Jun 18, 2019

Inside Out – essays by an art journalist. Essay 6: one of a kind.

What is remarkable about art? Its uniqueness. This essay from our Inside Out series explores the reproduction and copy-making of art.

The final touch

What is remarkable about art? Its uniqueness. Each work of art is the only one and cannot be repeated,’ you would be told. ‘Nothing of the kind’, connoisseurs will answer and cite numerous examples of how a press run or repetition are by no means exclusive of art.

The nearest example is printmaking. This includes printed replicas that were made by copyist engravers in the 19th century and authored printmaking, for which the artist would make the printing form and then rotate the press wheel himself.

But even in authored printmaking, the author was not at all expected to do everything by himself: apprentices would do the engraving for him. Gustave Doré, one of the most talented and prolific masters of the European engraving art, co-operated with a whole guild of engravers who would transfer his drawing onto panels while the author joined in the work at the very end to literally add the author’s final touch.

At all times, printed graphics were a more commercial and affordable art than painting or sculpture. It has been and is still being printed for sale.

There are obviously rules that limit the number of impressions. Two or three hundred copies are made, with both the number of copies and each impression’s serial number attended to: indicated on the sheet and certified with the author’s signature. The first tens are considered the most valuable – mainly because the artist inspects them more thoroughly and can even make some changes; and then because the form deteriorates, the relief picture is stamped in and the print becomes smoother, without transitions from all black to all white that are typical of engravings.  This is thoroughly checked during sale, and the first prints by famous artists are sometimes priced like their paintings. The records were set by Pablo Picasso’s graphics. In 2010, a work from his Minotauromachy series was bought at Sotheby’s in London for 1.27 million pounds. Truth be told, to set such records the author’s print must sometimes have its authenticity proved, which is not always easy. The temptation to forge one is too great. Salvador Dali, for example, is said to have bequeathed signed printing sheets to his secretary – sort of carte blanche for posthumous printing.

‘Minotauromachy’ Pablo Picasso, 1935

How many is too many?

And yet printed graphics priced at millions is rather an exception. If engravings by Rembrandt go up in price, this is due to their rarity and the finite number of impressions available in the market – in addition to Rembrandt’s fame as a painter. If modern printmaking works go up in price, this is partly engineered by the artists whose turn their printed sheets into unique works of arts. An artist is more interested in selling a monoprint than any part of a press run. There are naturally a lot of methods for turning a press run into a monoprint. What matters is not those tricks but rather the definition of a press run itself, for in modern art it is more and more problematic to distinguish a press run from a unique artwork. Reflections on uniqueness and replication are primarily invited by photography that has also become a commercial art. The idea of a unique photograph is directly contrary to the very purpose of film, to say nothing of digital cameras. So the signs of the author’s valuable prints, particularly those made from the original negative on equipment contemporary to the picture, have been established artificially.

Be it as it may, for now we assume that printmaking art is made by joining two elements: a printing form and paper, the impression. There can be much paper and just one printing form. Printed graphics exists in numerous varieties — but when Yves Klein laid a nudie covered with blue paint onto canvas to make his ‘Anthropometry’, was it a print or a painting? Were her breasts and buttocks a printing form, or was it simply a modern manner of painting nude figures?

‘Anthropometry’ Yves Klein, 1960

A special exhibition of Henri Matisse, dedicated to his repetitions and series, was recently held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the one hand, it demonstrated that the plot and subject were not critical and that a genuine artist could not depict the same thing twice identically. On the other hand, it shows an important trend. Artists have come to understand that it is silly and wasteful to make no author’s repetitions, with the advantages they offer. It is not discoveries that are actually expected even from a well-known artist, but something that has already made him famous. If you are Dali, you’re welcome to paint burning giraffes and clocks melting like camembert. If you are Picasso – you’d better stick to high cubism; Calder – make riveted modules. Any manifestation of novelty is suspicious and must be well-prepared. This can be seen at auctions of classical art where a marine painter will hardly raise much money with a mountain landscape.

Marina Abramović, performance art and repetition

Artists have tried to resist the market that demanded replication. They looked for a way out – for example, in the form of installations assembled on special occasions, or performances, actions that occur here and now, never to repeat. That might seem an art not for sale or repetition. But demand dictates supply here as well. First of all, well-known installations had to be reproduced, for example if they were part of an exhibition that moved to another part of the world. It becomes possible to exhibit identical things at different galleries. We can remember the story of Damien Hirst who exhibited his coloured ‘spot art’ at eleven branches of Larry Gagosian’s gallery worldwide in 2012.

Authors often travel and reproduce their famous performances all over the world. The show of Marina Abramović at the Garage Museum of modern Art was a reproduction of her previous actions; the nude German girls might have been replaced by Russian ones, but the author herself was the same. She could be considered the very work of her own art herself, no less than the French artist Orlan who altered her face using plastic surgery.

Marina Abramović and Ulay ‘AAA-AAA’

It might seem that her actions could not be repeated, just like the cruel products of Viennese Actionism. Rudolf Schwarzkogler from Austria couldn’t give an encore to cutting off his penis whenever an important exhibition was assembled, could he? But Viennese Actionism is well known; exhibited instead of a one-time action is documentation that has come to substitute the action proper.  So long as the documentation existed on paper and photo and cinema film, a tinge of uniqueness persisted. But since the documentation took the electronic form, one can speak of uniqueness very cautiously if at all. The documentation of many performances can now be found on the Net, and videos, on YouTube; in other words, one can cut his penis any number of times as if it were endless.

And all this is akin to printed graphics. After all, the copperplate engraving technique is still being used to make forms and print U.S. Dollars — printmaking art works that enjoy stable demand in the art market.

Also published on Medium.