From "Deluxe" (2005), by Ellen Gallagher
It's speculated that back in 1452 when Gutenberg was hard at work printing his infamous Bible, he actually had two presses set up: one for the more pedestrian texts of the day and the other exclusively for the Big Book. Maybe he didn't want his fancy Bible prep area messed up, but some historians think it means old Johann saw a clear division between exalted texts and less sacred printed matter and sought to keep the two separate in their production phases as in their distribution. I'll bet he never imagined that high and low art would one day converge on updated modes of his own printmaking technology. More than 550 years later both forms enjoy equal merit under the critical eye of the art world in MoMA's new exhibition Print/Out. The exhibition takes a look at printed matter from only the last 20 years, including pieces by printmaking collectives Museum in Progress, Edition Jacob Samuel and SLAVS + TATARS as well artists Martin Kippenberger, Robert Rauschenberg, Kara Walker, Damien Hirst, Ai Weiwei, Lucy McKenzie, Marina Abramovic, and Yoshitomo Nara, among others.
With so many artists represented in one space you're easily overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of styles and intent, and it can be a bit tricky to make sense of it all. Why, for example, are pieces from the same series dispersed throughout the gallery on a black and white polka dotted wall, sometimes at heights up towards the ceiling? Is it to show that the intention of the two artist series (from Walker and Hirst) is not separate, as Gutenberg might have preferred, but part of the same movement as Ai Weiwei and his 1994 "Black Cover Book?" But where Hirst's Last Supper series plays with form (food presented like medication), Weiwei's intent is simply to spread information about modern art to an information-deprived China.
Disorganized or not, it's still an undeniable pleasure to witness so many artists having fun with the medium, like Philippe Parreno's "Fade to Black," a separate room with text and images 'printed' directly on the white gallery walls that can be viewed clearly only in the dark. Or Aleksandra Mir's "Venezia (all places contain all others)," which challenges our assumptions that printed materials carry a certain veracity. As an example, she printed a bunch of postcards for the Venice Biennale with the words Venice or Venezia over typical tourist images of beaches or snowy mountains—in other words, places that definitely aren't Venice.
The exploration on the capacity of printed matter continues on the second floor with Printin,' a smaller show that focuses on "Deluxe," (2005) a "tour de force portfolio" of 60 works by Ellen Gallagher made from repurposed and collaged pages of ads targeted at African Americans in the 1960s. The work, which "uses fiction as a means of extracting reality from history," hangs on a single wall alongside pieces by Jackson Pollock, Keith Haring and Pablo Picasso, but its precise humor and bright, often unexpected materials easily steals the show, offering a cheeky commentary on African American culture fifty years ago.
The exhibitions are offered in conjunction with printmaking workshops and panel discussions, like the upcoming talk Marina Abramovic and Jacob Samuel are giving on collaborative printmaking.
Print/Out runs through May 14, 2012.
"Meatballs" (1999), by Damien Hirst)
From "Venezia (all places contain all others" (2009), by Aleksandra Mir