Everyday life is full of paper objects—a dollar bill, a utility bill, a receipt; each of these evoke a range of senses from dread to desire or delight. These objects all participate in different hierarchies: we attribute more value to a birth certificate, say, than to a 49-cent stamp or a grocery list.
In the digital age, sometimes paper’s scarcity is the thing that generates its value. Here’s a scan of my great-grandfather’s immigration papers that I found catalogued on Ancestry.com this week. Subscribers to the site are willing to pay a premium subscription fee in order to see, on paper (even if it’s actually an image of paper), how their identity connects with the past. In this case the paper is a certain kind of performance—it implies age, validity, authenticity.
Inspired by this range of dynamics, I began planning my exhibition Paper and Performance: The Bent Page, which opens April 25. The show’s main argument is that paper isn’t just a surface for drawing or planning; it is a medium that does specific kinds of work and reveals and performs things for the viewer. The show notes the spike in artists’ use of paper in the 1960s and 1970s, when Xerox technology was first introduced and social theories about behavior and communication were widely studied. In this period writers like Erving Goffman were proposing that all social interactions, including private gestures, were performances—a theory that has gained currency in contemporary life.
The show continues up to the present, a time when we see our culture as fundamentally paperless. Like my great-grandfather’s Declaration of Intention, paper elicits a certain sense of gravity in the present moment, but the material also feels weighty and cumbersome. The show demonstrates how paper often disrupts or weighs down our relationship to information in contemporary life, and how it generates unexpected moments of connection, longing, or mourning.
My research gained ground from a trip to the private collection of artist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) in Chester, Connecticut. LeWitt constantly bought and traded work with his friends. Many artists like Channa Horwitz (1932–2013) became acquainted with LeWitt through this habit of exchanging art. As a result, LeWitt amassed a collection of thousands of works over his lifetime. He traded everything imaginable: postcards, sketches, artists’ books, snapshots and paper objects.
One such object was Horwitz’s Sonakinatography I: Varied Movement for Multi Media, 1969, a musical performance score on gridded graph paper. Traded to LeWitt after Horwitz met the artist in Los Angeles in the early 70s, this small 18-by-13 1/2 -inch work is an amazing example of paper as an “in between” medium, part sketch, part score, and part artwork. (Many of these scores, including this one, were never performed and are shown instead as stand-alone works of art.) We can imagine LeWitt standing in front of it attempting to decode its geometric symbols like some kind of medieval codex. The gridded page doesn’t just invite engagement; it demands it.
The reverse is true of Constantina Zavitsanos’ sculpture I would prefer not to (2013), which consists of three years’ worth of the artist’s student loan debt printed out hour-by-hour. At almost 1000 pages long, the work is bound with a clamp so that viewers in the gallery can page through it like a book; however, it’s a book that no one really wants to read. It inspires the same behavior that most of us feel when we see a bill: we want to turn away, to put it aside; anything to get past the heaviness that the paper document implies. (Even the work’s title refers to an act of refusal: it takes its name from a line in Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, in which a bureaucratic worker begins refusing to do the writing that he’s been hired to do, saying instead that he “would prefer not to.”) The sculpture is the remains of a performance that the artist herself executed during her residency at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in 2013, when she began printing out her calculated debt every day. She recalls, “I started thinking about the work in the same way [Minimalist sculptors in the late ‘60s] did: what do I have a lot of? Carl Andre had a lot of bricks. Donald Judd had a lot of aluminum. I had a lot of debt.”
After visiting Paper and Performance: The Bent Page, you may find yourself going through your mail, sifting through shoeboxes of letters, or perusing old photographs with new eyes as these networks and lives of paper become visible. The material may take on an added gravity or levity. If you’re just curious about your own historical documents, though, you’re in luck: Ancestry.com has a fourteen-day trial subscription, so you can search unencumbered by real paper.
Katie Anania is a PhD candidate in art and art history at UT Austin, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton. Her dissertation, “Tracing Difference: Drawing, Intimacy and Privacy in New York Studio Practice, 1963-1979”, examines new drawing strategies among downtown New York artists in light of changing approaches to identity and “personal space”. The project has received awards from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, the Getty Research Institute, the Pittsburgh Foundation, and Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University.