Since 1909, major artists from nearly every art movement have co-opted, mimicked, defused, undermined, memorialized, and rewritten newspapers. Shock of the News will examine the myriad manifestations of the “newspaper phenomenon” through 65 collages, paintings, drawings, sculptures, artists’ newspapers, prints, and photographs by European and American artists, from F. T. Marinetti and Pablo Picasso to the Guerrilla Girls and Robert Gober. On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, East Building, from September 23, 2012, through January 27, 2013, the exhibition will also include the large-scale multimedia installation To Mallarmé (2003) by Mario Merz. With two exceptions, the 60 artists in the exhibition will each be represented by one exemplary work.
“Artists pursuing various agendas have transformed the disposable daily paper into compelling works of art. Shock of the News promises to shape our understanding of modern artists’ responses to the newspaper,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. “Although a handful of recent exhibitions have explored the topic, this is the first to offer a systematic examination of the newspaper as both a material and subject in modern and contemporary art over the course of a century.”
Arranged chronologically, Shock of the News traces the development of the newspaper phenomenon from 1909 to 2009 and demonstrates its remarkable ability to adapt to and shift with the times while remaining vital to the present.
On February 20, 1909, Marinetti’s futurist manifesto appeared on the front page of Le Figaro, and soon after this Picasso included a fragment of real newspaper into the collage Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass (1912) (widely considered the first self-consciously modern work of art to incorporate newspaper). While the aims of Marinetti and Picasso were poles apart, their seminal efforts marked the beginning of a trend: visual artists began to think about the newspaper more broadly—as a means of political critique, a collection of ready-made news to appropriate and manipulate, a source of language and images, a typographical grab bag, and more.
The exhibition opens with the two key pieces by Marinetti and Picasso. Other works in this room attest to how quickly the trend spread, encompassing both Europe and the United States. These include works by leading artists from early avant-garde movements such as cubism, futurism, and Dada, such as a superb cubist still life by Juan Gris, a militant work by the futurist Carlo Carrà, and an early Dada collage by Man Ray.
Also on view will be a striking photomontage by Hannah Höch, Von Oben (From Above) (1926), Arthur Dove’s renowned The Critic (1925), and John Heartfield’s scornful photomontage, reproduced in a Berlin illustrated newspaper in 1930, showing a lumpish man with his head wrapped in pages from Vorwärts, the Social Democratic Party’s official paper, and Tempo, a mass-market tabloid. Heartfield’s criticism was targeted both at the party and the press, and his message—spelled out in a boldface caption—could not have been more explicit: “Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers goes blind and deaf.”
Spanning World War II to the 1980s, many of the works in the second room use the newspaper to report on events and convey political messages. In a 16-foot-long scroll-like painting, Stalingrad (Victory in the East) (1943–1944), Hans Richter incorporated actual news articles to trace the Battle of Stalingrad from onset to conclusion. Jean Dubuffet’s cryptic Message: La clef est sous le volet (Message: The key is under the shutter) (1944), with words scrawled on a piece of scrap newspaper, evokes a sense of urgency, and was made while France was still under German occupation. Emory Douglas’ All Power to the People (1969) depicts a young boy hawking Black Panther newspapers. Laurie Anderson literally wove together front pages of the New York Times and China Times in 1976, calling attention to Sino-American relations. This room also features outstanding artists’ newspapers, including Salvador Dalí’s Dali News (1945), a newspaper with items devoted entirely to Dalí, and Yves Klein’s Dimanche—Le journal d’un seul jour (Sunday—The newspaper for a single day) (1960).
Robert Rauschenberg, renowned for his use of non-traditional materials, first incorporated newspaper into paintings while at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There he began a series of so-called black paintings that typically include newspaper—either totally obscurring it or allowing some legibility—as seen in Untitled (Asheville Citizen) (c. 1952).
Room three of the exhibition highlights the variety of approaches that artists have taken in recent decades. Sarah Charlesworth’s Modern History: April 21, 1978 (1978) tracks a single photograph of the kidnapped former Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro, on the front page of 45 different newspapers. Eliminating all headlines, captions, and articles, Charlesworth presents visual proof that newspapers construct different “pictures” of the same event. For Eninka 22 (1986) John Cage ran burning newspapers and a blank sheet of paper through a printing press; all that remains of the burned newsprint are incomprehensible letters and words that offset onto the blank sheet.
In works from 1991 and 1992, Robert Gober tampered with images and texts published in the New York Times, testing the viewer’s ability to discern fact from fiction. For Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ conceptual work “Untitled” (1991), identical prints, each featuring excerpts from two New York Times articles will be stacked on the floor for visitors to take. The excerpts, which present contradictory views on the practice of law enforcement profiling, are printed separately on the front and back of each sheet, much like a newspaper, where an opinion on one side of a page might contradict another on its reverse.
Spanning nearly 24 feet, To Mallarmé (2003), a late signature work by Mario Merz, is installed on the Mezzanine near the entrance to the exhibition. The artist, a member of the Italian Arte Povera movement, lined up stacks of Italian and Arabic dailies from March 2003, when President George W. Bush issued an ultimatum before the invasion of Iraq. On top of the stacks, in blue neon light, the title of an 1897 poem by Stéphane Mallarmé unfolds: “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard,” which is translated “a throw of the dice never will abolish chance.”
In The Good News / Al Arab Al Yawm, 8/6/2008 (2008–2009) Jim Hodges coated every page of a newspaper published in Amman, Jordan, with 24k gold. Though this practice may seem contradictory, it is in keeping with Picasso’s elevation of the lowly newspaper into the realm of high art in 1912.
Image: Dieter Roth, Literaturwurst (Daily Mirror), 1961. Newspaper, water, gelatin, and spices in sausage casing, 45.7 x 12.7 cm (18 x 5 in.). Barbara Wien, Berlin.