Print in the Muddy, Expanded Field
In her famous, problematic 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,“ Rosalind Krauss claimed that postmodern art could no longer be categorized by materials (bronze and stone for sculpture, for instance), and instead was now organized “through the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation.” The binary terms she chose to form the fence posts of sculpture’s “expanded field” were architecture and landscape. “The postmodern space of painting,” she argued, “would … turn on the opposition uniqueness/reproducibility.
The fact that she frames the relationship between uniqueness and reproducibility as a binary opposition and as a problem of reveals a critical blind spot. (Krauss’s contributions to Art Since 1900display an unapologetic ignorance of basic art historical knowledge about prints). And yet she is largely right. For the past 50 years the critical discussion about uniqueness and reproducibility in art has itself played out in, because of its unparalleled economic heft. Prints have been largely ignored as objects of critical inquiry for obvious reasons: there is nothing transgressive about the powerless taking on attributes of the powerful (think of women wearing trousers versus men wearing dresses). Thus the print that plays with uniqueness is seen as far less provocative than the painting that plays with multiplicity, and—unsurprisingly—most artists who have wanted to call attention to the tension between uniqueness and reproducibility have positioned their work first and foremost as painting (though they may produce prints as well.)
For most of the past 50 years, however, this supposed transgression has been a feint: from Andy Warhol to Christopher Wool paintings remained demonstrably unique and (with a handful of exceptions) prints continued to be editioned in tidily documented signed and numbered editions.
Since the 1990s, though, there has been a more nuanced approach to this question, at least on the part of artists—a recognition that this supposedly binary structure has at least three distinct points: uniqueness, reproduction and multiplicity; that they are connected not by a polar opposition but by a spectrum; and that those clean terminal points are in fact empty: every object exists somewhere in the middle.
This shift is inseparable from the concurrent suffusion of print through every kind of art work: painting, installations, film and video, sound art, sculpture, landscape architecture, street art and, of course, works on paper. (And all these categories are themselves dynamic and porous.) Digital technologies have been key to this transformation, but so has woodcut, screenprint, intaglio, stencil and all the other “traditional” methods.
This talk looks a range of printed art that may or may not be identified by its maker as “prints,” including projects by artists such as Christiane Baumgartner, Louisiana Bendolph, Wade Guyton, Thomas Kilpper, Glenn Ligon, Allan McCollum, Gerhard Richter, Alyson Schotz, Swoon, Gert and Uwe Tobias, Kelley Walker, and the Madrid-based fabrication firm Factum Arte. These works raise intriguing questions about what it is we actually want from art and why. They may also supply unexpected answers.
Susan Tallman is an art historian who has written extensively on the history and culture of the print, as well as on issues authenticity, reproduction and multiplicity. She is Editor-in-Chief of the international journal and website , and her writing has appeared in Art in America, Parkett, Public Art Review, Art on Paper, Print QuarterlyArts Magazineand many other publications. Her books include The Contemporary Print: from Pre-Pop to Postmodern (Thames and Hudson), The Collections of Barbara Bloom (Steidl), and numerous museum catalogues. She has lived and worked in New York, Amsterdam and Berlin, and currently teaches in the Departments of Printmedia and Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.