Originally published in:
ALLAN McCOLLUM: NATURAL COPIES
Sprengel Museum Hannover
Hannover, Germany, 1996
from Artificial Surrogates
to Natural Copies
Allan McCollum. Surrogate Paintings. 1978-80. Acrylics and enamels on wood and museum board. Installation: 112 Workshop, New York, 1979.
Allan McCollum, born in Los Angeles in 1944 and resident in New York since 1975, is not concerned in his work with expanding the realm of art yet again and breaking down the boundary between art and reality g"everything is art"). Instead his approach presents him with the potential for investigating the aesthetic, emotional and psychological, social and economic conditions under which art exists within the commercial world of art. The artificial surrogates, universal signifiers whichwhile lacking any inherent meaning of their owndesignate genres like paintings, photographs, sculpture and drawing, assume in a paradigmatic fashion all the functions that this system ascribes to them. On the other hand, McCollum the artist remains a constant fixture within this exchange with its complex rules, thereby preventing him from stepping aside and operating as a neutral and impartial observer. For precisely that reason his aesthetic products, which are simultaneously both art and its surrogate, are able to create responses and be implemented on a range of different levels. Although Allan McCollum accepts the laws of the art exchange and art market for his work, he still adopts a critical position towards them. Through his picture surrogates he treats their inherent mechanisms in his work and thusrather than simply accepting them unquestioninglyexposes their standards and values. He maintains this stance even though he cannot necessarily change the values.
With his three most recent series, begun in the nineties and presented together for the first time in Hanover, Allan McCollum has started to exploit additional motifs and dimensions of meaning for his art. McCollum's casting material and production process may have remained the same, with his work still hovering on the boundary between industrial mass production, individual craftsman ship and unique artistic creativity. However, he has expanded his spectrum of subjects by selecting his models from the realms of natural history and archaeology. This new orientation has been accompanied by the artist's abandonment of surrogates of esthetic objects, replacing these with a world of figurative motifs in the broadest definition of the term. The figure, which is retained in the casting of The Dog from Pompei in the greatest detail, has already been reduced in the series Lost Objects to the fossilized dinosaur bones, while in the most recent seriesNatural Copies from the Coal Mines of Central Utahno more remains than the petrification of an ephemeral dinosaur footprint.
In the same year Allan McCollum showed the series The Dog from Pompei for the first time, a series he had begun in 1990. The figure stemmed from the famous hollow casting of a watchdog that had died in 79 AD during the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii. What differs here from Lost Objects and all of the artist's other series is that each cast was identical and the individual objects are not distinguished from each other by modifications in color. McCollum presents the plaster casts of the dog in rows on narrow pedestals, whereby he has marginally varied the directions they face, so that the viewer sees a slightly different aspect of each one. xs
Allan McCollum had already found the models for his Natural Copies in 1990 in the collection of the regional College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah. The petrified footprints of dinosaurs had been discovered by local coal miners and later handed over to the museum. At the end of 1994, after Allan McCollum had been granted permission to make casts of the variously sized exhibits, he begantwith the help of his studio assistantsto cast eight sets of 44 plaster objects each and paint them in differing shades.
In an interview by David A. Robbins in 1985, Allan McCollum speaks about his general experiences of working with art and his reasons for producing the first Surrogate Paintings in 1978: "I'm interested to encourage an analysis of art, but through the pleasure of looking, that's all. I would like to see us be a little more anthropological in the way that we assess our own cultural production. I feel that art now functions to keep people apart, to reinforce and maintain class boundaries, and to encourage exclusion and inequality through the cult of 'taste.'1 Here too McCollum experienced works of art primarily as instruments in the class struggle within the arena of art. For him they therefore represent the aesthetic ideals of a ruling class which, through gifts and loans to public museums, is able to establish its own personal taste as the social standard and thus try and bolster its power. In 1987 Allan McCollum formulated his critical approach towards the social ramifications of art in even more pointed terms: "I usually end up feeling angry and powerless when I visit a museum. I find myself thinking, 'Who are these people? Who paid for this building? Where did they get their money? Who chose these artworks? How much did they cost? What does all of this have to do with my experience?' And on and on . . . I am aiming to work through this alienation by basing the value of my work on a new model, a model based on abundance and availability, not uniqueness and exclusivity."2
When the first Surrogate Painting was created in 1978, it was still Allan McCollum's idea to reduce his entire oeuvre to this one picture. "So I took it upon myself to create a model, a standard sign for a painting which might represent noth-ing more than the identity of painting in the world of other objects", were the words McCollum chose to describe both his original approach to work and also its limits: "But this solution eliminated the possibility of exchange transactionstand how could a thing represent an art object if it couldn't be bought and sold?"3 And so he began to replace the sign for a painting as a unique work with a multiplicity of Surrogate Paintings of similar form and equally significant functions. These objects are made of wood with molded fiber board inlays and are painted in a monochrome design. They also possess a relief-like character in which the picture surface, mount and frame are differentiated from each other. McCollum reduces the essential features of the painting to such an extent that the character of the painting remains recognizable, but at the same time all individuality is extinguished.
The Surrogate Painting possesses neither pattern nor content. For this reason Allan McCollum is not interested in the work as a form of presenting reality either in figurative or abstract depictions. Instead he asks questions of the picture in its fluctuating role as an exhibition piece, object of desire, cultural item, status symbol and wall decoration: questions like 1) what social mechanisms affect his art; 2) what functions does the work acquire as a result, and 3) what is its role within both the aesthetic debate and the economic system. As a model, replacement, representative, substitute or even surrogate of artwork, the Surrogate Paintings are introduced into all these different positions in the commercial art world where they not only adopt these functions in a paradigmatic way but above all illuminate the context and once again thematize its demands on art.
Since 1982 the Plaster Surrogates have been supplementing the earlier Surrogate Paintings. Aside from the monochrome paintings, there have also been numerous pieces since the beginning of the eighties in which Allan McCollum divides frames, mounts and picture surfaces from each other through the use of color. While the inner surface remains completely black and thereby defies interpretation and associations, the artist has chosen various shades of chamois for the maps and brown, beige, gray, gold or red for the frames for a total of over one hundred color gradations. In combination with the twenty different formats ranging between 12 x 10cm and 50 x 40 cm, the potential for variety is almost inexhaustible so that none of the Surrogates appear identical. Initially McCollum presented the works individually and at a distance from each other. However, since the Plaster Surrogates he has increased the number of pieces considerably so that every inch of the exhibition walls is sometimes covered with hundreds of adjacent Surrogates. Apart from this type of presentation, which is modeled on the classical art galleries of the 17th century, there are other possible forms of installation where the artist prescribes a strict arrangement of his Surrogates in one or more lines.
Offered in collections of between five and 480 objects, Allan McCollum has now sluiced his Surrogate Paintings into the art exchange by the thousands. The photograph in the lobby of the Paine Webber investment company in New York, which he has repeatedly chosen to reproduce for catalogues and articles, shows persuasively how a collection of five Surrogate Paintings has assumed the traditional role of an artwork here, now functioning as little more than a status symbol and decorative ornament over the couch. Unlike traditional paintings, the closed-off picture surfaces in McCollum's objects shift the focus of meaning to the outside. In this way they emphasize to their audience their predominantly functional role within a specific spatial and institutional context. Similar to these installations of his own pieces, Allan McCollum presents arrangements in the Surrogates on Location photographs as pseudo-documentary collections of source material. He has exclusively photographed scenes on television and in newspaper articles which have paintings bearing an amazing resemblance his own Surrogates in the background. These photos appear to lend support to his working concept in more than one respect and in an astonishing manner. In the selected scenes the paintings depicted adopt precisely the same positions that Allan McCollum had also intended for his Surrogates. And just like the latter, these photographed paintings also defy any kind of interpretation due to their dark, closed-off picture surfaces. On the other hand this allows them to assume the function of a universal sign for paintings.
In this respect, the Surrogates on Location can be viewed as the artist's guide on how to perceive his own Surrogate Paintingsin that they depict paintings in the context of at least some of their social roles. In 1985 Allan McCollum explained his interest in these photographs at length: "There are almost always people in the photographs, because I'm interested in the painting presented as an art object in the background. Paintings are in the background of our lives anywayperhaps less for us because we're involved in the artsbut their real place in the world is to be in the background functioning as a prop, or a token, and to remain secondary to the social behavior which gives them meaning. I'm interested in foregrounding the social behavior of making, buying and selling art, and of having art and looking at art. So there are lots of different strategies I have for reducing the art object. One of them is to place it in the background of the action."4 Allan McCollum has never viewed the Surrogates on Location as an independent series of works and has therefore always exhibited them in conjunction with the Plaster Surrogates. As didactic material they illustrate his working concept by using apparent documentary photographic sources in varying forms of presentation at alternative display sites.
The Perpetual Photos, developed directly from the Surrogates on Location, were first produced in 1982 but were not exhibited until two years later. They exist both as smaller prints in traditional photograph sizes, with or without mounts, as well as in larger formats, oriented to the size of paintings. Here too each work is unique. These black and white photographs have media pictures as their source, similar to the ones McCollum used for the Surrogates on Location. With the decisive difference however that the paintings reproduced in the so-called Source Photos still show sketchy traces of a pattern. Allan McCollum removes the models from their location at a scene of action and subsequently inserts them as framed pictures in a new exhibition context. These photographs deny the viewer information on their subject: it is only possible to guess whether the abstract constructs present landscapes or human figures. As with the Surrogates, this denial of content results in an inability to discover meaning in the pattern. Instead viewers of the Perpetual Photo are confronted with an object that needs to exist within its context of artistic, psychological, social or economic dependencies.
1985 saw the first works from the Perfect Vehicles series: broad bellied and tight-necked vases whose shape imitates traditional Chinese designs. Presented on pedestals in collections of five, nine, twenty-five or fifty figures, each set is distinguished from the others by its combination of colors. In addition to the small vases, measuring 48 cm in height, since 1988 Allan McCollum has also been making large-scale vasescast in concrete and two meters in height. These are also presented individually, each in its own shade or color. In the same year he also began developing the ideas for his Drawings. Each of these framed Drawings depicts a symmetrical black shape against a white background. They are drawn with soft-leaded pencil, in numerous layers and dense hatching so that they have acquired a somewhat relief-like surface. For these abstract creations the artist cut a total of several hundred stencils, using combinations of them for each drawing. Here too every Drawing is a unique creation, constituting just one of the innumerable possible variations.
With both these series of works Allan McCollum has continued to pursue his contextual analysis of art and applied his approach to sculpture and drawing as well. In an interview back in 1986, he had already characterized this complicated web of relationships between reality, its representation in artwork and his surrogate: I try to make substitutes for all art objects: substitute paintings, substitute photographs with substitute images, and so forth. The solid-cast vases that I call Perfect Vehicles are substitute sculptures. An art object is in a way already a substitute for something else, so to make a substitute for a substitute is to foil its original function".5
During a conversation with Lynne Cooke in 1991, Allan McCollum restated his intention to produce surrogates for every artistic genre, simultaneously pointing out however that the concomitant growing affinity to industrial production processes was a central experience within his working concept: "So I began to deliberately produce a kind of Painting, a kind of Sculpture, a kind of Photograph, a kind of Drawing, and so on. And while I've been doing this, as you know, I've been trying also to include within the logic of each series the logic of what we might say to be the artwork's opposite, the mass-produced object."6 This antithesis is realized most impressively in the Individual Works series which no longer constitutes the surrogate of an artistic genre, being modeled instead on so-called bibelots, small collector's items from the fields of craft and art. McCollum himself has always cited the Faberge eggs by way of illustration. This also distinguishes these pieces from the Drawings, which appear to be silhouettes of the Individual Works projected on a surface, but are simultaneously substitutes for Drawings.
More than any other artist of his generation, Allan McCollum has thematized these antitheses in his work, only to resolve them immediately in the actual operation of his studio. During the eighties his studio developed increasingly into a perfectly organized manufacturing site for artistic products, with McCollum adopting the conditions, rules and roles of business management: "As I continued to develop my ideas about mass production as a serious form of expression, and began to use the actual techniques of mass production in my studio instead of merely referring to them, I had to learn what people do when they run small factories and workshops. Beyond theory, philosophy and aesthetics, I also had to address some legal and ethical issues, to learn about occupational safety and health, unemployment and disability insurance, social security taxes and so onlike any other small businessman."'7
The statutory social contributions had to be paid for the staff working in his studio and everyone received efficiency bonuses on top of their hourly wages. The staff all have their own fixed spheres of responsibility with new employees being engaged by placing ads in New York's daily newspapers. "The responsibilities have become very diffused in my studio, and sometimes you wouldn't realize I was the artist in charge", explains Allan McCollum, describing the working situation in his studio and his own role within this hierarchy: "A lot of the actual labormaking molds, casting, painting, packing, installingis often done by contractors and assistants. For better or for worse, my role is often confined to that of a kind of manager or production engineer.8 Here McCollum accepts the production conditions as they apply to both the manufacture of industrial mass goods and artistic work in his studio. He therefore draws the inevitable conclusion from his experiences: that the individual work of art is a product that has to compete on the market under the same economic conditions as all the others. Ultimately it is not only competing for customers with other artworks but also with all the other consumer goods.
With his three series The Dog from Pompei, Lost Objects and Natural Copies from the Coal Mines of Central Utahall of which were begun during the 1990'sAllan McCollum's art has finally acquired a new quality. Whereas he began by designing surrogates of individual art genrese.g. painting, sculpture or photographyand concentrated in each case on universally valid signs, the Individual Works and the subsequent Drawings of the late 1980's deal with manufacturing processes in artists' studios within a dialectical context spanning individual art and mass-produced articles. The three series displayed in this exhibition under the joint title of Natural Copies are surrogates, like all of the artist's other motifs. However, in this exhibition McCollum directs our attention at the aspect of art as an academic discipline, incorporating an additional experiential dimension in the process.
The petrified dinosaur tracks were found by miners in the coal mines of Central Utah, most notably during the twenties and thirties. They kept the objects as souvenirs and curios, were shown proudly to friends and visitors and sometimes given away as gifts, while providing a sustained subject for discussion within the small community of Price. At the same time a parallel reception and veneration of the finds took place on another level at scientific conferences and in specialist magazines. In 1960, following the foundation of the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum, many of the owners donated or sold their possessions to the institute.
It was this unusual story about the dinosaur tracks from Utah that captured Allan McCollum's interest above all and led him to adopt them as the motif for his Natural Copies series. The events in the community of Price provide a perfect illustration of how people deal with specific objects for which they have no practical use. Collector's items like these become souvenirs and therefore metaphysical value, while simultaneously performing a social function as instruments of communication. The foundation of the museum finally created the context and institutional framework through which the fossils can instill the community with a sense of cultural and historical identity. Allan McCollum has found another form of representation for the additional dimension of academic debate.
Allan McCollum. Natural Copies from the Coal Mines of Central Utah, 1994-95. Enamel paint on cast polymer-enhanced Hydrocal. Natural dinosaur track cast replicas produced in collaboration with the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum, Price, Carbon County, Utah.
Allan McCollum has always chosen motifs for his works that in some way represent values symbolizing man's cultural and social identity. With his works from the 1990's The Dog from Pompei, Lost Objects and Natural Copies from the Coal Mines of Central Utahhis art has now acquired an extra, historical dimension. While The Dog from Pompei stands proxy for a highly civilized metropolitan culture from almost two thousand years agoone that was extinguished by a natural catastrophe and yet simultaneously preserved as a moment in timethe dinosaur bones and footprints provide details of a long-perished world as it existed millions of years earlier.
Allan McCollum has also selected these motifs specifically because all three objects are themselves already substitutes of originals that no longer exist. The dinosaur bones, footprints and The Dog from Pompei are all the products of evolutionary or natural processes and castings. Nature therefore provides a kind of parallel for McCollum's reproduction techniques in his studio and consequently legitimates his artistic activity. As no original exists, every casting of this copy simply produces an additional copy, without detracting from its authenticity or emotional expressiveness. The "original version" of the Pompeii dog is, like all the copies produced in his New York studio, simply a plaster cast.
For mass societies which manufacture the vast majority of products industrially and in large quantitiesand which view this process as a stabilizing force symbolic of their democratic and egalitarian systemsanything original acquires special significance. It becomes a signand the exclusive propertyof a controlling elite. The loss of originality had already been treated in the Individual Works series with its ten thousand objects. The Pompeii dog and dinosaur bones and tracks intensify these motifs of loss, absence and death, transforming them into an existential experience which is raised to central importance in the series shown in this exhibition: "Now, it is probably evident in my work that I suffer some preoccupation with absence and with death, and with how the objects we produce and the objects we collect work to defer our knowledge of death, displace our fears of it."9
All three series symbolize worlds that have perished. In the case of the dinosaur motifs, they relate to a world that can no longer be experienced, imagined or visualized. This chronological dimension finds its most radical formulation in the contrast inherent in the preserved footprints. By contrast, with The Dog from Pompei, it is possible to directly re-experience something of the civilization eradicated by the volcanic eruption of 79 AD. The contorted expression of death on the animal's agonized face and its cramped posture lend enduring expression to the catastrophe which unexpectedly ruptured the people's daily lives with devastating permanence. On the other hand, these three of McCollum's series intimate above all that the production of art and the desire to purchase art always constitute an attempt to deal with and overcome death in some way. With reference to the Lost Objects, Allan McCollum characterized his own artistic motivation as follows: "I think that making as many molds and casts as I've made has worked symbolically for me as a kind of attempt to master my own apprehensions about death and absence."10
Translated from the German by Mary Fran Gilbert & Keith Bartlett