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Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.

Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.

  • Friday, June 9, 2017

    The Modern Machine

    The Smith College Museum of Art is dedicated to bringing out works on paper into the main galleries, where all visitors can see them. Since works on paper are more sensitive to light than other mediums, SCMA has installed special Works on Paper cabinets throughout the galleries for the display of prints, drawings and photographs. Today’s post is part of a series about the current installations of the Works on Paper cabinets, which will remain on view through summer 2017. 

    Charles Sheeler. American, 1883 - 1965. Drive Wheels. 1939. Gelatin silver print .Gift of Dorothy C. Miller (Mrs. Holger Cahill), class of 1925. SC 1978:34

    Charles Sheeler’s paintings and photographs of machinery were quintessential depictions of the American industrial age. Though they span a variety of time periods, the selected photographs in this cabinet—one of which is by Sheeler—capture a fascination with the aesthetics of power. Absent of their human architects and operators, these machines stand alone in their photographs. These artists found beauty in the functionality of these new machines, capturing fixed images of these inherently dynamic mechanisms.


    Imogen Cunningham. American, 1883 - 1976. Fageol Ventilators. 1934. Gelatin silver print mounted on paperboard. Purchased. SC 1976:19-9

    Cunningham and Noskowiak both depict their respective industrial sites as objects of physical beauty, drawing attention to the straight, grid-like towers of Fageol Ventilators and the rolling curves of Machinery.  Close-cropped and silhouetted against empty skies, the photographs are absent of any indication as to what purpose these machines actually serve.

    Sonya Noskowiak. American born Germany, 1900-1975. Machinery. n.d. Vintage gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. SC 2006:56-37


    Ruth Gray. American, 20th century. Study of Sculpture in Front of Ford Building at World's Fair. 1939. Gelatin silver print. Purchased. SC 1939:13-1


    The statue in the photograph on the right conveys the concept of machinery rather than the reality—abstracting its forms into bold curves and threaded towers. It is a massive, futuristic visualization of the power of technology, displayed at the World’s Fair, one of the most popular tourist attractions of its generation.


    William M. Rittase. American, 1887-1968. Industrial Collage. 1930's. Vintage gelatin silver print. Purchased with the fund in honor of Charles Chetham. SC 2010:41-2

    Upon initial comparison, the Ritasse photograph seems like a simple image of a factory. However, he uses multiple exposures to superimpose images of a moving wheel and smokestacks upon one another. Ritasse takes the precision and attention to detail seen in this genre of photography and twists it to the surreal, giving this “collage” an uncanny feel.


  • Friday, May 19, 2017

    Reunion Class Gifts

    William Kentridge. South African, 1955–. Atlas Procession I. 2000. Soft-ground etching, aquatint, drypoint, letterpress, and hand painting on BFK Rives paper. Purchased with gifts in memory of Christine Swenson, class of 1972.       

    Welcome back, reunion classes! We’re so excited to have you all on campus. Today and next Friday, the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs is open to the public on the second floor of the Museum. Art donated by your classmates is on view for you and everyone to see.

    Nikki S. Lee. Korean, 1970-. Untitled from The Punk Project (2). 1997. Duraflex print (2/5). Duraflex print (2/5). 

    In addition, admission fees are also waived for both Commencement and Reunion Weekends.

    Stop by and take a look!

    Leslie Starobin. Italian, 1781–1835. Untitled. 1989 negative; 1990 print. C-print. Gift of Ruth Rosen Singer, class of 1952.


  • Friday, April 21, 2017

    New York’s Most Famous Unknown Artist

    Kate Dempsey Martineau '04 was an OCIP Intern in the Cunningham Center during her senior year at Smith. She has since earned her doctorate in art history from the University of Texas in Austin and taught at both Keene State College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her book Her book Selective Inheritance: Ray Johnson in Correspondence with and Beyond Marcel Duchamp is forthcoming from the University of California Press. is forthcoming from the University of California Press.

    Two collages by “New York’s most famous unknown artist,” Ray Johnson, have recently arrived at SCMA as part of a promised gift. These are the first works by Johnson in the Five Colleges.

    Johnson is known for his work in two media: collage and the mail. A prolific letter writer and illustrator, Johnson’s postal project grew dramatically over the years to become the New York Correspondence School. Ed Plunkett, a friend of Johnson’s, gave the group this title in reference to the New York School (another name for the Abstract Expressionists) as well as the popular classes one could take through the mail. Johnson dictated who could be a part of the school by sending out mailings to his chosen participants. After 1958 Johnson’s mailings often included the instructions “Please Send To [a specific person]” so that the first recipient served as a middleman. At times Johnson encouraged the first person to add to the contents before forwarding them, thus confusing the idea of authorship.

    Johnson began working in collage around 1952. His early works tend to be spare emphasizing his strong sense of formal composition—he studied with Josef Albers, after all. He also served as an assistant for Ad Reinhardt in the early 1950s, whose work at this time was equally minimalist.

    The first collage promised to SCMA is untitled and dates from the early 1950s and is very different than the work for which Johnson is best known. One could argue that this work is not actually a collage, for it does not appear to have involved any pasting (the usual criteria for the medium). Rather it consists of hand cut circles selectively emphasized with black ink. At first glance (or particularly in reproduction) one might assume that the white circles were added with paint just like the black or even that the black is what was cut away. The holes’ slight irregularity, their arrangement that never conforms to a perfect spiral, and the seemingly random highlighting with ink cause the work to visually pulsate or even spin in a counter clockwise direction. Although all of the white circles remain round (if slightly irregular), the range of shapes created with the black ink call to mind the phases of the moon and therefore contribute to the idea of orbiting. Later on Johnson would work in the negative in an analogous way, creating star-like specs of white amid dark sections of his collages by meticulously inking around small areas of blank page.

    Johnson, Ray. American (1927 - 1995). Untitled ("Perforated Drawing"),  ca. 1950. Ink on paper. Promised gift from a Private Collection, Houston.

    Over the years Johnson’s collages became more and more complex, often incorporating pieces of earlier works that he cut up. The second collage, Pink, features many of Johnson’s favorite motifs: a cupid, a urinating snowman, morphing black shapes, hints of text, and collaged tesserae (small pieces probably from earlier collages that Johnson has cut up, mounted, and glued on to this collage).

    Johnson, Ray. American (1927 - 1995). The Pink Collage, 1973. Graphite, sanding, acrylic, watercolor, gouache, ink, crayon and cardboard on thick, smooth, white paper. Promised gift from a Private Collection, Houston.

    Although the cupid figure appears in many of Johnson’s collages and mail art in this example its “arrow” has been exchanged for what looks like a double headed penis or dildo. Johnson dates this collage to 1973 but dating his work can be tricky—Johnson often worked on collages for years and typically noted the dates of each edition so that a string of dates may be associated with one collage. Curiously (although not necessarily related) in 1974 Johnson’s friend, Lynda Benglis published her infamous photo spread that included a double headed dildo. At some point Johnson posed nude for Benglis in a series of polaroids holding her spectacular prop. In one he holds it up to his face like a gigantic smile.

    The urinating snowmen (or Buddhas as Johnson alternatingly called them) are usually understood as a Zen reference to water and waste (or lack thereof) and the continually flowing and changing nature of the universe. While playful, like much of Johnson’s oeuvre, these figures also have ominous overtones for snowmen invariably melt, becoming water once more.

    Detail of The Pink Collage

    The ambiguous, continually changing black shapes throughout the collage sometimes appear zoomorphic. The five above Johnson’s signature mimic the shape of Duchamp’s Paris Air, a readymade created by asking a pharmacist to break and reseal a glass vial thus capturing some air in Paris. Johnson, who defined everything through correspondence, often quoted Duchamp’s art and ideas and situated himself as an heir of the well-known artist.

    If the cupid is breathing out Paris Air, he/she is breathing in through a large pipe. This is likely a reference to one of Johnson’s other favorite French artists, Rene Magritte’s famous work Ceci n'est pas une pipe—an image that Johnson played with often in his art. Collage is a particularly appropriate medium for this reference since many times the images are physically taken from other sources (even if in Johnson’s case the other source is another of his own collages) so they are “real” rather than illusions of what they represent.

    Detail of The Pink Collage

    The bright pink paint in the center of the cupid’s lower head is something that Johnson added to many of his collages in 1973. A brief obsession, it really bothered some of his friends and collectors. The artist Peter Schyuff who owned this work at one time recalls feeling very distracted by the pink. Johnson sometimes did not give his collectors much choice in terms of which collages they could purchase, according to Schyuff.  He would have finally saved up enough to buy something and then the only thing Johnson would claim to have available was a collage that Schyuff had issues with. Schyuff recalls: “Ray was fascinated by the fact that I didn't like this work.” Johnson’s advice when he heard that one of his friends disliked the “pink lumps” in a collage was to “paint over them with a grey wash.”

    The other color in the collage, the vibrant blue at the bottom near the cupid’s knees, is most likely a fragment of one of Johnson’s early collages. He did a whole series involving cutting venetian blind-like strips, arranging them slightly off kilter, and then sanding down the paint to give them an intriguing, weathered texture. 

    Detail of The Pink Collage

    These two collages represent very different periods in Johnson’s oeuvre—one a very unique early work, the other a more prototypical Johnson. Both are valuable additions to the Museum’s collection, offering students the opportunity to learn about an artist who is just now experiencing renewed interest from the art world. Like most artists, Johnson’s collages really come alive when you stand in front of them and can appreciate the detail, the careful craftsmanship, and the layered (both literal and figural) humor that can easily be missed in reproduction. I encourage you to come see these works for yourself!