GUESTCRITIC

Visual Arts Archives and Artists’ Legacies

Archives and their relationships to artists’ legacies are fascinatingly dense. “The archive” denotes both a theoretical construct and an actual collection of information types, be they physical or virtual. In the domain of the visual arts, archival collections had, until recently, largely been defined as conglomerations of documentation about works of art, their creators, and the contexts in which both are actualized. Museums collected and displayed paintings, drawings, and sculptures, while a parallel category of mostly paper documents—letters, photographs, journals, transcripts of interviews, exhibition documentation, artists’ writings, and numerous other types of materials—was assembled in boxes, catalogued, and made available to support research about art. The terms “archives,” “papers,” and “records” were often used interchangeably.

Portrait of Charles Duncan. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Taylor Dafoe.

By the late 20th century this simple notion of the visual arts archive had been drastically destabilized. Ephemeral modes of art production like performance and street art elevated documentation to the status of art, and conferred upon it commodity value. Anti-art movements like Fluxus disintegrated boundaries between high art and its traditional residual objects, and thus their output stands simultaneously as art and archival. Video and computer-based arts, now reaching first waves of formal legacy status, are inextricably tied to obsolescent machines that are essential to their genealogies. The meteoric rise and dominance of digital forms of communication and documentation challenges long-standing archival taxonomies and demands wholesale, costly realignments of archival management infrastructures. Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 1960s, presciently traced the evolution from oral to printed to electronic modes of societal communication and collective memory. Suffice it to say, he hadn’t seen anything yet.

Today we are amidst an exciting moment for visual-art archives, whether they originate from artists, critics, galleries, institutions, or less formal organizations of common practice and thinking. Large archival repositories are digitizing traditional art-related archival collections for on-demand global access, while DIY web-based documentary projects preserve the visual legacies of phenomena like Long Island City’s 5Pointz. Integrated platforms, both programmatic and technical, are beginning to unite archival holdings both across disciplines and at great physical distances. Crowd-sourced, social-media-based documentation and interpretation of art events—talks, openings, fairs, museum shows—far outstrip the reportage of traditional media. The almighty electronic keyword search, in degrees both positive and negative, now shapes the nature of scholarship, criticism and our collective visual vocabulary, with direct ramifications for the care and feeding of archives.

Simultaneously, we are witnessing a shift towards proactive management of artistic legacies guided by a high degree of professionalism. Archives are not simply being gathered “after the fact” as the remains of an artist’s or organization’s contributions. Instead, creators are being encouraged from the outset to follow best practices where career and institutional documentation is concerned, guided by initiatives such as the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Create A Living Legacy (CALL) program. Rigorous oral-history interview programs by graduates of Columbia University and the Oral History Summer School engage and preserve the voices of artists and visual arts professionals when they are vital and active. The ascendancy of professionalized artist legacy operations—artist-endowed foundations and trusts, in particular—has brought highly-trained archivists, oral historians and preservations into small, single-artist organizations, enabling them to provide access to legacy materials that, coupled with subject expertise, outstrip the proficiencies of large repositories. 

Yet the archival enterprise is always a push-and-pull between theory and crushing practicality, standards and exceptions, objectivity and interpretation, resources and priorities. It must operate squarely within the rapidly shifting technological landscape, and navigate potential legal minefields related to copyright. While it continues to covet the aura of physical documents, increasingly it preserves, manages and delivers massive amounts of abstract data. Its voice is not simply that of the material it oversees; it must speak through a parallel language of standardized description through which content can be indexed and accessed in a uniform, efficient, and meaningful way. And, as with other forms of creative and academic expression (popular music, scholarly journals), it must adjust to the pendulum of access that swings between the competing desires to control content and to disseminate it freely. It is not, by any means, a simple beast.

I am therefore exceedingly grateful to the writers who, with enthusiasm, have generously explored topics relating to archives and artists’ legacies for the Critics Page. Their experienced perspectives and astute observations flesh out current trends and concerns tied to visual-art archives and artist legacy programs. I have asked them not to present on critical theories of the archive (Foucault, Derrida, et. al.) or technical librarianship (Library of Congress standards for metadata tagging of e-mails). Rather, each has agreed to look through a lens specific to the visual arts and share with the readership of the Rail through highly personal voices as artists, scholars, archivists and leaders of arts programs, selected issues encountered along the archival trail. Their vantages and experiences will, hopefully, resonate in dimensions both humanistic and utilitarian.

Shifting gears only slightly, I can say that it is a privilege to guide this Critics Page on the occasion of the Brooklyn Rail’s fifteenth anniversary, and such a benchmark is particularly apropos for the theme of archives. The Rail began as a small, print-only leaflet, lovingly crafted and distributed by hand by Phong Bui. Today, not surprisingly, extant early copies of the publication are coveted, both for their historical significance and the enduring utility of their editorial content. That the Brooklyn Rail of 2015 broadcasts talented voices from Brooklyn and beyond to a worldwide audience speaks to the unyielding vision and energy of Phong, his staff, and their supporters. At this auspicious moment I take great pleasure, then, in introducing a new monthly feature titled Verbatim, underwritten by the generosity of the trustees of The Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation. Verbatim features archival selections from the holdings of small, independent repositories, complemented by stories that contextualize these documents, interviews and examples of ephemera. My sincere gratitude goes to the Judd Foundation for contributing the inaugural submission: a feature on Donald Judd’s anti-war posters. 

Lastly, I cannot help but recall the document that made a profound mark upon my childhood—the Whole Earth Catalog. One of the progenitors of the internet—in the 1970s it was the ultimate resource about resources—it brought together an amazingly diverse collection of topics and independent voices under the cover of a single publication. Today, the Brooklyn Rail exemplifies this all-too-rare forum where contributors can truly “let down their guards” and speak in their own voices. That the Rail continues to flourish and grow within a model that prioritizes open readership access ultimately champions critical writing, works of art, and archival materials as collective, communal treasures. As Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once put it, “Information wants to be free.”

Contributor

Charles Duncan

CHARLES DUNCAN is Executive Director of the Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation.

ADVERTISEMENTS