“WORKS ON PAPER”
One of my favorite books in my library is a huge catalog, “Celebrating Modern Art: The Anderson Collection” printed on the occasion of an exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2000. This incredible exhibition, held at two venues to accomodate the vast numbers of unique works and prints, shared some of the important private collection of Modern and Contemporary art collected by Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson. In the catalog, in addition to the 250 plates of the works of 140 artists, are essays by art critics and scholars.
While all of the essays offer insight into the collection and artists’ place in Twentieth Century Art, the areas discussed on drawing and works on paper held particular resonance for me.
The essay “Works On Paper”, written by John Elderfield, curator for more than thirty years at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, touches on how and when the term first came into use and why it is so relevant to artists of the Twentieth Century forward.
He writes “The adoption of this term in the later 1970s, following the rapid growth in the number of otherwise supposedly unclassifiable works on paper that were produced and collected marked something genuinely new. It announced not by any means the first, but the first fully embraced manifestation of a postmodern impatience with the separate categories and hierarchies of medium that modernism had inherited from the past. Not that the results were necessarily post modern, as we now understand the term, but what happened did open onto the postmodern by beginning to create comfort with a taste for mutation and multimedia.”
In his essay, Elderfield, in writing about the origins of this now-familiar term, “works on paper”, begins with a look at art created on paper that diverged from the familiar terms of drawing and painting.He writes, “..works on paper came to mean works done on paper that were esteemed as much as works usually done on canvas, namely paintings. But the true novelty of “works on paper”-that the category joins, on paper, the full spectrum of everything from “drawing” to “painting”, thus bridging these traditionally opposite poles-would alter the status quo very considerably.”
In the 1970’s and 1980’s artists began to think in new ways about what constituted not only drawing and painting, but the actual creative potential of material and processes in every area of art. “Works on paper” became a classification that allowed a wider range not only of definition but of value. The long-standing hierarchy which deemed drawings, for example, as inferior in value to a painting was challenged. For centuries, the idea prevailed that drawings were done not as finished works of art, but only as preparatory works or studies .
Another important idea that Elderfield suggests about the history of works on paper is that “…their growth in popularity is inseparable from the growth of a market with a demand for luxury items of a modest size.” The idea of collecting art has become so much more ubiquitous today that people of modest means now consider owning original works of art.Seasoned collectors now find that they are priced out of the upper end of Old and Modern Masters paintings. “Works on paper” provide a huge range of works and prices which appeal to many levels of collectors. The Twentieth Century has seen not only a huge change in definitions of art but the audience which appreciates and collects the art produced as a result. “Works on paper” offer the opportunity to own unique, or one-of-a kind works that are now esteemed as having as much expressive, aesthetic, and market value as once only “finished” paintings on canvas held.
This new view reflects the changes that artists in the post 1950’s period of the Twentieth Century began. Making art was beginning to be seen outside of the earlier definitions of studio, material, and process as artists began to investigate alternative ways of seeing and expressing. These ideas continue to influence artists working today.
My own “works on paper” began in those seminal decades as drawings in the more formal and traditional sense. I worked diligently to acquire and improve my drawing skills as a foundation. At the same time, the wonderful ferment apparent at my university reflected a new attitude about making art. My great teacher and mentor DuWayne Lesperance, who taught and inspired several generations of students at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse, not only urged great experimentation in drawing and design, but supported women students in particular, in the content and form of the work that we did. The ideas we investigated were in the forefront of creative thinking and education at the time and certainly reflected the steps artists were taking worldwide.
We were urged to look beyond drawing as merely a “sketch” but as a work of art in its own right. In the decades to follow my work was focused mainly on drawing and works on paper. One of the ways I investigated the surface’s potential can be seen in this folded paper piece from the early Eighties.
THREEFOLD c.1980 Colored pencil on folded, embossed paper 12 5/8 x 14 inches
I referred to this as “magic writing”. By pressing into the surface of the paper and then rubbing with pencil the “invisible” was made visible. This method of creating drawings on paper and the idea of folding or otherwise manipulating the paper was rather a new approach at the time. Decades later, I continue to find ways of using the surface’s inherent characteristics for image making. “THREEFOLD” was an early example of combining method and materials into what is now known as a “work on paper”.
In my next post I will continue to examine work that has explored the potential of paper as not only a support on which to place or make an image, but in which the “paper as material” is integral in the making of an object itself.