From Pantyhose To Manhole Covers, These Printmakers Are Transforming Overlooked Objects Into Artistic Masterpieces
When the Dalles Dam was constructed on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, the rising waters washed away countless ancient Native American petroglyphs. Anticipating this catastrophic loss, a Hungarian woman named Sari Dienes traveled to Oregon in the mid-1950s. Working with the University of Washington, she made a set of monumental rubbings that are now the sole enduring record of several hundred sacred images.
Dienes brought considerable expertise to Oregon, though not as an archaeologist. Her skill at making rubbings originated in New York City, where she’d taken her practice as an abstract artist out of the studio and into the streets. Enlisting colleagues including Jasper Johns and John Cage as assistants, Dienes would lay down paper or cloth atop manhole covers and subway gratings, making direct impressions of the urban fabric with an ink-laden brayer. These textures became elements in sprawling compositions that literally grounded the formal language of Abstract Expressionism. For Dienes, the move was not only aesthetic but also philosophical. “Nothing,” she contended, “is so humble that it cannot be made into art.”
One of her urban rubbings is now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as part of a modest but notable exhibition that takes her proclamation as its title. Nothing Is So Humble showcases myriad ways in which artists have made prints using ordinary things over the course of the past seventy years. Examples include a relief print of sliced potatoes made by Ruth Asawa in 1951-52, a collagraph of wood scraps made by Zarina in 1969, and impressions of pantyhose made by Julia Phillips in 2016. Each of these works reveals attributes of common objects that might otherwise be overlooked while also transforming those qualities into an independent aesthetic experience.
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Prints occupy the artistic terrain between sculptures and paintings, leaving the trace of three-dimensional artifacts on a two-dimensional picture plane. This space between the physical and the imagistic is especially apparent when the source remains recognizable. The transformation of the humble into the numinous is not unique to prints. (After all, a sculpture may be made out of junk, and a drawing can be inscribed with a stub of pencil.) What is special about prints is that they mirror the complex relationship between the human body and the senses.
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Prints of recognizable objects can also provide insight into the relationship between figuration and abstraction. For instance, Phillips’ stunning compositions are clearly made by stretching nylon hosiery, but hosiery is hardly their subject. The sensation of looking at her work is the opposite of perceiving a man in the moon or a scorpion in the scatter of stars. The act of abstraction entails sense-breaking, the converse of apophenia. Perhaps it can even be an antidote to QAnon conspiracy-mongering.
With her rubbings of recognizable Manhattan infrastructure, and her juxtaposition of urban textures on the page, Sari Dienes pioneered the practice of denaturing the commonplace. However the rubbings she was concurrently making on the shores of the Columbia River provide an important counterpoint. Confronting material that was anything but humble, she responded with artistic humility, allowing her rubbings to become proxies for the petroglyphs, the only lasting trace as the physical source of the images was eroded away.