It’s not clear who scooped whom, but there are two gallery shows now on view in New York that examine the relationship between art and the newspaper. News/Prints: Printmaking & The Newspaper at the International Print Center New York (ICPNY) in Chelsea takes the historical view, focusing on the way printmakers have dealt with their Fourth Estate counterpart, while in Bushwick, Burying the Lede at Momenta Art has a narrower scope, showing works by living artists who are among the last generation to grow up with the paper thudding on the doorstep every morning.
There’s overlap between the two, and though the IPCNY exhibition lacks a cohesive message, its historical background informs Momenta’s tight showing. Together they chart the lifespan not of newspapers themselves but of their changing place in society.
News/Prints starts at the beginning: the Industrial Revolution’s spread of steam power and literacy widened the definition of the public, and artists took advantage. Near the gallery entrance, a glass case holds historical newspapers as if it were an open casket. These papers portray a bygone era when working artists used the broadsheet as a megaphone for their talents. Thomas Nast’s and Honoré Daumier’s political cartoons visualize the editorial; a generic drawing of a runaway slave diminishes the human reality behind his owner’s description; Benjamin Franklin’s infamous snake from 1754 says “propaganda” more potently than any column. Most striking are the still-vibrant woodblock compositions from 1874 that engulf the name of the Tokyo Nichi Nichi newspaper, Japan’s first daily.
By the mid-20th century, newspapers had become ubiquitous, and monolithic. In the 1970s, the exalted New York Times font infiltrated the prints of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Ed Ruscha. With the lettering dismembered and decontextualized, these works teeter on the border between political comment — a growing wariness of America’s institutions, perhaps — and Pop art’s formal interest in the quotidian.
Then, in the new millennium, just as the Times announced plans for its shiny, new 52-floor headquarters in Times Square, artists’ criticisms got vicious. Rirkrit Tiravanija plastered his slogan “The Days of This Society Is Numbered” on the Gray Lady’s face, and Fred Tomaselli slipped her a dose of LSD, sending her on a bad trip in her most desperate moments. Despite unrelenting laments about its demise, the New York Times has remained the brand name in news, and, in turn, artists crop, obscure, and mock it as a surrogate for America’s misdeeds. Other papers make an appearance, but the treatment is equally critical, as in Kyle Tata’s “7 Days of News (from Baltimore Sun Newspaper),” a week layered upon itself to form an indecipherable scab of ink.
But in this era, the news doesn’t just get ripped up; it gets ripped off. That same slave from the 19th century continues his escape in Glenn Ligon’s work, though now the text describes the artist himself. Ruth Lingen updates the typeface of an article titled, “Women can’t be Artists,” originally published in the Times in 1910. Her version adds a few typos, shifting our attention from the neurologist’s absurd diagnosis to the absurdity of its ever having been printed.
The most prescient work in the show may be David Shrigley’s piece, a silkscreen dripping with the handwritten headline: “News: Nobody Likes You.” Today, Facebook’s “newsfeed” has usurped the popularity of any single news source, supplying the breaking stories that define our social status.
Burying the Lede picks up where News/Prints left off. Artist Adam Simon, who worked at the Times for ten years, chose three contemporary artists whose work he knew dealt with newspapers. Those artists selected three others, and so on, until the show included thirteen works by different artists. The gallery states that the process “obliquely reflects earlier times, when the daily paper was passed from hand to hand, or news passed verbally from person to person.” But to me it seems more reflective of the contemporary way we consume the news: by sharing, following, linking, and liking. Though our consumption is mediated through the web, we’re informed not by a masthead but a social network.
The works loosely share affinities according to their chains of selection: there are low-budget interventions by Austin Thomas, John Newman, and Michael St. John; colorful reframings by Elissa Levy, Liz Magic Laser, and Becca Albee; impersonation practical jokes by Guy Richards Smit, William Powhida, and Steve Lambert; and dark destructions by Fred Tomaselli, Phong Bui, and William Pope.L. The iconic American papers are present, again with a focus on the Times: Lambert’s convincing replica comes with a revamped slogan, “All the News We Hope to Print,” while Albee prints a funerary bouquet of flowers to illustrate a Times caption describing US deaths in Iraq. William Pope.L sits on the toilet and slowly consumes (literally) the Wall Street Journal.
The centerpiece of the gallery is Guy Richards Smit’s colossal edition of the New York Times, painted in watercolors and gouache. Visitors are welcomed to leaf through its stiff pages. The paint handling is intentionally sloppy, coalescing to form headlines from an alternate universe. From the Arts section: “Chandelier Bids Outrageous Sum for Mediocre Richter”; in National news: “Romney Turns to Poetry and Scrapbooking”; and Business Day: “Toshiba Spokesperson Shoots Self in Leg: Over and Over and Over.” These mingle with the more existential headlines: “Meaningful Glance Rendered Meaningless,” “The Sea is My Friend No More.” A gallery visitor joked to me in passing, “Not easy to read on the subway!”
But then again, neither is the real paper. I remember my mother teaching me the “subway fold” and my high school teacher explaining how the layout, with its columns and folds, is a system that measures importance. Today the physical paper has become a luxury item, something closer to an artwork itself, with a price tag incongruous to its ingredients of cheap paper and ink.
In its heyday, the newspaper was a public record designed for discarding. We relied on it and held it accountable, and the next day used it for kindling or house-training. Online, everything is permanently retrievable, but it’s nearly impossible to get everyone on the same page. Artists may not make ideal ombudsmen, especially printmakers, who love ink and paper more than even the most nostalgic journalist. But the ones working today are compassionate critics, poking fun even as they know the newspaper can’t fight back. And when they get their hands on a copy, they eat it for breakfast.
News/Prints: Printmaking & the Newspaper continues at the International Print Center New York (508 West 26th Street, 5A, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 19. Burying the Lede continues at Momenta Art (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick) through October 27.