The Spring Issue: Pavel Zoubok on Collage
March 28, 2011 | by David Wallace-Wells
Pavel Zoubok, the curator of our spring portfolio, opened his first gallery space in New York in 1997. Fifteen years later, it remains the only gallery in New York devoted exclusively to collage, though it has, over that time, helped nurture a broad revival of interest in the cut-up for the digital age, as artists and admirers turned on by remixing and repurposing have discovered again the appeal and the craftsmanship of the truly handmade. Earlier this winter, Pavel sat down to discuss his gallery, the portfolio, and the expansive medium to which they are both devoted.
What is collage?
I have always used the term in a very broad way to include, obviously, cut and pasted paper, but also assemblage, photo montage, photo collage, some mixed-media installation. Over the years, I’ve even included painters in my program, but they are painters who use collage either as part of their working process or as part of their imagery. My sense of the term is less medium-specific and more idea-specific. It’s really about collage as an aesthetic tradition, as something we weave in and out of the history of art and the larger cultural history.
One of the threads in that history is collage’s appeal to writers and poets.
Absolutely. There is such a rich tradition of poets making collages: for example, the French poet Jacques Prevert and the Czech collagist Jiri Kolar, who started his career as a poet and actually considered his collage works to be poetry—just visual poetry as opposed to the written word. I think also of somebody like John Ashbery, a longtime collagist, and of course Joe Brainard.
What do you make of the connection?
Collage is an inherently literary medium. It’s associative, and collagists use images and objects to produce meaning through context.
But it’s not narrative.
It’s not narrative. Not to say that it couldn’t be, but in general it is not.
In fact, a lot of the appeal of collage comes from its attack on the narratives contained in the found materials.
Absolutely. Another thing that I find very interesting is the whole question of scale. Collage tends to be an intimate medium in every sense of the word, and yet there are certain collagists who are able to translate that kind of vision into a very large scale. Rauschenberg is probably the first really bona fide collagist who successfully transcended intimate scale.
But is it still collage at such a large scale?
I think sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. I would say it’s a harder thing to do. Now, of course, we’re also moving into an increasingly digital age in which all of those traditional boundaries are going to continue to be pushed. It’ll be interesting to see how the medium evolves. I think we’re still at the very beginning of that, and I think the real challenge for those artists who work with digital media but feel themselves part of this collage tradition is in utilizing this new technology while still preserving the sense of intimacy and the presence of the artist’s hand, his or her physical participation in the work. Like the question of scale, it’s a very challenging thing to take on, but artists are the cultural pioneers, so no doubt that will come.
How do you explain the resurgence of collage over the past decade or so?
I think there are several reasons, but on the whole, culture has become increasingly collagelike, thanks largely to the Internet. The idea of thinking in layers and seeing in layers has become common currency. Some of it also is about a kind of increased appreciation for paper and works on paper in general and drawing; I think collage, at least in the context of the art world, has ridden the works-on-paper wave for the past several years.
In the medium’s last heyday—I’m thinking of the fifties and sixties—collage wasn’t yet appreciated properly as a genre; it didn’t have the institutional and collector support that it does now. Turning to collage was almost an act of defiance.
It was definitely a conscious turn away from a more commercial career. Although, ironically, in that same period, collage was used very heavily in advertising, in book design, and in graphic design. So it’s always had this kind of popular application, too.
But the handmade aspect gave even those corporate designs a personal character.
I think that collage is a very interesting vehicle with which to talk about identity in general, be it ethnicity, gender, race, sexuality, all of that. Historically, it’s been used that way, very much. It’s always been a great cultural tool; certainly the feminist movement made great use of collage and continues to, and I think African-American artists have used it to great effect, Romare Bearden and Vanessa German in particular.
Several years ago I met a woman who was an artist, and she made the comment to me that, Oh, I know your gallery, you show a lot of women artists. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I did the math and realized that it was more or less fifty-fifty, if not slightly higher in favor of women. And my response to her was basically that in my field of interest it just so happens that a lot of the important figures—at least, important to me—are women. It was not a political choice; it wasn’t a calculated move on my part. It was simply the way it was. And I do think that there is a very important part of the tradition of collage that has historically been more available to women, partly because of the intimate scale, partly because of the use of what’s at hand. I think women who have had less access to the traditional studio practice have been drawn to collage, hence women in the nineteenth-century making scrapbooks and whatnot. That’s just been a sort of natural evolution of things.
It seems like collage is uniquely well-equipped to give the lie to the neat categorization of art history, in that it’s a kind of work that complicates all those easy stories.
In that sense, I absolutely count myself among the revisionists out there. But I think it’s less about obliterating the canon. It’s really about expanding it. For me, it’s not that I think the traditional narrative doesn’t work but that it only works to a certain point; and I think that, particularly in my field, when you get to the postwar period, the histories become a little convoluted, because it gets harder to pinch and hold the artists.
It’s also a reflection of the intimacy we were talking about before, that whenever you encounter a work of collage, it’s somehow less mediated by art history than by work in some other mediums.
And yet collage artists love to quote from the history of art, they love to use images from famous pictures.
One of the things I like about being in Chelsea is that people will actually come in off the street. I don’t put on the wall whether the artist being shown is an older artist, a younger artist, a dead artist. I find that unless somebody takes the time to read the press release or read the checklist, they don’t necessarily register whether the work is contemporary or not. I’m often struck by how surprised people are that a mature artist made such a work, because it seems so fresh to them today. Some of that is the context: they see it in a Chelsea gallery, in a white box, with a cement floor, lit in a certain way. Suddenly it becomes something else.
To view the entire portfolio curated by Zoubok, purchase the issue.