The New York Graphic Workshop
Blanton Museum of Art
Through January 18, 2009
by Katie Anania
The New York Graphic Workshop once mailed out a manifesto in an edition of boxes, each of which included the printed text of the manifesto and a single cookie. Unable to accept food, Argentinean customs sent the box back to Luis Camnitzer and he kept that box for forty years. He still has the cookie.
The archival nature of the exhibition of work by the New York Graphic Workshop (NYGW) at The Blanton Museum could probably prompt a reading analogous to that cookie: moldy objects from the clutches of dead files and enthusiasts; objects that espouse theories of printmaking concurrent with the dematerialization of art in the 1960s and 70s. But actually, the Workshop’s contribution to conceptual art—and the exhibition on view at the Blanton that supports it—reads like a brightly unearthed index that points to both a fresh, interrogative output and the relative inadequacy of art history to contain crucial moments like this.
Keep in mind that NYGW is a quiet and nearly monochromatic show. In the NYGW’s mode of printmaking, its three cardinal members—Argentine Liliana Porter, Uruguayan Luis Camnitzer and Venezuelan José Guillermo Castillo—maintain a spare visual vocabulary to steer the viewer toward the recognition of printing processes (as opposed to the material outcome of these processes) as visible arguments. Works like Liliana Porter’s Shadows (1969) argue for a more inclusive conception of printmaking—one in which any object can become a print, as long as an impression is being made onto some surface and can be somehow repeated. The work consists of cast shadows of human figures against one wall. The source of the projection is invisible, so we see the result of the process but not the impulse behind it. Shadows questions the relationship of the original matrix to its printed copy—a theme that weaves throughout much of the work in the exhibition.
Located in the Blanton’s relatively compact front exhibition space, the show cycles through NYGW’s works on paper as well as their late-60s installations and non-object-based projects. A fair number of early photo etchings are on view, plus cases of ephemera that identify one of the group’s major modes of visual argument: missing or itinerant works. We can view a mailed flier from their Hanover Transit Safe Deposit Box exhibition, in which the group exhibited “new work” inside a locked safe deposit box at a 57th street post office. The deposit box exhibition received no viewers despite the aggressive mail and paper advertising campaign associated with it.
Reception of this show may depend on whether you find public gestures like this to be humorous or alienating. I felt that the warmth and intimacy of the projects came through despite (or perhaps because of?) their overly aggressive populism rooted in late-60s revolutionary political rhetoric. Kinships with more visible figures from the European cannon like Joseph Beuys, Blinky Palermo (whose 1967 gridded print Flipper is eerily similar in grammar and argument to José Guillermo Castillo’s 1969 Untitled) and Dieter Roth are clear but go largely unmentioned.
A question faced by curators Ursula Davila-Villa and Gábriel Pérez-Barreiro was how to present such obviously overlooked information without becoming pedantic in their display. The exhibition works feverishly to efface didactic content with jokes, devoting one wall to the group’s amusing hoax, The Trepadori Project. The NYGW members invented Juan Trepadori, an artificial artist born in Paraguay in 1939. Trepadori, rumors circulated, was a self-taught artist who had volunteered to donate a portion of the proceeds of his work to a scholarship fund to send Latin American students to the Pratt Institute. In reality, Trepadori never existed and it was the members of NYGW who produced those prints under his mantle and successfully managed the scholarship fund.
One can discern the simultaneous hermeticism and populism in the work that’s similar to concurrent international projects; think of collectives like Superstudio, whose Hidden Architecture proposed in 1970 to seal an architectural project inside a box for all eternity. Davila-Villa and Pérez-Barreiro’s nearly decade-long endeavor to expose the NYGW’s work and polemics is well-articulated and extremely generative, and opens up larger historical vectors unconsidered by American museums. After touring the exhibition, the exclusion of this group from the master narrative of contemporary and conceptual art feels like a ragged, gaping hole.
Katie Anania is a curatorial researcher at Fluent~Collaborative and an assistant editor at ...might be good.