Aleksandra Mir

Gauging the Power of the Print

By Ken Johnson, New York, February 2012

19 February - 14 May 2012
MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

If "Print/Out", an overbearing exhibition opening on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, is any indication, the intimate fine-art print is an endangered species. Organized by Christophe Cherix, the museum’s chief curator of prints and illustrated books, the show presents printed works by 40 artists and artist groups from the museum’s permanent collection in a jazzy, crowded sixth-floor installation. Abounding in blatant verbiage, it has a hectoring, noisy feeling, as if you were being yelled at for the duration of your visit.

Dating from the past 20 years, the majority of works involve technology and public modes of address borrowed from the worlds of advertising and design, and express critical suspicion of mainstream media, culture and society. If this mix of Pop and propaganda sounds crushingly familiar, it is.

Selected walls throughout the exhibition are papered by Benday dot patterns on which various artists’ works are hung salon style, from close to the floor up almost to the ceiling. In these locations works by certain artists recur. So you repeatedly encounter block-lettered signs by Daniel Joseph Martinez declaiming thoughts like “Probes your head like a prolonged accusation,” which is apt under the circumstances.

Posters by Damien Hirst also repeat, taking the form of much enlarged labels for prescription drugs with names like Omelette and Mushroom, suggesting an evil confluence of food and pharmaceutical industries. There is more bilious humor in signs by the Slavs and Tatars collective proclaiming: “What’s the plan, Uzbekistan? I’m your man Azerbaijan!” and hideously louche posters for Franz West exhibitions, which reproduce paint-slathered photographic montages involving half-naked people.

In these mixed-up arrangements on the dotted backgrounds, design trumps art, which is not good for some of the work. The corrosive, darkly comic psychology of Kara Walker’s montages of grossly racist silhouettes layered over reproductions of Civil War-era prints loses its edge, and Julie Mehretu’s wispy mindscape etchings are rendered nearly invisible.

Numerous other artists, however, are favored with spaces and rooms of their own. A section devoted to Aleksandra Mir presents a series of 100 seemingly mundane tourist postcards, in which cheerful lettering advertising Venice is superimposed on photographs of other locales. Ms. Mir distributed a million of these feeble jokes (10,000 of each card) at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Despite the public-address trend, a curious solipsism marks a lot of what is on view. At the start of the show is a series of large, colorful photographic prints depicting crumpled paintings that Martin Kippenberger assigned an assistant to make and then trashed, deeming them “too good.”

Also self-reflexively oblique are Christopher Wool’s translations of his own painted grisaille abstractions into pale gray prints resembling much-enlarged newspaper reproductions. Kelley Walker’s series of prints based on an old magazine ad in which Andy Warhol acts as a spokesman for Pioneer audio equipment is a strenuously involuted but unilluminating comment on mechanical reproduction.

In a room with lights going on and off periodically, murky, glow-in-the-dark prints by Philippe Parreno refer to his friends and comrades in the Relational Aesthetics movement. One, titled “In 1993 Rirkrit Tiravanija made a SCI-FI artwork for me,” reproduces a text signed by Mr. Tiravanija that reads, “This is a certificate of authenticity for all the things that Philippe Parreno and I have done and will do together.”

In a big, autobiographical piece subtitled “The Map of the Land of Feelings” Mr. Tiravanija documented his own global travels. On three sheets of paper measuring more than 80 feet altogether, he layered diagrams, maps, journal entries and other markings over photocopied pages from his passport running in sequence. In addition a plexiglass case presents a multiple that he created: a backpack and camping supplies that in theory a collector might use for his own nomadic peregrinations.

There is a populist dimension to the show. Felix Gonzalez Torres’s photograph of an unmade bed with two recently slept-on pillows — a visual elegy about love and death — will appear on billboards around the city as part of the show. Whether the masses will grasp its import, however, is hard to say.

During designated hours visitors will be invited by the group Superflex to participate in constructing hanging lamps by gluing printed-out photographs of classic modern lamps onto wooden frames. Don’t get your hopes up: you won’t get to keep your handiwork; it is not that democratic.

Another faux-populist gambit is in a large room where Thomas Schütte has hung dozens of small, pseudonaïve etchings from criss-crossing wires just above eye level. Presumably this is meant to challenge the preciousness of the fine print, but the installation comes off as grandiose.

A more convincingly democratic project can be found in paperback books containing essays about and reproductions of Western contemporary art that the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei published in China in the 1990s, when Western art publications were nearly impossible to find.

In the context of all this, traditionally intimate prints presented on either side of one wall seem embarrassingly isolated. They included cartoon images of girls and women by Lisa Yuskavage and Carroll Dunham and abstractions by Thomas Nozkowski, James Siena and Dan Walsh. The wall labels might as well have awarded these artists dunce caps, given the show’s prevailing prejudices.

It is a relief to descend from the oppressively designed, ideologically forced “Print/Out” to the wide-ranging eclecticism of “Printin’,” a related but very different print-focused exhibition on the second floor. Given that its centerpiece is “DeLuxe,” a set of works by Ellen Gallagher in which she inventively altered, to Pop-Surrealist effect, vintage ads for grooming products aimed at African-Americans, you might expect a didactic show about race, gender and class. But “Printin’ ” is much more than that. Organized by Ms. Gallagher and Sarah Suzuki, an associate curator in the print department, the show is full of surprises, and its several themes address multiple aspects of human experience.

At the start two film projectors run optically mesmerizing abstract films by Len Lye in which scratches in the film seem to dance to percussive tribal music.

A section relating to travel includes a woodcut by Vija Celmins depicting a rippled ocean surface and a cartoon by the great George Herriman that has the cast of “Krazy Kat” visiting Monument Valley. An area devoted to fantasies of the primitive includes prints by Max Beckmann, Picasso, Keith Haring and Jackson Pollock, along with a painting by Paul Klee and a kachina doll.

A couple of the most unexpected items turn up in a chapter about violence. Made in 1916 by Félix Vallotton, an artist best known for prints depicting scenes of erotic domesticity, they are from a series of woodcuts called “This Is War.” One, representing soldiers crawling under snarled barbed wire, is an oddly beguiling mix of cuteness, angst and formal elegance.

Yet another section samples the use of offbeat materials. There you find an abstract painting by David Hammons made of Kool-Aid drink mix; “Cuddly Painting (Delft),” a faux-fur panel picturing animals in snow in the blue and white hues of Delftware by Sylvie Fleury; and a sheet of cardboard spray-painted silver with cut-out circles to represent Puritan stocks, by Cady Noland.

In its acute, open-eyed and generously minded receptivity to many dimensions of artistic expression, “Printin’ ” is an inspiring model of curatorial imagination.