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Hands on: Lesley Schiff, Flower in Hand, 1981, from the portfolio Seasons. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Perfect Copies: The Art of the Xerox

Michael Wilson

A show of photocopy art at the Whitney suggests that the office recycling bin might be worth a deep dive.

Hands on: Lesley Schiff, Flower in Hand, 1981, from the portfolio Seasons. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

It may have played a key role in the ethos and aesthetic of punk’s fanzine culture, but the humble photocopier isn’t generally thought of as a tool for serious art making; squatting on the office Xerox machine after a drunken holiday party is the closest most people get to subverting the ubiquitous gizmo’s intended function. Yet from the moment of its public introduction in the 1960s (the invention itself dates to 1937) through the rise of personal computing in the late ’80s, artists have found ways to exploit its distinctively gauzy, gritty interpretation of texture and tone. Excited by the photocopier’s neat fusion of camera and printer—and by its ready availability in copy shops and workplaces—they’ve produced a body of work that’s at once ephemeral and surprisingly printerly, testing notions of value and originality via a consistently playful strand of formal experiment.

Experiments in Electrostatics: Photocopy Art from the Whitney’s Collection, 1966–1986 at the Whitney explores the oft-overlooked medium through the work of three artists—Edward Meneeley, Lesley Schiff, and Robert Whitman—and the grandly named International Society of Copier Artists (ISCA). Meneeley rifled through the trash at IBM to salvage bits of tape and card, which he arranged into abstract compositions directly on the copier’s glass. Schiff too made use of found bits and bobs, introducing mid-copy movement and lighting to achieve painting-like results. Whitman, cofounder with Robert Rauschenberg and others of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), demonstrated a particular fondness for the Xerox 6500 model and its wild then-new capability: color! And the 500-member ISCA, for their part, gave the whole enterprise an air of legitimacy through lectures, shows, and workshops.

Here's a selection of works from the show, which is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through March 2018.

Lesley Schiff, Leopards, 1981, from the portfolio Seasons. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Lesley Schiff, Beachball, 1981, from the portfolio Seasons. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Walter Zimmerman, Floral Study to Italy, 1986, print #42 from the portfolio Xerography: The International Society of Copier Artists, New York. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Rebecca Stuckey, Uso Della Parete, 1986, print #36 from the portfolio Xerography: The International Society of Copier Artists, New York. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York