Word pictures

To celebrate the National Year of Reading the children’s gallery here at the NGA is showing Word Pictures, an exhibition that focuses on the use of text in works of art. Four artists from the Tyler Collection – Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg – are represented. Below we have compiled a selection of  images showing these important artists at work on projects featured – or related to those featured – in the exhibition. Hover your cursor over the images to read descriptions.

Jasper Johns

Alphabet  1969

Johns created a series of works involving the letters of the alphabet at Gemini GEL in 1969. Letters and numbers are a recurring theme in Johns’ art – check out his Color numeral series here: http://tylerblogs.com/2011/03/09/jasper-johns-the-color-numeral-series/


Bruce Nauman

Clear vision  1973

In Clear vision Nauman juxtaposes the words ‘clear’ and ‘vision’ with vigorous marks that, ironically, blur the text and render it unclear. We looked at another or Nauman’s text-based works recently: http://tylerblogs.com/?s=bruce+nauman. Below you can see an image of the artist working on a similar project at Gemini GEL.

Claes Oldenburg

The letter Q as beach house, with sailboat  1972

Oldenburg’s  quirky work is one of several created during the same period in which letters take on the characteristics of objects: here the letter Q becomes a beach house, situated idylically on the shores of a tranquil stretch of water. Like Johns, Oldenburg’s work often features letters and numbers. The image below shows him at work on a later print Chicago stuffed with numbers, that demonstrates this preoccupation.


Robert Rauschenberg

Cardbird III  1971

Rauschenberg’s Cardbird series plays with language in different ways. Aside from the obvious inclusion of the text printed on the works themselves, the title ‘cardbird’ is a play on ‘cardboard’, the material used to create the works. You can read more about the work here: http://nga.gov.au/Rauschenberg/

The Word pictures exhibition runs until February 10, 2013 – don’t miss it!

Behind the scenes: Tyler collection rehang

Because of their sensitivity to light, works on paper displays are changed more frequently than paintings or sculptures. This is great for regular visitors to the National Gallery, as it means added opportunity to see the breadth of the Tyler collection. For an idea of what is involved in changing a gallery display, this month we’re taking a behind-the-scenes tour of an International Prints rehang.

Rehanging a gallery is more complex than you might imagine and involves the coordination of many different departments. At least three months before a rehang takes place, curators decide what to display and negotiations with conservation, mount-cutting and framing staff as to how best exhibit and protect the works begin. We looked at this process in last month’s entry here. The Exhibition Design Department is consulted and sometimes a mock-up of the wall is created. Exhibition designers are also responsible for creating labels and wall texts when required.

As the date of the rehang approaches the Exhibitions Department liaise with registration staff to coordinate the movement of artwork between galleries and storage spaces. On the day of the rehang security staff block public access to areas where work is to be carried out, and the installations team prepare their equipment. Curatorial staff are on hand to layout the works and conservation staff are present to condition check the art as it comes off display.

In mid-November we installed Tyler collection works in the Pop and Contemporary International Art galleries. You can see what happened that day in the photo series below.

1. The gallery space is cordoned off from the public and the installations team bring their equipment in on trolleys.

2. Coming off display in the Pop gallery were Jasper John’s Color numeral series and two prints by David Hockney, to be replaced by Johns’ Black numeral series and Hockney’s Wind  and Snow from the Weather series. Going up in the Contemporary gallery were Spoleto circle and Balance by Richard Serra.

3. When laying out or removing works from the wall, the installations crew use blocks: framed works are never placed directly onto the ground, instead felt covered blocks are used to cushion any impact.

4. Works waiting to be hung are brought to the space by registration staff in A-frame trolleys. These trolleys will then be filled with works coming off display for return to storage

5. The conservation team inspect each work thoroughly to ensure that it is clean and bug-free before returning to storage. In the highly unlikely event that a bug has made it into the gallery space and onto an artwork, ensuring that it doesn’t then travel to art storage areas is essential.

6.Installations staff calculate where to insert hanging devices.

7. Curatorial staff observe the proceedings and advise where to position works. Despite careful planning, sometimes  proposed layouts change when the works are brought to the gallery space. This was the case here, when only two of the intended four Richard Serra works were hung.

8. The final hang. Make sure you come in and see these works in the flesh before they change again!




Jasper Johns: the ‘Color Numeral’ series


Currently on display at the National Gallery of Australia is Jasper Johns’ luminous Color Numeral series. Johns was at the forefront of the Pop Art movement and challenged the art establishment with works that feature ubiquitous symbols of the everyday. In his paintings and prints the American flag, letters, numbers, targets, arms and legs are reframed as the subject matter of fine art. The Color Numeral series shows each figure from zero through to nine rendered in brilliant hues. The dramatic, shifting colour spectrum in combination with drawn and found elements – scrawls, squiggles, Mona Lisa’s face, and the artist’s own handprint – give the prints a palpable, tactile quality.

In the late 1960s, under the direction of Ken Tyler, the print workshop Gemini GEL pushed the limits of printmaking, embracing all available technologies. This experimental ethos allowed artists to print on a larger scale and with more freedom than ever before. Created between 1968 and 1969, the ten works in the Color Numeral series were printed from the same stones Johns had used for his earlier Black Numeral series. Maintaining the delicate image for a second print series provided a challenge for the Gemini printers: using  the ‘rub-up’ technique learned from the French master Marcel Durassier, Tyler managed to create a low-relief image from the flat drawings on the stones, thus preserving the surface and allowing for a longer print-run.

A subsequent problem faced by the Gemini workshop was the inking of the large plates in order to capture the rich, multicoloured finish Johns required. In the artist’s smaller numeral prints, the plate was inked with a regular-sized roller which had been run throught the desired colours on a flat palette – a process impossible to replicate on a much larger scale. To achieve the smooth colour gradation the Gemini GEL workshop spent six months researching and adapting inking techniques and using rollers that would cover the large stones smoothly and adequately with a single rotation. The end result was a roller so large it could not be inked by one person. Instead, a hand-fed ‘inking fountain’ had to be devised. This rather complex machine consisted of four rollers which agitated the inks to achieve a slight blending, after which the large roller would be lowered and coated, ready to ink the stone.

Johns said of his printmaking practice: “…it’s the techniques that interest me. My impulse to make prints has nothing to do with my thinking it’s a good way to express myself. It’s more a means to experiment in the technique. What interests me is the technical innovation possible for me in printmaking.” His fascination with the possibilities of printmaking and Gemini GEL’s commitment to innovation made for a successful working relationship, to which the lustrous Color Numerals are testament.

In February this year, Johns was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/02/15/artist-jasper-johns-receives-presidental-medal-of-freedom/. To read more about Johns and the Colour Numeral series, and to see photographs of Johns at work in the Gemini GEL workshop, go to the Kenneth Tyler Printmaking Collection website: www.nga.gov.au/tyler/

Emilie Owens, March 2011


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 748 other followers

%d bloggers like this: