Barnett Newman, "Two Edges," 1948, oil on canvas, 48 x 36," Museum of Modern Art, gift of Annalee Newman (by exchange). © 2010 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS)Mark Rothko, "No. 1 (Untitled)," 1948, oil on canvas, 8' 10 3/8" x 9' 9 1/4," Museum of Modern Art, gift of the artist. © 2010 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS)
Last year I was in the downstairs gallery at the legendary Salmagundi Art Club on Fifth Avenue, and was not surprised to see that all the paintings, each a figurative image and made within the previous year, had been artfully signed by the artists. The painters had developed distinctive signatures and placed them unobtrusively in corners, using colors that blended in with without getting lost. A small detail perhaps, but whether or not artists include their signatures on the front (recto) of their paintings indicates where they situate themselves on the continuum of art history. If it’s in the range from later Abstract Expressionism to Pop to Conceptualism and Minimalism to Post-modernism, the painting won’t have a signature--unless it’s an ironic gesture. If, on the other hand, the artist is aligned with the more conservative European figurative tradition rooted in perceptual study, the painting will be signed.
Ironic: Josh Smith's signature paintings
Not ironic: A detail from G. Shephard's painting at a Salmagundi Club exhibition.
The Impressionists all signed their work, as did the Cubists and the early Abstract Expressionists. A casual study of MoMA’s online collection reveals that even “Two Edges,” a 1948 Barnett Newman minimalist painting, was signed and dated on the front, while “No.1 (Untitled),” painted the same year by Mark Rothko, was not. Rothko, whose work came back into the spotlight this year when RED hit Broadway (and won a Tony award), was interested in expressing emotion through color and saw looking at art as a spiritual experience. Presumably he stopped signing the front of the painting because he realized that the signature would hinder the viewer’s ability to become immersed in the art.
In the Sixties and Seventies, as Minimalists like Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin pared art down to its essential elements, the signature was tossed aside for obvious reasons. More broadly, artists came to believe that adding a signature was an aesthetic choice rather than a requirement for exhibition; artists assumed that viewers would know who made each piece based on the use of materials and subject matter, which rendered a signature redundant. Willem de Kooning and others pointedly continued to sign their work to indicate that they were hopelessly – and proudly – old-school. Others, like Robert Motherwell, treated the signature as a compositional element and signed paintings on a case-by-case basis throughout their careers.
Recently I’ve begun to question the preciously perpetuated disdain among contemporary artists for signing artwork. Like Twittering, blogging and Facebooking a signature enables artists, most of whom will never achieve international recognition in their lifetime, to say Hey, I’m here. Wouldn’t contemporary artists, unlikely to stick with a single medium for one exhibition (let alone an entire career) benefit from signing artwork where viewers can see it? And what if, when they're dead, the use of wall labels and didactic panels is no longer standard practice? Artists who work in disembodied, ephemeral media like social sculpture, performance and video may not care, but I imagine object-makers do.