Curator Judith Brodie focuses on two seminal works in her excellent National Gallery of Art show, “Shock of the News,” which documents the stormy, obsessive, often dysfunctional and prodigiously productive relationship between art and newspapers over the past century. First is a classic screed by the Italian poet and provocateur Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a manifesto of Futurism published in 1909 in the respectable Parisian newspaper Le Figaro. Second is Picasso’s 1912 collage “Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass,” which incorporated a fragment of another French newspaper, Le Journal, into an image that also uses a scrap of sheet music and a charcoal sketch to create a flat, schematic map of sensual diversions and cafe life.
Although newspapers had appeared in art before (Cezanne painted his father reading what looks like the Jackson Pollock Daily Herald in 1866), and art had appeared in newspapers with increasingly satisfying results since advances in printing late in the 19th century, the Picasso and Marinetti works announced a new relation between the two media. Picasso’s pasted-paper construction brought the newspaper as a material thing to the foreground of his picture, while Marinetti suggested new ways for artists to use the larger apparatus of the newspaper phenomenon, its mass appeal and its power to mold public opinion.
Thereafter, what might seem to be two very different wellsprings of inspiration pretty much merged. Focusing on the materiality of newspaper inevitably raised questions about what those little pieces of paper said, which dragged in the jangling, newsy world of politics and war and celebrity and everything else the newspaper promised its readers on a daily basis. And as artists developed a more conceptual approach to using newspapers — publishing their own absurdist or self-aggrandizing broadsheets, analyzing and dissecting the hidden mythologies of the news business — they often, and perhaps accidentally, made work that is alluring on a purely aesthetic and tactile level.
“Shock of the News” presents a fascinating cross section of the results, from an original copy of Marinetti’s testosterone-soaked manifesto (like something Walt Whitman’s evil twin might have written had he grown up in a Prussian boarding school) to works done in the past five years, as the newspaper business hemorrhaged jobs, profits and confidence. Paul Sietsema’s 2008 “Modernist Struggle” ink and enamel work, a meticulous trompe l’oeil rendering of two pieces of newspaper, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (which includes the headline “Modernists Struggle with Traditionalists Over Guns”), feels autumnal and reflective, an honorific painting that gives the newspaper the same treatment as a Dutch still life or an old family portrait hanging above the mantel. The precision of his image, including the painstakingly realistic rendering of slight creases and curled corners, is wistful, perhaps loving, and the results are such an accurate rendering of banal objects that attention focuses on the small dissonance between use of the singular in Sietsema’s title (“Modernist Struggle”) and the plural in the headline the artist paints (“Modernists Struggle . . . ”).