More Than Words

Paul Klee, “Alphabet II” (1938)

As both medium and subject matter, the newspaper has had a long history of serving as inspiration for some of our greatest artists, and with print journalism seemingly going the way of the dinosaur as we continue our inexorable transition to digitally-based means of communication (bye-bye Newsweek, as seen last week), an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is an intriguing retrospective look at a richly creative relationship that has spanned more than 100 years.

Shock of the News (the name is a bow to the late and famed art critic Robert Hughes, whose TV series and book Shock of the New educated millions as to modern art), brings together pieces ranging from Picasso to Rauschenberg (Warhol had his own similarly themed show, Headlines, at NGA last year) as examples of the influence that the newspaper has exerted on some of the most imaginative minds of their time.

It’s not a “shock” that Picasso would be among the first to connect the cross-disciplinary dots, with a snippet from France’s Le Journal appearing at the corner of his 1912 Guitar, Sheet Music, Glass (above left), followed by such noteworthies as Max Weber (The Sunday Tribune from 1913, left), and Paul Klee, whose 1938 Alphabet II is seen at top. Ellsworth Kelly contributed his own playful self-portrait in cut-out newsprint. One of my favorites is the piece shown at bottom, Untitled (Diver) by Paul Thek, a 1970 watercolor-like acrylic drawn on newspaper, where the waves in the water were created by creases borne down by the weight of the paint.

Though the curator of the current exhibition maintains that 21st-Century artists have been incorporating newspapers in their work as much as their predecessors did, it’s safe to assume that this venerable interplay has pretty much seen its zenith. Which makes Shocking News (running through January 27) an even timelier tribute to all the news that was fit…to paint.

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