Aleksandra Mir

MoMA's Print/Out

By RL Tillman, New York, March 2012

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

Recently I visited the Museum of Modern Art to see Print/Out, a major new print survey arranged by the museum’s chief curator of prints Christophe Cherix. Also on view is Printin’, a companion exhibition curated from MoMA’s collection by Ellen Gallagher (and centered around her epic printwork DeLuxe). As if that wasn’t enough, the museum’s education department is hosting a couple of participatory exhibitions in its“Print Studio,” and hosting Millenium Magazines, a show of art/design magazines since 2000. So naturally I was excited to wait in the cattle line, pay my twenty-five dollars, and spend the day immersed in art. A week later, I’m still thinking about my visit to MoMA, but probably not for the right reasons.

You may have read the scathing review of Print/Out in the New York Times. Critic Ken Johnson had kinder words for Gallagher’s Printin’. But his vivisection of Cherix’s larger show was shocking in its harshness: parts of this review read like a caustic alt-weekly take on Chipwrecked. Sarah Kirk Hanley wrote a review of Print/Out for Art21′s Ink that’s far more thoughtful, but also lacking in enthusiasm.

Printeresting has a longstanding editorial policy against negative reviews: if we really dislike something, we just don’t write about it. So, spoiler alert: now you know that this isn’t a negative review. I think Print/Out is an engaging exhibition that is certainly worth seeing. However, it’s impossible to discuss Print/Out without acknowledging that the show is problematic in several ways.

One’s first impression of Print/Out is its desultory presentation model. Unfortunately MoMA did not allow photography inside the exhibition, but the show’s installation is reminiscent of this snapshot I took on my walk from the train station:

In an apparent effort to emulate a stroll through New York itself, the exhibit is crammed with work, often presented salon-style. I never thought I’d think “Poor James Siena,” but I had to think just that when I saw his delicate print crammed into a colorful cluster of etchings and books from Dan Walsh. The rest of the show is similarly dense; even on my third walk-through, it was easy to miss work. It’s likely that the chockablock installation is intended to convey the sprawling nature of contemporary print practice. Or perhaps it’s designed to share the exasperation of a 21st century print curator: “look how hard my job is! This isn’t a medium, it’s chaos!”

Whatever the motivation, the presentation model reduces the included prints to contextual components. This is especially true of the decision to divide several suites of prints among multiple salon-style clusters throughout the exhibit (on walls covered by Ben-Day dots, to boot). The exhibition catalog echoes this dispersion of serial works. In the case of posters by Franz West, or graphic broadsides by Slavs and Tatars, this diffusion is not disruptive, and repeated encounters are even beneficial to one’s appreciation of this work. But to divide up Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) strips a powerful series of its raison d’être. Damien Hirst’s highly graphic Last Supper prints are cartoonishly absurd enough to convey the artist’s intent as single works, but even these are done no favors when scattered among other prints (not to mention, presented a good six feet above the eye level of a tall person).

Some reviews have opined that this presentation diminishes traditional works on paper, and privileges conceptualism and razzle-dazzle. This criticism stresses that small or quiet prints here are easily overwhelmed by sculptural, mixed-media, and installation-oriented works like Rirkrit Tiravanija’s monumental scroll Untitled 2008-2011 (the map of the land of feeling). Such criticism may be broadly accurate, but even some of the showiest, most conceptual work gets lost in the bustle of Print/Out, where context is sometimes lacking. Martin Kippenberger’s Content on Tour hasan interesting conceptual backstory, but as presented, many viewers will miss that story completely. In a site-specific installation at the Venice Biennale, Aleksandra Mir’s installation of takeaway postcards would have transcended their quotidian format, but presented here under glass, the postcards become relics, and the impact of the work is minimal.

Complaints about the exhibition design may seem like just a minor quibble. But the presentation model is clearly a major curatorial premise of the show. While the presentation makes a useful observation about how we look at art, it also makes it nearly impossible to assess these prints seriously as distinct works of art. Which, in turn, contributes to the perception that graphic works do not need to be evaluated on their own terms. Works become mere points in an argument for the complexity of print practice. Strangely, this seems at odds with Cherix’s explicit premise, as stated in the Print/Out catalog, that we are witnessing “the advent of a time in which prints will simply be called ‘art.’”
To be fair, many works are given room to breathe, and benefit from more creative placement. Some of the presentation choices are successful, like the decision to present a Christopher Wool painting alongside the artist’s screenprinted simulations of his own work. Under glass and on the wall, the simple etchings of Thomas Schütte would be easily ignored, but hung unframed on wire they afford the viewer a closer look at the hallmarks of intaglio, which elevates the artist’s clumsy draftsmanship:

Similarly, SUPERFLEX’s excellent Copy/Light Factory is granted the room it needs to operate as a (sometimes) interactive installation. This piece is one of few works in the show that address the digital revolution as a cultural force with a deep connection to the print dialogue. Mostly,Print/Out treats digital technology as a new factor that erodes traditional barriers to the accessibility of print as an art medium. Certainly this is important. But we live in a world where our relationship to repeatable images is transforming daily, and in this cultural context how prints are made is significantly less interesting than why we still make them. More works that actively explore this transformation would have been welcome in a 21st-century survey.

Leave aside complaints about installation: perhaps it’s better to have taken a risk than played it safe. The chief problem with Print/Out is that its risks are misplaced: most of the real chances are taken in the exhibit’s presentation, not its content. It’s easy to pick apart the exhibition design, but the remarkable thing about this show is how few risks it takes in its curatorial choices, especially in regard to traditional prints on paper. In this regard, Print/Out offers strong work but few surprises. Personally I can’t get enough Robert Rauschenberg, General Idea, Martin Kippenberger, Matt Mullican, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, or Carroll Dunham. But all of these artists were featured in MoMA’s last major print survey, Thinking Print, almost twenty years ago (and actually I take it back, I can get enough Carroll Dunham).

For those viewers who seriously engage with print media, even the fresher work lacks punch. Prints from the omnipresent Julie Mehretu exemplify the perfectly suitable but surprisingly uninspired selections that characterize much of Print/Out. Lisa Yuskavage, Yoshitomo Nara, Jorge Pardo: all of this is good work by significant artists, but their inclusion here does little to distinguish the show, or the collaborative workshop environment that these pieces represent. Neither are these prints so “canonical” that they simply had to be included.

Other artists might have been better represented by different works (perhaps even works from outside MoMA’s own collection). Why display a tiny fraction of an anemic digital print portfolio by Christian Marclay, instead of, say, these cyanotypes? Why include these relatively stale screenprints by Kelley Walker, instead of his more politically charged work, or his legitimately invigorating collaborations with Wade Guyton? Similarly, MoMA arranged for printer Jacob Samuel to work with Gert & Uwe Tobias using his portable aquatint box. Samuel’s aquatint box ispresented here alongside the prints like a mysterious totem, in a gesture toward the role of the master printer that probably confuses many MoMA visitors. The Tobias brothers’ small etchings have their charms, but it is not their native medium and I would prefer to see the duo’s beautiful visionary woodcuts.

Perhaps the most distinctive curatorial contribution to the discourse inPrint/Out is the inclusion of more ephemeral printed art works and documentary printed material. Indeed, the inclusion of this material does distinguish Print/Out from other surveys of its kind; it’s here where the show steps gently into new territory. And it’s here that the role of printed art in a broader cultural context is most successfully addressed. By necessity, some of this work must be displayed in ways that distract from a publication’s core value as a functional communicative object. The glass-encased copies of Permanent Food magazine become unreadable, and therefore cannot adequately make the case that, in the words of the wall text, print is “a means of communicating art conceptually and literally.”

Still, many of the publications presented in the show are truly revealing, such as Ai Weiwei’s early underground publishing endeavors. Even under glass and in a language foreign to me, Weiwei’s books still convey their intent. As prints, Lucy McKenzie’s simple, hastily-printed promotional posters suffer next to the more technically impressive works in this show, but the wall text adequately describes the curators’ motives in including the work. Showcasing publication projects by Museum in Progress is inherently troublesome given the group’s stated mission: projects that are “media-specific, context-dependent, and temporary.” But this work, too, is effectively contextualized in a format that conveys the broader curatorial premise. Newspaper spreads and other documentation can be interpreted, even if this might test the patience of most museum visitors. Though the presentation of this work is sometimes more didactic than aesthetic, for me this was perhaps the most informative glimpse into MoMA’s collection.

To me, the disappointment of Print/Out is not that it fails as an exhibition. It does not. Print/Out features a broad range of strong works by significant artists, and it represents many important critical currents in contemporary print. It also makes an effort to address the broader cultural context of printed art. It is an interesting look at MoMA’s collection priorities under current management, and this is certainly a show that will challenge you.

To me, the disappointment of Print/Out is that it doesn’t seem like a show that I’ll be thinking about twenty years from now. This may seem like a grossly unfair standard for assessing any exhibit. But MoMA has positioned Print/Out as a successor to Riva Castleman’s Printed Art: a view of two decades, and Deborah Wye’s Thinking Print. The legacy of those shows endures, and the collecting emphasis of MoMA’s curators exerts a major impact on the print discourse. The critical propositions and categories outlined in Thinking Print helped shape my own notions of what printed art is, and what it means. So this exhibit may never have fully satisfied my expectations. I believe that the world of printed art is as large and as vital now as it has ever been. I would have welcomed a survey that captured that vitality more completely.
To end this essay on a brighter note: some of that broader vitality is indeed captured in the full suite of print-related programs currently on view at MoMA. And it is only fair to give the entire experience complete attention. My thoughts on Print/Out‘s distinctive and quirky companion show, Printin’, will follow in a separate post. Later this spring, we’ll describe the excitement of MoMA’s various scrappy Print/Studioprograms, which bring a taste of Brooklyn to Manhattan. We’ll also offer a look at the Millennium Magazines show, which demonstrates once again that whenever a communications platform withers, artists will transform that platform into an important art medium. Taken in total, MoMA’s new print events represent a sprawling, somewhat messy experience that any reader of this blog will probably love. Stay tuned to Printeresting for more info.