asked a number of writers to investigate what artist and artisan signatures actually mean or represent, and the results are a fascinating mixture of contemporary and ancient stories that reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
The biggest surprise is an essay by David Low, a British-American art historian I met back in 2016 when I was curating an exhibition at Minerva Projects, which was then headquartered in Denver, Colorado. At the time, I was fascinated by Low’s research into the large absences in the Ottoman archive about the topic of individual photographers and their work. This was particularly curious because of the importance of the field in an empire that contributed to the creation of the travel and tourist photographer genres by selling images to mostly European travelers who visited the region because of religious pilgrimage, a change of scenery, or in search of orientalist titillation. I pointed out at the time that Karlen Mooradian, Vosdanig Adoian’s (later Arshile Gorky) nephew, had mentioned in a book that the photographer of the image that became the basis of Gorky’s famous The Artist and His Mother series was Armenian. With that friendly prod, Low was able to continue his research and uncover the identity of the photographer, which I believe is an incredible contribution to 20th-century American art history. This issue raises the question of why the names of some artists are saved for history, while others are largely lost and their importance dismissed or undervalued. From this, a larger conversation about identity, value, and art historical narratives enters the picture, which I hope you keep in mind as you read the edition.
Sarah Bond, for her contribution, writes about the signatures of artisans in the ancient world, and how they represented the pride of the maker, as much as they denoted a type of mastery.
In Rome, Anthony Majanlahti considers the only signed work by Michelangelo and how, during the Renaissance, artists were using their names to differentiate themselves from more common artisans.
In Detroit, Sarah Rose Sharp visits the city’s Scarab Club, which has been accumulating signatures from famous artists, writers, and performers for over a century. Among the notable names donning the beams and walls of the club are Marcel Duchamp, Diego Rivera, Isamu Noguchi, and Margaret Bourke-White.
I also invited Anoushka Bhalla to talk to various contemporary artists about how and why they choose to sign or not sign their artworks. All the artists she spoke with are women or nonbinary and raised interesting issues around the gendered perceptions of value and signatures.
Eileen Skyers, a first-time contributor, probes what a signature is in the internet age when digital artists are selling work that doesn’t lend itself to the traditional notion of an artist signature.
And finally, journalist Elaine Velie visits a curious sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that has inscribed the names of well-known women artists. It’s a fun story that demonstrates how people continue to be enthralled by the power of the artist’s signed name.
My hope is that this edition will encourage people to think about what some of us take for granted or largely overlook. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed putting it together.