Marketing Mondays: Are You Ready for Your Retrospective?

.Installation of Lynda Benglis's 40-year retrospective at the New Museum, February 9-June 9, 2011 
(Image courtesy of The New Museum)

Earlier this year I went to the New Museum to see the Lynda Benglis retrospective. The work ranges from about 1970 to 2009, almost 40 years. While some of the poured latex pieces have settled into structural decline, they are an integral part of the artist's oeuvre and an essential milepost on her esthetic journey. I can't imagine a retrospective of her work without them.
I was thinking about this when I ran into my buddy Shane, who was also visiting the exhibition. Standing before one of those latex piecesthe Fallen Painting you see in the foreground of the image abovewe chatted about the whereabouts of our own work. Shane confessed that he has no idea where his pre-MFA work is, aside from a few pieces that he gave to friends. I admitted that I have nothing from my art school years save for one small abstraction in encaustic that my father put up in his tool room behind the garage. (My mother returned it to me after he'd passed away, which is how I have it now.) I also retain virtually nothing from the first 10 years of my careerwhen, frankly, it was not so much a "career" as a hand-to-mouth-existence marked by the moving and hauling I did with my pickup truck while collecting food stamps. I moved around so much that I left much of my stuff for "safekeeping" with friends. Considering that they also moved around, that early work has surely passed through portals into other quadrants of the universe.

The only painting I have from art school: Untitled, 1970, encaustic on panel, 14 x 12

OK, so most of that early work wasn't worth keeping. But when I look at this little abstraction in encaustic, I see all the seeds of what I do now: reductive field, repetitive elements, saturated color, and some of the same combinations of hue. Even the medium, which I promptly relinquished after the Painting Materials class requirement, came back into my life and is now the one in which I work most frequently.

My conversation with Shane prompted me to ask myself:

Do I have a record of my work?
Yes I do. I don't necessarily know where the work itself is but I have slides, and now digital images, of everything from the first few years after art school. I used to take the work outdoors on an overcast day
the cloud cover acting as the world's largest diffuserand shoot it against a light-colored wall (or, if it was small, against a larger gessoed canvas). 

Do I know where my recent work is?
Yes and no. I know what work each gallery has and what they have sold. But I don't have a complete record of whom the work was sold to. One gallery is scrupulous about including the name and address of the collector on the copy of the invoice she sends to me. Another has the information in her head and will share it; indeed, she often brings her artists and their collectors together for events in the gallery, but there's no written list. Others haven't provided the information and I, to my chagrin, haven't asked. It's not that I'm shy about inquiring; I'm just too freaking overworked to handle every administrative chore. And even if I had all the names of all those collectors, they more around, too, which means that the collector list would have to be updated regularly. (Yes, I need an assistant.)

How are the images archived?
I have slides of the early work. Every couple of years I move them into newer, more archival sleeves. The color has remained remarkably true. When I have a momentha!or when I get that assistant, I will scan the slides so that I have the images in digital form as well. The more recent work work I've shot digitally is organized in e-folders by series, by year, and by gallery. Here redundant redundancy is my motto. Some of you are using digital inventory systems, and I'd like to hear what they are.

How is the work maintained?
I can't speak for the condition of the work that's in private collections, but I'm going to trust that the work in institutional and museum collections is being monitored and maintained. As for the work in my possession, it's stored securely in a room that I try to maintain at 50% humidity.

Really, a retrospective?
OK, for most of us, the big retrospective will likely remain a moot issue. If and when MoMA comes calling for any one of us, I suspect their administration will track down the work they want to include and their conservation department will take the necessary steps to prepare it for exhibition. But given that we have spent most of our lives making arteven though we are willing to relinquish it after it's completed—it's just stupid of us to lose track of where it is.

Are you ready for your retrospective? How do YOU keep track of your work?

This will be the last Marketing Mondays for the year. Insciala I'll be reporting from Miami and then back at my desk posting about the fair for the entire month of December. It's not too late to Send Me to Miami. Covering the fairs is costly, and I write for three solid weeks after I return, posting features almost every day. Your contributions will provide much needed support.


Eva said...

About a decade ago I had digital files made of old slides, mostly from the 80s. I was surprised how washed out they were. Not true at all. But maybe digitalization is better now.

One thing I question is having so much of the art school painting to begin with. Every artist is different, but what I was once so attached to, I no longer am. I am one of those students who was pulled by teachers (all men, sorry to say)into things that were not me. I see all the traces of that in the work. Are there any other ex-students like that? Yeah, I have the work and I don't always see me there!

HOWEVER, all the punk posters, fanzines and collages, any of that from the 70s, some of it is in tattered shape and some of looking pristine and I am holding on to every bit of it.

Susan Schwalb said...

I have a digital inventory of all the slides I have ever taken, all the work I still have from art school etc. I began this inventory with an assistant in 2003 after my old system of record keeping of what had sold and what was available broke down. It took more than five years to scan old slides and photograph work that had no slides and make the entries. I push my dealers to get the names and hopefully addresses of my collectors but you are right they move around and then you lose contact with them but I try to keep the info current. I think every artist should have a digital inventory. I use filemaker pro as my software. The layout of the inventory was originally designed by a friend and then altered over time. And although I do still find mistakes in some entries (even the best assistant makes mistakes) it is a pretty good system. I can access what is on consignment in a flash, and where a work is and where I have shown it. This is an ongoing process as I of course continue to make art work. But I think every artist should have a digital inventory. So yes I am ready for my retrospective the question is when and where. I am more than happy to advise on creating an inventory. In truth one should start at the beginning of a career although practically that is unrealistic. But whenever you are professionally it is time to begin!

Note: my consignment form includes a provision that the dealer must tell me the name and address of the collectors who buy my work. Not every dealer does this but I do my best to get the information.

I also keep paper files of information on sold work in archival plastic sheets along with a slide or printed image of the work as a back up.

ska said...

I have tried to organize my early art work, reviews, catalogs, slides, but its hard to keep up with it, I'd rather take the time and make art. However,I do have a file cabinet of slides, originals and copies, and have scanned a selection and made digital images. But I'd have to quit my day job to really put it all in order. For one thing, I'm a collector, so I have some slides and artwork from college and post college work - 50 years ago. I have at least put reviews and articles in folders by the year, but I have too many copies, too many drawings and badly need to pare it all down. Certainly, there are several threads and themes that can be followed through all my work, from the earliest pre college. I do have my earliest post college encaustic paintings, and some of my earliest lost wax sculpture -- thats what got me back into encaustic, I wanted that texture, mattness,carvability. Susanne A

Donna Dodson said...

I have slides of my old work, prior to 2000 and since 2000 digital images on DVD and my hard drive plus a paper inventory of my pieces with titles, and collectors and an exhibition record with provenance. I try to keep in touch with my collectors via snail mail & email.

Ruth Hiller said...

I have used both Flick and GYST. They are both artwork databases which can catalog all of your work and you can divide it into exhibitions etc. GYST seems better if you are doing large installations, grant writing and proposals. Flick is great for inventory and record keeping of individual files.

I've seen a few digital scanning places on the internet who will scan slides at 2-4000 dpi for 1 price for a few hundred slides. I have never used them, It would be nice to get the thousands of filed slides out of the binders and into the trash! My friend Kate told me she threw away 2 hefty bags of slides!

Lauren Litwa Holden said...

I use a program called Art Tracker. It's greatly helped me to keep track of which piece is in which gallery/location and which painting is sold with buyer info, etc. It's not perfect but it has really made my life a lot easier in the studio.

Mery Lynn said...

When I finished grad school in printmaking, I took all my prints except for 3 editions, tore them up and used them as mulch in my garden. The garden looked great that year and I felt lighter, less encumbered. Every few years I move and use that as an opportunity to discard works. I keep the ones I like and the ones which make me uncomfortable. Maybe all of you arrived fully hatched, but I'm quite willing to admit that I did really crappy work for years until I undid most of the influences from grad school.

Joanne Mattera said...

Note to anonymous: I'm not posting your negative comment because it's anonymous. Identify yourself, put yourself out there the way I do, and I'll give you a forum for your opinion. But I will not sustain drive-bys. They're boorish and, more to the point, cowardly.

Joanne Mattera said...

And thanks to everyone else for adding to the discussion. Much appreciated.