ALPism #1

Artwork Versus Archive: where do we draw the line?

By Kathy Battista

Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson at their West Village loft, New York City, 1970. Photograph: Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy: Holt/Smithson Foundation

Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson at their West Village loft, New York City, 1970. Photograph: Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy: Holt/Smithson Foundation

Any curator or researcher has their archival discovery stories of varying dramatic scale: from Carmen Bambach discovering a previously unattributed Michelangelo drawing to coming across hand-printed photographs or Robert Smithson sketches strewn in the draws of Dan Graham’s files. While this is exciting for a researcher, it raises important questions of distinction between what is artwork versus artists’ papers commonly known as the archive. 

Archives are increasingly coveted by museums, libraries, and galleries alike for their wealth of information about an artist’s work, process and life. What does an artist’s (or a curator’s, gallery’s, or collector’s for that matter) archive consist of? Personal and professional correspondences often immediately come to mind: from Theo’s letters to Vincent Van Gogh and Bernard Berenson’s lengthy missives to Robert Motherwell’s lecture notes to name just a few. However, communication to assistants, fabricators, suppliers, publishers, and gallerists can be equally elucidating to a researcher. Knowing where Joan Mitchell bought her paint and paper can help with questions of conservation and authentication. Archives can provide an abundance of contextual information that goes beyond the interpretation of artworks that we see in an exhibition.

In a recent event hosted by the Dedalus Foundation, archivists from the Archives of American Art and Keith Haring Foundation, as well as an artist an independent curator, spoke from their respective points of view. For an archivist, their primary goal is to keep the body of the archive intact. If a drawing or sketch is found among the papers, they would argue that it a greater value to the artist’s legacy among the archival documents than being sold as artwork to help fund the foundation. For a curator it is frustrating that logistical costs for loaning a postcard or a letter from an archive can come with a significant cost. It is important to remember  that many repositories will allow and even generate exhibition copies of documents at a much lower cost than shipping the original. This begs the question of authenticity: is it important that the letter from Eva Hesse to Sol LeWitt is the original or can the facsimile have as much impact, information and emotional content to an exhibition viewer?

Archival boxes in Dedalus Foundation Archive, photo credit Kathy Battista

Archival boxes in Dedalus Foundation Archive, photo credit Kathy Battista

For the artist, the issue is much more personal. Some questions to ask include, “Does this document reveal information about my process or inspiration? Does a researcher really need to see my blood test results from 2010? Is this actually a sketch or mockup for a sculpture that should be included as a document of my working practice rather than a drawing to be sold?” These are questions that need to be addressed and are unique to each artist. Indeed, some artistic practices—for example, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Mary Kelly, Walid Raad, and countless others—are based on the archive, even fictional. In these cases it’s an even more tenuous line between what is artwork and what is archive.

Katy Rogers of Dedalus Foundation shows archival documents to graduate students, photo credit Kathy Battista

Katy Rogers of Dedalus Foundation shows archival documents to graduate students, photo credit Kathy Battista

Our world is increasingly becoming digitized and tracked, where the artist’s letter seems a nostalgic entity; researchers, curators and dealers will be incorporating such ephemeral matter into their professional practices. Files, whether physical or digital, are always susceptible to loss or corruption and what happens when format changes? Just two decades ago floppy discs were the standard, a decade ago a CD-rom was de rigeur. Because digital clutter takes up much less space than actual physical objects, from newspaper clippings and photographs to postcards and letters, it is very easy to condense this data as well as hundreds of thousands of emails, texts, and attachments into a searchable online databases. Yet, who will sort through these and decide what is for public or academic consumption? For this reason, as an artist one might think incrementally about what you do or do not want made publicly accessible to future researchers. As in most areas of legacy planning, starting early and making clear divisions between artwork and archive while one isn’t under duress is advisable.