For the past twelve years, Molly Springfield has made deceptively delicate graphite drawings of photocopies of book pages, complete with ink smudges, page creases, and marginalia. The titles she has mined are a heady group – including William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844), Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913), Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), and Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object (1973) – seminal texts in the exploration of mediated representation. In Springfield's patient hands, each Xeroxed page is faithfully reproduced or translated into graphite. The exact word for Springfield’s drawing process is elusive – is she copying, quoting, redescribing? – a fact that captures an essential element of her rich practice. The experience of her drawn text vacillates between image and text, reading and looking, echoing concerns of artists who since the 1960s have explored the materiality of language. Employing a new poetic turn in her most recent work entitled This document, Springfield crafts an experience with the written word that surpasses text as a conveyance of meaning.
For This document, Springfield draws on one of Conceptualism’s most oft-referenced pronouncements. Douglas Huebler’s famous 1969 statement reads:
The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more ... The work concerns itself with things whose interrelationship is beyond direct perceptual experience. Because the work is beyond direct perceptual experience, awareness of the work depends on a system of documentation. This documentation takes the form of photographs, maps, drawings and descriptive language. (1)
Since materiality is secondary and the idea paramount, conceptual artworks often take ephemeral and cheap forms. Springfield’s use of photocopies recalls Seth Siegelaub’s Xerox Book exhibition in 1968 (which included Huebler), but she pointedly inverts the throwaway medium. Her drawings look like careless reproductions, but in fact, they are carefully composed and obsessively crafted. In direct refusal of Sol LeWitt’s call to mechanize art, the indexical touch from Springfield’s months of labor is evident. In an asynchronous reversal, the ephemeral reproduction is transformed into an original, and imbued with a paradoxical permanence and tangibility foreign in our digital era of dematerialized books.
The mechanical and linguistic processes of translation are overt considerations for Springfield. In her multi-year, twenty-eight drawing project Translation, she rendered the entire first chapter of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in graphite. Each page in her drawing reproduces a different English language translation of the text, resulting in a pieced together narrative that is interrupted by repetition and omission. “This patchwork of texts produce[s] overlapping gaps from page to page, resolving into an incomplete and not-fully-readable rendition of the original,” Springfield writes. “There are parallels, I think, between the occasionally flawed process of translation and the novel’s central theme of memory and, also, the holes, static, and misperceptions that incomplete or lost memories can leave behind.” (2)
In This document, Springfield performs a similar formal dissection of the last sentence of Huebler’s quote, enlarging it 400 percent, twisting and stretching it over twenty panels, and painstakingly drawing it. The work – which is meant to be read, or at least meant to encourage an attempt – resembles a sensuous concrete poem. Word fragments stutter across the sprawling pages, jumping up and down, tentatively forming new phrases: “depends this docum ends,” “aware drawing,” “awareness rawings.” Breaks in the page invite slippage of meaning,a calculated obfuscation that encourages both misreadings of the text, and an awareness of the drawings as objects. “Object” is of course a loaded term in this terrain. By copying Huebler’s documentation and rematerializing the object, Springfield has, in a sense, appropriated the idea and thereby the artwork. Echoing strategies of appropriation used by Sherrie Levine and others, Springfield challenges notions of authorship and ownership.
As with all great translators, Springfield’s task is deeply personal. Unlike other recent projects for which she used library books and crowd-sourced marginalia, the source for This document is the artist’s personal copy of Lucy Lippard’s groundbreaking study of the emergence of conceptual art, Six Years. It is interesting to note that Lippard’s own project in Six Years is archival, and though Huebler’s statement was originally published elsewhere, it is Lippard’s recitation that is often (mistakenly) considered its primary source. The archeological layers are many: from a small publication, to Lippard’s index card, to her published book annotated with the artist’s marginalia, to the Xerox copies, to the drawings (to the photographed drawings, to this publication...); the opportunities for productive filtering and transformative rephrasing are many. Lippard was also an early supporter of feminist art, which challenged the monolithic narrative of Modernism by highlighting individual experience. Springfield’s own fascination with marginalia – which she refers to as “the material traces (the underlines, doodles, and notes) of readers’ reactions, both immediate and considered” (3) – stems from this lineage, as a sleuthing of how ideas are used and interpreted by individuals. The physical markings of wear, the ink smudges that tie the conceptual to a physical form, further underscore Springfield’s phenomenological insistence on use.
Any discussion of Springfield’s work seems to fray at the edges, as complex references project into layered and peripheral space vertiginously. Her artworks slide in and out of focus, a rich mise en abyme of transmuting referents that resonate with discourses on authorship, reproduction, feminism, photography, the archive, and digital culture. Where her previous projects have been literally bookended with drawings of book covers, there is no sense of a whole in This document. The pages of the book are made strange, dramatically shifted in scale and orientation. The final word “descriptive” lingers in white space, abutted by .... the edge of the page? A fragmented notation? A doodle? Though an exhaustive twenty panels, magnified and scrutinized on an immense scale, there’s an indeterminate quality in the work that stands at odds with the declarative statements of Conceptualism. Instead of declarations, Springfield’s work speaks to duration. Her work is the sum of a dizzying chain of representations, made personal through delicate, persistent, and rigorous mark-making.
(1) Lippard, Lucy. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. University of California Press, reprint edition, 1997.
(2) Artist statement, New York Arts Magazine, 2007
(3) Springfield, Molly. “Inside the Mundaneum,” Triple Canopy, 2010
Catalogue essay by Lauren Schell Dickens. 250 copies of the catalogue were published for the exhibition This document by Galerie Thomas Zander in 2015. A special edition of 10 copies, signed and numbered, including an original drawing was also published.