“I use graphite because I think it’s a medium that’s simultaneously very versatile but very limited,” says Molly Springfield. “You can manipulate graphite into different textures, surfaces, ranges, and values. At the same time, I work better when I can work inside of parameters . . . a pencil is a pencil!”
Since 2002, Springfield has been using a graphite pencil as a drawing instrument to figure letters and words on sheets of paper. At first glance, these representational works look like photocopies of books. And so it follows that the photocopy is precisely the medium from which she works.
Springfield’s decision to use the photocopier as a middle step between the book and her own drawings speaks to both the quotidian nature and the ephemerality of the photocopied page: “I like that people can recognize a Xerox. . . . The idea, at least in my work, is that it’s something you use to record a document when you need a quick reference and you can’t take the book out of the library. . . . And I like that it is something ephemeral that can be repurposed into something more permanent. But it’s also become very central to my technical process.” Her use of the photocopy recalls Mel Bochner’s photocopied drawings, held together in binders atop pedestals for the 1966 exhibition Working drawings and other visible things on paper not necessarily meant to be viewed as art, and Seth Siegelaub’s 1968 Xerox Book exhibition, for which the curator asked seven artists (Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner) to each submit a twenty-five-page work that would fit into an 8½ x 11–inch book. [fig. 1].
Springfield’s drawings, however, invert the strategies of Bochner and Siegelaub’s photocopy projects from the 1960s. Instead of compiling photocopies into a book, Springfield uses the photocopy to deconstruct or take apart a book, insisting on the status of the photocopied page as an individual sheet.
Her selection of photocopied texts is wide-ranging, including seminal art historical texts such as Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), artists’ texts by Sol LeWitt and Ed Ruscha from the 1960s, academic texts such as “Chapter IX” (a late-nineteenth-century treatise on drawing from flat copies), and literary masterpieces such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) by Leo Tolstoy. Art historian Ingrid Langston contends that Springfield’s sources “are carefully chosen for their relevance to shifting notions of mediated representation.” Her work investigates the factors involved in the process of copying at both the technical and the conceptual level. As part of her Drawings from Photocopies of Books series (2005–6), Springfield made mode of production, a drawing of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [fig. 2], an essay which takes as its subject the loss of a work of art’s aura as it is reproduced by technological means in an era transformed by the rise of the photograph and the tools of the then-nascent film industry. Springfield subverts this process of reproducing a work of art that Benjamin laments: she produces an original from a photocopy, painstakingly, with her own hand.
While Springfield’s drawing of Benjamin’s text complicates notions of reproduction, her more recent work investigates the implications of translation as both a linguistic and a mechanical operation. For Translation (2006–8), featured in this exhibition, Springfield transcribed the first chapter of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (originally published in French as A la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time]), working with passages culled from every existing English translation. Springfield took two years to complete these drawings. There are two components of Translation. The first is a section entitled A Brief Note on the Translation, for which Springfield made a series of notes and ephemera related to the process of translating Proust’s novel [figs. 3–6]. The second section contains the actual translation: twenty-eight individual drawings of photocopies from the first chapter of Remembrance of Things Past. On the first page of the book, we see the infamous first lines of Swann’s Way (the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past), meticulously hand-copied: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” [fig. 7] Springfield has surrounded and overlaid the text with marginalia and marks made by various readers in the library books she photocopied. In addition to meticulously figuring such commentary (along with notes of her own), Springfield depicts the toner marks and shadows apparent in the photocopies of the pages [fig. 8]. She therefore provides detailed visual information about the copies themselves, not just about the content of Proust’s words.
Springfield says that in Translation she “wanted the content of the text to parallel the form of the drawing. As you go from drawing to drawing, there are gaps or overlaps of the text, so you get this repetition or omission of things, which is hopefully somewhat like your own thought process when it comes to memory, in the same way that the style of Proust’s novel parallels how people think about or remember things.” The twenty-eight pages that Springfield made demonstrate that endurance and patience were integral components of her drawing process. “I’m very motivated by labor, I’m motivated to do work that only feels like work to me. If something feels easy or quick, I’ll find a way to make it less easy or less quick.” The laborious act of drawing is at the core of her practice; she employs the pencil as a tool to inscribe her own experience into the texts she transcribes.
Springfield’s insistence on the arduous task of copying texts recalls the production of medieval manuscripts. These unique objects represent one of the oldest forms of book making and were the handcrafted work of highly skilled artisans. With the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, however, the process of reproducing texts became mechanized, radically changing the format of the book. In our current age of e-books and Internet media (including this very catalogue), the book has assumed a digital format, even further removed from the tangible and precious object of the manuscript. While Springfield’s process recalls manuscript making, the installation of her work makes this reference even stronger. She installs her drawings in waist-to-chest-high vitrines along the gallery wall, much in the way one would view a manuscript in a museum [fig. 9]. Springfield’s drawings and their concomitant installation thus refer not only to the status of book making before and after the era of the printing press, but also to current display practices for presenting the manuscript in an institutional setting.
Catalogue essay by Claire Brandon in the digital catalogue for Graphite, curated by Sarah Urist Green, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, December 6, 2012-June 2, 2013.