Describing and Documenting Your Prints- Pt. 1

Learning to correctly document your prints as you submit them for shows or to sell them to the public is an important skill. The PrintMatters exhibition committee has consulted with Dena M. Woodall, Associate Curator of Prints & Drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to come up with  a set of guidelines to help us in that process. I thought it would be helpful to have a conversation with Dena to try to understand why some of the terms have changed and why this is so important to all of us as artists.

Chris: I’m talking to Dena Woodall. First, I’d like to get a feel for the way things are changing in the curatorial world regarding the labeling of works on paper.

Dena: I think prints and drawings curators have always been particularly interested in trying to relay exactly what people are looking at- the printmaking techniques and the working methods of printmakers. On a larger scale, as we begin to put our museum collections online for the public to see, we are scrutinizing the terms we are using even more. We aren’t there yet, but we’re working on systemizing our classifications of medium, of artists’ nationalities and of various other specific things. We are also trying to make sure that the master printers and publishers are noted. With that, comes looking at how we identify each type of print and making it more coherent.

Chris: So it’s driven by the digital world, partly and it’s a matter of coherence and clarification.

For those who haven’t heard of the Print Council of America, Dena says that it’s a group of prints and drawings curators and scholars who formed this group and they meet every year. You have to have curatorial experience and be nominated by existing Council members. They have regular conferences at which all these issues are discussed.

Dena: It’s the sixtieth anniversary of the Print Council of America. At the conferences, there was a push early on in those years to standardize what is considered an original print and other issues related to prints such as the care of prints and guidelines for the lending works of art on paper. From that, I think we’ve moved along into being even clearer with our classifications and to consideration of new types of print media. With the arrival of the digital world and putting our objects online, with having it more accessible to the public, I find it very tricky when so much of the public isn’t familiar with printmaking techniques. But if everyone is using different words for the same thing, then we’re actually doing a disservice to our public. It is time for us to consolidate these terms in print vocabulary.

Chris: Exactly. Would you say this movement has been over the last five years? Last ten years? Or longer?

Dena: I would say longer. As we move into looking at newer types of printmaking techniques, we’re able to classify those older ones as well.

Chris: Is there controversy?

Dena: Not controversy, exactly. But take, for example, the stencil method of screenprint.  With the term screenprint there was always this sort of competition…as there was with every facet of printmaking…between the commercial and fine art printing. So screenprints were called serigraph to distinguish that as the fine art print. As we’ve evolved and moved on where this is a mainstay technique, we’re able to reassess it and say, “We can call it screenprint and it’s still a fine art print.” You don’t have to legitimize it. I think we’re running into the same issues with digital prints. People label works “archival pigment print”. What does that mean? It’s a vague term, often used by art dealers and being perpetuated to lift up the technique. We don’t need to do that.  It can be, for example, an inkjet print that is also an original print based on the fact that the medium is being used for its specific qualities and not just a one-to-one reproduction of an image first produced in another medium, like painting. There shouldn’t be these skewed ways of approaching this issue. For people who appreciate prints, we should call it as we see it.

Chris: Are the galleries on board with this?

Dena: I go to galleries and I tell them, “I think you need to change your terminology.” Or “What do you mean by that?” Remember, they’re trying to sell the work. I think it’s up to printmakers to write the terms consistently. State what the work is. If you have it all listed, there’s no need for anyone to even question it and people would start to understand the various printmaking techniques. We need standardization across the board. Some printmakers and print dealers cling to these terms because that’s what they were trained with. Different museums, however, sometimes have their own terminology and their own biases. Generally, we’re trying to be consistent to make it better for the public.

Chris: What happens when you end up with a whole paragraph on a tag?

Dena: We do the same thing when we think about drawings with collage. MOMA does this as well. We do this. We’re just listing everything: nails, screwdriver, pen, plaster……and it is a long laundry list at times. I think it’s better to state what all the elements are. If an object enters the MFAH collection, we ask the artist a list of questions including their practice and materials used. A conservator also reviews the object. We have to maintain these objects for years to come.

Chris: So it’s a maintenance or conservation issue also? It’s not just for the cataloguing of the museum.

Dena: It’s also for the care of the object in the future.

In Part Two, we’ll look at some members work and how Dena feels the work could best be identified.

Chris Fitzgerald
PrintMatters artist member Chris Fitzgerald lives and blogs in Houston, Texas.