Earlier this month the art world was shaken by news that a banana duct-taped to a wall sold for $150,000 at Art Basel Miami. Maurizio Cattelan’s installation called Comedian, that included, yes!, a real banana taped to a wall, has become some kind of a sensation with some calling it conceptual art and others calling it a prank (read the background story here). The fact that someone would pay $150,000 for a banana taped to a wall calls into question the value of art and complicates an appraisal’s work even further.
Cattelan’s created three editions of his installation, two of whom sold for $120,000 to collectors identified by Artsy as Billy and Beatrice Cox of Miami, and Sarah Andelman, founder of Colette concept store in Paris, and part-time Catskills resident. Andelman’s vacation home in the Catskills was subject to a feature in Architectural Digest in the summer of 2018.
But is it art? The perishability of a mere banana contrasts significantly with what artists have traditionally sought in art – immortality. And how about artistic skills? Is it really any artistry involved in taping a banana to a wall?
Brands have capitalized on this commotion by creating their own duct-taped “art,” anything from a sandwich to a bottle of water, and more. All there is needed is a random object and duct tape, plus of course access to a wall. Read full story in Ad Age magazine.
Artnet has covered the topic and made it easy for readers to access the coverage all in one place: “To document for posterity how this humble piece of produce became a global phenomenon, we have pulled together all of our coverage in one place.”
Defining art has always been both challenging and disputed. In the 18th century, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of composer Felix Mendelssohn, argued that art is the carrying forward of the beautiful, obscurely recognized by feeling, until it becomes true and good; the aim of art is moral perfection, he claimed.
In What is Art? published in 1896, Leo Tolstoy argued that art is the transmission of an emotion felt by the artist (joy, exaltation, anger, sadness, etc.) – not all beauty, but all infectious emotion that the common man can experience. Tolstoy’s argument was an attack on formalism and the doctrine of art for art’s sake, an attack on unintelligibility and exclusiveness. He did not believe in professional artists, who, he thought, perverted art; instead he argued that all men can and should make art, thus proclaiming the universality of art.
In the 20th century, Roy Lichtenstein defiantly declared that organized perception is what art is all about. For Wassily Kandinsky, making art was an internal necessity that impelled the artist to create as a spiritual impulse and the audience to admire art as a spiritual hunger. It was that simple.
Tolstoy didn’t think that taste was the final arbiter of what was good and bad art; he defined taste as the capacity of an individual to be aesthetically pleased by certain works and displeased by others. He conceded however that taste can be educated, and artistic activities can be made accessible to all.
Molly Rausch is a stamp artist. Her work has been exhibited throughout the Hudson Valley, New York City, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Barcelona, Oaxaca (Mexico), and Prilep (Macedonia), and is in numerous private and public collections. Molly’s work often deals with themes of communication and thresholds. She has participated in several public art projects, including a Lost and Found Drawing Booth in 2009. Her first museum exhibition was at the Museo de Filatelia in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2014. In 2015 she participated in the 58th Annual Contemporary Art Colony in Prilep, Macedonia: Molly’s work will be featured on an official Macedonian postage stamp in 2016. Molly holds an MFA in Painting from SUNY New Paltz, and a BA from St. Mary’s College in Maryland. She grew up in Maryland.
Simona David: How did you become an artist?
Molly Rausch: It’s a tough question, because I don’t really know how does one become anything. But I’ve always loved drawing. I have three sisters, and we’re all about two years apart, so we’re a little bit of a competitive family. I remember when my oldest sister was given some oil pastels – they were given to her because she was considered the artist of the family. I remember I was very upset, I thought that was unfair. The only reason she was drawing better than me at the time was that she was four years older. And I really wanted to have those pastels. I think that you find what you love to do, and that’s what you end up doing.
SD: I believe Picasso said that all children are artists, the question is how to remain an artist once you grow up. Are your parents artists?
MR: My mom draws, and my dad is a wood worker, but they aren’t visual artists. My father is a doctor, and my mother is a teacher. But to answer your question, how does one remain an artist once one grows up, for me it was about establishing a studio practice when I studied art in school. How do you continue to make art? What are your requirements? How do you like to work?
SD: You have formal training as an artist. What does it mean to be formally trained as an artist? And do you have any mentors or influencers?
MR: As an undergraduate I majored in studio art. The art classes were the hardest, and that’s where I felt I was learning the most. As a graduate student at SUNY New Paltz I had some amazing art teachers. It was important to have concentrated time to work in the studio. Literally it’s just a practice: you go in, and practice, and figure out what your practice is going to be like. I remember seeing a Jacob Lawrence exhibition in college, and that’s what made me work in gouache. Otherwise, it’s just a slow evolution. I usually work in series, and one series leads to the next. It’s one step at a time.
SD: Do you always work from memory, or from photography, or with the subject matter in front of you?
MR: I don’t like working from photography, I draw from observation. I like to see what happens when you try to depict things from observation and memory, and remember all the changes that happen. I have two main threads in my work right now: the postage stamp paintings, and a larger series of oils on plywood. For the postage stamp paintings I am using stamps as reference, but for the oil series I am working from observation.
SD: You are working both on very small works like the stamp paintings, and large ones like the oil paintings. It seems to me that it takes two different sets of skills to work on small and large scale. What do you think?
MR: I like having both threads going, and bounce back and forth between the two.
SD: From the viewer’s perspective is different too: these are two very different kinds of experience. I have the feeling that I see more details in small works.
MR: When it comes to the postage stamp paintings, I really like having that intimacy, I like having something small that’s going to make someone walk up to the wall and get very close to see what’s going on. It changes the way one relates to the artwork. When it comes to a small piece of art, you can relate to it as if it were a book: you can pick it up and hold it in your hands. You’re going to relate in a completely different way to a large oil painting. You step further away. And it’s different when it comes to painting it as well. My large work is very simplified. When you think that something is bigger, you’d think there is more information on it.
SD: Let’s talk about the artistic process: how do you start a new project?
MR: I work in series. I’m usually inspired by some new material that I’m introduced to. I have the material, and I have a problem to solve: how am I going to use this material? I play around with it until I hit on something. I get excited, and I create a series. Maybe I have twenty – thirty pieces, and then it feels like it’s done, and I don’t feel like I’m learning anything new from it anymore. Then I look for new inspiration and some new material to work with.
SD: Now let’s talk about your postage stamp art. What triggered your interest in mail art?
MR: The postage stamp paintings started with a bookbinding project. In 1997 – 1998 I took a bookbinding class. I was working on this very tiny book about 3 inch square. I didn’t know what to put in it. And it sat empty for a year or so, and then I finally started to draw on it, and I messed up my drawing on my first page. I needed something to cover it up. And I had this envelope full of old letters and stamps that my dad had given me – my dad used to collect stamps. They were all early 1900s, very beautiful. And because they happened to be the right size, I glued a stamp down on this little book to cover my bad drawing, and it just looked really nice in there. Then I glued another one on the next page, but this one looked like it needed a little bit more space on one side of it. The composition of the stamp was too symmetrical for me, so I glued it down and extended the horizon a little bit. The next page I thought that it needed some sky, so I added a little bit of sky. You can look through this book, and see the ideas grow from there. By the fifth page I thought I might be into something. That led me to drawing up maps on pieces of plywood. I did a whole series of paintings on that. Those were large, like 3 by 4 feet.
SD: Were you familiar at the time with other stamp artists? I believe this movement was started by the Dadaists in the 1920s. You did explain how you make your stamp art: you start with a stamp, then you build around it, and you imagine a world outside that stamp, as if the stamp was larger, and included a larger scene.
MR: Yes. I glue down the stamp and I basically just paint around it. I don’t paint on it, and I don’t research it. I just stare at it for a while, and figure out the edges: I figure out what needs to go in the final composition. As far as the content goes, I feel like it’s already there for me, like I’m following the cues that are in the original work from the original artist. I work in watercolor and gouache. And, all my postage stamp paintings are actually about 3 by 3 inches, they’re very small. If you make them too big, then the illusion disappears. Right now as small as they are, there is a moment when people are looking at them, and actually they look at a few in a row, and then suddenly I hear them say “oh, there is a stamp in there.” It takes them a little bit to see it, and then they go back, and they go around the room, and say “oh, there is a stamp in everyone of them.” I really like that moment of discovery.
SD: What amazes me about your work is the color palette that you use: you manage to stay on the same color palette that’s on the original stamp, and the brushstroke is also similar to the stamp as if it was done by the same artist.
MR: I feel like the mockingbird of watercolors. I get to play with different styles. I am trying to match the style and the color of the stamp; people often ask me how I match the color.
SD: Just to clarify: each of these postage stamp paintings is unique: you don’t reproduce and you don’t make any prints. Is that right?
MR: Yes, that’s true.
SD: Do you name these postage stamp paintings?
MR: Some of them have titles. There was a series I did on currencies, and those had titles. Sometimes the title is important. But for the most part the titles that I make up are just descriptions of the subject, for example French castles.
SD: You currently have a show on view at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum (WAAM). What is included in this exhibition?
MR: There are twenty-nine paintings, about half of them painted this year. This is a series of postage stamp paintings that I started eighteen years ago. There is a stamp by Frederic Edwin Church for instance that I used in three different paintings, so it’s like a mini-series of paintings each of them less and less finished. I think of them as frames in some unknown film. This was the first time I had the same stamp on more than one painting. And I liked the idea of working in groups. There is also in there a series about currencies. This show will remain on view through January 3.
SD: You do other kind of work. You also work with typewriters. Let’s talk about that.
MR: I started this series of altered typewriter sculptures five or six years ago. It started with a joke: I was at work, and trying to write an email for some client that I was struggling with, and I made a joke to my co-workers like “I can’t find the sarcasm key on this computer.” At that point I had two typewriters – I still use the typewriter. So I started making these sculptures: take the keys off the typewriter, take all the letters off the keys, put other things in place, then put the typewriter back together. The first thing I made was a typewriter with all the letters blank except for the ones in the very middle where the letters “g” and “h” would be, and just says “yes” and “no.” Sometimes you just want to simplify things, and make them that binary, you just need an answer “yes” or “no.” There is a typewriter I made where all the keys say “me,” “me,” “me.” We’re all guilty of this sometimes. I made another typewriter where I took the “Shift” key off it, and made it “Sarcasm” key. The typewriters are fully functional – I didn’t actually alter the striking key: it doesn’t actually type “yes,” or “no,” or “me.” They still do what they’re supposed to do, they still type the regular alphabet, which is important to me conceptually, because I’m interested in this illusion we have about communication, and how you think you can only talk about one thing, you think you can only say “yes” or “no,” but in reality you could actually say whatever you want to. To me typewriters are beautiful, not just as mechanical objects, but I love the alphabet and the fact that twenty-six letters can be re-arranged to say anything and everything.
SD: What you said made me think of Marshall McLuhan’s famous assertion that “the medium is the message.” You like to write using either a pen, or a typewriter, or a computer. Does each of this medium trigger a different choice of words or perhaps a different thought process?
MR: It’s completely different. There is no editing when it comes to typewriters. I feel like the typewriter is the purist because on a computer I can edit everything, whereas with the typewriter I need more stream of consciousness. With the typewriter whatever comes out in whatever order is what it is, that’s it. Just like talking live on the radio.
SD: You’ve shown your work in many exhibitions throughout North America and Europe. What do these shows mean to you? Earlier this year you participated in an arts residency in Macedonia. What was your experience like? What did you learn?
MR: It’s always a thrill, it’s always an honor. It’s nice to get things out of my studio, and have other people see them. The opportunity to travel to go to Macedonia this year was amazing.
SD: Talk a little bit about what it means to get ready for a new show.
MR: I remember the first series of paintings that I made, it was very personal. I could never imagine ever parting with these paintings. I also remember thinking that I’d like to be able to show my work, and I can’t hang onto everything forever, and start making things that aren’t so personal. It’s about learning to let go of your artwork and send it out in the world, but there are a few pieces in each series that I think like “no, this one isn’t going anywhere, this one is mine.”
SD: What are you working on now?
MR: I’m working on a project trying to combine chalk board painting with concrete and piano roll paper. I’m working on a series of larger paintings on plywood that incorporate these three materials. I also have an exhibition coming up next year in New Haven, Connecticut, and I’m working on postage stamp paintings for them. I might include typewriters in this show as well, because the show will be hosted at the Library Institute, a beautiful, old library in New Haven. I’m imaging the postage stamp paintings on the walls and the typewriters set in the middle of the room.