A ‘limited edition’ is a term we generally associate with printmaking or photography in contemporary art. Both involve the reproduction of an artwork a number of times. If the ‘number of times’ is limited to, say, 100 prints, then the artwork is an edition of 100.
There is a problem here, however, with the word ‘reproduction’. For the word suggests it is an original artwork that is copied. The ‘original’, however, from which a contemporary print is pulled is not, in fact, an artwork but a block of wood, piece of lino or etched metal plate. While in photography, if digital, it is a raw image file of electronic signals turned into 0’s and 1’s.
Technically speaking, then, each print is not a ‘copy’ of an artwork, but an artwork in itself. As ‘originality’ is one of the most persisting measures of a work of art, the question therefore arises as to how a contemporary print can be original and a reproduction at the same time.
If originality rests on difference, we can find difference within printmaking by the fact a source degenerates, through wear and tear, each time a print is taken. As a result, each print is particular in its departure from the ‘whole’. If, however, its departure is too original, the print loses its value as part of a whole. Originality, as such, takes on certain parameters within which any shift too great breaks the context that defines it.
The relation between the whole and its parts, the prints, is therefore interesting. In certain ways it is not unlike the relation between the ancient philosopher Plato’s pure forms — ideas — and the objects derived from them. A pure form, for instance, could be a bed. If we think of all the beds built throughout time, each and every bed is but a reproduction of the one true bed, the absolute bed, the idea of a bed.
Yet this idea of a bed is not something we can actually pull back the covers of and sleep in. Its reproductions, however, as the concrete objects that populate our bedrooms, are.
Similarly, although the abiding image of a contemporary print edition is reproduced by each print, it — as an object itself — does not exist.
Accordingly, there cannot be two (or more) ideas of a bed, only one ideal bed from which others are derived. An original cannot be a copy at the same time. For ‘if there had been two’, writes Plato in The Republic, ‘there would always have been a third — more absolute and abstract than either, under which they would have been included’. The third, therefore, would be the original and the other two its copies.
This, though, flies in the face of a contemporary print being an original as well as a copy. There is nevertheless still a similarity. An Ideal form is a whole that includes its reproductions, just as a print edition’s abiding image, the conglomerate of all that is common in each print, is a whole that includes each print’s similarities.
This parallel between Plato’s pure forms and a limited edition is, however, an awkward one to make today. Any Platonic notion of a pure Idea or absolute Ideal has been permanently besmirched for any artist working on this side of minimalism.
A non-material form we cannot physically experience (the idea of a bed) is no longer more ‘real’, as in Plato’s day, than a material object we can physically experience (a concrete bed). The real is no longer God given (Plato’s forms), but earth bound (minimalism’s objects). Experience no longer confounds understanding (Plato) but is its foundation (minimalism). Minimalism is the ‘art of the real’. (1)The art of the real; USA, 1948-1968 was the title of the 1968 exhibition curated by E.C. Goossen that included works by the minimalists and which travelled to Europe.
Post modernism, of course, took anti-Platonism further to obliterate the ‘pure’ entirely. In this way ‘particularity’, in all its cultural, social, sexual and technological difference, is here to stay. Difference is defiance. Under such sway, the ‘whole’ is secularised blasphemy.
This, for me at least, is a problem. I consider the ‘whole’ — albeit generally unrecognised — integral to minimalism, and I love minimalism. With everyone busy burning the ‘pure’ to much applause, no one appears to realise they have used the ‘whole’ as kindle. No art history lecture or essay have identified this. It has been a problem without words for me, for so long. Until, that is, I began to make editions.
The first edition I made was during a six-month Power Institute studio residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, in 1995. Not that I thought of or called the art I subsequently made an edition at the time. It was, rather, a nameless urge inspired by a purchase I made from the lower floor hardware section of the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville department store.
The Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, as some will recall, is where in 1914 Marcel Duchamp purchased the first ‘unassisted’ readymade – the Bottle Rack (1914). (2)See Thierry de Duve, ‘Kant after Duchamp’, An October Book, The MIT Press, p. 250.
Now treated with the conservator’s white gloves of art history as one of its most precious contemporary art objects, at the time this first unassisted readymade was unceremoniously dumped in the rubbish by Marcel Duchamp’s sister when tasked with clearing his studio after his departure for New York. Not until 1921 was a replacement purchased. (3)See the National Gallery of Australia‘s notes.
With this we have another parallel with a Platonic pure form. While many replicas have since ensured this first unassisted readymade retains its place in history, we only know this bottle rack through its replicas since it, itself, like a pure form, does not materially exist. (4)Based on notes from the National Gallery of Australia‘s website, in 1921 Marcel Duchamp purchased a replacement (collection: Robert Lebel, Paris); in 1945 Man Ray purchased a third replica; in 1960 Robert Rauschenberg purchased a fourth replica in New York; and in 1963 a fifth was made for the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. In addition to which, in 1964, an edition of eight was made by Galleria Schwarz, Milan — of which the National Gallery of Australia has one. See picture.
It was not this, admittedly, that had me repeatedly traipse up Rue de Rivoli to ransack the basement floor of the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville to see, embarrassing as it is to admit, if they might perchance still sell the same bottle rack. They do not. Yet, in seeking it, I was captivated by how Duchamp’s 1914 bottle rack was but one of an unintentional limited edition. Each bottle rack was a reproduction of an Ideal bottle rack, the bottle rack each customer thought they had purchased before they discovered the idiosyncrasies, the faults, the particularities, of the one they actually purchased. Having signed an idiosyncratically ridden bottle rack, Marcel Duchamp effectively replaced the ‘Ideal’ in art that is pure and original, with a ‘particular’ that is impure and banal. He replaced the ‘whole’ with a ‘part’.
If only I could make the same retrospectively inspired, though at the time ‘disinterested’, purchase. I tried, but failed.
No matter on how many days I searched the basement, I had finally to realise I was no Marcel Duchamp (how arrogant, I know, to have even presumed otherwise). I accepted failure, then found something. Not a readymade, but a vacuum pack of brass circles arrayed in a geometric flower pattern, on a hot magenta and lime green board.
Each pack of five rings reproduces the same pattern, differently. Each represents a possibility within a certain set of circumstances that delimit a whole space. I bought quite a few packs, took them back to the Power studio at the Cité and made the same work over and over — enamoured by a ‘whole’ from which each possibility derived.
I took these with me to Düsseldorf, as I was about to have an exhibition there. The gallery director — Thomas Taubert — suggested we sell them as a limited edition. (5)Encyclopaedia of possibilities, 1995, a limited edition of three, each of three parts, was exhibited in To make a work of thoughtful art, Ausstellungsraum Thomas Taubert, Düsseldorf, in 1995. I have made numerous editions since.