Photograph by Mitchell Feinberg for New York Magazine, 2006
For two years, I’ve had this image on the wall in my studio — a step-by-step examination of a gradually diminishing Mallomar
— which (other than a possible symbol for the slow food movement) is compelling because it is both one thing and many things: part x-ray, part information graphic, this photograph by Mitchell Feinberg
(from a 2006 issue of New York Magazine
) takes an untouched morsel of puffed chocolate and renders it, over time, with the diagnostic precision of a crime scene. Migrating swiftly from macro to micro, Feinger's portrait takes us from complete cookie to granular crumb in twenty simple steps.
But within those twenty steps lies the deconstruction of something much more basic, and it illuminates the degree to which the series, when shown on a single surface, carries with it a kind of implicit satisfaction that a series disseminated over time does not.Early Netherlandish Diptych, National Gallery of Art
The study of multiples has a long history, dating back to early Christian literature and enduring through the Middle Ages as diptychs
and altarpieces, panel paintings and other thematically connected structures of two. (Some aped a book structure, and many could even be open and shut.) While examples of dual and even triple images prevailed through the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries — advances in printing and photographic technologies eventually making such work more readily achievable— the heyday of real multiples didn’t come until the early 1960s, when artists like Claes Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol played with repeat images, increasingly negotiating the simultaneous presences of multiple images on a single plane.Andy Warhol, 100 Cans, 1962
The advent of the editioned imprint, a fundamentally modern-day conceit, made the repeat production of a single thing immensely more manageable, and indeed, more economically viable. (This very gesture loosely paralleled the mass production we came to associate with modern life in the second half of the 20th century.) But it is one thing to collect over time, exercising the curatorial impulse to aggregate with selectivity: in this case, the series is created by the individual, and the enjoyment of the series exists as a function of the chase. You, the collector, decide what is variable and what is constant, and by defining the paramaters, establish the organizational criteria that frame the collection — ergo
, a series. Conversely, when the series itself is provided as a completed set of actions, that time-based endeavor is virtually nullified. Benjamin Sabatier, Bacs 014, 2005
The Parisian artist, Benjamin Sabatier
, takes familiar objects — scotch tape dispensers, ice cube trays — and creates sculptural objects in which the ubiquitous, manmade form is repeated ad infinitum. Sabatier’s grids adhere to a kind of geometric rhythm, and his fidelity to that rhythm is offset by the contents of his creations. One tape dispenser alone, awaiting another, is hardly a series: but when stacked into a sculptural entity, the gestalt of the whole is considerably more satisfying. You can see all the pieces, observe their repetition, and feel a visceral sense of satisfaction — a mental completion, even — as a result. Sabatier's ice cube trays provide a grounded armature — a sort of three-dimensional grid — and once you comprehend the structure you’re ready for the chaos within it.
John Giorno, from Welcoming the Flowers, 2007
Adopting the visual lexicon of the graphic designer, John Giorno
’s screenprinted poems are typographic compositions that beckon to echoes of springtime (bursts of pastel colors, names of flowers) with limited means. Condensed letterforms welcome the delights of horticultural novelty, but with a twist: words like “narcotic” and “betrayed” are initially easy to ignore, and soon disturbing to discover. Taken singly, the poems are pleasant and unassuming: but as a series seen all at once, they’re thinly veiled visual haikus requiring a kind of tacit psychological adjustment, an extra moment to take it all in. What you see may be what you get — but it's not what you were really expecting to get.
This relationship between what you see and what you expect to see is, I think, the entire point. If a series of things appearing together lacks the dramatic denouement of the series released over time, it is perhaps because, like Giorno’s piece above, such work tends to prey on our expectations for completion. That said, some of the most compelling series are those which seem to intentionally subvert
that completion, severing the connection between the mind and the eye, the parts and the whole, the crumbs and the cookie. For designers struggling to rationalize the very level of consistency that our work demands, there is often an equal desire to resist the inevitable boredom that comes with playing by such rules — playing, perhaps, being the operative idea.
At the end of the day, a series is really a story waiting to be told. Whether told in diptych, triptych, multi-paned storyboard or editioned variation, the desire to orchestrate in multiples remains at the core of so much of who we are. It's probably not the urge to get it right that keeps us coming back for more, but a series' capacity for endless iteration that draws us in, makes us wonder, pushes us to see something diferently. In so doing, the multiplied form continues to endure, vividly mirroring our own mysterious, by definition changeable — and indeed, fragmented — cultural identity. The series, I think, is us.