An Interview with Ann Shafer, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the BMA By Rowan Fulton
On Wednesday, I got a chance to sit down with Ann Shafer, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the BMA to discuss the recent show, Spin, Crinkle, Pluck. This group exhibit offers up unique responses to the traditional print matrix, presenting a selection of works that push the physical limits of printing through experimental and unorthodox materials and techniques.
Viewers have the opportunity to compare and puzzle out several indexical thinking processes, which offer traces of a specific action without illustrating it. For example, there’s a woodblock print made by shuffling across a long group of wood planks with sandpaper-soled shoes for four hours between each layer of printing and another where a traditional screenprint is altered by layers of string. The effects of each are unexpected and part of the pleasure in experiencing them is attempting to figure out the process behind each.
In addition to giving me a tour of the show, Ann was kind enough to pull out a few of her current favorites from the BMA’s print collection. Among them, a rough but beautiful Frankenthaler oil sketch on paper, a famous Rauschenberg print from a broken lithographic stone, an early Pollock drawing, and a recent acquisition, a rare 1960 edition of “21 Etchings and Poems” by the graphic workshop Atelier 17, around which Ann has conceived a show scheduled for 2018. While this was an impressive offering of influential artwork, it’s important to remember they represent just a sliver of the museum’s extensive collection of works on paper.
Ann Shafer with Rachel Whiteread print
Rowan Fulton: Can you talk a bit about Spin, Crinkle, Pluck? What were your goals in assembling prints in which process is directly linked to the end product?
Ann Shafer: Often an idea for a show begins with a print or drawing that stirs something in my brain. In the case of this show, it started with the Trisha Brown prints [“Untitled Set One” 2006, three prints made as a result of the action of the artist spinning her foot across an etching plate]. When the museum acquired these, the idea for a show about indexical print and drawings was not on my mind, but over time other pieces came into the collection that had a connection.
Sometimes curating a show in the On Paper gallery in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing is like planning an intimate dinner party: one wants to include friends that will enjoy great conversations together. We can fit fifteen to eighteen works in the gallery, which offers the opportunity to hang interesting groupings. So I would say that these ideas happen organically.
R: Are there any works you have in mind at the moment that you would eventually like to show with other like-minded pieces that you haven’t found yet?
A: Since we have very few works on paper out at any given time, it’s always exciting to have an opportunity to show off some of our treasures. But it takes time for these groupings to come together. For example, a few years ago we collected a print by Whitfield Lovell, an artist known for beautiful charcoal portraits of African Americans. Usually these are drawn from old military ID cards or mugshots of people unknown to him, found in antique shops.
“Deuce” by Whitfield Lovell
We recently acquired one of his lithographs called “Deuce”, in which a frontal and a three-quarter view of a man’s face are printed side-by-side over an antique 48-star American flag [the 48-star flag was in use from 1912 through 1959]. In this image, a red stripe of the flag cuts right across the man’s mouth, while his eyes are seen clear through a white stripe. He appears almost gagged. By printing on top of an object so fraught with symbolism and related to a specific time in America, this image seems to raise the question of (assuming this man was a part of the American military) how, as an African American, does one reconcile the nation’s history with one’s feelings of patriotism and service to their country? It’s a complicated relationship.
So I have been trying to piece something together around this print to go in the On Paper gallery since we acquired it. Slowly these things build up, and at some point it will all come together.
Ann Shafer with Helen Frankenthaler
R: So, in other words, rather than starting out with a particular inquiry or criteria, you tend to build exhibitions around a particular piece?
A: It’s pretty organic. Sometimes the works that come into the collection are fantastic, but don’t immediately say, “I need something built around me.” Other times, a new piece will make me think, “I need to find a context for this work.” I’ll start with something like the Lovell piece and just keep thinking about what to pair with it. When the idea comes together with a list of objects, and then gets onto the walls, it’s truly gratifying.
R: You have stated an interest in “showing the mark or outcome of a specific action, as opposed to a depiction of it.” Does this indexical thinking describe your interest in/ perspective on printmaking in general?
A: It’s certainly an interest, but one of many. The BMA’s collection of works on paper is quite wonderful and any number of themes can be pulled out of its some 60,000 objects. In the case of Spin, Crinkle, Pluck, the indexical idea brings together the technical and the conceptual in a terrific way.
R: Some pieces in the show represented less familiar bodies of work from famous artists, such as Mona Hatoum’s plucked hair drawing, and Gabriel Orozco’s spit drawing. Are you interested in this potential of works on paper to reveal lesser-known, or perhaps more intimate works made by well-known artists?
A: That’s one of the best parts about prints, drawings, and photographs. They often reveal the moment of the germination of an idea for an artist. In addition, works on paper also tend to be less expensive than larger paintings or sculptures and can offer an opportunity to collect a well-known artist’s work in depth. Other times, prints and drawings are the only way we can acquire work from a particular artist. For example, the chances of us getting a large sculpture by Rachel Whiteread are pretty slim, however it was possible to attain a really strong print of hers a few years ago that speaks to her larger practice and is also technically an excellent print. That’s pretty exciting.
R: And it seems sometimes, that it’s in that extremely raw form, that we can get an even closer look into what the artist is thinking.
A: I think that people sometimes approach a work forgetting that there is an artist’s brain, beating heart, and hands behind it. Prints or drawings can get them a little bit closer to that beating heart.
R: What’s the connection between the BMA’s biennial print fair, and its exhibitions of drawings and prints?
A: Remember that the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair, which started in 1990, was annual until 2002, and has been biennial since then. Prior to the Print Fair, the Museum had a Sales and Rentals gallery, where you could come in and rent a print or painting by a famous artist, take it home, and either return it or buy it.
When that operation ceased, curators Jay Fisher and Jan Howard wanted to continue to grow the collector base in town. The hope was that the Print Fair would bring dealers to the museum and encourage people to collect works on paper. The Print Fair is also important because any proceeds are directed towards acquisitions for the collection.
Since 1990, we have been able to purchase over 170 works for the collection with Print Fair funds.
Atelier 17 print by by Pierre Alechinsky and Christian Dotremont
R: What are some future projects or goals with the collection?
A: In 2014 the Museum celebrated its hundredth anniversary. In the last few years, while the Museum was undergoing important renovations (Contemporary, American, and African & Asian wings), it was also conducting a capital campaign of both gifts of funds and gifts of art. The next exhibitions to open here will be celebrating these recent gifts.
In October we will open exhibitions in the On Paper gallery, the Front Room, and the Black Box. The On Paper gallery will highlight a donation from Brenda Edelson featuring a wonderful group of photographs from Russia and Belarus during the 1960s through the 1980s. The Front Room will be hung with large-scale contemporary photographs by a variety of artists donated by Tom and Nancy O’Neil. The Black Box will be showing a film by Joachim Koester, which is a promised gift from Monroe Denton.
Later in the fall the Cone Wing rotation gallery will be hung with prints and drawings by Matisse, all gifts and promised gifts from the heirs of the artist. And in February, the large temporary exhibition galleries will be installed with a mix of recent and older accessions in pairings looking at ways new works make the collection richer. That exhibition “New Arrivals,” will open February 7, 2016.
Ann Shafer with Helen Frankenthaler
Spin, Crinkle, Pluck, curated by Ann Shafer, will be on view in the On Paper gallery of the Contemporary Wing of The Baltimore Museum of Art through September 20, 2015.
Top Image: Deuce
Whitfield Lovell, American, born 1959
Published by Smith College Print Workshop
Printed by Derrière L’Étoile Studios 2011
Crayon lithograph on American flag mounted to paper
Sheet: 768 x 1130 mm. (30 1/4 x 44 1/2 in.)
Image: 413 x 705 mm. (16 1/4 x 27 3/4 in.)
Women’s Committee Acquisitions Endowment for Contemporary Prints and Photographs