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Six Number Three intellect Journals | Art & DesignVolume

ISSN 1470-2029


Journal of

Visual Arts Practice

Six Number Three intellect Journals | Art & Design Volume ISSN 1470-2029 6.3 Journal of Visual

Journal of Visual Arts Practice – Volume 6 Number 3

The Journal of Visual Arts Practice (JVAP) is a forum for debate for the international community engaged in or concerned with research in fine art and the visual arts more generally. It is concerned with exploring the boundaries of these disciplines and sharing debate on research and creative practices. The journal works within a frame that recognises both the expanding practices that constitute research in the fine and visual arts, as well as the increasing cross and interdisciplinary nature of creative practices in the field. JVAP encourages contributions relating to scholarly, pure, develop- mental, applied and pedagogical research. It encourages submissions exploring new critical theories of research and practice as well as evalua- tions of the practical and educational impact of such research. JVAP will support critical debate within and across fields. It is peer reviewed, but has mechanisms for supporting and encouraging new contributors. The journal will proactively support doctoral researchers as well as estab- lished academics. The journal of Visual Arts Practice is a refereed journal supported by the National Association for Fine Art Education.


Chris Smith Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design London Metropolitan University Central House 59–63 Whitechapel High Street London E1 7PF UK e-mail:


Editorial Board

lain Biggs (University of the West of England, UK) Mary Anne Francis (Brighton University, UK) Ken Friedman (Norwegian School of Management, Norway; Demark’s Design School Copenhagen, Denmark) Jill Journeaux (Coventry University, UK) Judith Mottram (Nottingham Trent University, UK) Kristina Niedderer (University of Wolverhampton, UK) Francis Halsall (National College of Art and Design Dublin)

Editorial Advisory Board

Jale Erzen (Middle Eastern Technical University, Ankara) Mick Finch (Ecole des Beaux-arts de Valenciennes, France) Henk Slager (Editor of Lier en Boog, Amsterdam)

( JVAP has chosen not to use academic titles)

The Journal of Visual Arts Practice is published three times per year by Intellect, The Mill, Parnall Road, Bristol, BS16 3JG, UK. The current subscription rates are £30 (personal) and £210 (institutional). Postage is free within the UK, £5 for the rest of Europe and £10 elsewhere. Advertising enquiries should be addressed to:

© 2007 Intellect Ltd. Authorization to photocopy items for internal or personal use or the internal or personal use of specific clients is granted by Intellect Ltd for libraries and other users registered with the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) in the UK or the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) Transactional Reporting Service in the USA provided that the base fee is paid directly to the relevant organization.

This journal Is abstracted and indexed by ART Bibliographies.

ISSN 1470-2029

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Journal of Visual Arts Practice Volume 6 Number 3 © 2007 Intellect Ltd

Editorial. English Language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.167/2

Special Edition Editorial

The Problem of Documenting Fine Art Practices and Processes

Rebecca Fortnum University of the Arts London Chris Smith London Metropolitan University


This editorial to a special edition, devoted to the documentation of artists’ processes, acts as an introduction to the debate and its generation in relation to the articles in this edition. It outlines problems related to the methodologies and ideology of documenting creative processes within the visual arts.


Documentation Practice Research into practice Creative process

This issue of JVAP generates from observations that documentation and the data produced as a trace of the artists’ processes has become one of the central issues of the debate in relation to research into artistic practice. This is perhaps made fraught by debates on the status of such documentation as well as the source of such material. Who documents and why are important questions – ‘who will/should narrate the story?’ – for instance. This is further expanded on in this editorial and through the articles to be found in this edition. Alongside the articles on documenting artists’ processes of production this edition of JVAP, on artists documentation, introduces a double reflexive process in that we have used work by artists that document their process in and through their own work. These are represented through the visual work of Andrew Grassie, Mary Maclean and Steve Dutton. It is also the first edition where we have introduced the use of colour in the journal. This experiment leads, of course, to a debate in turn about the repre- sentation of scholarly endeavour and in what medium. We would be grateful for a response through either the NAFAE website, or directly to the editor, on the substantive issues of this edition in representing the documentation of the processes of artistic practice thus providing data for further research or, indeed, the processes of documenting research, which is in itself a practice. It might be also be a debate on what extent these are coterminous. The documentation of an artist’s creative process is a problematic area for research. In 1962 Rudolf Arnheim voiced some of the concerns facing both artists and researchers,

‘Artists have learned to tread cautiously when it comes to reporting the internal events that produce their works. They watch with suspicion all attempts to invade the inner workshop and to systematise its secrets.

JVAP 6 (3) pp. 167–174 © Intellect Ltd 2007

[Arnheim, 1962:1]


For the archetypal artist, working alone in the studio, the documentation of

his or her process was felt to impede or alter the relationship between artist and work. One of the most celebrated examples of this is Hans Namuth’s attempts to document Jackson Pollock’s painting ‘in action’. It is recorded that when Namuth and Pollock finished filming in 1950, Pollock pulled out

a bottle of whisky, saying,

‘This is the first drink I’ve had in two years. Dammit, we need it!’

[Potter, 1985]

Whilst it may be too simplistic to blame Pollock’s description of himself and Namuth as ‘phoneys’ and his subsequent downward spiral on their documentary project, there is a pervasive sense, even today, that too much introspection is bad for creativity. And this is all the more interesting because artists’ practices and their relationship to documentation and its technology have shifted considerably over the last fifty years. Since the 1960s, when the artist began to engage creatively with the documentation of their own (often performative or dematerialised) prac- tices, the relationship between process and documentation has become

ever more complex. Today many artists engage materially with their work in

a variety of ways, often choosing not to physically fabricate their own work or make work that takes temporary, ephemeral or even no material form. Indeed the exchange between documentation, process and finished art work has become blurred. Nicholas Bourriaud in his essay Postproduction


the contemporary work of art does not position itself as the termination point of the ‘creative process” ( a “finished product” to be contemplated) but as a site of navigation, a portal, a generator of activities.’

[Bourriaud, 2005:19]

For many artists, even studio based ones, these shifts in thinking about art production have lead to their creative processes becoming more available to a public. From the early 1990s we have witnessed artist-in-residence schemes requiring artists to display ‘work in progress’ and over the last ten years the strategy of artists creating gallery exhibitions where the work gets made over the period of display have became commonplace. Recent tech- nology has increased the types of documentation possible and, courtesy of various ‘reality’ media enterprises, we are much more familiar with the notion of being observed. However whether this does indeed lead to a greater understanding or a ‘demystification’ of the creative process is debateable and the sculptor Phyllida Barlow has commented recently,

‘An ignorance of how art becomes made and how artists work – what artists do – is prevalent at all levels of art, from secondary school through to high level retrospective exhibitions at international venues.’

Further to what was stated above, this issue of JVAP reflects on how and why artists’ processes get documented as well as debating the problems of such documents. It emerges from work being done by the Visual


Rebecca Fortnum and Chris Smith

Intelligences Research Project at the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University. An aspect of this project has been to investi- gate the way visual artists think and make and, most importantly, the relationship between their thinking and making. The project’s initiator Nigel Whiteley, in his contribution to this edition, quotes Martin Kemp,

works of art are physical products made by executants who face real challenges, and do not come ready-made from the heads of their makers.’

[Kemp 2003: 37]

– a statement rings true for most artists and, if demonstrated, does much to challenge populist views of the ‘conceptual’ nature of contemporary art. The Visual Intelligences Research Project has begun to debate and docu- ment these ‘real challenges’ faced by artists. It acknowledges that most visual artists make a number of decisions whilst making their work that aren’t purely conceptual or only to do with material and technique but lie in the relationships between these aspects of making. An initial strategy of the project was to facilitate a closed seminar where ten established artists debated a number of questions that directly addressed their own processes. Questions were chosen to elicit reflection on creative decision making, for example;

• What scope is there for unforeseen events occurring in your process?

• Have you ever exhibited or sold your work before you felt ready to do so?

• If you had to choose one work to represent you from all that you have made which would you choose and why? [for complete list of questions please see]

The artists’ statements and emerging debate was fascinating. Patterns of process emerged; the self imposed parameters of a practice, the way artists strategically balance unknown outcomes with known procedures and ideas, the movement between different types of engagement with materials and concepts, the drive towards [and away from] resolution. This paved the way to look at the issue in greater depth. In December 2005 a symposium to explore the area further was held at Lancaster University where VIRP joined forces with the University’s CASCPP (Centre for the Advanced Study of Contemporary Performance Practice). Entitled The Documentation of Fine Art Processes and Practices, ten speakers discussed a range of methodologies for documentation. Fine art practitioners discussed the use of the aural interview (Bill Furlong), the artist’s archive (Julie Bacon) and forms such as the blog (Sue Wilks) and the artist’s note- book (Gerry Davies) used by artists to develop and document their processes. They were joined by speakers from other creative practices, where more established methodologies of documentation had evolved through the context and needs of their particular discipline. Paul Harper spoke about his research developing ways to document (and thus preserve) the skills and approaches of different crafts practitioners. Choreographer Nigel Stewart demonstrated how in his own practice the documentation of improvised dance forms the basis for future choreographed works. Chris Smith framed an important aspect of the debate by suggesting that artists

The Problem of Documenting Fine Art Practices and Processes


take note of the many possible determinants shaping the accounting of their practices. He debated the several meanings of the term ‘account’, ask- ing what might determine their appropriateness, intelligibility, and authen- ticity? This discussion of the ways we can account for our practices and processes seemed timely within art education both in relation to develop- ment of Fine Art practice based research degrees and to the (then looming, now upon us) Research Assessment Exercise. However more important that these immediate, and perhaps parochial, concerns was the sense that documentation will be needed to provide information for future scholar- ship and for rich and deep research. Most recently a second symposium Did Hans Namuth kill Jackson Pollock? The problem of documenting the creative process was held at Chelsea College of Art in April this year and marked a collaboration between the VIRP and the University of the Arts London (Camberwell College) with sup- port from the National Association for Fine Art Education. This symposium shifted the emphasis from the methodologies of documenting fine art processes to the relationship between the artist’s work and the documenta- tion of its process, exploring their mutual dependency. This was demon- strated in very different ways in the presentations from artists Art & Language and Andrew Grassie. Additionally Ian Kirkwood, Head of the School of Fine and Applied Art at De Montfort University, discussed his participation in an early 1970s BBC documentary of the radical course at St. Martins School of Art, known as the year of ‘the locked room’. But as Kirkwood pointed out

‘The documentary however was a ‘docudrama’ made during the following year using the students as actors to dramatise some of the key events as they had unfolded on the course [which raised] questions not only about the nature of the course in its focus on the creative process but also about the possibility of documenting it.”

[Kirkwood, 2007]

Interestingly the symposium ended with a visit to see this and other docu- mentation forming the display St Martins Sculpture Department 1966–7 at Tate Britain with its co-curator Hester Westley. The symposium also drew on research by art historians, academics and museum archivists to specu- late on how documents of process might elucidate an artist’s work. Some of those papers have been developed for this edition of JVAP. Coinciding with this event an exhibition, Inspiration to Order, could be seen at the University of the Arts London research gallery at Wimbledon College of Art. The exhibition, which had also been shown at Southampton University’s Winchester Gallery and California State University Stanislas Gallery earlier in the year, incorporated documentation made in collabora- tion with the exhibition’s curator Rebecca Fortnum during a VIRP small AHRC grant’s pilot study of the methodology of documentation. The show aimed to enact some of the issues the symposium debated, providing an audience with a sense of the processes of making and thinking of contem- porary art practice. Notes, drawings, films, aural and written commentaries and photographs were shown with artworks, allowing the audience to be guided through the ten exhibiting artists’ decision-making processes.


Rebecca Fortnum and Chris Smith

For example the painter Michael Ginsborg recorded his thoughts on film as

he made a work for the exhibition whilst Beth Harland’s interactive digital work allowed the viewer to explore her extensive resources and influences.

A podcast recorded conversations by the artist Vong Phaophanit’s and

writer Claire Obussier that occurred whilst editing his film All that is solid melts into air (Karl Marx) and alongside Emma Rose and Neil Boynton’s installed film Rush one could view a short film of the collaborators dis- cussing the making of the work. Paula Kane exhibited her ‘studio wall’ of studies and resource material as well as her landscape paintings and Mary Maclean’s written reflection published here, accompanied her photograph

in the form of a leaflet designed to unfold like a map and be taken away by

the audience. Fundamental to this debate is an underlying question – why document the creative process? Although (arguably) Namuth’s film assured Pollock his place in history does it really has help us understand his creative process? And can engaging with the making of a work of art make us better critics or artists? Arguments put forward in this edition make a convincing case that this is so. As artists how we voice what we do, both to ourselves and others, nec- essarily feeds into what we make. As Linda Sandino observes in her essay ‘Relating Process’ on artists’ oral life histories; the stories that artists nar- rate in relation to their own processes may not necessarily be accurate but how these stories are shaped (‘organised, connected and evaluated’) may determine the artist’s sense of identity and thus inform the artists’ path, containing the seeds of future works. The artist does not work in a vacuum but constructs ‘narrative strategies of the self’ that are both ‘cultural and personal’ negotiating historical and contemporary figures, encountered both in person and through art works. This chimes with Michael Jarvis’s assertion that ‘the artist is the quintessential ‘reflective practitioner’. ‘Jarvis speculates on the worth of making the hidden or tacit knowledge of artists available to a wider public. He makes a strong argument for the advantages to the audience as well as to artists themselves who, in doing so, will ‘achieve an ever increasing clarity of utterance’. Ruth Pelzer also reflects upon the ways in which documentation can create insights into (her own) visual practice. She uses the term ‘post-production’ to reflect on a particular quality of documentation, namely the practice of theory after an exhibition of the author’s work. It is suggested that the insights gained through such documentary post-production become the foundation for further practice, both for other artists and the author herself. This is equally true, whether post-production relates to the practice of theory or artistic practice. Indeed the artists’ pages here, by Steve Dutton, Andrew Grassie and Mary Maclean, demonstrate the contemporary artists’ clear-sighted ability to reflect on their ways of making. For these artists this consideration of process is creative; not only does it pave the way for future strategies and works, it can also produce texts and images as art works themselves. Most in depth studies of an artist’s work will examine their working method and, as we are establishing, the relation between artworks and process is complex. Sue Breakell and Victoria Worsley’s paper discusses the archival material of Prunella Clough and Helen Chadwick,

The Problem of Documenting Fine Art Practices and Processes


‘two artists for whom documentation is an intrinsic and inextricable part of the creative process.’

In the discussion of these artists’ notebooks, letters, photographs and other ephemera, we become aware of the substantial layer of creative research activity necessary to the production of these artists’ ‘finished’ art works. The production and ordering of this material allowed the artists to develop their serious and sustained practices. From the audience’s per- spective a glimpse into this activity can,

‘considerably enrich the visitor’s experience because it offers alternative ways to approach the works

Nigel Whiteley examining the ARTnews series, 1953–1958 also draws out the importance of this kind of access to process. He suggests that the pluralistic approach adopted in this series is rarely found in documents today,

‘Description, analysis, interpretation and evaluation combine to give a rich insight into the evolution of an art work, revealing what is usually tacit knowl- edge and, most significantly, adding the dimension of why, to the usual realm of what, and the occasionally available how.’

He calls for a reprise of such enterprises. If viewed as one strand of infor- mation (amongst others) for those considering a work of art the dilemmas or ‘problems’ of documenting creative process become more straightfor- ward to resolve. Indeed from an historical perspective it would be difficult to mount a case against the documentation of process. Certainly interest in process as a way of gaining purchase on an artists work has established precedent within art history. Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall’s Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence charts the relationship between Tiepolo’s drawing and painting and develops a convincing argument that each stage of the artist’s process allows for visual problem solving expedient to the final work. Tiepolo is an artist working towards an as yet unenvisaged image, his sketches do not simply detail his plans on a small scale, rather they evidence his thinking around the problems that the work creates. During every part of his process Tiepolo is to be found negotiating his imagery, composition, situation, materials and techniques. His sketches are working drawings and, even though some may have been sold commercially, they have a job to do. Alpers and Baxandall extend this notion even further when they say that Tiepolo’s finished pictures ‘exhibit the process of its making’ (Alpers and Baxandall, 1994:51) . They continue,

‘an earlier process has been internalised into the finished forms of the figures [] that he represents: their forms declare the process’.

[Alpers and Baxandall, 1994:51]

Alpers and Baxandall’s investigation of Tiepolo’s large-scale fresco Four Continents at Wurzburg shows us an artist who works best in that medium


Rebecca Fortnum and Chris Smith

and whose other work often sustains and develops the skills needed for his fresco. Tiepolo’s process is responsive to changes in environment and media and this continuous evolution is important. Both in terms of the viewer’s experience (perceptions change in different lights and viewing positions) and the artist’s process, it marks the practice as one without pre- determined conclusions. Alpers and Baxandall discuss this quality as

‘a notion of performance [that when] discretely used can be of further use where Tiepolo is concerned. It focuses attention not on an object that has been made, but on the activity of making’

[Alpers and Baxandall, 1994:27].

This is an exciting proposition, not only does the evidence of the process give insight into the artist’s masterwork but it appears that this work in turn can lead the viewer into process. It is clear that the relationship between process and artwork has always been complex and that art as a ‘state of encounter’ (Bourriaud) is by no means confined to contemporary practice. However problems remain. As we have seen the historians and archivists of art seek to preserve evidence of the creative process and thinking for entirely valid reasons. But these documents mediate between the artist and posterity and in doing so wield enormous (cultural and fiscal) power. Can living artists publicly engage in documenting their own processes in a disin- terested way? Or should we merely attempt to keep producing documents, consigning their preservation to history’s sifting and the discrimination of future generations. Kerstin Mey, one of the recent symposium’s speakers, succinctly summed up

‘a) processes of making art and their documentation influence each other b) the documentation of art/creative processes and their outcomes underpin the validation of art practices as they allow us to determine precedents (and their genealogy) c) the practices of producing and dealing with archives in which those databases are ‘exposed’ to different forms of significant processes and narrative structuring is social practice in itself. Thus archives tell us a lot about power relations and value hierarchies d) documenting and archiving means conscious and active participation in civil society.’

[Mey, 2007]

Can we, as artists, archivists, art historians and cultural analysts, afford not be pro-active in this process? The Visual Intelligences Research Project at LICA and its collaborators at UAL and elsewhere are committed to working with artists to develop new and creative ways of documenting their processes. We must have confidence in the value of the production, the preservation and, eventually, the evaluation of documents of process.


Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall, Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence by Yale University Press, 1994.

Arnheim Rudolf, The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica, University of California Press; (New Ed edition 1981) 1962.

The Problem of Documenting Fine Art Practices and Processes


Potter Jeffrey, To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock, Pushcart Press 2nd Printing edition (November 1987) 1985.

Bourriaud Nicolas, Postproduction, Lukas & Sternberg, 2005.

Kemp, Martin ‘Best Books of the Decade’, The Art Book, volume 10, issue 2, March


Kirkwood Ian, paper abstract, Did Hans Namuth kill Jackson Pollock? The problem of documenting the creative process,, 2007.

Mey Kerstin, paper abstract, Did Hans Namuth kill Jackson Pollock? The problem of documenting the creative process,, 2007.

Suggested citation

Fortnum, R. and Smith, C. (2007), ‘The Problem of Documenting, Fine Art Practices and Processes’ Journal of Visual Arts Practice 6: 3, pp. 167–174, doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.167/2

Contributor details

Rebecca Fortnum read English at Oxford before gaining an MFA from Newcastle University and taking up a fellowship at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, USA. She has been a Visiting Fellow in Painting at Plymouth University and at Winchester School of Art, a visiting artist at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Senior Lecturer at Norwich School of Art and Wimbledon School of Art. She has received several awards including from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the British Council, the Arts Council of England, the British School in Rome and the Art and Humanities Research Council. She has exhibited widely including solo shows at the Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, Spacex Gallery, Exeter, Kapil Jariwala Gallery, London, Angel Row Gallery, Nottingham, The Drawing Gallery, London and Gallery 33, Berlin. She was instrumental in founding the artist-run spaces Cubitt Gallery and Gasworks Gallery in London. Her book of interviews, Contemporary British Women Artists, in their own words, was published this year by I B Tauris. She is currently a recipient of the Art House’s Space for 10 award for mid- career artists and lead international artist for the TRADE project in Roscommon & Leitrim, Ireland. Contact: Rebecca Fortnum is Research Fellow, The Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University & Senior Lecturer, Camberwell College, University of the Arts London. E-mail:

Chris Smith is Convenor of the Visual Arts Practice Research Group and editor of the Journal of Visual Art Practice. His research interests lie in the field of art and design philosophy, particularly the connection between theory and practice, and a concern with praxis in art and design. He collaborates with others from the Visual Arts Practice Research Group in projects related to the relationship of imagination and image, and with Art & Language on the question of ‘What work does the art- work do?’ This has led to various national and international symposia and exhibi- tions. Chris supervises a range of doctoral students drawn from art and design as well as the crafts. He has run a number of workshops in collaboration with the Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design, University of the Arts, London, on supervision of Masters and Doctoral students. He also sits on the Council for Higher Education in Art and Design AHRC working group, examining issues related to practice-led research. Contact: Chris Smith is Principal Lecturer at the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media, and Design, and editor of the Journal of Visual Art Practice. E-mail:


Rebecca Fortnum and Chris Smith

Journal of Visual Arts Practice Volume 6 Number 3 © 2007 Intellect Ltd

Article. English Language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.175/1

Collecting the traces: an archivist’s perspective

Sue Breakell Tate Library & Archive Victoria Worsley Henry Moore Institute



The phenomenon of artists drawing on their own and other archives is not a new


one, but over the past few years there has undoubtedly been a significant increase

contemporary art

in attention, among both artist and art historians, given to the archive as part of

creative process

the creative process, as well as to archive practice. Archives have also become


contested territory, caught up in discourses about the nature of museums and

Helen Chadwick

individual anxieties about the significance and preservation of documentation.


From an archivist’s point of view, archives have a positive and fertile role as both a resonant collective memory resource and a site of creative regeneration through revisiting the traces of earlier ideas and actions. Archive theory also emphasizes the importance of context in the assessment of the meaning of a document within a body of archive material. Consideration of the archives of Prunella Clough and Helen Chadwick within this wider context of archival theory and practice reveals in both cases a distinctly archival attitude to the documentation of the creative process, one which provides a rewarding insight into their work.

Prunella Clough

Without memory support systems – from a tool to a digitalised archive – there would be no experience of the past and nothing from which to ‘select’ in order to invent the future

(Beardsworth 1996: 47)

Archives are the hinge between the past and the future. They are prosthetic memories which are activated in the present. Archives always exist in the present tense, capturing that moment of a past action and fixing it. This instant is thereafter reignited in another present moment when they are translated by an unknown reader of the future. This article examines the meaning of the archive from the perspective of two archivists working in institutional art archives. In the context of recent dialogues, it asserts the significance of the archive as both a collective memory and a site of creative regeneration. Two case studies will demonstrate how the archives of two individual artists document their creative process and how this is integral to their practice.

Misconceiving the archive

The notion of the archive has become popularly associated with somewhat insidious stereotypes, which are contrary to archivists’ views of their work

JVAP 6 (3) pp. 175–189 © Intellect Ltd 2007


as practitioners. The archive is popularly conceived as a space where things are hidden in a state of stasis, imbued with secrecy, mystery and power. The motif that pervasively recurs is that of dust and dirt. Dustiness implies a place of no movement, of objects that have been left to rest. Archives are often perceived as dark spaces, stereotypically located in the basement sig- nifying a burial or entombment of things past. Because they are sometimes seen as beginning at the end, archives are inextricably linked with death. As Andrew Wilson comments, ‘archives can, indeed, be depressing places What had been creation (the gesture that articulated) has now become little more than a mute document for a life lived’ (Wilson 2002: 67). A particularly modern malady is the increasing anxiety about the sheer volume of material which is being generated. At the same time, making any selection is problematic, given that any selection process is inevitably loaded and politicized. In ‘The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away’, Ilya Kabakov expresses this ambivalence. The room of the man of the title is filled with a lifetime’s garbage, bearing witness to meaningless and ulti- mately pointless efforts to classify and record all the links:

this is

the memory associated with all the events connected to each of these papers. To deprive ourselves of these paper symbols and testimonies is to deprive ourselves somewhat of our memories. In our memory everything becomes equally valuable and significant. All points of our recollections are tied to one another. They form chains and connections in our memory which ultimately comprise the story of life.

A simple feeling speaks about the value, the importance of everything

(Kabakov 2006: 33)

Archives have also been implicated in ideological discourses about the museum, reflecting both personal and political anxieties, such as those of Christian Boltanski:

Preventing forgetfulness, stopping the disappearance of things and beings seemed to me a noble goal, but I quickly realised that this ambition was

bound to fail, for as soon as we try to preserve something, we fix it. We can preserve things only by stopping life’s course. If I put my glasses in a vitrine,

they will never break, but will they still be considered glasses?

are part of a museum’s collection, they forget their function, they are then only an image of glasses. In a vitrine, my glasses will have lost their reason for

Once glasses

being, but they will also have lost their identity.

(McShine 1999: 91)

Daniel Buren, meanwhile, has written of the problematics of the art museum and its activities, which he describes as ‘a careful camouflage undertaken by the prevalent bourgeois ideology, assisted by the artists themselves. A cam- ouflage which has until now made it possible to transform the reality of the world into an image of the world’ (McShine 1999: 221).

Positive spaces

As archivists we see a positive and fertile reading available in the space of the archive, with its endless possibilities of reiteration and regeneration.


Sue Breakell and Victoria Worsley

Unlike libraries which classify books by subject, archives retain the original order of the set of documents as they entered the archive, where such an order exists, because this order itself has evidential value. From these collected traces (an archive is never complete) the raw material offers an endlessness of readings – not one set account. This presents the viewer/ researcher with the freedom to reactivate the archive, producing their own unmediated responses and subjective stories from what they find, like a Deleuzean rhizome. Archives have always been stored in the most secure places, so that they are isolated from contamination or corruption and can exist in their own context as immutable entities. This inaccessibility transforms them into the most authoritative and powerful testimony of actions. The archivist pre- serves the archive’s authenticity, which goes beyond physical security, by

intellectually preserving the organic integrity of the interrelationships within the sets of papers, through the description of their context. Archives are also spaces of remembrance. This encompasses two oppo- site but complimentary purposes; to remember is both to store and to retrieve. But documents have to pass over the archival threshold, which becomes the locus of recognition and empowerment. While the notion of the entry and therefore selection of documents into the archive is ideologi- cally problematic, there must ultimately be some kind of selection because we cannot keep everything. Yet no selection is free of bias, and this is why archives should seek to be as transparent as possible about their processes and avoid the stereotype of mystery; to show that there is a body of profes- sional consideration and evolved practice which testifies to an awareness of the problematic of its position, and seeks to explain its response to that sit- uation. Once over the threshold, archives become perpetual memories of, and monuments to, the actions they bear witness to. Their pastness con- tinues to exist, and is recognized in their presentness. Recently, there has been a significant resurgence and interest in the past and how it is represented archivally outside the archive, especially with artists. In contrast to the melancholia and cynicism associated with post- modernism, Hal Foster has identified an archival impulse in which nothing is passive about the word archival; in fact remembering through archives becomes a political act which Foster defines as an ‘aesthetics of resistance’. In the face of ‘an amnesiac society of advanced capitalism dominated by

culture industries and sports spectacles

arrested by information flow and product glut’ (Foster 2004: 10), he posits the artist-as-archivist, who recovers gaps from the past and converts them into beginnings perhaps to remind culture of its own wish symbols and for-

feited dreams. It is ‘[the] desire to turn belatedness into becomingness, to

recoup failed visions

“excavation sites” into “construction sites”’ (Foster 2004: 22). This comes out of a discourse which has been defined by Derrida as archive fever:

a world at once roiled and

and everyday life into possible scenarios

to turn

[we] burn with a passion

never to rest interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips


archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a

It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the

We are all ‘en mal d’archive’: in need of archives

Collecting the traces: an archivist’s perspective


nostalgia for the return of the most archaic place of absolute commencement. No desire, no passion, no drive, no compulsion can arise for a person who

is not already, in one way or another, ‘en mal d’archive’.

(Derrida 1996: 91)

As art archivists in an institutional context, it is part of our role to collect the traces, highlight them and rehabilitate them, and in doing so continue the memory of the actions represented there, and open them up for new beginnings and juxtapositions. This too is an aspect of archives which many artists find of particular interest: the opportunity to subvert and re- figure existing orders and practices, a notion Susan Hiller has described as ‘orchestrated relationships, invented or discovered fluid taxonomies’ (McShine 1999: 93). Carolyn Steedman, in her book Dust, writes that ‘the archive is also a place of dreams; humanity is its own creation’ (Steedman 2002: 56). In her vision, people can be re-written or re-performed into being; not just resur- rected, but given actual life and presentness. It is this almost magical qual- ity that is recognized by Umberto Eco when he writes of the mediaeval manuscripts in the monasteries in The Name of the Rose, which are any- thing but dormant.

I had not thought each book spoke of things human or divine that lie outside

books. Now I realised that not infrequently books speak of books; it is as if

they spoke among themselves

murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another,

a living thing, a receptacle of power not to be ruled by a human mind, a trea-

sure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or been their conveyors.

it was then a place of long, centuries old

(Eco 1998: 286)

Even Kabakov’s nihilistic depiction of garbage contains a note of hopeful- ness which echoes this concept:


dump not only devours everything, preserving it forever, but one might say


also continually generates something; this is where some kinds of shoots

come from new projects, ideas, a certain enthusiasm arises, hopes for the rebirth of something

(Kabakov 2006: 37)

It is against this background that we consider the question of whether doc- umentation destroys the creative process. Our response to this question is to turn to two artists for whom documentation is an intrinsic and inextrica- ble part of the creative process. In doing so, we must first consider the nature of documents in the context of the creative process.

Creative constructions

As outlined above, the viewer of archive material must always take into consideration the context of its creation: its position within a wider body of material created by that same individual or unit. The traditional record of the creative process was the sketchbook or preparatory study, which


Sue Breakell and Victoria Worsley

can tell us how an image evolved, what changes were made, at what stage, and why. But there are far more complex questions than this in relation to the archive material. As well as preparatory drawings, there is a whole ripple effect of documentation of the creative process within less obvious sources: a letter to a friend might include a reference to the work, directly documenting the process in the artist’s own words. A diary entry recording a visit to a particular place, a play seen, a social appoint- ment, documents possible influences. It is this material, these traces of a life and its experiences, which are such a vital element of the analysis of an artist’s work. While schools of critical thought consider the validity of different approaches to the work itself, there is no doubt that much insight into the artist’s creative process can be gleaned from the complete body of docu- mentation of their life and work – and preserving and giving access to this material is the purpose of the archivist’s work. Each individual piece of doc- umentation has the potential to converse with others: while the sum of the archive can never add up to the whole of a life lived and experienced organ- ically, viewed together this cacophony of tales functions as an unstructured biography. Ripples or concentric circles of information radiate out from the work at the centre: the work itself; immediate preparatory documentation, such as sketchbooks and notes for the work; more general documentation about the creative process not so closely linked to this work, but indicat- ing areas of interest, themes and broader ideas; references to the work/ process in letters or diaries, which can show when the work was in progress, or the artist’s personal responses to the work; and finally references to external influences, such as other people’s work, exhibitions, friends and places. As the rings spread outwards, they move from the specific to the gen- eral, and the potential field through which the relevant traces are scattered grows wider. It is important to consider as wide a range of evidence as pos- sible, from 360 degrees around the work, to form a full and balanced per- spective. The rings are not all present in any one artist’s documentation; all archives are different, just as each person has their own creative process which may or may not be documented in their archive. We must also acknowledge the gaps – the unrecorded (or lost?) reason for a particular activity, or the play seen but that fact not documented. But that way mad- ness, or archive fever, lies – the wish to have and hold every piece of archive information as if the source of some kind of power. For it is precisely in the serendipitous survival of some information, and not others, that lies the joy of using archives. House moves and clearouts, spilt cups of tea, the need for a scrap of paper for a shopping list: such are the everyday events which can affect the survival of archives. The thrill of a discovery lies in the uncer- tainty of its survival. The significance exists in assessing not only the content of the docu- mentation, but its context. Why was the document created? What was the intention? As an archive, was it generated unconsciously, as part of a process, or was there an element of self-consciousness or self-reflexivity in the act of recording? The conscious creation of documentation can be com- pared with the act of autobiography, which involves the attempt to control

Collecting the traces: an archivist’s perspective


and shape the received idea of one’s life, and a conscious selection and analysis of information about that life, through a very subjective filter. For some, this consciousness is an intrinsic part of their work; for others it is simply reflective of a wider culture which is more aware of the presence and potential significance of archive material.

Prunella Clough

A particularly rich source of the kind of documentation described in this model is the archive of Prunella Clough. The archive was donated to Tate by her estate in 2005 and selections from it are part of the Prunella Clough display which was shown first at Tate Britain, and subsequently at the Castle Museum, Norwich, and the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal. An online interactive also featured in the show at Tate Britain and remains on Tate’s website ( interactive.shtm). The display demonstrates the important function of doc- umentation of the creative process. It can considerably enrich the visitor’s experience because it offers alternative ways to approach the works, and to understand the imagery for viewers to whom the apparently abstract works may be difficult to read. While Tate has many artists’ archives, rich in correspondence, sketch- books and a wealth of other documentary material, Clough’s is an excep- tional example in relation to the creative process, and her own distinctly archival approach to documentation demonstrates its importance to her immediate and future practice. The collection includes notebooks, colour swatches, photographs, extensive and varied notes on colour and paint, and little compositional drawings. There are also very characteristic textual notes which vary from what are effectively diary entries, to notes which look like concrete poetry and which capture what, for her, are the essential char- acteristics of the environment or object in question:

Sky/roof Steely wet black grey, warming to wet brick work

Cold pick-up on last leaves very blue-green with shine, graduating through (Monet-wise) to ochre naples

The selection for the display and the interactive were made with the aim of recreating the sense of discovery and exploration of the archive. It is excep- tionally focused and rich: suddenly a dazzling light is shone on her creative process, all the more illuminating because of the lack of such information during her lifetime as a possible approach to her work. Clough was a very private person; she did not seek publicity or public favour, and made few public statements about her work (although some of these are published in the Tate exhibition catalogue). It seems unlikely that she generated docu- mentation with an eye on any viewer but herself. This archive was created partly as a natural product of her creative process, and also for her own future use, building up a body of practice, for reference and for further works. Because of the nature of the material, little relates to specific works, but rather it is a sort of primordial soup within which the genesis of the works begins. There is rarely direct preparatory work; although there are


Sue Breakell and Victoria Worsley

some direct links, the process is generally more subtle. Clough always said this was not source material in that sense:

‘Since I do not draw directly in a landscape, it is the memory or recollection of

a scene, which is also a whole event, that concerns me. A painting is made

from many such events, rather than one; and in fact its sources are many layered

and can be quite distant in time, and are rarely if ever direct’ (quoted in Tufnell 2007: 99)

The poet Stephen Spender wrote of his own note making:

A few fragments of unfinished poems [written fifteen years ago] enable me to

enter immediately into the experiences from which they were derived, the cir- cumstances in which they were written, and unwritten feelings in the poem

that were projected but never put into cise of memory.

The imagination is an exer-

(Spender 1946: 71)

This is how Clough’s archive operates. Her economical verbal or visual aides memoire act as triggers so that she can access the memory or sensa- tion again and develop it. She said

If I take a thing from the real world, detach it and put it into a painting, some-

thing takes over that goes further than anything that I can logically describe or


Paintings are made slowly because I work slowly on many things at


(quoted in Tufnell 2007: 53)

As viewers of the archive, we cannot access the memory, but we can follow its trace and in this way edge closer to understanding her process, as well as finding clues as to the content or conception of the work. The extent of the use of verbal rather than visual material in Clough’s creative process is significant. Stephen Spender wrote that ‘[a poet] should be able to think in images; he should have as great a mastery of language as a painter has over his palate [sic]’ (Spender 1946: 61). Clough’s use of language reverses this analogy to confirm its point – as a painter, she has a mastery over language as a tool of her creativity. Her father Eric wrote poems, and so did she – a number of typed-up poems exist in the archive, mostly dating from the 1940s or 1950s. A diary entry records the submis- sion of poems to the publisher John Lehmann. It seems they were not pub- lished, but her verses demonstrate the characteristics of her writing: an idiosyncratic perspective, expressed through a spikily economical verbal idiom, which is in close parallel to her visual work. Evident in the archive is a conscious desire to record and classify, from an early age. This includes notes made from her extensive reading, not only about art (history and practice) but across many disciplines. Several note- books meticulously record her reading, quotes from literature and philosophy, instructions from technical guides and artists’ manuals. Even her pocket diaries demonstrate her particularly spare yet rigidly organized approach: in tiny pocket diaries dating from the Second World War, one part of the day’s

Collecting the traces: an archivist’s perspective


Figure 1. small apportioned space records events in the war; the advance of troops through

Figure 1.

small apportioned space records events in the war; the advance of troops through France, for example, or a fierce bombing raid; in another, somewhat cryptical jottings record what she has done or will do that day, including con- certs or meetings with friends; and in another, her current reading. While generally the archive does not relate directly to specific composi- tions, the relationship between the archive and finished works is clear. Text


Sue Breakell and Victoria Worsley

Figure 2. and images supplement one another; words capture the colours, the subtle relationships between

Figure 2.

and images supplement one another; words capture the colours, the subtle relationships between elements of form, graduations of colour, compara- tive and relational observations. Photographs record structural forms and juxtapositions, and an overall picture which might later be cropped or zoomed in on. For example, detailed notebook entries describing her view of Lowestoft harbourside, her own photographs of scenes at the fishing dock (Figure 1) and published postcards of the same site, all relate closely to a series of works depicting scenes at the harbour, including ‘Fishermen with Sprats I’ (1948, Pembroke College Oxford) and ‘Man Hosing Metal Fish Boxes’ (1951, Tate). Tantalizingly, the notebooks often describe images similar to those used in finished works, but not quite as seen. It is a constant process of evolution; a later entry may document new sights and influ- ences, or an evolving idea on which she has made further progress.

Sprats Fish on tarp on floor in rel. dark In nets irreg, being picked up & shaken out, flying up in front of men. Net ochre & trans, in all shaken folds being piled onto net carrier. REF

Similarly, her photographs of industrial scenes inform works such as ‘Lorry with Ladder’ (1953, Private Collection) or ‘Cooling Tower II’ (1958, Tate) (Figure 2). The photographs are often gathered by her into groups, and placed in envelopes marked with such titles as – LIGHT, RIVER, GASWORKS

Collecting the traces: an archivist’s perspective


or LIGHT INDUSTRIAL. She wrote extensive notes from close observation of the busy scenes, not only along the Thames on her doorstep, but on visits to industrial areas all over the country. A notebook from the 1950s docu- ments scenes from Doncaster, Grimsby, Derbyshire, Lancashire, Gravesend and Neasden. Here she observes factory and industrial sites, buildings, lor- ries and the men who operate in this environment, and the interaction between these elements.

Cranes and Lorries First wharf crane bunch new appearance

sky metal = only latter darker with black lines etc light linear look. Taller crane

swinging crates, pale warm REF 1950s notebook

jagged toothed form, grey on grey,

Clough’s photographs of such apparently unlovely scenes are an evocative document of their time and place. As Margaret Garlake points out, her images of street scenes and shop windows are reminiscent of the broadly contemporary images of Nigel Henderson (Tufnell 2007: 99). The archive shows that this interest in more unconventional subjects dates back as early as the 1930s, when she was taking photographs of a power station in Norway and an abstracted image of a glacier. In many cases, there is evidence that Clough cropped or framed her images to take on a flat-plane abstraction which relates directly not only to the forms within her paintings but also to their composition. A photograph of parked cars on the street in the sunshine, or of piles of cheap plastic products at a street market, are taken not because of the materials being recorded but for the formal and structural accidents of the elements they contain. By her own intrinsic documentation of her creative process, Clough allows access to her world in a way which would not be possible without it. It takes on a secondary purpose in allowing us to see her work in a very different way than through responding only to the works themselves. Indeed, her view on the world asserts itself powerfully on the eye of the beholder of her archive.

Helen Chadwick

Helen Chadwick who died in 1996 at the age of 42 is an artist that pre- figured the artist-as-archivist. Her fastidious research and production of her art was coupled with an extensive documentation of the process of her practice. This bears parallels with contemporary archival art but with a sig- nificant difference, the process for Chadwick, was retained in the personal sphere and not made public. Her papers came into the Henry Moore Institute in 2003 and became part of the public realm. There are over one hundred boxes of material including notebooks, accounts, papers relating to the arrangement of exhi- bitions, photographs, studies and test-pieces for works, press-cuttings and her extensive library. On first inspection, there was an obvious and systematic organization to the archive made by Chadwick. This perhaps counteracts the image of the creative artist who works in a disorganized manner, from impulse, but many artists, especially successful ones, keep well-organized records of their work and the business of being an artist. Hans Ulrich Olbrist’s film of ‘The Secret Files of Gilbert & George’ reveals that record- keeping is fundamental to their practice and the same is the case with the


Sue Breakell and Victoria Worsley

Figure 3. German artist, Thomas Schütte, who showed me his archive at his studio in

Figure 3.

German artist, Thomas Schütte, who showed me his archive at his studio in Düsseldorf. Following on from the archival tendencies of his teacher, Gerhard Richter, Schütte decided as a student that the first investment he would make in being an artist would be a filing cabinet. As his career developed, the num- ber of filing cabinets increased so that he now has a suite of them, elegantly coloured in an olive green, containing all the documentation relating to his work. He acts as his own archivist and adds any relevant document to the relevant file so that he can then forget about it allowing him to live in the present whilst consigning the past safely to his green filing cabinets. In some cases, an artist will be able to edit their papers before they cross over the archival threshold and become public. More often than not, an artist will die without having had the chance to decide what, if anything should be kept for posterity. This was the case with Chadwick, whose sudden death left this responsibility to her estate. Chadwick had already deposited an edited version of her notes and artwork relating to ‘Of Mutability’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, who had purchased this work. Her archive at the Henry Moore Institute contains further, more detailed and often intimate accounts of the development of this piece and this clearly presents an ethical dilemma about the intentions and wishes of the artist and what they would have wanted in the public domain. This has to be balanced against the historical importance of the material and if necessary, the archivist or estate, can put a closure period on any material which is deemed sensitive. It is only through access to Chadwick’s archive that we can trace the detailed intellectual construction of her works. This process can be revealed by examining just one example of her works, ‘Ego Geometrica Sum’ (I am Geometry) (Figure 3) of 1982–84 which comprises ten geometric sculptures that represent key moments in Chadwick’s growth from her premature birth to the age of thirty. It includes an incubator, a font, a pram, a boat, a wigwam, a bed, a piano, a gym horse, a cube representing high school and a statue representing the ages fifteen to thirty. In addition to the sculptures are ten

Collecting the traces: an archivist’s perspective


photographs called ‘The Labours’ which depict Chadwick holding and then grappling with each of the ever-bigger sculptures. When the piece was completed Chadwick wrote a rhetorical ‘artist’s apology’ which gives a highly condensed version of its meaning in the form of a prose poem:

suppose ones body could be traced back through a succession of geometric

as rare and pure as crystalline structures, taking form from the pres-

and if geometry is an expression of external

and exact truths, inherent in the natural law of matter and thus manifesta-

tions of an absolute beauty, predestined, of divine origin

of mathematical harmony be infused with a poetry of feeling and memory to sublimate the discord and desire in a recomposed neutrality of being

sure of recalled external forces


then let this model

Chadwick’s artist’s apology references the renaissance ‘Apology for Poetry’ by Philip Sidney, using similar devices of obscuring meaning and censor- ship through metaphor and allegory – it both reveals and conceals her posi- tion – whereas the documentation in her archive discloses her creative process. Her self-conscious documentation of her practice is evident even in her student years when she constructed a catalogue raisonne of her art which extends to two volumes in which she pasted contact prints of the work annotated with their titles and dates. ‘Ego Geometria Sum’ represents the axis between the private life of the artist and the public artwork through Chadwick’s investigation of her per- sonal identity through her memory and the emotions she had connected to significant events in her past. This process is most consciously docu- mented in her notebook for ‘Ego’ in which she records her research, feel- ings and development of the work. In noting ideas for the possible title and a description of the piece she describes it as her ‘personal museum’ and ‘a metaphor for memory’. Chadwick began her research by reconstructing her life story through her family and personal archives. She collected amongst many other things old toys, receipts for her pram, clothes, letters about the piano lessons she hated, birthday cards, photos and school reports. She collated and cata- logued this documentary evidence into a year-by-year listing of her life using the material traces as prompts for the forms which later became the sculp- tures. Chadwick stated she was ‘building up a picture of the past through objects that (a) contained me (b) reoriented me (c) moulded/shaped me’. At the same time she revisited the architectural spaces where the events of her past had been played out and photographed them including the hospi- tal she was born, the church she was baptized and her schools and she wrote that ‘bricks and mortar remain, physically concrete, yet memory and past life is gone evaporated’. She also created an ‘Album of Photographies’ in which she set these photographs of buildings next to a source photo for that period. For the page that relates to her wigwam sculpture that repre- sented her life at five years of age, for example, she sets a contemporary photograph of herself in front of a wigwam with her parents in the garden of her home next to an image of her former family home in Croydon taken in the early 1980s. The latter emphasizes the electric pylon that was next to the house and this features on one of the sides in the final sculpture.


Sue Breakell and Victoria Worsley

The documents and images of her past became the sources for the forms of the geometric shapes in ‘Ego Geometria Sum’ and also for the photographic images which appeared upon the surface of them, through a photographic emulsion which was absorbed into the plywood of the sculp- tures. Chadwick defined these as ‘archaeological presentations’ and described them as ‘coffins/tombs/wombs/shelters’. Chadwick combined the emotive with the mathematical in what she saw as a set of ‘metaphysical shapes taken from my size and shape using my own body measurements and dimensions to calculate the size of the cabi- nets’ at each different age so that she could be ‘contained within them’. She used a scientific model for the ‘curve of growth’ from J. M. Tanner’s Foetus into Man. On a graph in this book that gives each of the heights and weights in the development of a human’s growth into adulthood she plot- ted her own ages and heights and added the geometric shapes she would use to represent each particular age in ‘Ego Geometria Sum’. She used these calculations to establish the exact volume of her body at the ten dif- ferent points in her development that she chose so that the volume of the geometric sculpture corresponded exactly to her body at that time. Tanner also noted that a human stops growing at the age of thirty which became the end point for the artwork (Figure 4).

170 Foetus into Man cm 190 GIRLS Height 180 F 97 90 170 97 75
Foetus into Man
63” ≡
60” ≡ 152.5
Limits for
single occasions
54” ≡ 137
50” ≡ 127
45” ≡ 114
41” ≡ 104
32” ≡ 81
Breast 4+
27” ≡ 69
Public hair
22” ≡ 56
Age, years
2 1 ” ≡ 45
10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Figure 4.

Collecting the traces: an archivist’s perspective


In her notebook Chadwick wrote she wanted ‘to apply some code/ rule/theory to the work to validate it as an organizational model of growth not just an illustration of life’ and she researched on a wide variety of subjects. The theoretical model that allowed her to move away from what she said were ‘personal details to immutable laws’ was in Arthur Koestler’s book the Sleepwalkers. Her annotated copy of this book from her library reveals how she linked the ten sculptures to the mystical number ten of Pythagorean theory. The harmony of numbers which Koestler writes about was also influenced by Kepler’s disproved theory that the universe was supported by an invisible skeleton made of geometric shapes which Chadwick also used as a means of devising the work. The notebook also discloses how Chadwick felt the simple images of her past were too bland on their own and how she determined to combine them with a nude image of her adult self like a ‘ghost’ as a double exposure on the sculptures. The archive includes all her contact prints for the nudes which shows how she composed her body into a form that related to each sculpture – foetus-like for the incubator and standing upright in the final piece of the statue. Her archive shows she researched physical manifesta- tions of mental distress, including catalepsy, for the poses – which give the nude a sense of rigidity. In contrast to the artist’s apology, the archive reveals the many layers of the intellectual and physical processes involved in the construction of ‘Ego Geometria Sum’. As with Clough, there is a clear contrast between what is publicly revealed by the artist – the artist’s apology, or her silence – and what their private documentation explores and reveals. These two artists are only given as empirical examples from a mass of records; all of the documentation exists in the archive to be consulted by any researcher who will bring their own interpretation to the material. We have argued that the documentation in archives enriches and deepens our understanding of artistic practice. They situate, contextualize and allow multiple readings or stories to be constructed from them. In this way the past resonates in the present.


Beardsworth, Richard (1996), Derrida and the Political, London: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques (1996), Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eco, Umberto (1998), The Name of the Rose, London: Vintage.

Foster, Hal (2004), ‘An Archival Impulse’, October 110 (Fall), pp.3–22.

Kabakov, Ilya (2006), ‘The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away’, in Charles Merewether (ed.), The Archive, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/London: Whitechapel, pp. 32–37.

McShine, Kynaston (ed.) (1999), The Museum as Muse, New York, Museum of Modern Art.

Spender, Stephen (1970 [1946]), ‘The Making of a Poem’ in P E Vernon (ed.), Creativity: Selected Readings, London: Penguin, pp. 61–76.

Steedman, Carolyn (2002), Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, New Brunswick:

Rutgers University Press.


Sue Breakell and Victoria Worsley

Tufnell, Ben (ed.) (2007), Prunella Clough, London: Tate.

Wilson, Andrew (2002), ‘Archives are Exhausting’, in Anna Harding (ed.), Potential:

Ongoing Archive Artimo/John Hansard Gallery, pp.66–69.

Unpublished material

TGA 2005 11 Papers of Prunella Clough, Tate Archive, London.

2003.19 Helen Chadwick Papers, Leeds Museums & Galleries (Henry Moore Institute).

Suggested citation

Breakell, S. and Worsley, V. (2007), ‘Collecting the traces: an archivist’s perspective’, Journal of Visual Arts Practice, 6: 3, pp. 175–189, doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.175/1.

Contributor details

Sue Breakell heads the Archive department in Tate Library and Archive. The Archive collects material relating to British Art since 1900, including the records of artists, galleries, art institutions and critics, as well as managing Tate’s own institutional records. She has a particular interest in the relationship between art and archives and archives and memory. Contact: Archivist, Tate Library & Archive, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG, UK. E-mail:

Victoria Worsley is Archivist at the Henry Moore Institute Archive, a specialist repos- itory holding papers relating to British sculpture. She has a particular interest in artist’s books and concrete poetry, the display and exhibition of archives and mean- ing and memory in archives. Contact: Archivist, Henry Moore Institute, 74 The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 3AH, UK. E-mail:

Collecting the traces: an archivist’s perspective


Journal of Visual Arts Practice Volume 6 Number 3 © 2007 Intellect Ltd

Article. English Language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.191/1

Relating process: accounts of influence in the life history interview

Linda Sandino University of the Arts London



This article explores how process is narrated in artists’ life history recordings. An


artist’s identity is entwined with his/her processes and the work. Talking about

life stories

process, therefore, is also an identity story constructed under the rubric of the life


history. I use the term ‘life history’ in this instance to denote an audio recording


that broadly spans family background, education and professional practice. ‘Life

relational self

stories’ refer to the bounded narratives that occur in the life history, while ‘narrative’ itself, in this article, refers to the process of narration and the text it produces. This article explores how oral history interviews elicit ‘stories’ which enable artists to situate the meaning of their creative processes in relational contexts arising out of events, and characters encountered in their lives. With its focus on the spoken word as the story telling medium, artists engage in making verbalized sense of their actions not only to the listener but also to themselves. It must be made clear, however, that life histories, like autobiographies, are here problematized as deeply mediated texts that do not transparently reflect their authors’ intentions, nor present any immanent ‘truths’, nor construct a unified subject. The article opens with a discussion of how life histories in the visual arts are situated in a cultural context as a set of relationships, following on with a discussion of the concept of the individual ‘relational self’ as a narrative strategy of identity in stories of process and making.



Reviewing Richard Cándida Smith’s Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry and Politics in California (1995), a work based on oral history sources, for The American Historical Review, art historian, Abraham Davidson criticized Smith for not focusing sufficiently on the actual artworks. ‘In some cases’, Davidson wrote, ‘we are given too much about the writer or artist, not quite enough about the achievements. Such is the case with the Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still: we’re told of his arrogance, of his comments to his students, of his exhibitions, but not quite enough about his painting style’ (Davidson 1996: 914). However, turning to the section on Still, I found substantial discussion of the reception of Still’s paintings in California, with richly layered descriptions of his then ‘style’ from the per- spective of critics, students and Still himself (Smith 1995: 16). Davidson’s criticism seems to raise the fundamental question for oral historians working with artists: should we focus on the life or the work? As Davidson’s comment demonstrates, the distinction is disciplinary: art history, cultural history, social history, all maintain a particular subject

JVAP 6 (3) pp. 191–199 © Intellect Ltd 2007


specificity in their approaches to their research material. In life history work, however, disciplinary distinctions, the separation of life and work, and the monovisual lens is fractured and experience is represented in its multiple configurations. Unlike the thematic focused interview, or the monographic text, life histories provide individuals with a discursive space in which to construct their tales of identity and reflect on how this was achieved both psychologically and socially. Such is Smith’s thesis in Utopia and Dissent using archived interviews in order to examine the impact of the increasingly subjective focus of post-war Californian art and poetry on American social and political culture. With this primary research material, he weaves a compelling cultural history, situating individual lives within their socio-historical context, stressing the importance of the interplay of the study of work and life. His aim is, there- fore, to

bring to the surface the discourses of familiarity that interweave with those of authority to create the matrix for a professional life. Neither analysis of work nor analysis of utterance alone is sufficient, because both contain each other, although in ways that mask the other voice.

(Smith 1995: xxiii)

One is compelled, therefore, to listen ‘in stereo’ (Anderson and Jack 1991) to recordings to both the individual voice and the larger discourses which structure it (Tamboukou 2003). But as Smith demonstrates, the discourse of post-war avant-gardism in the United States was responsible for both maintaining and challenging the myth of autonomous practice.

The California situation reveals that aesthetic practice was both a field for the construction of identities that reproduced existing hierarchical relations and an arena for subversion and disruption of those same identities.

(Smith 1995: xxiv)

This conflict or paradox could be applied to most contemporary arts practice in the West as artists forge new identities created out of their transactions with existing ones. Drawing on oral history archives, Smith describes Still’s shift to non- representation in 1941 when he

began experimenting with lines and colors [sic] for their own sake, without any element of figurative allusion. He credited the breakthrough to intensive study of Pacific Northwest Coast Indian Art, but unlike others who appropri- ated Native American imagery and myth, Still looked for a way of visualizing that might help him repudiate the ‘authoritarian implications’ present in the ‘grand tradition’ of European painting, but without in any way using imagery meaningful only to the specific context of Indian societies.

(Smith 1995: 99)

This explanation on the face of it is a fairly standard account of how an artist, through the means of appropriation, is able to move forward in


Linda Sandino

his/her practice. Ironically of course, Still’s ‘borrowing’ of Native American art echoes Picasso’s strategy with African art in the early twentieth century (Rubin 1884). However, rather than seeing this as a failure on Still’s part to escape the modernist paradigm, I want to show how such strategies can be seen as specifically ‘narrative’ strategies of the self, and how lives can be structured as ‘stories’ that are both cultural and personal. Furthermore, that stories of appropriation in the arts are instances of how selves are created ‘relationally’ (Eakin 1999).

The relational self

Autobiographical theorist, Paul John Eakin in How Our Lives Become Stories (1999) has mapped the concept of the autonomous self in auto- biographical writing and its prominence in male autobiographies from Enlightenment individualism, in which the self is unique and separate, to current feminist critiques of this model. He demonstrates how despite offering a different model of identity formation, feminist autobiographical theorists have, nevertheless resulted in sustaining male - female binaries in which:

• the individual is opposed to the collective

• the autonomous is opposed to the relational

• narrative is opposed to non-linear, non-teleological forms (Eakin 1999: 48).

Despite attempts to move beyond these binaries, the relational self contin- ues to be characterized as female (p. 51), and the autonomous as male, and Eakin rightly asks how it might be possible ‘to recognize both the autonomous and the relational dimensions of men’s and women’s lives without placing them in opposition’ (p. 52). Eakin proposes a relational model of identity as one where the self is ‘developed collaboratively’ in conjunction with either an ‘entire social envi- ronment’ such as family, community or institutions, and/or other ‘key’ indi- viduals (p. 69; in his examples usually family members). As Norbert Elias had already suggested:

What are often conceptually separated as two different substances or two dif- ferent strata within the human being, his [sic] ‘individuality’ and his ‘social conditioning’, are in fact nothing other than two different functions of people in their relations to each other, one of which cannot exist without the other. [emphasis added] They are terms for the specific activity of the individual in relation to his [sic] fellows, and for his capacity to be influenced and shaped by their activity; for the dependence of others on him and his dependence on others; expressions for his function as both die and coin.

(Elias in Eakin 1999: 66)

Psychologist Eliott Mishler’s influential work also proposes a relational model of identity as opposed to a linear, developmental model in which identity is ‘immanent and indwelling’ (Mishler 1999: 16). Citing the various ways in which relational models have been variously characterized as either ‘dialogical’, ‘discursive’ or ‘narrated’, they all nevertheless

Relating process: accounts of influence in the life history interview


represent a radical shift in viewpoint, from the autonomous individual as the locus of identity and the source of its stability and constancy over time and across situations, to the socially situated production of identity and to the ways individuals position themselves vis-à-vis others.

(Mishler 1999: 111)

While ‘influence’ may be seen as a ‘common sense’ view of how identity can be construed as relational, I want to propose how the relational thesis can be extended to account for and in some sense reconfigure the prob- lematic notion of influence in the arts in which the myth of autonomous individualism continues despite late twentieth-century art history’s mission to be contextual and to unmask its ideologies. For most art historians auto/biography continues to be seen as a form of patriarchal mythmaking, only valid if it reflects the lives of marginalized others challenging universal truths (Acton 2004; Meecham and Sheldon 2005). Although Eakin concentrates on autobiography, he extends his argument to include life stories generally. Drawing on the work of psychologist Jerome Bruner and the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, he concurs with the notion of a ‘narrative identity’, noting that ‘narrative is not merely an appropriate form for the expression of identity; it is an identity content’ in which the self is ‘defined by and transacted in narrative process’ (Eakin 1999: 100, 101). In the context of a life history, asking the initial questions about process may be quite straightforward while the answer roams over a more expanded space since the telling is part of a larger retrospective and reflective account which will incorporate more than issues of techniques. Respondents, as psychologist Elliott Mishler notes (1999: 69) ‘transform questionsinto those to which they can give meaningful answers’. Sometimes for instance, individuals describe their introduction to making art by focussing on an epiphanic moment in their childhood as in the following example. One fine art ceramicist describes her introduction to pottery at the age of nine when she attended Saturday morning classes at the Chelsea Pottery, describing her teacher as ‘benign’, and ‘lovely’, ‘he’d just give you the licence to make anything you wanted to make. There was no sense that: This is what you’re going to do today’ (Track 4). Her teacher, therefore, provided a cre- atively supportive but liberating space in which the artist could successfully realize her young imaginative creativity: ‘I loved it. Absolutely loved it’, she emphasized. Reflecting on her reasons for ‘desperately’ wanting to attend these classes, she resisted rationalization: ‘I don’t know why I wanted to do it this much but I just had this thing about clay […] from when I was tiny.’ In the coherence of artists’ life stories, such affinities are frequently stated, or located as immanent signs. However, as Bruner (citing anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo) points out these feelings of affect, ‘grow not from “inner” essence relatively independent of the social world, but from experi- ence in a world of meanings, images, and social bonds’ (Bruner 1990: 42). So, rather than focusing exclusively on the artist’s emphasis on affect, one must note the contexts in which these feelings arose: the nurturing, sup- portive environment of the class and her teacher. Significantly, this con- trasting anecdote is part of a section describing A Level art classes at Putney School for Girls as ‘very limited. We did still life and composition. We couldn’t do life drawing […] because we weren’t allowed to have a model so


Linda Sandino

we had to go to evening classes’ at the Central School. There, she also remembers feeling ‘liberated’ because ‘the teacher was good and I remember feeling that my skills were really progressing there. I was really being taught how to look at the figure. How to do it in a way that I hadn’t really been taught how to […] before’ (viva004/05-4). 1 These accounts of being taught art are signif- icant not only because of what they might tell us about art education in the late 1960s or early 1970s but are important in representing memories of experiences of the institutional sites of art production: at once bound by rules and but also as a site of freedom from rules.

Relating and referring

1. This interview is part of the VIVA (Voices in the Visual Arts) archive held at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. The recording is with Sara Radstone viva004/05.

Jerome Bruner has challenged the concept of autonomous individualism demonstrating how ‘transactions’ play an important role in constructing identities. Bruner is concerned with language as ‘our principal means of referring’ in which crucially: ‘Achieving joint reference is achieving a kind of solidarity with somebody’ (Bruner 1986: 63). Solidarity is culture forming, and the stories individuals narrate construct knowledge thereby sustaining their particular worldview (p. 132). Other work on the concept of identity and relationality has focused particularly on family relationships and their role in helping children to become storied selves (Eakin 1999), and how individuals mark out their identities within families (Mishler 1999). But artist’s life histories demonstrate the transformative stories to be told about the relational dimension with objects (or surfaces) as well as with other artists. Referring is not simply a shorthand tactic but an act of com- munication indicating the shared world space in which the ‘transactional self’ is situated. Although these affinities are noted professionally by critics, curators, historians and students, when artists incorporate them into their narratives, the positioning of these affinities is used to reveal, or explain, qualities which the artist seeks to transmit to the listener. Since the inter- views are audio not video, the narrator must use stories and references to translate images into words and it is the occasion of telling the life that enables this relationality to be made manifest:

Funnily enough that connection is one I make now. That wasn’t what I was work- ing towards when I was making the slip. It was something I recognized when I made it as being […] maybe subconsciously something I was […] looking at when just looking at wall surfaces that have a bit of accidental marking on them that’s to do with some little event that’s happened […].

The beginning of this story and the meaning (Portelli 2006) of the ‘vaguely painted effect’ glaze was then linked to seeing the works of Cy Twombly, ‘which are, some of the things that just deeply move me more than anything. However, the question I asked was not: ‘How does it move you?’, a ques- tion situated in the present requiring another register of translation, extremely difficult to express, which is the language of feeling. The question I asked was: ‘So, when did you first come across Cy Twombly’s work?’ because the structure of the interview is retrospective. By requesting a story situated in the past, emotions are woven into the description of the event and become part of its poetic reconstruction which does not leave the teller struggling to find words to express feelings. Memories in which emotions

Relating process: accounts of influence in the life history interview


play a powerful role are usually recalled more easily (Evans 2001), and nar- rating the experience converts emotions into a storied form providing them with a framework of ‘sequence’ and ‘consequence’ (Riessman 1993, 2001; Riessman and Speedy 2007) in which ‘events are selected, organized, con- nected and evaluated as meaningful’ (Riessman and Speedy 2007: 430). However, in this story sequence and consequence (or evaluation) are reversed since for artists ‘explanation’ and ‘justification’ is the established practice of artist’s public narratives, as enshrined in the Artist’s statement, or manifesto, which then structures talk about work generally. Art is where the artist’s ‘I’ begins.

LS. So, when did you come across Cy Twombly’s work?

S. I don’t know when I first came across it […], years and years ago. And, having said that makes it sound as though it was a very close thing but it’s actually not. It’s something I’ve recognized as an inspiration more than sort of followed it, if you know what I mean? It’s something I think that’s a connection and that’s what draws me back to his work. More than thinking: That’s what inspires me, I want to do something like that. It’s never been anything like that. It’s to do with finding, a sort of, a particular approach and sensibility in it retrospectively.

The story of seeing Twombly’s work in 1990 at a MOMA retrospective is presented in terms of an epiphanic encounter with the auratic presence of the actual works, formerly seen only through the opacity of the printed reproduction. Epiphanies, of course, are themselves ‘interactional moments and experiences which leave their marks on people’s lives’ (Denzin 1989) and often provide particularly vivid accounts which want to defy narrative ordering.

And it just, I mean I don’t know how to describe what it did to me but it was the most, almost a life-changing experience seeing that exhibition and seeing the work in the flesh […]. I mean it was a revelation. It really was. I just couldn’t believe the brilliance of it, and the depth of it, and the questions that it kicked up about every- thing to me. And I was completely bowled over. It was absolutely the most won- derful experience, seeing it.

The impact of this encounter with Twombly’s work continues as a visual dialogue with the catalogue that ‘sits’ in the studio enabling the artist to continue the intensity of the dialogic encounter initiated by the exhibition. ‘And, I bought the catalogue and that sits in the studio and I look at it, you know, weekly.’ The narrative continues to describe in detail the affinity with, and impact of Twombly’s work, relating it to the earlier description of the artist’s uses of glazes:

And, I just find that whole, the whole idea of making a piece of art in a frame, I’m talking about his two dimensional work, and […] what the frame does to that piece which couldn’t not be art. You know, what’s the statement saying: this is art, and this isn’t art? The wall is a wall but this is framed as being something particular and special. And that’s just so fascinating to me. And the nature of his work, it


Linda Sandino

being this apparent intense casualness of the text and the markings and the quality of the surface which is so beautiful in reality. The sort of depth of it and the way it’s applied. The absolute painterliness which you don’t really see that much in repro- ductions. And then taking that onto the three dimensional works which are so dif- ferent obviously from the two dimensional but seem to be speaking about exactly the same sort of issue, of taking an object that’s so casual and putting it separately and joining it with another, saying: this is worth looking at. And the way it makes you look at the world, obviously in a very simplistic level, in a fresh way. I found it just so wonderful. So it continues to be, sort of intriguing, for that.

Life histories and stories

As stated above, the place of autobiography has been problematic in the interpretation of artists’ work. However, the increasing use of interviews is evidence of the continuing desire to understand the lens, or perspective, of the author/speaker (Andrews 1991, 2007). In dialogue between interviewer and interviewee closed meanings are destabilized through the interactivity of the conversation in which statements can be questioned, clarified, rein- terpreted, shared and archived to preserve their historical moment for fur- ther analysis. Life histories produce narratives that focus on singularities. As Tamboukou has suggested they ‘grasp the living moments of the subjects’ subtle interrelatedness with their world’ in which ‘the auto/biographical exercise of memory is not about the self becoming ‘intelligible’; it is rather about the experience that the self has of being narratable and therefore familiar’ (Tamboukou 2008). In documenting process via the medium of the life history interview, a text is created that is open and multiple because the process of the interview enables a constantly reflexive, evalua- tive self to emerge. Life histories in the arts have been used to pin down meanings, to uncover ‘intention’ but these quests can never be conclusive as one analyses the complex representations and interpretations within the recordings (Proctor 2006). Rather life history narratives enable ‘auto- biographical understanding […] through the interpretive and imaginative labor of meaning making’ (Freeman 2007). The story of encountering Twombly’s work and its effects of brilliance, depth, art/not-art, provided the interviewee with a context in which to understand and communicate meanings about her own work. Twombly is the referent for a meaningful, identifiable language of surfaces used to communicate the questions that drive her own work. As presented here, the story seems to conform to Riessman’s sequence and consequence model: seeing the exhibition and its effect. The model is useful in helping to select where stories might begin and end. However, stories of identity are not so clearly distinct since they are embedded in the totality of the narrative. Artists’ oral life histories are thoughts-in-process that contain the polysemic complexity of an identity-in-process. Artworks and the artist’s identity are as much ‘works in progress’, or ‘in process’. Personal narratives are the ‘die and coin’ in which experience is made meaningful, in which individuals situate themselves in time and place citing significant others who have contributed to shaping their identity as artists, and also as parents, children, teacher, friend and the many other identities which constitute the self of the telling.

Relating process: accounts of influence in the life history interview


For stories define the range of canonical characters, the settings in which they operate, the actions that are permissible and comprehensible. And thereby provide a map of possible roles and of possible worlds in which action, thought, and self-definition are permissible (or desirable).

(Bruner 1986: 66)

Life histories, therefore, provide a rich text of the ongoing strategies of meaning-making captured in the moment of the dialogic encounter of the recording. But rather than seeing these stories as providing access to truths, the recordings offer an opportunity to hear the self in the process of becoming through reflective narration. By listening and responding to these narratives, we can unravel the singular and complex ways in which artists’ identities are created and re-created, and understand how artists’ stories of process are imbricated in the larger project of identity formation. Stories always have meanings as well as intentions. They are also populated with characters whose roles in the plots demonstrate the relational networks in which meaningful identities and concepts are constituted and shared.


Acton, M. (2004), Learning to Look at Modern Art, London: Routledge.

Anderson, K. and Jack, D. C. (1991), ‘Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses’, in S. B. Gluck and D. Patai (eds), Womens Words: The feminist practice of oral history, New York and London: Routledge.

Andrews, M. (1991), Lifetimes of Commitment: Aging, Politics, Psychology, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

—— (2007), ‘Exploring Cross-Cultural Boundaries’, in D. J. Clandinin (ed.), Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology, Thousand Oaks, London and Delhi: Sage.

Bruner, J. (1986), Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

—— (1990), Acts of Meaning, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Davidson, A. (Reviewer) (1996), ‘Utopia and Dissent: Art Poetry and Politics in California’, American Historical Review, (June): 914.

Denzin, N. K. (1989), Interpretive Biography, London: Sage.

Eakin, P. J. (1999), How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves, Ithaca/London:

Cornell University Press.

Evans, D. (2001), Emotion, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freeman, M. (2007), ‘Autobiogrphical Understanding and Narrative Inquiry’, in D. J. Clandinin (ed.), Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology, Thousand Oaks, London and Delhi: Sage.

Meecham, P. and Sheldon, J. (2005), Modern Art: A Critical Introduction, London:


Mishler, E. G. (1999), Storylines: Craftartists’ Narratives of Identity, Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press.

Portelli, A. (2006), ‘What Makes Oral History Different (1979)’, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds), The Oral History Reader, 2nd edn, London and New York:


Proctor, R. (2006), ‘The Architect’s Intention: Interpreting Post-War Modernism though the Architect’s Interview’, Journal of Design History, 19: 4, pp. 295–307.


Linda Sandino

Riessman, C. K. (1993), Narrative Analysis, London: Sage.

—— (2001), ‘Analysis of Personal Narratives’, in J. F. Gubrium and J. A. Holstein (eds), Handbook of Interview Research: Context and Method, Thousand Oaks, London: Sage.

—— and Speedy, J. (2007), ‘Narrative Inquiry in the Pscyhotherapy Professions: A Critial Review’, in D. J. Clandinin (ed.), Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology.

Rubin, W. (ed.) (1884), ‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, Vol. Exhibition catalogue, New York: MOMA.

Smith, R. C. (1995), Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Tamboukou, M. (2003), Women, Education and the Self, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

—— (2008), ‘Redefining the Narratable Subject’, Qualitative Research, Sage. forth- coming article

Suggested citation

Sandino, L. (2007), ‘Relating process: accounts of influence in the life history interview’, Journal of Visual Arts Practice 6: 3, pp. 191–199, doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.199/1.

Contributor details

Linda Sandino is Senior Research Fellow working on narrative and oral histories at Camberwell College of Arts’ Voices in the Visual Arts project. She has also under- taken extensive oral history recordings for the Life Story Collection at The British Library National Sound Archive. Contact: Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. E-mail:

Relating process: accounts of influence in the life history interview


Journal of Visual Arts Practice Volume 6 Number 3 © 2007 Intellect Ltd

Article. English Language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.201/1

Articulating the tacit dimension in artmaking

Michael Jarvis Northumbria University




It is important for artists not only to acknowledge the often ‘tacit’ nature of


what they do, but to attempt to articulate their practice in a variety of contexts.


Developing knowledge about the complicated processes of making art must


inevitably lead to a more enlightened grasp, understanding and encouragement


of the artist in the contemporary climate. Thus, the common multiplicity of roles


assumed by the artist (e.g. the artist as curator or teacher) should have greater


acknowledgement and lead to an enhanced sense of the worth of art in society.

reflective practitioner


more effective articulation of practice can enable the subsequent relation-


ship between artist, artwork and viewer to become closer. The analysis of tacit

and often hidden artmaking processes and meanings should help to develop a more informed viewer.

In the article, I will discuss the practice of artist Alex Katz and how his tech-

niques can be seen to mask the extensive effort involved in the design and con- struction of his paintings. The elegant surfaces of Katz’s paintings belie the complex and tacit procedures of their making. I also maintain that by connecting the procedures of artmaking to active and reflective researching their often unacknowledged, implicit and tacit values can be better understood.

An initial scrutiny of some artworks can be misleading in that the very art- fulness of the image can often conceal the artistry of its making. A work like

‘Black Scarf’ of 1996 by Alex Katz (Figure 1) is a typical instance of this. It is

a large painting, six foot in height, featuring a figure dressed in a coat

appearing from a flat blue grey background and a preternatural bright face emerging from the shadows. The facial features are precisely delineated

against a flat pale yellow colour with only the faintest of accents in brown indicating eyebrows, eyes and eyelashes and shadows. The flat red of the lips are modelled only slightly by minimal touches of white and pink. The scarf around the neck and coat lapels are indicated with the minimum of tonal modulation while the hair makes a transition from a silvery white grey

at the crown down into a shadowy black which merges with the scarf. It is a

painting whose cool, glacial elegance seems artificially contrived and whose temper is created by the very technical procedure of constructing the work

in the first instance.

Michael Podro explains how the very procedure of the making of the painting can exemplify its subject matter. Thus he describes Tintoretto’s painting of Vincenzo Morosini (c.1585) as a work which ‘urbanely acts the grandee it depicts’ (Podro 1998: 91). In other words, the way in which the

JVAP 6 (3) pp. 201–213 © Intellect Ltd 2007


painter deploys his techniques of specific brushwork and painterly ‘hand- writing’, of the use of textural contrasts and the way colour is chosen and applied all contribute to mirror the elegance and nobility of the person depicted. It is as if the technical qualities embody the character of the per- son portrayed and there is a reciprocity of relationship between them. Such work, whether contemporary like that of Katz or from Tintoretto’s sixteenth century Venice can appear to us to be ‘effortless’ and to somehow belie the amount of preparatory work which has gone before, the often unacknowledged part of artistic practice which is mainly unseen. In this article, I want to discuss the hidden ‘tacit’ dimension of artmaking and to speculate upon the importance of documenting the creative making process. It is important to focus upon the way artworks create a discourse and interaction with their viewing audience. Podro highlights the way in which the artist can manipulate the relationship between the artwork and the viewer. ‘At the core lies the relation of the viewer and the viewed, and the way each may identify with and address the other while the painter by turn takes all the parts’ (Podro 1998: 106). There is a sense here of the artist being like a puppeteer, able to transform the art of viewing (the viewing experience) by means of technical trickery. This is important to emphasize because it reveals that the artist is in command of what is being shown and, in the completion of a work which appears ‘effortless’, there is a deliberate attempt to conceal pre- vious procedures in the searching for a particular stylistic effect or appear- ance. Painting is an interesting practice to explore in this context because some painters do not bother to conceal their procedures. In fact some, like the Belgian painter Raoul de Keyser, are often concerned to show the ‘history’ of their procedures of painting in quite deliberate ways and are content to let the painting exist as a kind of ‘palimpsest.’ In this article I will be discussing paintings by Katz as they seem to demonstrate certain key attributes, not the least of which is the elegant mastery of technical means, which effectively hides the actual effort involved in their preparatory procedures. Why is it necessary or even important to locate this tacit process, to try and reveal how a creative process may be documented? Art practice and process has historically been almost hermetically sealed from the public gaze, perhaps because that which is worthwhile and radical in art is at the frontier where real possibilities of failure are more often than not the ‘norm’ and where to invite scrutiny (to make one’s process too nakedly available) is to let the genii out of the bottle and to render oneself and one’s practice impotent and almost powerless. As the experience of Jackson Pollock with the photographer Hans Namuth shows, observation of intimate transactions between an artist and his/her material processes can blunt and even ossify practice. Furthermore, if the trend in current pro- fessional practice is to identify those aspects which are deemed to be ‘good’ or ‘best’ practice, then there is a danger that this will invite a host of imitators which will, in turn, deny opportunities for newer and more radical forms of practice. There is also the need to challenge some popular mythologies about artistic work. The actual truth of the way artists work in exploratory, intuitive


Michael Jarvis

but often seemingly chaotic ways can disguise the careful methodologies underpinning practice, where ideas are conceived, worked through, discarded, adapted, modified and so on. This actuality of a process occurring over time goes against the grain of popular mythology whereby the artist suddenly happens upon a ‘big idea’ or key pivotal concept which will have revolutionary consequences. Thus, Matthew Collings recently criticized the simplistic version of how art is made in the film ‘Pollock’ of 2000 where the painter’s use and ‘discovery’ of the drip technique is seen as an accidental revelation, something seen incidentally, out of the corner of an eye and which was gainfully exploited as a technique which changed the course of modern art (Collings 2007: 44–47). The further implication is, of course, that this insignificant incident took a ‘genius’ to recognize and to develop. Not only is this a grotesque parody of artistic practice but it also panders to the quintessential modernist myth of the lone genius (usually male) discovering revelatory breakthroughs in practice as a matter of inevitability, a significant point upon a steady and unbroken trajectory of achievement. I wonder whether such distortions are a reason why many films about art are probably doomed to failure and unsatisfactory because they can only depict those moments of revelation and to show how characters respond to them rather than depict the actualities of practice which are arguably, mun- dane, monotonous and repetitive. Such fictional fakery tells us little about an artist’s procedures and work- ing practices. Where a process has been documented, for example, Hans Namuth’s filmic and photographic recordings of Jackson Pollock taken between June and November 1950, it seems artificial and contrived, a per- formance put on for the benefit of an audience. Namuth’s film was choreo- graphed to such a degree that any sense of truth or authenticity must be treated with suspicion. This is not to say that the word ‘performance’ is inaccurate or inappropriate but just that it is very difficult to document a practice and to ascertain what these rehearsals or demonstrations amount to or where they lead. Why is it important for the tacit and hidden aspects of making to be articulated? The word tacit is derived from the Latin tacere meaning to be silent, and in our usage has come to mean something being understood or implied without being stated (see Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 1996). In the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts symposium of 2005 the underlying rationale was to investigate ‘the relationship between artists’ thinking and making’ (LICA, The Documentation of Fine Art Processes and Practices, December 2005), and was concerned with identifying how proce- dural decisions and processes are evidenced in an artist’s finished work. If a relationship is postulated here between the artwork in its making and its final manifestation, it is especially important to identify how the visual properties of the artwork and its potential meanings are constructed and sustained. A further rationale might be that art processes are becoming increas- ingly available to public scrutiny. Work ‘in progress’ is now an acceptable way of looking at art and artists in the same way that other professional practitioners (like doctors, lawyers and teachers) are becoming familiar with such public appraisal and judgement. There are, of course problems with this increased ‘transparency’. Increased scrutiny can lead to a concomitant

Articulating the tacit dimension in artmaking


culture of ‘accountability’. Such accountability often can lead to a quantita- tive logic of league tables and spurious rankings, and worse, an inspection culture that can deter risk and inhibit innovative practice. In Higher Education and universities art is often assessed alongside other subject areas often with little account being taken of art’s intrinsic qualities and differences. In the case of practice-based Ph.D. research the judgement of ‘worth’ or ‘quality’ is seen as problematic with questions being raised as to their equivalence in Ph.D. terms with other more easily measurable research outcomes. As MacLeod and Holdridge mention about Art and Design,

it’s shape, form and content are little known and understood. It is part of a young

research culture

frame of universities within the UK (and EU). It remains curiously focused on research methods and protocols rather than on an elucidation of the culture itself through reference to what is being produced by doctoral students.


sits uneasily within the broader academic research

(MacLeod and Holdridge 2004: 156)

Arguably, it is precisely because of the often tacit nature of practical work and the difficulties of articulating practical concepts and procedures into conventional language that these protocols remain inadequate to actual art practice.

Art practice as tacit knowledge

What needs to be restated is the way in which art practice is able to con- struct a dialogue between theory and practice. Perhaps its very ‘tacitness’ lies in the binding together of theory and practice so that one cannot be dis- tinguished from the other? Carr (1986: 183) emphasizes the importance of self-reflection as a valid category of knowledge so that theory and practice can be viewed as mutually constitutive and dialectically related. He argues for a recovery of self-reflection as a valid category of knowledge in order for this to occur. Such a transition need not be from theory to practice or vice versa, but from irrationality to rationality, from ignorance and habit to knowledge and reflection. This idea can be applied to fine art practice in some interesting ways. For example, dialogue can be inherent between an artist and the medium, often a silent interchange, or can be activated between the work and the viewer. Guy Claxton analyses expertise as ‘the unreflective mastery of complex but familiar domains’ (Atkinson and Claxton 2000: 35) and I think this applies well to how artists exhibit mastery within a context of routines, procedures and repertoires. Catherine Dunton, in describing such proce- dures in relation to the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci argues that,

The significance of the unique relationship between perception and facture is that attention is now caught up with intention. Once fixed, the next line, the next investigation of the eye is fatally influenced by these marks. The eye is no longer free to rove where it will but must enter into a highly sensitive relationship with the choreography of lines that take on their own rhythm and pace. The hand is not the tool of the mind reproducing the object after the eye’s


Michael Jarvis

unremitting gaze. Rather, its movements become a constituting part of the creative-perceptual process.

(Dunton 1999:342)

Perhaps the need to make one’s practice more ‘explicit’ is a consequence of the changing modes of looking? For example, in painting there are key rela- tionships between the artist and the emerging marks on a surface of a paint- ing, and also between the viewpoint and the visual field so that the process of making, of mark and gesture superceding other marks and gestures is contin- ually present on the surface of the image. Thus, there is an additional element in what Catherine Dunton calls ‘the reciprocal process of vision’ (Dunton 1999: 341). By making the process of practice more explicit the artist is accen- tuating the implicit differences between art as opposed to ordinary visual experience. ‘In art, we do not require an act of memory to account for the presence of the journey of the eye in its successor; it is recorded on the page to which the eye constantly returns’ (Dunton 1999: 341). In the transition from a position of ‘not knowingness’ to an increasingly sharper and more finely grained self-reflexive knowledge the practice of Alex Katz makes for an interesting case study. Donald Schon (1988: 28) distinguished between ‘reflection in action’ and ‘reflection on action’ where the former is a more spontaneous or intuitive response to a problematic situation (characteristic of artistic practice) where the knowing is in the action. The latter is a more retrospective response in which thoughts and choices between actions are considered with a view to improving effectiveness in future situations. This is a more critical and theoretical stance. One needs to value both types of reflection as the con- struction of a relationship between the two is a necessary aspect of being a reflective practitioner. Such notions call into question traditional concepts of professional knowledge. Often, an outstanding practitioner in any field is defined not by the extent of their explicit, professional knowledge, but by qualities of wisdom, talent, intuition and artistry. It is interesting that such terms are often used to define phenomena which elude conventional strategies of explanation. As such they also elude conventional strategies of measure- ment and quantification. Schon’s premise is that inherent in the practice of the competent professional is a core of artistry. He defines this artistry as ‘an exercise of intelligence, rigour and a kind of knowing’ (Schon 1988: 13) and is characterized by practitioners who are adept at handling situations of uncertainty, uniqueness and conflict. I would argue that the artist is the quintessential ‘reflective practitioner’, especially with regard to the interaction of hand, body, tools and materials, where to become ‘skilful in the use of a tool is to learn and appreciate directly, without processes of intermediate reasoning, the qualities of the materials that we apprehend through the tacit sensations of the tool in our hand.’ (Schon 1988: 22). As Thornton explains it, a key idea is to explicate the ‘process of continuous responsiveness to experience that is often evi- denced in the practice of professionals but is sometimes shrouded in mystery, perhaps, because the process has seemed difficult to explain (Thornton 2005: 172).

Articulating the tacit dimension in artmaking


Careful reflection does not keep means and ends separate but enables one to define them interactively in response to a problematic situation. This type of thinking and problem solving is often alluded to but less explained, as a crucial approach to knowledge and skill acquisition. It can be seen as a critique of prevailing, traditional hierarchies of knowledge where general, theoretical, propositional knowledge has enjoyed a privileged position as against a more problem solving, speculative and ontological type of knowl- edge where the mode of being or thinking is more intuitive than deductive.

The studio – a context for artistry

Of especial interest to artistic practice is how to frame (or understand) the context within which such artistry can flourish, that is, in situations which are unstable or unpredictable and in which one’s previous knowledge or experience may only partially help in managing problems. The operation of such creative artistry would seem particularly apposite to the practice of many different types of artist. What is germane to artistic practice is that any artist has an interaction

with materials to a greater or lesser extent (and I define ‘materials’ in as wide

a spectrum of practice as possible, from clay to film, from paint to perfor-

mance, from working alone to collaborating with other practitioners etc.) Schon argues that reflection in and on action constitutes a critical dialogue with one’s knowledge in action and which enables one to develop and experi- ment. He cites jazz improvisation and conversation as evidencing this collec- tive (and sometimes singular) mode of improvisation. Crucially, in responding to the indeterminate and difficult areas of one’s practice, one can open a

reflective conversation with the materials of their craft and practice, thereby remaking a part of the practice world and thus engaging with the usually tacit processes of world making which underpins their daily practice. Claxton, in (Atkinson and Claxton2000: 41) relates intuition to experi- ence arguing that ‘intuition is more a matter of drawing upon and extract- ing meaning from a largely tacit database of first hand experience, than it is of rational delineation.’ Further, that ‘creative individuals tend to be those steeped in their specific disciplines and who are able to draw upon a well of experience in novel, flexible and integrative ways’ (Claxton 2000: 41). He discusses intuition as being more than unconscious tacit understanding and knowledge, but also to do with the faculty by which one is open to a dif- ferent flow of events or alternative ways of working. In Katz’s case it is this ability to improvise after a long period of deliberation. There is also a connection with processes of learning here. Michael Eraut, in (Atkinson and Claxton 2000: 256) contrasts modes of learning which are explicit and conscious with those which are implicit and more intuitive. These seem to me to be subtly related. For example, you can be reading a textbook and quite consciously taking notes but the actual import

of that text may only come later on when you are thinking about it at leisure.

Claxton goes on to offer an anatomy of intuition, a family of ‘ways of knowing’ which can also be seen to be a compendium of tacit characteris- tics belonging to the artist. Among them are qualities of expertise, implicit learning, judgement, sensitivity, creativity and rumination. In looking closely at the work of artists I think it is possible to recognize how these attributes can characterize their working procedures so I will go on to


Michael Jarvis

discuss the work of Alex Katz and how his procedures exemplify and fore- ground the qualities of expertise and implicit learning.

The tacit artistry of implicit learning

I think that both explicit and implicit modes of learning act upon each other and that both enable us to acquire knowledge that is not always manifested at the time, and that we are not always completely aware of acquiring? Katz, for example, talks about learning to make work over a period of time (Sylvester 1999: 192). In other words, it is the practising and acquiring of expertise within a context of repetitive routines, procedures and repertoires so that an apparent mastery and ease of execution hides the tacit ‘artistry’ of laborious preparation and improvised, seemingly flawless execution. Claxton discusses such expertise as the ‘unreflective mastery of complex but familiar domains’(Atkinson and Claxton 2000: 40) and I think that such mastery also connects deep learning with constant practice so that an almost slavish adherence to certain procedures enable one to operate in almost an ‘unthinking’ way and allows opportunities for new and fresh insights to be made. The idea of performance is the other key aspect of the Katzian project. In large works, he will complete the process in a single painting phase but this is painstakingly prepared for in a series of smaller studies and full size cartoons, where, in an emulation of traditional ‘pouncing’ techniques, a system whereby charcoal and chalk dust is brushed onto a final design through a network of tiny, pinpricked holes in a full size cartoon, he will transfer key information to the larger canvas and execute the painting ‘wet in wet’ over the course of a single day. The extensive ‘Wedding Dress’ series of 1992 is a typical example of this studied and painstaking approach. Such works demonstrate how Katz achieves a distancing strategy by means of the progressive development of the image into sketch, then drawing, then cartoon and finally into the painting. This ‘distancing’ involves the transi- tion from the ‘seen’ object or body into the 2D language of painting, initially of brushstroke, facture and surface and then into flat and unmodulated planes of colour. In the work of Katz, the tacit expertise is expressed in the temporal but very deliberate process of making, the development of various studies over time so that enough information is collected for a definitive final performance. This process of painting is a risky technical undertaking and relies upon the artist’s deep understanding of the properties and viscosity of paint and different pigments, of, for example, how much the paint needs to be thinned out to enable specific brushstrokes to be made, and which particular medium will give the optimum bloom and effect. Katz is preoccupied with problems of style and performance. He has a concern with the flatness and objecthood of a painting, and with the potential repertoire of marks and possibilities which goes into the making process. Katz explains how with

the sketches and drawings, its an indirect procedure to get to the big canvas and the colours are pre-mixed the day before and on a lot of them I have to get specific brushes for specific strokes.

Articulating the tacit dimension in artmaking

(Sylvester 1999:180)


The whole process is conceptualized beforehand. The subject material is transferred to the final canvas and the preparations are made for the final performance. In this way figures and objects are extracted from everyday existence, transmuted through the sketches and preparatory studies and then transformed into the artificial, simulated life of art.

The expertise of the painting procedure

Some commentators have compared the distancing and artificiality in Katz with the Mannerist style of the sixteenth-century painters like Bronzino, Pontormo and Giulio Romano. In fact, to follow Shearman, the very term is derived from the Italian term maniera which literally means ‘style’. It is a conceptual, intellectual approach, one that ‘should, by tradition, speak a silver-tongued language of articulate, if unnatural, beauty, not one of inco- herence, menace and despair; it is, in a phrase, the stylish style’ (Shearman 1979: 19). A. B. Oliva describes the typical detachment of this style as not an outcome of a process but rather as the process in itself (Oliva 1999: 40). The concept of maniera was originally developed from a literature of man- ners in the Renaissance and was used to define a way of living which was cultured and refined, almost an artwork in itself. This aspect can be plainly seen in paintings like the Katz Black Scarf of 1996 (Figure 1) and, for example, a Bronzino portrait like that of Eleonora of Toledo with her son Giovanni de Medici of c.1546 (see Graham-Dixon 1999) where the sheer beauty of surface is immediately apparent. The lack of tangible facture and lack of evidence of the painter’s intervention with signature markings and brush strokes means that we are not invited to penetrate beyond or beneath the surface. Every formal aspect is articulated across the respective surfaces which act like mirrors for our sensibilities. Graham-Dixon describes Eleonora’s face as a mask. ‘She has nothing to declare but her visible perfection’ (Graham-Dixon 1999: 297). The painters have ensured that nothing is allowed to distract us from the evident beauty of their stylistic transformations. With the Bronzino it is the richness and complexity of pattern and line which is being demonstrated while the Katz focuses upon subtle gradations of tone and colour. The tacit knowledge and skill in Katz’s painting which results in such an ‘unnatural beauty’ can be analysed more carefully. For example, in the Black Scarf there is a careful loading of different brushes with grey and white paint and caressing of these onto the surface with one continuous move- ment, from top of head to where it fades out at top of collar. Also, where the paint amounts are carefully judged to run out at a precise moment and place. In re-running an imaginary video one might detect one or two broad wedged brushes loaded with pigment being traced downwards in three or four strokes and on top of the wet black underpainting below. In this performance it is perhaps the quality of improvisation which con- nect with the idea of implicit learning, where expertise is acquired by non- conscious, non-conceptual means by the manipulation of tools, materials and media. Katz attempts to describe this process in different ways. Thus, when discussing the ‘wet in wet’ technique he says that, ‘ it’s like finding a part of yourself that you didn’t know was there and working with it’ (Sylvester in Katz 1999: 172).


Michael Jarvis

Figure 1: Alex Katz, Black Scarf, 1996 oil on canvas 183 ∞ 117 cm. Articulating

Figure 1: Alex Katz, Black Scarf, 1996 oil on canvas 183 ∞ 117 cm.

Articulating the tacit dimension in artmaking


Further, that there is a kind of heightened awareness during the painting

process that is both conscious and unconscious, ‘

tually and you’re painting faster than you think so to speak, you speed it up, and when you speed it up to that degree your unconscious takes over. The brushstrokes are not conscious at all’ (Sylvester in Katz 1999: 174). Katz identifies the importance of working with aspects or entities which are unknown, and to leave oneself open to this as a new way of working can result. ‘I work with different parts of myself. I like to open up and let any- thing happen and then try to figure out what happened. Then it becomes another process’ (Brehm in Katz 1999: 48). The process of improvisation enables the painter to short circuit pre- conceptions in the attempt to keep an image fresh and alive, and in order not to be circumscribed by previous solutions. If the practical explication of

knowledge and experience can be temporarily clarified in a ‘finished’ painting, there is also a sense in which this product must remain provisional and incomplete as it tends to initiate further enquiry and problem solving. Then,

it is to the more implicit framework of knowledge and intuitive expertise to which the painter must return. The expertise of the procedure is located in the balance between the process of planning and intuitive action. Katz again notes the importance of conscious and unconscious cognitive processes working in tandem

when you paint percep-

it’s hot and cold. Because it’s all pre-planned and pre-mixed like a print. But when you paint, the performance part, you have to let your conscious mind go and float. You may know what colour is going on top of what colour but the marks you make have to come out of your unconscious

(Brehm in Katz 1999:50)

It is precisely because of the amount of preparation that Katz is able to make, that the final performance can be an intuitive and spontaneous exer- cise. The statement implies that the pre-planning process enables the final performance to be freer, even a more unconscious and liberating experi- ence. ‘The optical element is the most important thing to me. That the paintings actually have to do with seeing. It has to do not with what it means but how it appears’ (Brehm in Katz 1999: 44). Katz talks about the primacy of the optical element of making and seeing. Brehm argues that there is a lack of congruence between the original image and final painting which renders the act of seeing a more conscious one. This

further implies that the act of transformation, in itself, is of vital importance,

a progressive curve on the way to a definitive final performance. The distance traversed between the different stages of image making also enables Katz to work through any emotional attachment he has to the subject material so that the final work can be made in a more meditative and detached spirit. There is often a disjunction between the perceived image, the planned stages and the final piece. For example, the differences between the small, initial painterly sketch, ‘Good Morning’ of 1974 is in stark contrast to the subsequent much larger and more stylized version, ‘Good Afternoon’, com- pleted in the same year, where all traces of gestural brushwork and texture are sacrificed to the overall integration of the composition. The hand and mind of the painter intervene in conscious and unconscious ways. The


Michael Jarvis

lengthy process of gestation allows the final pieces to appear effortless. Despite their genesis in reality the pictures are defined more by the way they are made, by their stylistic attributes. This seems to indicate what Katz means when he talks about wanting style to take the place of content.


I would argue that it is important for the contemporary artist to be able to acknowledge the often tacit nature of what they do. This runs contrary to the traditional position of artistic practices being largely hidden and unac- knowledged because of a resistance to theory and explanation. Esser-Hall for example argues that,

Amongst students of art practice a resentment against theory is evident, because with its emphasis on an imposed structure and method, it presents itself as the ‘Other’, that is part of a hierarchical education system. Theory is perceived as relating to practice as the rigid to the freeflow, the constructed to the playful, the prescriptive to the creative – almost as captivity to freedom.

(Esser-Hall 2000:289)

It is time that these rather simplistic binary oppositions were challenged. The making explicit by the artist of their particular position or mode of prac- tice is helpful in the way that practice can be defined, positioned and con- textualized. Why is this of critical importance? There are a number of pressures for the contemporary artist at the interface between their public and private personas, where artists and makers are required to ‘legitimate’ their prac- tice, and to be accountable in the development and outcomes of specific projects. This is mirrored by the burgeoning of creative and practice-based MA and Ph.D. routes in universities in which there is posited a close rela- tionship between theory and practice, and where the practice is required to be explicated, not only to validate the creative self, but for a wider profes- sional validation and critical acceptance across the whole spectrum of other academic disciplines. However, I think there is a deeper, more complex cultural level which might be affected by such ‘articulation’ and which should be seen as benefi- cial. If we accept the idea of the artist as a reflective practitioner then part of that process is a willingness to articulate the tacit and more unacknowl- edged aspects of practice. This involves a self-conscious reflexivity and acute awareness of procedure similar to that demonstrated by artists like Katz and Francis Bacon before him. It is in this articulation of practice that the processes and findings of artistic research can be analysed and understood. Of course it might be argued that the artistic endeavour is essentially a soli- tary one. However, by legitimating art as a form of ‘action research’, that is, as a form of enquiry which is problem posing as much as problem solving (see Cohen, Manion and Morrison 2007: 298) we would be placing it more squarely within the wider public and societal context. As MacNiff argues,

I have generally found that a heuristic approach to research benefits from being tempered with an orientation to other people, the medium of expres- sion, and the objective properties of the process of creation. I have discovered

Articulating the tacit dimension in artmaking


that a complete focus on the self tends to generate disconnected, unfocused,

and random expressions which are of little significance to a larger community

of people.

(MacNiff 2004: 152)

I think that developing and sharing knowledge about the complicated processes of making art must inevitably lead to a more enlightened grasp, understanding and encouragement of the artist in contemporary society. Thus, the common multiplicity of roles assumed by the artist, for example, as curator or teacher, should have greater acknowledgement and lead to an enhanced sense of the worth of art in our society. A more effective articulation of practice can enable the subsequent rela- tionship between artist, artwork and viewer to become closer. The analysis of tacit and often hidden artmaking processes and meanings should help to develop a more informed viewer. The question for us, as artist practitioners, is not about the worth or value of articulating our practice but to consider how we can achieve an ever increasing clarity of utterance.


Atkinson, T. and Claxton, G. (2000), The Intuitive Practitioner , Buckingham & Philadelphia: Oxford University Press.

Brehm, M. (1999), ‘Art by Nature’, Alex Katz – Galleria Civica di Arte Contemporanea, Trento, Hopefulmonster.

Carr, W. (1986), ‘Theories of Theory & Practice’, Journal of Philosophy of Education 20: 2, pp. 177–86.

Cohen, L., Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2007), Research Methods in Education, 6th edn, London and New York: Routledge.

Collings, M. (2007), ‘Diary’, Modern Painters, June, pp. 44–47.

Dunton, C. (1999), ‘A Merleau-Pontian Account of Leonardo’s Studies from Life’, Art History, 22: 3, pp. 331–46.

Esser-Hall, G. (2000), ‘The Role of Phenomenological Hermeneutics in Art Education’, International Journal of Art Education, 19: 3, pp. 286–96.

Graham-Dixon, A. (1999), Renaissance, London: BBC Worldwide Ltd.

MacLeod, K. and Holdridge, L. (2004), ‘The Doctorate in Fine Art: The Importance of Exemplars to the Research Culture’, International Journal of Art and Design Education, 23: 2, pp. 155–68.

MacNiff, S. (2004), Art-Based Research, London and New York: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Oliva, A.P. (1999), ‘The Oblique realism of Alex Katz’, in Alex Katz – Galleria Civica

di Arte Contemporanea, Trento, Hopefulmonster.

Podro, M. (1998), Depiction, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Shearman, J. (1979), Mannerism (Style and Civilisation), London: Penguin Books.

Schon, D.A. (1988), Educating the Reflective Practitioner, San Francisco and London:

Jossey Bass Publishers.

Soanes, C. (ed.) (1996), The Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, Oxford University Press.

Sylvester, D. (1999), ‘Interview with Alex Katz’, Alex Katz Galleria Civica di Arte Contemporanea, Trento, Hopefulmonster.


Michael Jarvis

Thornton, A. (2005), ‘The Artist Teacher as Reflective Practitioner’, International Journal of Art and Design Education, 24: 2, pp. 166–74.

Further works (illustrations) Figure 1: Alex Katz, Black Scarf, 1996 oil on canvas 183 ∞ 117 cm Reproduced with permission (Copyright) DACS, LONDON/VAGA New York 2007. to appear on page I of the above article

Suggested citation

Jarvis, M. (2007), ‘Articulating the tacit dimension in artmaking’, Journal of Visual Arts Practice, 6: 3, pp. 201–213, doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.201/1.

Contributor details

Michael Jarvis is an artist, writer and lecturer. He works at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne where he contributes to undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in Teacher Education and Fine Art. Currently he is studying for a Ph.D. in Fine Art at Lancaster University. The research is concerned with the practice of painting in relation to various announce- ments of its ‘death’ and demise since 1840. Contact: Northumbria University, School of Health, Social Work and Education, Coach Lane Campus, Newcastle upon Tyne NE 7 7XA, UK. E-mail: Research institution address: Lancaster University, Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YW, UK. E-mail:

Articulating the tacit dimension in artmaking


Journal of Visual Arts Practice Volume 6 Number 3 © 2007 Intellect Ltd

Article. English Language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.215/1

Seeing what, how and why: the ARTnews series, 1953–58

Nigel Whiteley Lancaster University



Between 1953 and 1958, ARTnews in the United States included a series that

art history

focused on a particular contemporary artist who was interviewed while making

creative process

an artwork. Amongst the artists, usually American, were de Kooning, Gottlieb, Diebenkorn, Mitchell and Lippold, and the series title used the artist’s name, followed by ‘paints a picture’ or ‘makes a sculpture’ or some variant. Interviewers/writers included Fairfield Porter, Frank O’Hara, Thomas B. Hess and Irving Sandler. As well as providing an informative survey of contemporary art practice in New York, the series was innovative in that it provided an insight into the artist’s work in progress and his/her thoughts about creativity. The format enabled the artist and commentator to talk about a particular work in terms of its aims, theme, preoccupations and interpretations, and for the commentator to provide not only a formal analysis, but also to describe some of the decision-making processes of the artist – why the artist had made a particular decision and rejected other alternatives, and to what effect. Furthermore, a certain amount of detailed technical information about materials and methods was disclosed, as well as information about the artist’s working environment, such as the size of the studio, whether the artist worked close-up, and whether the work stood on an easel or lay on the floor. The overall result was to create a series that gave a reasonably intimate insight into the everyday creative processes of artists in the United States in the early to late 1950s. Rather than romanticizing the creative act, so giving yet another breathless account of the intuitive, inspired or tortured genius, the making of art is demystified by an openness about the making process, and a making explicit of what is usually tacit knowledge. This article examines one of the ARTnews series – Fairfield Porter’s 1954 article on Larry Rivers’s Portrait of Berdie I, 1953, and evaluates its contribution in terms of a better understanding of how artists think about works they are creating.

visual intelligence

Any creative practice involves knowledge and experience that develop through an engagement with the activity. The more one practises the activity, the more the knowledge becomes ‘second nature’ and, it is generally the case, the more expert one becomes. This type of embedded knowledge is often called ‘tacit’ knowledge and it can appear very mysterious and unfath- omable to someone outside the particular creative practice. Many artists,

JVAP 6 (3) pp. 215–228 © Intellect Ltd 2007


critics and dealers have been content to keep knowledge tacit, in order to uphold the notion of ‘creative genius’. The artwork was seldom presented, let alone understood, as a work that grew out of a frequently fraught decision- making process involving ideas, materials, physical manipulation, tech- niques, skills and judgement. Rather it had, supposedly, suddenly appeared, to recall J.M. Whistler’s phrase, as a ‘masterpieceperfect in its bud as in its bloom – with no reason to explain its presence – no mis- sion to fulfil – a joy to the artist.’ (Whistler 1890: 116). All we saw is what the artist did – the outcome. As late as 1948, Matisse was remarking that he had ‘always tried to hide my own efforts and wished my works to have the lightness and joyousness of a springtime which never lets anyone sus- pect the labours it has cost’ (Matisse 1948: 140). Even when those labours were captured on film – recordings of artists including Matisse himself and, later, Jackson Pollock are well-known examples – this did little to help an understanding of the creative process which still appeared opaque: we saw what the artist was doing, and how he was doing it, but why particular deci- sions were made rather than others remained incomprehensible to most. Seeing Pollock ducking and diving around his floored canvas, jabbing and lunging with paint-filled brushes and sticks, may have made aspects of the creative process visible, but it did not necessarily make it understandable. We had little or no access to why. Today, it is still rare to see art works as other than the outcome of a hid- den process. This is, in my view, regrettable because it perpetuates the mys- tique of art, and keeps an unnecessary distance between creative practitioners and their audience. Whether you are a member of that audi- ence, or a critic, historian or, indeed, another artist, witnessing something of the creative process can make us see a work differently, and give us insights into the artist’s ways of working, intentions and, even, values and assumptions. It enriches our understanding not only of particular art works, but also of creativity in general. The opportunity for insight and under- standing is significantly increased when we are not just a silent observer, but an informed one, and this requires a spoken or written commentary by either the artist or an interviewer, so that seeing what and how is supple- mented by seeing why. One of the most impressive examples to date of seeing what, how and why was provided by an irregular series that ran in the American art maga- zine ARTnews between 1953 and 1958. There were 28 articles in total, with three-quarters of them in the three-year period 1953–55. Each article focused on a particular contemporary artist who was interviewed while making an art work. Amongst the artists, usually American, were Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell, Richard Lippold and Larry Rivers. Non-Americans included Alberto Burri, Georges Mathieu and Georges Fautrier. The format of the article was the artist’s name, followed by ‘ paints a picture’, ‘ makes a sculpture’ or some vari- ant. Among the interviewer-commentators were eminent critics including Fairfield Porter, Frank O’Hara, Thomas B. Hess and Irving Sandler. Occasionally an artist was the interviewer: Elaine de Kooning wrote three articles, and Fairfield Porter, responsible for six of the articles, was himself a painter and the subject of an article. Photographs of the art work in progress and the artist at work were taken by photographers attuned to


Nigel Whiteley

studio culture such as Rudolph (Rudy) Burckhardt and, on one occasion, Hans Namuth, whose photographs and film of Pollock at work became legendary. As well as providing an informative survey of contemporary art practice in New York, the series was innovative in that it provided an insight into the artist’s work in progress and his/her thoughts about creativity. The format comprised about 3,500 words text and captions, and about a dozen photos, including a colour illustration of the finished art work under discussion. This format enabled the commentator and artist to talk about a particular work in terms of its aims, theme and interpretations, and for the commen- tator to provide not just a visual analysis, but also to describe some of the decision-making processes of the artist – why the artist had made a particular decision and rejected other alternatives, and to what effect. Furthermore, a certain amount of detailed technical information about materials and methods was disclosed, as well as information about the artist’s working environment, such as the size of the studio, whether the artist worked close-up, and whether the work stood on an easel or lay on the floor. One particular set of photos that accompanied an ARTnews article has been reproduced several times and has become well known in its own right. That is the illustrations included in the article on Willem de Kooning, the very first article in the ‘ paints a picture’ series, in March 1953. Most monographs on de Kooning (for example, Hess 1959: illustrations 111–2, 114–7; and Waldman 1988: 88–89) reproduce the six illustrations of the stages of the development of Woman 1 between 1950 and 1952 to demon- strate the notion of spontaneous and unpremeditated creativity as a key ingredient of Abstract Expressionism. The commentator in the ARTnews article was Thomas B. Hess, a champion, along with Clement Greenberg, of de Kooning’s work, and he also included illustrations of four preliminary works to make the point that the evolution of the art work was neither sequential nor, apparently, logical. Further photos show the artist at work; a moody portrait of de Kooning ‘pausing for a smoke’ (Hess 1953: 30); and a shot of his palette-table and mixing cans in the foreground, beyond which is a view through the window of his Fourth Avenue studio showing the street outside. The de Kooning article has some things to recommend it, but too much of what Hess writes plays to the image of the romantic, inspired and inspi- rational bohemian artist, and such a tone obscures the virtues of the series’ approach. Others in the series are limited by either too formalist an analysis (e.g. Seckler 1953, on Stuart Davis); the parochialism of the art (e.g. Porter 1956, on Jane Freilicher) or the pretentiousness of the writing (e.g. Tapié 1955 on Georges Mathieu). The article I have selected as a case study of the best of the ARTnews approach features an artist about whom there is no surrounding mythology about ‘masterpieces’, and for whom subject matter was important, thus offering the potential for more than a merely formalist analysis. The artist is Larry Rivers, and his work appeared in ARTnews in January 1954, discussed by the artist-critic, Fairfield Porter. In this article, I am going to provide an overview of the scope of the arti- cle and emphasize some of the main points as representative of the ARTnews approach. The article on Rivers included fourteen illustrations, with the main art work in colour.

Seeing what, how and why: the ARTnews series, 1953–58


Figure 1. Figure 2. 2 1 8 Nigel Whiteley

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Figure 2. 2 1 8 Nigel Whiteley

Figure 2.


Nigel Whiteley

The title page included three photographs: the first was of Rivers at work and showed the artist and the painting, so the viewer could gain a sense of the work’s size and how the artist worked on it; the second showed Rivers’s work table and the scale of his working environment and, in the third, according to the caption, ‘a series of studies in different mediums show constant experiment and close attention to detail a wall of studies by the artist’ (Porter 1954: 56). What the viewer gained from these photographs is some sense of the environment in which Rivers worked, from the dimen- sions of a sketch and painting, to the size of the studio, and something of the process in terms of the importance of sketches and parallel material – all, I would argue, relevant contextual information. On the second page we have one of the innovations and strengths of the ARTnews approach – the illustration of the art work’s changing appearance. Here we have six illustrations charting the evolution of Rivers’s painting of his mother-in-law, Berdie, from a charcoal sketch through to an oil painting. The caption makes the point that, although the composition and the dark areas ‘remain steady, the picture appears and disappears through a process in which erasure plays as positive a role as painting’ (Porter 1954: 57). Nothing better illustrates the idea that a painting evolves than this set of photographs although, as the text discusses, that evolution is far from steady and predictable. The third page is the final page to include multiple photographs. The four illustrations include the artist at work; a photograph of Berdie; an early drawing and an intermediate stage of the painting. The caption picks up on the similarity between the photograph of the model, and the two illustra- tions of the work in progress to make a point about ‘The directness of the artist’s vision’ (Porter 1954: 58). The final illustration appears on the next page and is a colour plate of the finished Portrait of Berdie I, 1953 (Figure 4). Interestingly, rather than presenting the work uncritically, Porter’s caption remarks that ‘The finished painting, almost 7 feet high, shows little attempt to conceal the ‘abundance of dissatisfactions’ from which it grew’ (Porter 1954: 58). Porter’s caption quotes from a remark by Rivers, as we shall see. If the photographs are useful for certain types of information, the text in the article opens up a range of possibilities for understanding. The text com- mences by introducing the reader to the 30-year-old artist: Porter tells us about Rivers’s ‘restless and nervous’ personality (Porter 1954: 57), his engagement with music and poetry and the influence in his art of Courbet and de Kooning. The opening paragraph concludes with Porter’s view that the artist has ‘not attained his final maturity’ (Porter 1954: 57) – an honest opinion that is unlikely to be phrased as directly nowadays. The second paragraph continues with bio- graphical information: that Rivers moved to Southampton, Long Island, in May 1953 and worked on sculpture, outdoors; and that he rented a garage near his house and converted it into the makeshift studio, illustrated in the article. Porter then outlines Rivers’s distinction between painting, sculpture and draw- ing: for Rivers’s, ‘Sculpture is a slow and substantial kind of drawing and a statue is more distinct from the space around it than a drawing is’ (in Porter 1954: 58). As Rivers puts it slightly later in the article, ‘Drawing is the ability to use a line or mark to produce air, space, distinctions, peculiarities, endings, beginnings. It is like the backfield in a football team; it is the star’ (in Porter 1954: 58). Biography, none of which has unduly mythologized or romanticized the artist, gives way to an insight into the artist’s thinking.

Seeing what, how and why: the ARTnews series, 1953–58


Figure 3. Figure 4. 2 2 0 Nigel Whiteley

Figure 3.

Figure 3. Figure 4. 2 2 0 Nigel Whiteley

Figure 4.


Nigel Whiteley

Having not worked on painting for six months, Rivers determined to ‘get his hand in again’ (in Porter 1954: 58) by painting his mother-in-law. This underlines that no one is claiming a masterpiece in the making, but a more modest approach to creating a painting which is, again, different from the usual claims made by critics in essays in terms of significant works. Porter moves on to describing Rivers’s creative process: a pencil sketch direct from the model is ‘freely transferred’ to a canvas, without the model, using ‘sign-painter’s charcoal’ (Porter 1954: 58). The process is described in some detail:

When he draws, Rivers rubs out a great deal; about as much time is spent on erasing as on making marks. Next he laid in colour in thin washes. On the work table were several cans of turpentine and one of raw linseed oil, in order to make sure to get his brushes clean between colours, although he finds some dirtiness is useful as a way of continuing and unifying colours from one area to another. He kept pounds of rags under the table to wipe out colours. This makes for a similarity to pastel: the colour that is wiped out has partly stained the canvas already, and therefore it remains under succeeding colours. He used 1-inch to 1 1 / 2 -inch hardware-store brushes, 3 / 4 - to 1 / 2 -inch flat bristle brushes, and one 3 / 8 -inch round bristle brush.

(Porter 1954: 58)

There is material here that, in normal circumstances, would be unknown, but which gives a fuller understanding of Rivers’s way of working: the importance of erasure; the technical effect of using colour and its visual outcome and information about the brushes that he uses. This is tacit knowledge made public, and is of interest to other artists and the art audi- ence who gains an insight into how Rivers’s way of working leads to the final art work. Porter tells us that Rivers then started another painting of the same sub- ject. In contradistinction, this one was loosely stretched, making it ‘softer’ and ‘easier to erase’ (in Porter 1954: 81). We are told the order it was drawn in, and which parts were erased: ‘ the right half of the figure (on the left side of the canvas) was related to the chair back, the line of the left hand, the dark of the sleeve above the right arm, the nose, the left eye; then almost all rubbed out again. While erasing, Rivers commented, ‘I like a stubborn canvas – this is like a page’ (in Porter 1954: 81). Porter is convey- ing a sense of the artist making decisions, tentative decisions and ones that are sometimes reversed. The decision-making process is embedded in the creation of a particular work and, with the accompanying photographs of the stages of the evolution, this allows for careful scrutiny and, again, understanding of how the artist’s process relates to the visual outcome, and the aesthetic. One of the most revealing passages is an utterance by Rivers about the relationship between newness and familiarity:

There are differences between the points of view of an artist there is the pleasure that you get in doing something that is new: you use new colours or draw in a way that you hadn’t until that time. This is pleasurable. These feelings sometimes are enough to make the artist feel that he has done something

Seeing what, how and why: the ARTnews series, 1953–58


that is worth while doing. Another approach comes out of a certain familiarity. Through familiarity the artist comes to something that he has not previously expressed, like the difference between a one-night stand with someone, where the evening is full of new and interesting relationships, or something that comes out of knowing someone for a long time, that seems to be more sus- taining. I think one has greater art who seems to have even more than he has shown, not who has shown most that he has.

(in Porter 1954: 81)

This sheds light on Rivers’s attitude to subject matter and his general con- cern with inventiveness. It has a significance beyond the particular artist, helping the reader understand an artist’s motivation and the possible tension between a new work looking like a previous one (and thus revealing the artist’s personal style), and a work being significantly different from others by the artist. A shift of focus between the art work being discussed in detail, and more general statements by Rivers about art, is characteristic of Porter’s article, with one type of statement informing the other. The second para- graph on page 81 changes back to the work in progress:

After considering it, Rivers erased the whole charcoal sketch on the second canvas. He drew two ovals for two faces. ‘I will draw the figure onto the head on the left, then I will take it away, and it will be on the head on the right, for the surprise of the relationship as I come to it.’ Then, before erasing every- thing again, ‘On the first canvas I was more direct; now I know the anatomy or directional things, and so forth, which makes it slower.’ Faint traces remained. ‘Sometimes if I can catch the right eye, at the beginning, I know that I won’t have to change things, but I haven’t got it. I drew more natu- ralistically before, but now it has gotten to be something else.

(Porter 1954: 81)

Here we have a description of the process, with a description of what and how the artist is doing but, more importantly, why he is doing it. Rivers is able to articulate and explain his decision-making process, and his rationale. The article continues in this way, with Porter describing Rivers drawing the head, eye and the ‘V’-shapes of the dark parts of the dress, and Rivers explaining that

I wanted to find some method that would relieve me from the tension that comes from trying to decide what the picture is: to give the meanings of specific things I know, in a way that has nothing to do in a big sense with painting, but allows me to exercise enjoyment in painting and drawing, yet in a way removed form the magic of art. Details help me forget that big sense of the painting.

(in Porter 1954: 81)

However, the details could present their own problems. Porter comments that ‘The scale of the head was getting too big; from the neck to the breasts

it was too long’ (Porter 1954: 81), and Rivers then sought to make corrections,

keeping his hand always on the canvas, like a lawnmower on the lawn’

(Porter 1954: 1981). The combination in the article of what, how and why –


Nigel Whiteley

description, analysis and explanation – using the critic’s commentary and the artist’s insights into his own aims and methods, is an informative and insightful one, illuminating why the art work looks as it does. The next four paragraphs address problems arising in the paintings, such as the size of the head, and how Rivers dealt with it. In order to move forward with the paintings, Rivers went back to the model and did some studies, some of which were detailed, and some others explored different poses. The colours of the second painting were erased, and the first paint- ing was repainted. As before, Porter describes what actions Rivers took, such as working over the model’s shoes, and redrawing the left arm. There is a focusing down to the colours used by Rivers: ‘cerulean and Prussian blue, chromium oxide opaque, green earth, Naples yellow and red medium, burnt and raw umber, black and zinc white’ (Porter 1954: 81). Porter then comments on the way Rivers uses colour, applying it in one of the areas deliberately, larger and shaggier than reality, then [he] goes back to the drawing.The inaccuracy of the register is a way of hinging parts together by colour; it serves a different function than the drawing, which separates the parts’ (Porter 1954: 81). This helps the viewer see what is going on in the painting, and how Rivers achieves his style. Two paragraphs later, the focus moves out to Rivers reflecting on his own values and temperament:

I have the moral idea that nothing easy can be good, at least for myself. I feel guilty about blankness on the canvas; unable to accept it – I have to force a thing to go on to something else. That accepting of the first strokes of a thing is an admission of a certain kind of character trait there have been masters who have been able to do portraits in an hour and a half – the idea of virtuosity. Though I feel that I have some of this myself, it is meaningless. Why be a virtuoso? For whom and for what reason? It is thrilling to have to go through many possibilities before I can accept anything Though all may be equally good, all places, I have to have tried them before I can say any- thing is OK.

(in Porter 1954: 81)

This is the tone of an artist thinking and conversing informally with guards down, rather than issuing a carefully worded statement, that retrospectively makes sense of his practice. Again, we gain insight into the aesthetic of Rivers’s paintings with their messiness and even awkwardness. The distrust of virtuosity, and the balance between newness and familiarity leads Rivers to the view that ‘I think the history of art grows out of both boredom and interest. If one hundred people have done something very well, you can’t make yourself see clearly if you do it too’ (in Porter 1954: 82). The rationale underpinning his aesthetic is continued in the next para- graph. Rivers was unhappy with the blankness at the bottom of the first painting and said, ‘You can have a large blank area especially at the bottom of a painting, but then I feel that I must introduce something to break it (in Porter 1954: 82). In order to achieve this, ‘He wanted the cross pieces of the chair between the feet to remain faint, but to be sensed strongly’ (Porter 1954: 82) – this was Rivers’s way of ‘breaking’ the blank area without destroying or overemphasizing it. The way he achieved the effect is a good

Seeing what, how and why: the ARTnews series, 1953–58


example of knowledge from ‘inside’ a practice. Decisions to do with visual balance could also have psychological implications. According to Rivers,

The features set up a psychological situation which I have to accept or reject while the other parts don’t have that kind of attractionemphases come out in the face beyond drawing and the general colour relation to the rest of the paintingone is a victim of its look I can’t express pity, hatred, joy, anxiety; I have to work on until the expression or the look is something that you can’t give a name to.

(in Porter 1954: 82)

As a non-driver is amazed at the number of aspects a driver has simultane- ously to co-ordinate, so too the viewer could only be impressed at the way an artist has to balance so many diverse matters during the making of an art work. The balancing act may not always lead to resolution:

These paintings consist of the faint remains of all the things that I did not want, that the whole canvas wouldn’t give up no matter how much I scrubbed, scraped or merged; so in a way all of it grows out of an abundance of dissat- isfactions.

(in Porter 1954: 82).

To an audience used to seeing works publicly displayed, usually because the artist was satisfied with the end result, the idea that an art work may merely surface out of an ‘abundance of dissatisfactions’ was, no doubt for many, an unexpected revelation. Rivers mused on the fact that an artist often knows little of an audience’s response to his or her work, and that what may be a normal way of doing something to the artist, may seem odd or quirky to a viewer. Returning to the development of the canvases, Porter describes compo- sitional adjustments made by Rivers. Then,

He started to make a series of sketches of the whole figure, from the paint- ings, as if to get an understanding of what the painting was or could be. They were on canvas, mostly about 18 by 12 inches. The idea of wholeness predom- inated. In two days, he started and went back to about six of these sketches . To him, each sketch was valuable as a different organizational interpretation. One could be considered a block before an arc, another a variation on dotted- ness, another a composition between two vertical parallels, or between angles.

(Porter 1954: 82)

However, Rivers adjudged that none was ‘of a strong enough nature to make me destroy what I have done already’ (in Porter 1954: 82). He also spent a day considering whether to start a third canvas, but eventually decided against it. The idea of a strongly linear development in the creation of an art work is undermined in not only Rivers’s words and actions, but also the uncertainty, sideways moves and apparent back-tracking which were probably far greater than most spectators would ever have imagined. Rivers himself addressed the issue of control, admitting, ‘I want to be able to control . It is not that I have to know what I am doing every single


Nigel Whiteley

second, but I do not want to be at the mercy of art’ (in Porter 1954: 82). What Rivers meant by this is that ‘I can get a thrill out of what occurs dur- ing painting, but surprise does not equal quality. Surprise may not even indicate quality at all’ (in Porter 1954: 82). In the context of the apparent casualness, even the seeming arbitrariness of some passages of Rivers’s paintings, this distinction between surprise and quality could not be readily predicted, but again underlines the article’s articulation of Rivers’s quest for a fine balance between opposing, and sometimes contradictory, forces. The provisionality of Rivers’s works in the article was emphasized by the artist who admitted that ‘What started out a whole thing was painted as a drawing, two pastels and eight paintings. I don’t know which is ‘the’ paint- ing. So although each painting is a statement, I don’t think that I have made ‘a’ painting. I am not telling anyone that this is a process, a way of painting, a way to work; it just happened’ (in Porter 1954: 82). How different is this unresolved, evolutionary process was from the normal viewing con- dition of a ‘finished’ work in a pristine gallery. A final decision Rivers had to make was which work would be reproduced in colour for the magazine. He decided on the first one, not because it was the most resolved, but because it is a member of the family that looks like no one, the different one – the best. I don’t know what to do with the others. I don’t know if they are finished. So I distrust them’ (in Porter 1954: 82). Asked by Porter whether he liked the first one because it had been around longest, Rivers replied ‘No, it is less on the surface, it has more weight, it is more awkward’ (in Porter 1954: 82). Most spectators were probably more likely to have selected the second painting because of its more conventionally unified surface and higher degree of finish. But, Porter contends, ‘ this finish is like the virtuosity that he distrusts, because it may be the outward sign of a lack of that search for distinctions ’ (Porter 1954: 82–83). Thus, Porter concludes that ‘Rivers’ paintings often have the look of beginnings . [and] his style has the merit of lacking those superficial graces that can hide an inner emptiness’ (Porter 1954: 83). So, what claims can be made for ‘Rivers paints a picture’ and, indeed, the series as a whole? Porter’s article on Rivers is certainly a period piece, and captures the mood of its time for the individualistic, unsatisfied, trou- bled, bohemian artist struggling and striving for a more authentic work of art, distrusting ease, charm and virtuosity. Rivers’s attitudes grew out of the abstract expressionists’ romantic discourse of spontaneity and unfinished- ness in art. In 1951 de Kooning had stated that ‘French artists have some “touch” in making an object. They have a particular something that makes them [sic] look like a “finished” painting. They have a touch which I am glad not to have’ (de Kooning 1951: 565). Rivers’s attitudes and values – even the way he talks about art with the almost existential sense of uncertainty and an ethical dimension – are clearly shaped by the metanarratives of the time in art and culture. Yet I would argue that the approach of the ARTnews series as a whole has value that is lasting because it is generalizable. When one takes away the historically specific content and examines the series as an approach, there is much to recommend it. The range an article covers is impressive. In Porter’s article we have information about Rivers’s background, influ- ences and working environment; a description of the evolution of the

Seeing what, how and why: the ARTnews series, 1953–58


artworks; the recording of his working process and methods, verbal, written and photographic; information about the materials he uses; commentaries and interpretations by both the artist himself and Porter about what is hap- pening; key quotes by the artist about his aims and beliefs; rationales and explanations by the artist and critic about the artist’s decision-making process; and evaluations by, again, both the artist and critic about the art works. The photographs play a key role in illustrating the working environ- ment, the artist at work and the stages of the decision-making process in the evolution of the paintings. Description, analysis, interpretation and evaluation combine to give a rich insight into the evolution of an art work, revealing what is usually tacit knowledge and, most significantly, adding the dimension of why, to the usual realm of what, and the occasionally available how. This was an innovative approach; it remains so. Normally, even habitu- ally, we have statements by the artist for a catalogue or book, generally writ- ten with an eye on positioning the artist in relation to the contemporary scene and historical longevity. Or we have interviews with the artist, detached in time and space from the decision-making process. Even further removed from the material process are the commentaries and essays writ- ten by critics and historians. These are, of course, all valuable and con- tribute to cultural knowledge and understanding, but they are different from the ARTnews approach. What these other approaches almost invariably lack are specifics about the artist’s working process and thinking, and the docu- mentation of the creative process with an embedded commentary that helps to explain why as well as what and how. It is in this sense that the approach is still valid today. This is not to claim it offers the truth about art, or returns to some sort of naïve acceptance of intentionality. Of course, any statement by an artist of what he or she is doing must be treated with cau- tion. Equally, though, we must exercise caution when we read a more ‘authoritative’ interpretation by a historian. Reviewing David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge book, Professor Martin Kemp makes the point that it reminds us that

works of art are physical products made by executants who face real chal-

lenges, and do not come ready-made from the heads of their makers. Whether he is right or wrong, in part or whole, it also reminds me that art his- torians have no monopoly of interpretation, and that many of our concerns may be driven more by the internal dynamics of our industry than by acts of hard looking and intellectual adventure.

(Kemp 2003: 37)

No account is neutral or objective, and it is important to get a range of dif- ferent types of perspective. I would argue that the most neglected perspec- tive, because it is often inaccessible and apparently mysterious, is the decision-making process. At its worst, the ARTnews series romanticized the creative act, so giving yet another breathless account of the intuitive, inspired or tortured genius. At its best, the producing of art was demysti- fied by an openness about the creative process, and a making explicit of what is usually tacit knowledge. Now, at a time when so much art writing is difficult to distinguish from press releases, the ARTnews approach is


Nigel Whiteley

refreshing because it is less prone to aggrandize or mythologize the artist. There is still a danger of this, as the de Kooning piece demonstrates, but it is generally less likely because the creation of an artwork is brought far more down to earth – the work observed may be mediocre, finished but unresolved. The artist is seen not as someone creating through ineffable divine inspiration, but an individual making practical decisions, and making the best of ‘an abundance of dissatisfactions.’ The tacit knowledge involved in the creative process was once com- mented on by the painter Alex Katz who remarked in 1997:

WellI’m pretty sureyou have an idea about what a painting should be, or an idea of a painting. And then it correlates with something I see and then I start out empirically and optically. And when I do that I get involved there’s an unconscious procedure and it gets into something I wouldn’t have thought of to start with. It moves around a bit and that’s the part that’s inter- esting. Because when you go in there you find things; weird things happen and some are all right and some aren’t all right. But they wouldn’t have hap- pened if you just took the idea and did it, and that’s part of it. I think with painting you have the opportunity to go inside yourself and find your uncon- scious intelligence or your non-verbal intelligence and your non-verbal sensi- bility and your non-verbal being in a sense. And you alternate between consciousness and unconsciousness and it can engage much more of you than if you just merely took an idea and executed it.

(Katz 1997: 238)

Katz uses the terms ‘non-verbal intelligence’ and ‘non-verbal sensibility’ to describe the decision-making process. Equally, he may have referred to ‘visual’ or ‘creative intelligence’ to describe this tacit knowledge and process. Whatever the term employed, what he is alluding to is a decision- making process that ensures the right sort of outcome as opposed to a mere illustration of an idea that someone without experience, skill, exper- tise etc., would be more likely to produce. When it was successful, the ARTnews series was an approach that gave us some insight into creative intelligence. It is an approach that is both valid and appropriate today, especially when boundaries between private and public space are more permeable (the artist’s studio is less off-limits), and when technology can be minimally invasive, yet almost all-revealing. The ARTnews approach could and, I would argue, should be revisited, tech- nologically updated and utilized to help us stand the creative process so we are less bedazzled by hype and mythologizing.


de Kooning, Willem et al. (1968 [1951]), ‘Artists’ Session’, in Herschel B. Chipp (ed.), Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 564–8.

Hess, Thomas B. (1953), ‘De Kooning Paints a Picture’, ARTnews, March, pp. 30–32,


——(1959), Willem de Kooning, New York, George Braziller.

Katz, Alex (1997), in David Sylvester (ed.), Interviews with American Artists, London:

Pimlico, pp. 235–50.

Seeing what, how and why: the ARTnews series, 1953–58


Kemp, Martin (2003), ‘Best Books of the Decade’, The Art Book, 10: 2 (March), p. 37.

Matisse, Henri (1968 [1948]), ‘Facility in Painting’, in Herschel B. Chipp (ed.), Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, University of California Press, pp.140–1.

Porter, Fairfield (1954), ‘Rivers Paints a Picture’, ARTnews, January, pp. 56–59, 81–83.

——(1956), ‘Jane Freilicher Paints a Picture’, ARTnews, September, pp. 46–49, 65–66.











June/July/August, pp. 30–33, 73–74.

Tapié, Michel (1955), ‘[Georges] Mathieu Paints a Picture’, ARTnews, February, pp. 50–53, 74–75.

Waldman, Diane (1988), Willem de Kooning, London: Thames & Hudson.


(1890), The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London: William



Suggested citation

Whiteley, N. (2007), ‘Seeing what, how and why: the ARTnews series, 1953–58’, Journal of Visual Arts Practice, 6: 3, pp. 215–228, doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.215/1.

Contributor details

Nigel Whiteley, a cultural historian, is Professor of Visual Arts in the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University. He has been a visiting professor in India and China, and lectured widely in the USA and Europe. His most recent book is the critically acclaimed Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future (MIT, 2002), and other solo books include Design For Society (Reaktion, 1993, regularly reprinted), and Pop Design – Modernism to Mod (Design Council, 1987). Whiteley is editor of De-Traditionalisation and Art: Aesthetic, Authority, Authenticity (Middlesex University Press, 2000). He has had essays published in journals such as Visible Language, Art History, The Oxford Art Journal, Artforum, the Journal of Architectural Education, Design Issues, Architectural History and Cultural Values, and his work has been translated into Indian, Chinese, French, Italian, Portuguese, Croatian and Korean. Contact: Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University, UK. E-mail:


Nigel Whiteley

Journal of Visual Arts Practice Volume 6 Number 3 © 2007 Intellect Ltd

Article. English Language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.3.229/1

Post-production or how pictures come to life or play dead

Ruth Pelzer-Montada Edinburgh College of Art


The article reflects upon the visual practice of the author. The term ‘post- production’ is used to reflect on a particular quality of documentation, namely the practice of theory after an exhibition of the author’s work. Hermeneutical aesthetics is drawn upon to ground this endeavour, as it enables us ‘to see more of what has yet to be seen’ (Nicholas Davey). The concept of performativity is deployed to trace the cultural signification of the medium of printmaking in which the work has been made; the exhibition venue which represented a mix- ture between a workshop/studio and the ‘white cube’; the particular works in the exhibition; the role of installation and the place of the viewer. Special con- sideration is given to the hallucinatory quality of the work and the role of repeti- tion with regard to the performative constitution of the viewing subject. It is suggested that the insights gained through such documentary post-production become the foundation for further practice, both for other artists and the author herself. This is equally true, whether post-production relates to the practice of theory or artistic practice, but ideally both.

Post-production or how pictures come to life or play dead 1

The following article is based on a presentation given at the Estudios Visuales Conference in Madrid, in February 2004, as part of a session with the title ‘Visual Culture/Artistic Practices’. The term ‘post-production’ acts as a catalyst for the reflection of a par- ticular aspect of my artistic practice, namely, the mounting of an exhibition of prints in the format of an installation. The exhibition took place in April 2003 in an artist-run gallery space, a so-called Produzenten-Galerie (literally ‘producers’ gallery’) in Frankfurt. The term ‘post-production’ has recently gained popularity through the influential French critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud. In his book of the same title, the term serves to designate a par- ticular, and for him, characteristic trend in contemporary art, which he sees represented by the work of Rikrit Tiranvanija or Vanessa Beecroft, amongst others. This art approximates to the service industry whereby artists ‘don’t create, but reorganize’ existing material or types of communication. 2 As will be shown later, I have defined the concept of post-production in a different sense from Bourriaud. Since minimalism, the modernist gallery space has been problematized in and through artistic practice as well as in the theoretical and critical literature. Much of this theorization has filtered through into artistic work- ing practices and now functions at an almost intuitive level. Post-production

JVAP 6 (3) pp. 229–243 © Intellect Ltd 2007



documentation hallucinatory effect hermeneutical aesthetics performativity post-production printmaking

1. The phrase ‘How pictures come to life or play dead’ is a phrase borrowed from Lane Relyea in an essay in Frieze, 41 (June/August 1998), pp. 52–57 on the legacy of Michael Fried’s art critical writing.

2. ‘“Public Relations”, Nicholas Bourriaud in an interview with Bennett Simpson’, Art Forum, April 2001, http://www.findarticles.



(accessed 28 January 2004); see also Nicholas Bourriaud (1998), Post-Production, English translation, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2001.

3. Foucault, Michel,

Language, Counter-

Memory, Practice:

Selected Essays and Interviews, Oxford:

Basil Blackwell, 1977, p. 206.

4. Nicholas Davey (2005), ‘Aesthetic f(r)iction: the conflicts of visual experience’, Journal of Visual Arts Practice, 4: 2[0]+3, pp. 135–49.

5. ibid.

6. Peter Osborne, ‘Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler’, in Peter

Osborne (ed.), A Critical Sense: Interviews with Intellectuals, London and New York:

Routledge, 1996, p. 112; see also ‘Interview with Judith Butler by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal’, http://www.


(accessed 4 December


is a post facto reflection on and documentation of this hitherto largely prag- matic part of my practice. The theoretical thrust of post-production becomes part of an ongoing practice and will feed into future work. The interrelationship between theory and practice as once described by Deleuze in conversation with Foucault seems apt here: ‘a system of relays within a larger sphere, within a multiplicity of parts that are both theoretical and

practical’. 3 Deleuze’s more complex suggestion notwithstanding, the fact is that the concepts of ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ are frequently a short cut for theo- retical practice and artistic practice, respectively. This is how I will, albeit reluctantly, deploy these words. In an article British philosopher Nicholas Davey has taken up the challenge of the two, often opposing, camps. Not suppressing the conflict, he has argued for a ‘fruitful collision’ between theory

and practice. Although he refers less to the process of artistic production

than that of aesthetic experience, his theoretical combination of hermeneu- tics and aesthetics, or ‘hermeneutical aesthetics’, is relevant to grounding my concept of post-production. Drawing on Heidegger, Davey asserts that

Hermeneutics and aesthetics are similarly structured by an unstable synthesis of idea and sense, which is distinctly ‘eventual’ in character. On the one hand, there is a hermeneutic (interpretive) element in aesthetic experience that brings meaning and content to what is seen. On the other hand, there is also an aesthetic element in hermeneutic experience which gives ‘weight’ to inter- pretation, which lends it sensuously to concrete instances (applications) of its thematic concerns. 4

The ‘eventual’ character here referred to by Davey, ties in with Deleuze’s ‘relay’ which similarly suggests a motion in time. Of importance to me is ‘the relation of aesthetic experience to language’. As Davey goes on to say, ‘Insofar as individual aesthetic experience is linguistically mediated, aes- thetics (can) be conceived as an integral part of a shared historical dis- course concerning the realization of meaning.’ Hermeneutical aesthetics is therefore

indicative of an attempt to bring into language that which is held within an image, not to the end of surpassing the visual but with the aim of enabling us to see more of what has yet to be seen. [original emphasis] 5

If one considers the encounter of the artist with his/her production as a proto-aesthetic experience, then post-production can be seen as con- cerning itself with ‘more of what has yet to be seen’. Further, the ‘post’ in post-production is to be understood in the sense of Deleuze’s ‘relay’ and the ‘eventual’ character of the aesthetic experience as mentioned by Davey. It implies a temporary ‘switching’ motion, not a once-and-for-all fixed ‘aftermath’.


Judith Butler’s concept of ‘performativity’ can also be drawn upon to inquire into the space and place of the particular aspect of practice under considera- tion here. Performativity has in recent years emerged ‘at the centre of cul- tural experience’, as the British philosopher Peter Osborne has put it. 6


Ruth Pelzer-Montada

The ‘eventual’ character of the aesthetic experience, according to Davey, may be linked to performativity. Performativity is differentiated by Butler from ‘performance’ although both have been sometimes used synonymously – even by Butler herself. Performativity, unlike performance, does not presume an anterior subject but rather stresses its constitution in and through what Butler herself has described as ‘a certain kind of repetition and recitation’ or ‘citationality’ of cultural practices. 7 Butler, while applying citationality to a politics of gender subversion, has pointed out a major problem. Citationality or performativity in terms of cultural practice in and of itself is not subver- sive, as it ‘conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition’. 8 Therefore, there is the necessity to reflect on the specific codes and conven- tions that a particular practice enacts performatively. In my own example, this implies both the ‘siting’ and ‘citing’ of printmaking within the context of visual culture and the way in which my prints occupy the gallery space.

Print practice within visual culture

Trained as a painter, my artistic practice has been for the last nine years exclusively in the medium of print. Visual culture is the point of reference for much of artistic print practice today. At the same time, printmaking, as a technical art form characterized by reproducibility, is closely affiliated with visual culture in its modes of operation. While one of the oldest of the tech- nologies of mediatization, it continues to play a cultural role, despite the fact that newer modes of visualization typified by digital technologies now complement and even supplant it. Artists in the last forty or more years have utilized print processes to comment on the explosive mediatization of the visual after the Second World War, coupled with the spectacle of com- modity production, as theorized, for example, by Guy Debord. This trend is well exemplified by the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While not wishing to suggest an essentialist notion of a medium, the role, in art, of print practices is vital. It could be argued that reproducibility or ‘repeatability’/repetition as one major feature of print makes it a ‘citational’ practice per se. Technology is, with repeatability, the other category that is relevant to a discussion on print. In German, the word Technik encompasses both the English words ‘technique’ and ‘technology’. This notion of Technik can be applied to print practice. Following on from Marcel Mauss, the art historian Didi-Huberman has spoken of technique in terms of ‘a tension between its material and its symbolic efficacy’. 9 The tension between technique as a mode of artistic skill and technique as ‘technology’ forms the crucial matrix in print practice. Their respective cultural significations could be said to be played out in artistic print through a tension between touch and surface. 10 ‘Touch’ here refers to traditional modes of artistic expression as in the artist’s mark or signature style, traditionally the ‘facture’ in painting. In printmaking, an almost fetishistic concern with the sensuous effect of ‘tech- niques’ parallels the signifying power of the facture. 11 ‘Surface’ applies to the opposite of individual expression. It refers to the signifiers of techno- logical mass modes of production, or reproducibility. Individual artistic expression and its signifiers, such as the facture, have traditionally connoted authenticity, originality and the real. Emphasis on the surface implies the superficial, the artificial and the spectacle. 12

Post-production or how pictures come to life or play dead


7. ibid. See also Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London, 1990; and Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, New York and London:

Routledge, 1993.

8. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, p. 12.

9. Georges Didi-

Huberman, Ähnlichkeit

und Berührung,


Anachronsimus und

Ähnlichkeit des

Abdrucks, Cologne:

Dumont, 1999, p. 16.

10. The particular ‘turn’ this tension has taken in postmodern practice, and more recently, with the arrival and incorporation of digital means, must due to space constraints remain unexplored here. The Digital Surface Conference at Tate Britain, in Summer 2003 aimed to illuminate some aspects of this tension with regard to printmaking.

11. B. Buchloh, ‘From Faktura to Factography’, October, 30 (Fall), 1984, pp. 82–119.

12. The tendency towards surface or ‘superficial- ity’ in postmodern culture has been noted by a number of theorists, most notably Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard.

My own work draws on the cultural connotations of repetition as a short cut to reproducibility in such a way that it conflicts with the ‘facture’, the expressive hand-drawn mark. The same set of ‘expressive’ marks is repeated through multiple variations of size, order, placement and colour (Figures 1 and 2). In this way, varying codes are generated which in their turn are repro- duced in numerous (and potentially infinite) configurations (Figure 3). I would argue that the tensions inherent in print as an artistic and cultural practice with their powerful cultural connotations between surface and touch are enacted in my work through the citational modus of the seem- ingly uniquely expressive and authentic. The hallucinatory and kinaesthetic effect achieved through repetition can be argued to mirror the function

through repetition can be argued to mirror the function Figure 1: Positive-Negative I, Detail, Screenprint 1999.

Figure 1: Positive-Negative I, Detail, Screenprint 1999.


Ruth Pelzer-Montada

Figure 2: Specimen Nr. 26, screenprint, 2003, 35 x 35 cm. of spectacular commodity fetishism

Figure 2: Specimen Nr. 26, screenprint, 2003, 35 x 35 cm.

of spectacular commodity fetishism at the same time as it calls into play the haptic qualities traditionally associated with the facture of conventional aesthetics.

The performativity of installation

I now turn to a discussion of the installation of my exhibition. How do the discursive and the factual/material intersect at the level of the work, the space and the viewer? What cultural modes of signification are cited or per- formatively enacted?


My chosen exhibition space was the Galerie Zement in Frankfurt. A former industrial print workshop, this space is now used as a studio by a painter and an animator who also both organize and curate the exhibitions. The space is on these occasions turned into a gallery. Unlike in their earlier phase in the 1970s, when artist-run spaces constituted a crucial element in the institutional critique and commodification of art, they now have to func- tion in a more competitive, enterprise-oriented environment for artists. Today – despite their differences – such spaces continue to provide a semi- institutional framework, especially for younger artists, to establish a ‘posi- tion’, to gain the necessary experience and to win potential critical notice for further ‘career opportunities’. As an institutional and architectural for- mation, some such spaces exist as a hybrid between the studio/workshop and the conventional modernist gallery, or ‘white cube’, a term which will

Post-production or how pictures come to life or play dead


Figure 3: Prototypes VI b, detail, screenprint, 2000. be discussed in more detail later. In

Figure 3: Prototypes VI b, detail, screenprint, 2000.

be discussed in more detail later. In light of the ambiguous and temporary character of such artist-run spaces, the notion of performativity seems especially apt.

Installation or how pictures come to life or play dead

As already indicated, every work of art can be considered performative – what Davey, in reference to Heidegger, calls its ‘eventual’ character. But per- formativity understood in a more narrow sense is an inbuilt feature of my work. Prints function potentially as conventional ‘pictures’, hung in frames on the wall. Mine are mainly conceived as multiples or as a series specifically designed to derive their appearance from the chosen site. Since minimalism,


Ruth Pelzer-Montada

installation refers to ‘a four-fold relational dynamic between objects, their surrounding space, its architectural frame, and the body of the viewer, in which architectural form [is] a given parameter of the exercise (even when violated)’. 13 The ‘site specificity’ of installation to which Peter Osborne refers in the quote above is applicable to the gallery/workshop of the Galerie Zement with its particular architectural features and discursivity. This is a narrower reading of the term as is often currently the case. Instead of site specificity as pertaining to a specific physical location, it now more usually implies work that occupies a broadly cultural space, such as a shopping mall or other public location. 14 In the case of the Galerie Zement, site-specificity entailed the successful negotiation between the workshop aspects and the gallery elements to ‘stage’ a semblance of the codings of the white cube. Brian O’Doherty’s term for the modernist gallery space, has, especially since the publication of his essays on ‘The Ideology of the Gallery Space’ in 1986, stood as a critical shorthand to denote the reactionary exclusivity of art in its pristine con- fines. 15 While it promises transcendence from the outside world, the white cube as gallery space ultimately disguises its commercial nature. As indi- cated previously, other forms of ‘accreditation’ have supplemented and, in some respects, replaced the gallery space, but the white cube – notwith- standing its many variations – remains. O’Doherty’s erstwhile critique has been subsequently revised. Daniel Birnbaum, director of the Staedelschule and Portikus Gallery in Frankfurt, stated in 2001 that the white cube ‘can be seen as a structure of inclusion’ rather than exclusion. 16 This seems wholly apposite, as the assumption of the exclusivity of the gallery space and the work therein appears to be based on a falsely modernist assumption that art can ever be ‘exclusive’ of cultural context. Unlike most galleries, the physical characteristics of the workshop at Zement collided with the subtlety of the prints themselves. The work, there- fore, could be said to demand the features and rhetoric of the white cube. All the elements, such as heavy electronic surface wiring, rough and dirty stonework, and two rows of striking heating pipes, conspired to create a form of visual noise. Instead of treating this visual noise merely as a distur- bance, a performative hitch, the major interruptions were eliminated. Gaps in the stonework were filled in and/or painted over and so on. The prints were then displayed in such a way as to articulate certain ‘noise’ factors. For example, the horizontal line of surface wiring on the upper part of a wall, ending two-thirds along the wall, was used as the reference point for the format of the work White on White (Figure 4). This series of single sheets consisted of a particular set of multiple rep- etitions of the ‘original’ marks that form the basis of all my work. The par- ticular pattern of White on White was, as the title suggests, printed in subtle white and off-white tones, arranged in a vertical, continuous row. The sheets were hung flush with the wall, following its line to floor level and then extended in a rectangular angle out onto the floor into the space. The uppermost horizontal edge of the sheets paralleled the wiring above it. Its right-hand top corner was aligned with the wiring where the cable disap- peared into the wall. The disturbance of the wiring was integrated, yet it also conflicted with the work. Similarly, two rows of strikingly shaped grey

Post-production or how pictures come to life or play dead


13. Peter Osborne, ‘Installation, Performance, or What?’, Oxford Art Journal, 24: 2, 2001, p. 149. It is not possi- ble to explore here the historical and concep- tual genesis and theoretical problemat- ics of the term, an examination of which has recently been undertaken by various writers. Osborne’s article offers a useful critical overview of recent publications.

14. Miwon Kwon, ‘One Place After Another:

Notes on Site- Specificity’, October, 80 (Spring), 1997, pp.


15. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube:

The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley and Los Angeles:

University of California Press, 2000.

16. Daniel Birnbaum, ‘From the White Cube to Super Houston, Five Shows in the Portikus’, Parkett, 63, 2001, pp. 187–93.

Figure 4: Installation View White on White, screenprint , 87 x 380 cm, 2003 Galerie

Figure 4: Installation View White on White, screenprint , 87 x 380 cm, 2003 Galerie Zement, Frankfurt.

heating pipes – in the form of discs around a central pipe – both accentu- ated and disturbed the display of Grey on Grey. This large wall piece (with a surface area of 261 cm in width and 304 cm in length) consisted of twelve repeat sheets and was printed with a similar yet different pattern from White on White. Aligned at its upper boundary with a pipe running below the ceiling, the sheets adhered to the wall and then loosely curved around the back of the pipes to emerge underneath them into the floor space (Figure 5). Noise as excess of information – in the more general sense – is com- mented upon by Mark C. Taylor in his book The Moment of Complexity, Emerging Network Culture:

Noise, it is instructive to note, derives from the Latin word ‘nausea’, which originally meant seasickness. When information becomes the noise that


Ruth Pelzer-Montada

17. Mark C. Taylor, The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture , Chicago and London:

17. Mark C. Taylor, The Moment of Complexity:

Emerging Network Culture, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 100–01.

18. Alex Potts, ‘Installation and Sculpture’, Oxford Art Journal, 24: 2, 2001, p. 16.

Figure 5: Installation View Grey on Grey, multiple screenprints , overall dimen- sion 261 x 304 cm, 2003, Galerie Zement, Frankfurt.

engenders nausea, differences and oppositions that once seemed to fix the world and make it secure become unstable. Lines of separation become perme- able membranes where transgression is not only possible but unavoidable. As these polarities (between order – disorder, organization – disorganization, form – chaos) slip and slide, they eventually reverse themselves to disclose the specter of dynamics that appear to be fluid. 17

In the exhibition space at the Galerie Zement the two architectural and spa- tial codings – or polarities – ‘slip and slide’. The workspace with its affili- ated connotations of honesty, reality and workmanship conflicted with the supposedly neutral white cube with its affinity with the spectacle. One could argue that the citational articulation of these codings through the work only re-enacts or performs ‘capitalism’s destabilizing, destructive dynamic of dispersal and dissolution’. 18 Yet, I would counter this assessment with the argument that it is precisely the task of art to make such operations visible. The codings of the white cube which separate the gallery space from ordi- nary architecture then become key to mark this citation as a citation. Alex Potts in his study on the historical continuities between sculpture and installation has said:

[] if installation is architecture, it is another kind of architecture from the one we experience on a day-to-day basis Installation isolates and condenses particular architectonic shapings of space and then artificially stages these so

Post-production or how pictures come to life or play dead


19. Potts, p. 17. As already indicated, this ties in with Butler’s sugges- tion that discourses tend to hide ‘their citationality and genealogy, presenting themselves as timeless and singular’ (see Alex Potts, ‘Installation and Sculpture’ op. cit. and Sara Salih, Judith Butler, London and New York, 2002, p. 95).

20. Salih notes this in her introduction to Judith Butler’s work.

21. Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects’ (1969), in Paul du Gay, Jessica Evans and Peter Redman (eds), Identity:

A Reader, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2000, pp. 31–38.

22. Potts, p. 7.

23. For a more complex analysis of this viewing situation, see Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

one attends to them in a qualitatively different way from the architectural inte- riors one normally inhabits 19

Constituting the viewer

How does the citational quality, the placing and character of the work, affect the viewer? The citational character of the work holds true to the root of its Latin origin ‘to cite’ which comes from citare, ‘to set in motion’, ‘to call’ or ‘to summon’. Hence citation and interpellation, the summoning of the sub- ject, are closely connected. 20 Althusser’s term of ‘interpellation’ drew atten- tion to the ideological nature of subject formation and the emergence of identity through language and discourse.

I shall [then] suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals or ‘transforms’ the individuals into

subjects by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or

hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’ [original emphasis] 21

The citational quality of interpellation is obvious in this much-quoted pas- sage of Althusser’s definition of his concept. What particular quality did this ‘hailing’ assume in my installation? The exhibition at Zement had aspects that are already existent in classical sculp- ture as well as in installation as suggested by Potts. This is to do with the nature of the encounter staged between the viewer and the work and the

‘resulting interplay between focused and dispersed apprehension’. 22

Conventionally hung prints, or pictures in frames, tend to invite ‘focused apprehension’. The emphasis is on the viewer’s gaze, which is attracted by and to the framed object with the surrounding space functioning as a neu- tral envelope. 23 Installation interpellates the viewer in a different way. The viewer could be said to be ‘called’ from all sides and he or she is bodily positioned in the space as opposed to the emphasis on sight in a conven- tional display. The boundaries of what constitutes the work and the space overlap and may even collide. Therefore, Potts can speak of an ‘interplay between focused and dispersed apprehension’. In addition to this general feature of installation, the hailing or constitu- tion of the viewer was played out in the exhibition at the Zement Gallery in a specific way. This is because my pieces had a hallucinatory quality. In the two large wall pieces, White on White and Grey on Grey, this quality was achieved by printing in duotone colours. The result was that background and pattern are not visible in one glance. Depending on the viewer’s posi- tion, a different pattern and a differently coloured background come into focus (Figures 6 and 7). In a more sculptural hanging piece, Virtual 9, the ‘interplay between focused and dispersed apprehension’ operated in another way. The piece consists of nine Perspex panels (each measuring 71 cm x 71 cm), which were hung in a row. The position of the screen-printed pattern that was repeated on each of the panels shifts from one panel to the next. The strength and hue of the semi-transparent colour also vary slightly. The effect of the hung piece was that the swirl of linear marks that appeared to the viewer seemed, at first, to consist of a chaotic mass (Figure 8).


Ruth Pelzer-Montada

Figure 6: Grey on Grey, detail, side view. Figure 7: Grey on Grey, detail, front

Figure 6: Grey on Grey, detail, side view.

Figure 6: Grey on Grey, detail, side view. Figure 7: Grey on Grey, detail, front view.

Figure 7: Grey on Grey, detail, front view.

Post-production or how pictures come to life or play dead


Figure 8: Virtual 9, detail, screenprint on nine perspex panels, overall dimen- sion 71 x

Figure 8: Virtual 9, detail, screenprint on nine perspex panels, overall dimen- sion 71 x 71 x 240 cm, 2003.

Only from a certain position, when the viewer positioned himself or her- self at a particular distance from the work, did a relatively stable image, extending deep into space, gradually appears (Figure 9). Apprehension in these works is problematized; its performative nature becomes obvious due to the difficulties the viewer experiences.

obvious due to the difficulties the viewer experiences. Figure 9: Virtual 9, installation view, screenprint on

Figure 9: Virtual 9, installation view, screenprint on nine perspex panels, overall dimension 71 x 71 x 240 cm, 2003.


Ruth Pelzer-Montada

The disorienting, if pleasurable, effect of the work also alludes to the rela- tive loss of control the viewer or subject experiences through its constitu- tion within cultural practices. Fundamental to achieving a hallucinatory effect is the use of serial rep- etition. Briony Fer in an essay on female artists of the 1960s (Hesse, Bourgeois and Kusama), notes the connection of serial repetition, as in Kusama’s work, to the hallucinatory. She also comments on how such art ‘places the subject or spectator, how it might incur the coming-into-being of the subject – in particular the feminine subject’. 24 Its effect is described by her as both an intensification of ‘bodily affect’ at the same time as a ‘blanking or effacing of the subject’. 25 This ‘blanking’ or ‘efface- ment of the subject’ is connected in Fer’s psychoanalytically informed interpretation to a particular kind of anthropomorphism. Fer’s comments can be applied to an explanation of the effect of the prints in the exhibi- tion. The particular anthropomorphism or ‘mimetic compulsion’ invoked by her, draws on Surrealist writer Roger Callois’s ‘model of mimicry’. Mimicry explains the

way an insect which changes colour through camouflage does so in order to become invisible; as it disappears, it loses irreparably its distinctness. Rather than a sign for its surroundings, camouflage acts as a negative signifier, a sign of non-being, which effaces rather than produces connotational value.

This has nothing to do with ‘the art object carrying associations to or con- noting things in the world’ but refers to ‘the spatial lure of objects’ and ‘the coming-into-being of the subject in the scopic field’. 26 The two large wall pieces could be said to demonstrate an anthropor- phism of this kind. Ostensibly a reference to decorative schemes such as wallpaper and the implied idea of art as wallpaper, 27 the shape and colour schemes in both works attempt a sort of camouflage: printed on flat poster paper rather than quality artist’s paper, the sheets form a smooth surface with the wall. The colour scheme extends the play on the work as being identical with the wall, being an addition or even an adornment, or alternatively, an interference, a disturbance. The most basic interference with a white wall is a mark. Grey could be considered its archetypal colour. The colour scheme in both White on White and Grey on Grey makes refer- ence to this. Physical make-up and the siting of the works perform both an appearance and a non- or dis-appearance; the works oscillate between wall decoration, interference/noise and camouflage. More specifically, the intri- cate repetitive pattern of these pieces with its ‘now-you-see-it, now-you- don’t’ quality, as already described, constitutes the viewer in a way which Fer has noted as being characteristic of hallucinations, as ‘that swing between an intensification of vision to a kind of blanking’ or ‘effacing of the subject’. 28 It is this swing to which the second part of the title of this article: ‘how pictures come alive or play dead’ alludes. As Alex Potts has said of installa- tion art and its relationship to the viewer:


Briony Fer, ‘Objects beyond Objecthood’, Oxford Art Journal, 22: 2, 1999, pp. 25–36.


ibid., p. 35.





was only after my

Frankfurt exhibition that I came across an article which included


description of

changeable wallpaper in the Prada shop in New York designed by Rem Koolhaas: ‘This immense space is the site for an installa- tion in the artistic sense of the term: