Assignment 2 Preparation: Allan McCollum, Surrogates and his time

In preparation of my assignment with Allan McCollum-s ‘Plaster Surrogates’ as subject matter I am looking here more into the artist McCollum and his time in art and culture. For this purpose, I created a Pinterest board with collection of Allan McCollum’s works as well as with other assignment relevant images (e.g. ‘Monochrome’, cultural images)

I describe here in the following a brief overview of Allan McCollum’s work between 1970 and 1988 based on my research of several texts and books. That information, more desriptive than critical reflected throughout, will be a base for my assignment essay in more contexutal and critical approach. At times I added my thoughts and at the end I collected some references in a loose manner relating to some keywords that I do think as important in understanding Mc Collum’s work.


Allan McCollum (b. 1944 in Los Angeles) lived and worked in New York City since 1975. He was influenced and inspired by a vast group of artists in the 1960s around painting and sculpture: Eva Hesse and Richard Serra; Sol LeWitt and Daniel Buren; Robert Ryman, Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein (Rorimer, 1989) Other influences came from performance and theater. His parents were involed in local theater and Mc Collum relates his ‘Plaster Surrogates’ to ‘the gallery as a sort of stage set, with props that stood for painting.’ (Dellinger, 2013) He was much influenced by the Fluxus movement with their goal ‘to taken away the mystery of being an artist … and devalue the mystic.’ (Art21, 2010). McCollum’s approach to ‘mass-produced’, social status of ‘fine-art’ and cultural context is based on a class-consciousness built around his own biography and the political environment of the 1960s.

Stefan513593 - Assignment2 - Allan McCollum - log images - 5

Stefan513593 – Assignment2 – Allan McCollum – log images – 5

There is a continous theme going through McCollum’s body of work, especially betwen the late 1960s till end 1980s. His earlier works were in the beginning e.g. ‘Bleach Painting‘ 1969 and ‘Constructed Painting‘,  1970-71 very much influenced around the modernist question of self-referentiality and delimination of the form of painting. His use of unstretched canvas with staining technique takes references to Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitiski. The repetitive rather mechanically application of stripes, either additive or ‘subtractively’ with bleach or tape, was an approach practiced by Barnett Newman and others. The concept of repitition was one key feature of Minimal Art. The elimination of pictorial pictures towards a rather literal approach in painting was the consequence of Modernist painting in the 1950s and 1960s. (Rorimer, 1989)

It inwards, literalist approach started to turn outwards with his work ‘Untitled Paper Constructions‘, 1975. Against the Modernist convention of internal relationshop image and outer edge, McCollum correlated image and edge interdependently rather than mutually exclusively (Rorimer, 1989). The final repetitive works are ‘constantly re-used to systematically and mechanically engender ongoing permutations of form.’ (Rorimer, 1989) McCollum was influenced by ongoing works by Sol LeWitt and Daniel Buren, both linked to Minimal Art. The extension of space from internal pictoral space towards outer space, the room of the exhibition was inspired by Sol Le Witt ’embracing exhibition space as a complete entity – as one idea’  and ’emptying the canvas of previous types of subject matter’ (Rorimer, 1989). From Daniel Buren’s ‘Stripes’ painting came the idea that those can by applied anywhere and on any surface with the notion of ‘neutral sign for painting’ (Rorimer, 1989).

One key aspect in understanding McCollum’s work is the notion of how to see painting. Still in a Modernist conception as ‘replenished painting with quintessential non-illusionistic forms of self-referential content’ and as Robert Ryman described a new perspective of traditional seening that ‘It has been shown that there are possibilities other than this manner of ‘seeing’ (1979, in: Rorimer, 1989). Painting was a continuous reflection on painting. This struggle with painting and from a Modernist perspective inwards refereentiality, was eventually making McCollum to see painting in a larger context, a cultural and social context, ‘a painting is something often found over a couch’ (Rorimer, 1989). Here he relates back to Henri Matisse expression when he said why he paints:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue – Matisse ‘Notes of a Painter’, 1908


A kind of turnaround was McCollum’s work ‘Untitled‘, 1977 that can be seen as the precursor for his object serial works Surrogate Paintings‘, 1978-82 and ‘Plaster Surrogates‘, 1982/84. In Fluxus manner to challenge conventions and the preconceived methods of realization of art, McCollum developed his paintings as a specific kind of art into more generic orbjects that act as sign for art. The context of a painting in context of cultural history became the subject matter and ‘signs for painting’ as McCollum stated. According to McCollum he was inspired by having the ‘opportunity to look into the office spaces housed in other buildings across the way and see paintings hanging on the wall’. He related this experience with thought of ‘anonymous objects that functioned primarly to fill the wall space’. (Anker, 2009, p.100)

The ‘Surrogates’ as sign and ‘picture objects’ were based on paradigmatic formal elements of frame, mat, and black picture portion. (Wilmes, 1988). The ‘Surrogate Paintings’ were still been made from hand out of wood, museum board, and monochromatically painted (though without a ‘gestural’ trace of the artist hand) as the first step of negating the difference between ‘handicraft and artistic work in the production of a picture’. The following ‘Plaster Surrogates’ went further into the serial production and methods of mouldind and casting. The formal elements became one plaster object and the indication as the ‘sign for painting’ was done through handpainted ‘frame’ and ‘black picture portion’. As McCollum was stating this approach was to devalue a superiority of the artist work and placing it at the same level as mass produced consumer goods.  (Wilmes, 1988)

Stefan513593 - Assignment2 - Allan McCollum - log images - 2

Stefan513593 – Assignment2 – Allan McCollum – log images – 2

A key aspect for McCollum was location context based on installation concepts in public spaces. Initially the ‘Surrogate Paintings’ were hanging with space around each object. He noted a tension between the viewer’s attention to the foreground and the installation as such. In order to contradict the contemplative absorption of the viewer in one individual object, he developed the installation concept further towards a packed cluster hangings, were the visual impact of one object became secondary to the overall visual appeal. He took reference to historical hangings in the Salons in Paris (Martini ‘Exposition au Salon du Louvre en 1787) and department stores as a contradiction to contemporary gallery hangings. HE dubbed that ‘Surrogates on Location’ as the differentating elements of visual quality of the ‘picture-objects’ and the a mediated visual information and scenic action, a staged scene. (Wilmes, 1988). McCollum took in the preparation photos from magazine, interior designs with frames pictures hanging on the wall, a distant visual information that acted in the superior visual context of the interior. This bifold perceptual field of visual information was the base for McCollum project goal to juxtapose the importance of pictures as a basic constituent of our culture that ‘furnished our livings’ as a personal experience and the visual flooding of stimuli by modern media and mass consumption that diminishes the importance of a single picture (Wilmes, 1988) By that the ‘Plaster Surrogate’ more than the ‘Surrogate Paintings’ act according to Wilmes as a ‘metaphor of disrespect for the picture’s identity’.

The interrogation of mass-produced works versus originality and inviduality was further the main theme in his series ‘Perpetual Photo‘, 1982/89 and ‘Individual‘, 1987/88. The value of individual artistic work versus the uniform and standarized mass-produced goods are a main concern fo McCollum as the ‘reduction of artistic action to a concept of work, of efficiency, with socia relevance being based on the confirmation of handed down power structures’ (Wilmes, 1988).

The question of ‘efficiency, artistic action’ and ‘handed down power structures’ could be discussed in the context of the practice by contemporary artists.  Instead of one artist a whole team of engineers, technicians etc. are at times heavily involved in the execution of one piece of work. Examples are either the large scale painting studio practice of Gerhard Richter, the heavily engineering works by Christo or the recent large-scale public mural as part of Liverpool’s Sgt Pepper at 50 celebration by Judy Chicago, executed by a painter team while she has been watching it on a webcam from her home in US (Campion, 2017).

Thus, one can see in McCollum’s works a clear line from painting to art objects, from self-referentiality in painting from a modernistic inwards towards a contextual and cultural outwards perspective. In that sense he started very much as a son of his time ‘When I became an artist, I thought that meant being a painter’ (in an interview with Jade Dellinger, 2013)

Wilmes sees the place of the viewer or spectator or ‘consumer’ in McCollum’s work through the ‘choice of alternative options as an important factor to define his indivuality himself and thus fit its identity’ (Wilmes, 1988) The viewer is confronted with  ‘the illusion of the freedom of choice’. The paradox installation of McCollum’s ‘Surrogates’ makes the viewer insecure in his decision by being confronted with and refused by the presentation of repetitive quasi-identical form-structures’. There is a constant swith between an advancing look with the result that the ‘picture-object’ refuses to disclose its identity, and a distant view resulting in the incomprehension of grasping its total complexity of the installation and the wish to find common characteristics of that group as a whole.

I am going now a bit more in detail on some key words – some of them already outlined in my intial brainstorm – that I found during my research quite important in understanding McCollum’s work ‘Plaster Surrogates’.

Description of ‘Plaster Surrogate’, 1982/4

=> A moulded and casted rectangular object (hydrostone, very hard plaster, and enamel paint), consisting of three formal visual parts: frame, mat, rectangle in lieu of a picture, handpainted black center and ‘frame’ style, various sizes

  • Painting:
    – ‘painting is ultimately defined by its context. And all contexts are within contexts within other contexts.’ (Dellinger, 2013)
    – reference to background pictures hanging as context of larger situation, Mc Collum “the ghost of content” (Rorimer, 1989)
    – an ‘object of desire and prestige’  (Foster et al., 2011, pp. 645-646)
    – art in society that goes beyond into areas of decoration, item of exchange, symbol of prestige, possession of personal worth (Rorimer, 1989)
    – ‘a language of collectibles that reflected the language of social status, social function’ (Dellinger, 2013)
    – ‘What we consume is the object not in its materiality but in its difference’  (Owens, 1992, p. 118)
    – ‘Fine art is a symptom’ (Dellinger, 2013)
  • Surrogates:
    – surrogate as dominator for sign
    – impression of an arbitrary object, blank casted objects (Starke, 2012)
    – ‘Sign for painting‘ as for the ‘total quality of all pictures in general’ (Wilmes, 1988), ‘imitation of imitating’ , here McCollum cites Greenberg  where he stated that “avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating” (‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, 1988, p.542)
    – Surrogate aka Substitute aka Imitation, a pattern in art, culture and society (Anker, 2009)
    – ‘Picture-objects’
    – the literal content as its own depiction, the content is defined through the form, the form represents itself (Rorimer, 1989)
    – a signifier that stands ‘in the place of social relations, objectifiying them in a displaced way’ (George Baker in: Starke, 2012)
    – the absence of contet brings the viewer’s attention to the meaning of content in general (Rorimer, 1989)
    – Surrogate as fake, a place-holder, facilitating engagement and discourse.
    – or as Baudrillard stated ‘only the forgery can still satisfy our thirst for authenticity.’ (Owens, 1992, p. 117)
    – ‘Surrogates can also stand for other framed objects – like family photographs, a certificate of merit etc.’ (Dellinger, 2013)
    – McCollum took the concept of sign and symbol further in his later work ‘Perfect Vehicles‘, 1985, when he considers ‘jars and vases are hugely culturally symbolic as collectibles’  and his objects as ‘symbol for symbols’ (Dellinger, 2013)
    – satirizing painting as fetish commodity (Anker, 2009)
  • Mass-Production:
    – ‘Surrogates’ made through reproductive moulding process
    – McCollums feels it annoying when ‘an artist is making limited editions, rejecting the master mould so that the value is higher’ (Art21, 2010)
    – He is quite class conscious in his critique of culture and wanted to comment and question concepts that ‘ “Mass-production” as dehumanizing term, invented. These destinctions ar the ugly residues of an autocratic, hierarchical culture.’ (Dellinger, 2013)
    – serial production of marginal differentiating objects versus mass production of commodities, question of standardization and harmonization (Owens, 1992, p. 118)
    – a juxtaposition of mechanically produced appearance and painterly handmade surface appeal (Rorimer, 1989)
    – Considering the vast amount of pieces that went for some project up to 10.000 and beyond McCollum acknowledges that ‘there is a reason that we need to think of things as being alike. There are reason that we stereotype’ (in a neutral sense) (Dellinger, 2013)
    – One idea that McCollum sees going beyond objects and covering subjects and people as well ‘one single as part of a whole group’ – interesting to see this in context of mass production, consumer culture and art
    – ‘Repetition calls attention to variation with sameness’ (Levy, 1996). According to Ellen Levy the active repetition can be seen as an internalizaion and reiteration of recurrent expectations. This invokes experience and memory reproduction and reflection. She relates mechanical repetitive processes with natural processes and repetitive patterns.
  • Originality/Authenticity:
    – absent, minimal difference (handpainted center and ‘frame’)
    – Anker finishes her essay (2009, p.104) with the open question ‘in an age of historical entropy, how does the copy interface with subjectivity, authenticity, and epistemic value? What epistemological underpinnings and models of art practice are penetrating current discourse? To what extent do originality and authorship matter? Or, on the other hand, have we all been appropriated by media spin?’ 
  • Gallery, viewer or spectator:
    – “The Surrogates worked to their best effect when they came across as props-like stage props-which pointed to a larger melodrama than could ever exist merely within the paintings themselves.’ (Starke, 2012)
    – capturing the essence of the perception from a gallery-goer (Art21, 2010)
    – relating it to the ‘marketplace , an experience like window-shopping, gallery-going as shopping’, the picture frames hanging as decoration behind interior furniture’ (Owens, 1992, p. 118)
    – precious versus ubiquitous and art versus the ordinary
    – With regards to gallery or museums and how art fits into that place respective in the place of living, Ad Reinhardft expressed 1962 – quite in a Greenbergian notion – that museum for fine art are for fine art only, nothing else, for education of the artist, not the public at large or any other purpose and ‘art is art and life is life, that art is not life and that life is not art’. (Reinhardt, 2003, p.822). So for him there were basically two realities. 

Conclusions at that point

  • For McCollum the cultural and social context of painting and art is crucial. He addresses the discrepancy between artistic superiority and mass-produced goods and the way both are consumed and appreciated either as precious objects or as a decorative element in was of life.
  • Based on Modernist formal approaches for internal relationship of pictorial elements and the delimination of the support, McCollum takes this approach further towards an outwards perspective. He is considering his ‘Surrogates’ as a sign for the totality of paintings based on agreed conventions in understanding painting as a specific art category.
  • McCollum takes the viewer away from a position of an art connaisseur or indulger towards an alienated position of a consumer of cultural symbols. The contradiction between a contemplative absorption into a single piece and apprehension of common features between a series of works of art is replaced by a totality of a pictorial scene that places the viewer as a ‘gallery-goer’ into the stage scene, a theater and event. The viewer itself becomes an object in the relationship ‘surrogates’ – gallery – viewer.


Next steps:

  • Brief research on ‘Monochrome’ artists
  • Reflection on viewer, spectator and consumer as seen by Mc Collum and link to today’s culture
  • Writing up assignment



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