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Photocopier Art at the Whitney

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday February 14, 2018

From woodcut handbills to Xeroxed ‘zines to Risographed comics art to Espresso POD books, DIY multiples are a constant in the ebb and flow of art trends—and usually carry the desirable stain of subversion. Currently on view at the Whitney, Experiments in Electrostatics: Photocopy Art explores the use of the photocopier as a creative tool, from its public emergence in the 1960s to the advent of digital processes in the 1980s. 

Focused on works from the museum’s collections, the show presents still lifes, portraits, abstractions, and collages by three artists and one collective—Edward Meneeley, Lesley Schiff, Barbara T. Smith, and the International Society of Copier Artists. Working in an interval immediately prior to the digital revolution, these artists found self-expression by embracing office machines.

Lesley Schiff, Flower in Hand, 1981, from the portfolio Seasons.

The photocopier, an intriguing mix of scanner and printer all in one was liberated from the workplace to become a creative resource. Artists began creating art on the cutting edge in neighborhood copy shops during the same period that Dieter Roth, under the assumed name Diter Rot, was making artist books and multiples out of office waste in Germany. 

One artist in the show, Barbara T. Smith, had a copier installed in her dining room in Pasadena, Calif. It weighed in at about 650 pounds. She used it to create highly personal collages that included images of objects, food, family photos and the occasional body part. According to her archives, the artist said the images “poured out obsessively in various ways from my machine…I would scour the house, the stores, periodicals, the streets for reproducible materials...My dining room was completely taken over.”

Left: Walter Zimmerman, Floral Study to Italy, 1986, from the portfolio Xerography: The International Society of Copier Artists, New York. Right:  Rebecca Stuckey, Uso Della Parete, 1986, from the portfolio Xerography: The International Society of Copier Artists, New York. All images courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Marshall McLuhan, a leading communication theorist in the 1960s and author of The Medium is the Message(1967) who coined the term, "global village," hailed the copier as a self-publishing breakthrough: “Xerography... heralds the times of instant publishing. Anybody can now become both author and publisher,” he wrote. Not only does photocopier art reveal the secret life of the Xerox machine, Fax and scanner, it highlights the long-running relationship between artists and emerging communication technology.

Experiments in Electrostatics: Photocopy Art from the Whitney’s Collection, 1966–1986 continues through March 25th at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, NY, NY Info

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