By Erica Eisen
March of 2018 marked the closing of Experiments in Electrostatics, an exhibition organized by Whitney curatorial fellow Michelle Donnelly that provided a sampling of works produced by American artists who used the photocopier as their medium between 1966 and 1986. Collectively, the pieces on display troubled the divide between creation and replication, terms often on opposite poles of a ne’er-the-twain-shall-meet binary. Of the show’s four sections, two were devoted to individual women artists, Lesley Schiff and Barbara T. Smith, while a third area of focus was the International Society for Copier Artists (ICSA). A collective with a membership composed largely of women, ICSA was founded by Louise Neaderland in 1981 to promote the legitimacy of copy machine art. While the exhibition never raises the matter directly, lying behind the works on display is both a long history of women artists being dismissed as mere copyists and the simultaneous trend of women in the workplace being confined to tasks related to copying. In light of these historical phenomena, copier artists’ critique of the originality-reproduction dichotomy takes on deeper, more political dimensions.
Artists who experimented with xerography –– using photocopiers, laser printers, and the like to make and reproduce artworks –– did not merely use copy machines to distribute their artwork; they also used their art to investigate the creative potential of the devices themselves. Rather than simply replicating images, xerographic artists cut and pasted, combined and recombined, folded and bound, and experimented with recopying, overlay, and other effects.
The works that appeared in The ISCA Quarterly were imaginative, formally innovative, and frequently undergirded by a difficult-to-pinpoint eeriness. In the 1986 issue, Rebecca Stuckey destabilized the comforting familiarity of domestic space by captioning images of a home with otherworldly titles like “possible wall,” “radiation,” and “darkens,” while Mitzi Humphrey created a similar effect with her facsimiles of rubbings of doily-like patterns. The most engaging xerographic works frequently accomplish a level of détournement, rendering the familiar strange and disrupting our typical perceptual frameworks.
Rather than simply replicating images, xerographic artists cut and pasted, combined and recombined, folded and bound, and experimented with recopying, overlay, and other effects.
In an essay for the 1986 edition of The ISCA Quarterly, art librarian and curator Judith Hoffberg quoted philosopher Marshall McLuhan as saying, “Caxton and Gutenberg enabled all men to become readers, Xerox has enabled all men to become publishers.” She added, “Just substitute ‘artists’ for ‘men’ and you have the beginning of a revolution.”
Hoffberg was not the only one to note the radical accessibility of copier art. In another contribution to the same issue, art book scholar Clive Phillpot wrote, “I salute your initiative in bringing this democratic art form [the artist booklet] into the same orbit as your democratic medium [xerography].” A decade before the founding of the ISCA in 1981, Linda Nochlin’s wryly titled essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” paved the way for the field of feminist art history by laying bare the sort of institutional barriers that prevent women and other marginalized groups from ascending to the pantheon of Artistic Genius. Yet by advocating for the validity of xerography as a medium –– and celebrating the scrappy aesthetic it encouraged –– the ISCA sought to provide a means of bypassing the art world’s traditional gatekeepers.
This degree of creativity and conceptual complexity contrasts sharply with the historic purposes of copying technology as well as the ends to which women were traditionally expected to employ it. In the 19th century, industrialization and the rise of mass media meant that ever-more copies of ever-more texts were required, and women were able to find employment outside the home doing clerical work, such as shorthand, transcription, and office machine maintenance. If tasks like these offered a higher-paid and more respectable alternative to work as a domestic or in a textile mill, they still restricted women to the status of “machine-like” laborers.
This idea that women were capable of copying but not of true creativity was mirrored in critics’ response to female artists into the 20th century. Reviewers frequently failed to include the names of women artists they were writing up, as though denying their status as autonomous creators, while discussions of women’s biographies almost invariably focused on enumerating their connections to famous men.
Women so employed remained largely barred from jobs thought to demand intelligence, ingenuity, and invention, which were the domain of men. Cultural historian Hillel Schwartz recounts in his social history of copying that “[i]n 1890s print shops, union men fought to keep women from operating linotype machines which cast type a full line at a time; a master printer might hire a woman but would restrict her, testified one man, to ‘straight composition [setting character by character], to make as much as possible an automaton of her.’”
This idea that women were capable of copying but not of true creativity was mirrored in critics’ response to female artists into the 20th century. Reviewers frequently failed to include the names of women artists they were writing up, as though denying their status as autonomous creators, while discussions of women’s biographies almost invariably focused on enumerating their connections to famous men –– to the exclusion of any serious analysis of the women’s work itself, as art historian Paula Birnbaum has argued. Major dealers and cultural commentators continued to dismiss women’s art as derivative, an idea that comes through even in passages that the author intended to be complimentary. “What women contribute to art,” art critic Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in 1912, “is not technical innovation but rather taste, intuition, and something like a new and joyous vision of the universe.” If originality was the polestar virtue of avant-gardism, constructing a narrative that denied it to women essentially meant writing women out of the history of modern art.
Women were consistently marginalized as mere copyists in a cultural milieu that came increasingly to value originality. And viewed in this light, even simple xerographic works become potential staging grounds for complex social critiques. Coming after abstract expressionism, which emphasized the importance of the lone (almost always male) artist’s hand in the production of great art, xerographic images, often wildly unique, subvert this value system by offering a mode of originality that lacks the kind of visible “gesture” supplied in action painting. What’s more, xerography contests the creator-copyist binary that had long been used to devalue the labor of women both in the arts and in the office.
These works suggest that replication is an inherent part of creativity and that copying itself can be executed in highly original ways. Women artists who made use of copiers in their artistic practice disrupted familiar narratives about the role of women in technological and artistic development, making innovative and often irreverent use of new technologies to create a body of work that tacitly criticizes the traditional dismissal of women’s intellectual capacity for invention. While the rise of the digital saw artists gradually move away from the xerox process in favor of more current modes of technological art production, xerography’s spirit of democratic access and its challenge to accepted aesthetic value systems have outlasted the movement itself.
Hillel Schwart, The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles (New York: Zone Books, 2014).
Linda, Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power and other essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
Paula Birnbaum, Women Artists in Interwar France: Framing Feminities (Surrey, UK, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011).
Erica Eisen received her undergraduate degree in History of Art & Architecture from Harvard University and her MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Guardian, Hazlitt, The Threepenny Review, Electric Literature, The Harvard Review, Artnet, and elsewhere.
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