Thursday, June 21, 2012
Moholy-Nagy | Telephone Paintings
Greg.org is an excellent site about the making of art and culture, and never better than when the posts take on a kind of art-detective role. Today he looks at the story of Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy, who had a sign painter create a series of paintings for him in 1922. It’s an important moment in the history of artists employing manufacturers to produce their work, and therefore hugely significant to the history of artists' multiples. Sculptors had long worked with assistants, but they were trained protégés. Moholy-Nagy used a skilled labourer, someone outside of the ‘fine arts’.
The works are called Telephone Paintings or Telephone Pictures (depending on the translation) and the story was always that Moholy-Nagy dictated what he wanted over the phone. “True, these pictures did not have the virtue of the ‘individual touch’”, he wrote, “but my action was directed exactly against this over-emphasis.” The same text also scorns “the collector’s naive desire for the unique" which the artist claimed "hampers the cultural potential of mass consumption.”
Moholoy-Nagy’s gesture may have been too far ahead of it’s time, and he himself did not further pursue the implications of the Telephone Pictures, but eventually a vast number of artists built successful careers using outside fabricators. “I never use my hands to create my work,” Maurizio Cattelan said in 2005, “just my ear, glued to the phone.” George Maciunas may have possibly been referring to these practices when he created the 1964 altered-readymade Encyclopedia of World Art, which consisted of the library binding for the original title, with the contents replaced by the Manhattan Yellow Pages.
However, greg.org has unearthed accounts that indicate that the works were not ordered over the telephone, but that the artist visited a sign-maker in person. This alters at least some of the way that the pictures are received. They still exist as paintings made without the hand of the artist, but the notion of transmission is lost. Read the full account, here.
In 1968 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago planned an exhibition of works executed by staff from oral instructions given from artists. Richard Artschwager, John Baldessari, Iain Baxter, Mel Bochner, George Brecht, James Lee Byars, Jan Dibbets, John Giorno, Hans Haacke, Richard Hamilton, Dick Higgins, Joseph Kosuth, Les Levine, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, Dennis Oppenheim, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, and many other artists were to be included, and all instructions were to be relayed by telephone. Curator Jan van der Marck noted:
"Despite the fact that Moholy-Nagy's "telephone pictures" are widely discussed in art literature, no museum until now has been prompted by this historic act to test the potential of remote control creation on the sale of a group exhibition. Making the telephone ancillary to creation and employing it as a link between mind and hand has never been attempted in any fashion."
The exhibition was cancelled because of technical problems, but a year later the museum released the LP Art By Telephone. One of the participants, John Giorno, began the project Dial-A-Poem the year prior, the idea sparked from a conversation with William S Burroughs. Fifteen phone lines were connected with individual answering machines and listeners could call Giorno Poetry Systems and select a poem from a long list of live recordings.
Art by Telephone
Chicago, USA: Museum of Contemporary Art,1969
33-1/3 RPM vinyl LP record, gatefold sleeve
12 1⁄4 x 12 1⁄4 inches
Edition size unknown
John Giorno at the Giorno Poetry Systems office.