A European Collagist
John Stezaker – Whitechapel Gallery 29th January - 18th March 2011
Review by David Evans
In his authoritative historical survey Collage: The Making of Modern Art (2004), Brandon Taylor describes John Stezaker as the ‘most prolific European collagist’ of recent times. It is a remark that is both memorable and cryptic, and a good opportunity to reflect on Taylor’s choice of words was provided by a recent exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery.
Prolific: the exhibition included more than ninety collages, made from the late 1970s to date. A mere sample, it must be stressed, and related photo silkscreen prints were excluded. Yet it was the nearest thing to a retrospective that Stezaker has ever had, despite his productivity and international profile over several decades. He has continuously experimented with new ways of cutting and pasting, all analyzed with assurance by writer Michael Bracewell in the accompanying catalogue. There are many breaks, then, but also striking continuities. In general, the collages are small-scale, the cutting and pasting are restrained, and found photographic source materials whiff of obsolescence. The end results are usually sober, occupying an indeterminate time zone between past and present.
European: in some ways this is an odd choice of adjective to characterize an artist who has lived and worked in London for most of his adult life, and whose trips abroad have mainly been to New York. It makes perfect sense, though, if one reflects on Stezaker’s literary tastes. French writer Maurice Blanchot, especially, is regularly referenced, and in a 2005 interview with Michael Bracewell he states that notions of image and fascination inspired by Blanchot constitute nothing less than a ‘guiding principle’. He also likes the French art historian and theorist Georges Didi-Huberman and often mentions his idea of the image as rend in recent lectures and interviews. Amongst other things, Stezaker’s engagement with such writers allows him to work with, and through, various types of mass media imagery, without claiming to be revealing the ‘truth’ behind the visual ‘lie’. In other words, he has little time for the campaigning photo-collages that often appear in an anti-consumerist magazine like Adbusters. Significantly, books by Blanchot and Didi-Huberman were amongst those mainly European titles selected by Stezaker for The Curated Shelf, a little display of books that have influenced him. This fresh idea was part of the complementary exhibition held on New Bond Street at the flagship shop of Louis Vuitton, sponsor of the Whitechapel show.
Collagist: the tale has often been told. Collage began with Cubist artists who wanted to enrich their palette by sticking everyday materials to their paintings; became an alternative to painting for many Dadaists and Surrealists; and had its first retrospective with Les Collages (Paris, 1930), an exhibition for which Louis Aragon wrote the still stunning essay The Challenge to Painting. Exciting stuff, but all water under the bridge by the time Stezaker started art school in London in the late sixties.
For him and many of his contemporaries, the challenge was not to painting, but to the thorough institutionalisation of most of the initiatives of the historic avant-gardes, including collage, that had taken place by the 1960s. Duchamp was perhaps the main exception, included in Les Collages, but also still scrutinized by young artists in the late sixties. Hence Stezaker’s early emphasis on philosophically-oriented writing and art in various media, all dealing with the historic avant-gardes and their legacy. Significantly, John A. Walker’s little primer Art Since Pop (1975) concludes with a section called ‘The Philosophical Connection’ in which the author compares and contrasts Joseph Kosuth, Art and Language and a young Stezaker. The latter is described as a ‘theoretical artist’ and the one illustration of his work is called Mundus (1973), an electronic apparatus that hangs on the wall, plus an accompanying text. Walker’s book is an engrossing period piece aimed at non-specialists, and provides a useful sketch of what Stezaker was up to in his mid-twenties. Significantly, it does not anticipate his turn to what is now termed Photo-Conceptualism.
Chemical Traces: Photography and Conceptual ArtMedia Haunted Humans, which presents Stezaker in the very different company of Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. All of them are linked to a change that occurred in the late seventies and early eighties when artists marked by the philosophical and linguistic preoccupations of Conceptual Art began to treat the photographically-led mass media as a theme, a resource, and a bench mark for high production values. Mellor presents Stezaker as the ‘English friend’ who mediated between like-minded artists in New York and London. The artist is treated in a refreshing way – Mellor even claims him for ‘British Gothic’ – but there is no mention of collage. Rather, Stezaker’s works are called ‘photo-pieces’, though it is worth noting that each of the two catalogue illustrations – The Voyeur (1979) and Egg Burial (1985) – is described in the back of the publication as a "collaged photowork".
Yet in the Whitechapel catalogue the majority of the illustrations from the late seventies to date are called ‘collages’, with a few termed ‘found images’ or ‘image fragments’. And Stezaker now regularly appears in exhibitions and publications devoted to collage like: Collage: The Unmonumental Picture (2008), a group show that was one of the inaugural exhibitions at the New Museum, New York; Blanche Craig’s book Collage: Assembling Contemporary Art (2008) that includes an interview with him; or the ‘Cut and Paste’ issue of the Spanish photography magazine Exit (2009) that also features an interview with him.
Returning to Brandon Taylor’s remark, it is obviously impossible to assess whether or not Stezaker is more prolific than any other collagist in Europe. However, the discretely presented exhibition at the Whitechapel offered ample evidence of why he continues to be taken seriously.