how it was done
A monoprint for every human on earth
by Reena Jana

Allan McCollum sits at a desk in the elegant back office at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in Manhattan, hovering over a Mac laptop. We’re discussing the workings of the “Shapes Project”—his most recent and most ambitious endeavor. The project, McCollum says, aims to produce a unique artwork for each person on Earth, the population of which—according to the latest estimate from the United Nations—is expected to peak at 9.1 billion in the year 2050, after which it will decline. Other estimates have been much higher.

McCollum turns his laptop toward me so I can see the screen. “I want to be clear,” he says. “I did not write a computer program to generate the shapes.” He’s referring to a recent New York Times review by Roberta Smith that implied that he wrote code. “The process is something that anyone can do,” he says. “It’s not really that different from cutting and pasting shapes on paper. It’s a system, not a program.”

As he says this, I’m scratching my head: We’re not in his studio and he is indeed showing me how he created the shapes using Adobe Illustrator, a widely available software program. On the computer’s desktop, he opens a file to reveal a page that looks like a sheet of gridded paper on which there are rows of black, Rorschach inkblot–esque forms. With rounded corners, they look vaguely figurative, like nineteenth-century silhouettes of people, or the artwork of Kara Walker or Elliott Puckette. They also recall McCollum’s installation Drawings (1989–91), which consists of similarly mysterious pencil-drawn forms, hand-stenciled on museum board, each unique.

McCollum's work desk. Courtesy Allan McCollum


Allan McCollum in his studio with artworks from the "Shapes Project." Courtesy LeAnn Mueller

The shapes we are looking at on the screen (called an “art board” in Illustrator) are among the three hundred unique forms that serve as the project’s template—which is being used to make the 31 billion artworks. Each time McCollum wants to make a new artwork, or “shape,” he selects one of the forms from the template, copies it, and then pastes it onto another form. The process varies just as the uniqueness of each shape varies, to allow for enough unique combinations for all of us. Generally, McCollum copies and pastes either four or six parts of shapes together, recombining them. Once a new shape has been created, he saves it as a vector file. The vector file format allows it to be printed in any size, in any medium. McCollum envisions the shapes will eventually exist in the world in both two and three dimensions, assuming the guises of not just prints but also sculptures or more commercial products like gifts, awards, and toys.

In the gallery, down the hall from where we sat, the utility of flexible computer output was gracefully illustrated. The main room contained 7,056 4.25-by-5.5 inch images printed on white, acid-free paper in black frames, placed in neat rows on a bleacher-like shelving unit. A set of shapes from the same system, rendered as plywood sculptures, was presented in the smaller back gallery. McCollum created the sculptures—“printed” from the vector files in three dimensions—in collaboration with Graphicstudio, a Tampa-based publisher of etchings and photogravures, and the Institute for Research in Art. The prints he created in his New York studio. He didn't use traditional printing techniques such as woodblock or painting on glass plates; rather he laser-printed the images from the vector files directly onto sheets of 8.5-by-11-inch paper, and then cut them down to size. “These really are monoprints,” McCollum says,emphasizing that each is the only paper print in existence.

McCollum sees the project as exploring ideas of combinatorial systems as well as the idea of human individuality in the context of contemporary mass production—two themes that describe his entire body of work, which art historian Rosalind Krauss has described as “emerging from [the] culture of the multiple.” The “Shapes Project,” in fact, recalls his 2004 print series “Each and Every One of You,” which catalogs the six hundred most common females names and the six hundred most common male names in the United States and presents them in three portfolios of 1,200 prints each. “My goal is to open people's imaginations so they find a new way to look at the idea of quantities,” he says.