Home Museums The myth of the agency around artists’ signatures

The myth of the agency around artists’ signatures

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Detail of Bhasha Chakrabarti, “To Be So Black and Blue (Iman as Kali)” (2021), used clothes, thread, oil, indigofera tinctoria, mirrors and song by Kazi Nazrul Islam, 87 inches x 60 inches (photo by the artist, courtesy of the artist and M+B)

It all started in the early Renaissance when a young Raphael Santi renounced the long tradition of cooperative art under guild systems to dedicate his first painting, “The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine.”

While Raphael was modest in breaking long-established customs, hiding his signature in decorations behind a figure of the Virgin Mary, his male successors centuries later would not remain so shy. The signatures of Picasso and Keith Haring are far more familiar than those of, say, Helen Frankenthaler. The reason for this inequity may lie in the systemic treatment of women within arts institutions. Museum collections are still disproportionately male. In fact, only 12% of artists in the collections of major American museums are women. Worse still, women of color occupy barely 1% within these institutions. Therefore, it is not surprising that works of art signed by male artists fetch astonishing prices in the secondary market compared to their female counterparts. A recent study indicates that “For every pound a male artist earns for his work, a woman only earns 10 pence.” The same study also indicates that “while the value of a work by a man increases if he has signed it, the value of a work by a woman decreases if she has signed it, as if she had been somehow tainted by her sex”. Female artists have long been aware of this gender disparity, with some feeling paralyzed in the face of the market and choosing to give up their signatures to make their works more “collectible”. Do these artists also renounce their autonomy?

Thomas Cloth, “Rosenwald” (2022), cement blocks, bible skins, wire, 11 inches x 14 inches x 10 1/2 inches (courtesy the artist and PPOW, New York)

I spoke to Baseera Khan about these troubling statistics. A woman artist of color, she was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2021. “No, I don’t sign my works. I think it’s an old tradition,” they say. “I don’t think I’m valued because of my gender, because I’m a female artist, not as much as male artists – and that’s a struggle.” They add that being a non-male artist and having to control their prices is exhausting. In fact, artists Julie Torres and Ellen Letcher, who operate LABspace, an artist-run gallery in Hillsdale, New York, often find themselves in awkward positions, having to ward off collectors who demand signatures from their artists and sometimes even their render works. be signed. But for others, like Lucia Hierro, whose work was recently acquired by the Guggenheim Museum, and who often doesn’t sign her pieces, says she’ll hold on. There’s a finality to signatures, she says, that she doesn’t like.

When I spoke to Xayvier Haughton, an emerging Jamaican artist who recently exhibited at the Spring Break Art Show, I braced myself for his heartbreaking response. An installation artist, he hates signing his works. While making art that is difficult to collect, he feels defenseless against powerful collectors who somehow make sure to get his signature before acquisition. He recognizes this as a conscious decision on his part. Installs are notoriously difficult to collect, which in itself is an anti-market statement. “My works are a way of resisting colonization and capitalism. I want to disturb the white cube. I want institutions that understand and support my work but as an artist I have very little autonomy. While Haughton wants to stick to his principles, he doesn’t want to be blacklisted in the art world – which he says is the fate of artists who defy the wishes of collectors. In this unstable bubble of the art world, he tries to maintain his autonomy by giving up his signature.

Dylan Rose Rheingold, ‘Hot Skates’ (2022), oil, acrylic, pen paint on canvas, 60 inches x 48 inches, (photo by Luana Rigolli, courtesy of the artist and gallery T293)

But some disagree with this sentiment. Bhasha Chakrabarti, also an emerging artist, who works in painting, sculpture and installation, is skeptical. “I find the idea of ​​doing installation with the motivation to escape the market dishonest…. If you make art and work within the gallery system, you don’t escape the world of art. art”, even if, she adds, she is wary of the deep stake of the art world in capitalism. When I mention the Eurocentric history of the affirmation of property via signatures on works of art, she counters, quoting mystical Sufi poets who claim authorship after each recital.She is unwavering in her principles, reluctant to give authority to white male artists and as a South Asian myself, I can only appreciate his convictions.

Artist Chiffon Thomas approaches the dilemma in a more philosophical way. Thomas, whose personal exhibition Staircase to the rose window was exhibited at the PPOW Gallery in Tribeca last year, says he draws inspiration from his life for his art. It therefore makes sense to print these works with his signature. Over time, he explains, he stopped signing his works and acquired an existential approach to artistic creation. He realized he wanted to capture a sense of universality in his art, as he felt uncomfortable using his childhood, family, or any other personal signifier. Ultimately, he says, “I didn’t feel like using my signature mattered to what I was trying to do as a creator.” I ponder the depth of what Thomas is telling me; I feel like he almost tries to deny himself in his works and suppress his paternity to express the universal condition of human existence. He says he wants to find an anonymous space within his work. With this anonymity, he believes he can find a safe space to show his vulnerability, his brutality and his authenticity.

But perhaps the most compelling answer comes from a young artist, Dylan Rose Rheingold. As more and more painters hesitate to sign their works on the front of their canvases, Rheingold realizes that it is an act of empowerment as a woman. Nonetheless, she will occasionally sign herself as “Dylan”, a traditional male name, although she also uses the more feminine “Dylan Rose”, and lately has been using her full name, Dylan Rose Rheingold, boldly asserting ownership. of his art. Her determination is strengthened when she passionately recounts a recent encounter she had with a “great collector who owns a great gallery in New York”. “When I met him he told me that I should drop my middle name because my work would be much more valuable. People wouldn’t assume I was female. She replied with ‘I’m happy to try my luck.”

Dylan Rose Rheingold, “Two Braids Please” (2022), oil, acrylic, marker on canvas, 65 inches x 50 inches (photo by Luana Rigolli, courtesy of the artist and gallery T293)

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