By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; C01
Imagine a fruit seller wandering into an exhibition of still lifes. He'd start off puzzled at the idea that anyone would want to paint his produce. Then he'd feel pride, at the thought that his goods deserve a moment in art. And then he'd wonder whether the painters really cared about what matters in a piece of fruit -- smell, taste, its feel in the mouth -- or whether they are simply using fruit to their own ends.
That's rather how it felt to be a journalist adrift in "The Last Newspaper," an art exhibition that launched last week in New York, across three floors of the New Museum. As the title suggests, we may be coming to the End of Days for newspapers. (For those in the business, selling buggy whips is starting to look like a credible second career.) And yet, as the exhibition demonstrates, artists seem to be finding the daily press as compelling as they did more than a century ago, when painting pictures of newspaper readers, or using the dailies as art supplies, was a sure sign of your avant-garde cred.
In 2007, artist Aleksandra Mir got a team of assistants to draw almost 200 scruffy, felt-pen enlargements of the front pages of New York tabloids. "Mail Bomb Alert," reads one of the two images in this show, in a hand-drawn font that must be 1,000 points high.
Adam McEwen comments on our celebrity culture by printing fake New York Times obituaries for varied figures -- before they're even dead. (He was once a newspaper obituary writer.)
The sculptor Robert Gober fills one corner of a gallery with what seem to be bundles of yellowing newspapers, but are in fact deluxe facsimiles hand-crafted from the finest archival art supplies. The veteran issue-artist Hans Haacke sets up a computer printer in the middle of a gallery, and lets it spew out reams of copy that pour in from 30 RSS feeds. (Haacke's installation evokes the out-of-control assembly line in "Modern Times," with information as the commodity now being churned out.)
So does all this artistic attention give hope to us ink-stained wretches and hacks? In one sense it does: It seems that newspapers have yet to lose their potency as fetishes. The "morning miracle" -- a novel's worth of text, arriving daily on stoops across the nation -- still carries magic for today's artists, the way the foreign art of Africa had power for Picasso. Newspapers seem to represent one side of a binary that has art as its other half; it feels as though art can assert its own identity just by setting itself up as the opposite of news.
That binary seems to be in play in works by a bad-boy artist named Dash Snow (recently deceased, age 27) in which he used semen to glue glitter onto tabloid front pages featuring Saddam Hussein. It's Dash the Fabulous up against the dreary world -- with the newspaper standing in for the latter.
Other artists are more directly engaged with the specific contents of the sources they are quoting. The photographer Wolfgang Tilmans, who had a fascinating solo at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2007, once again presents tables covered in bits and pieces of printed news that he feels we need to digest more completely. He could almost be a street photographer, pointing his lens at unsavory corners of our culture -- except that it's easier to compile clippings than to hang out in dark alleys.
The impressionists declared themselves modern artists by painting pictures of modern life. Tilmans with his clippings, or Mir with her enlarged tabloids, are doing much the same thing, but they let a newspaper digest that life before they even start depicting it. Several artists in the exhibition use newspapers as a kind of shorthand or placeholder for all the reality that lurks beyond their studio walls. And newspapers are the medium of choice because they distill the world into a tidy, physical package that artists can have their way with. Working with newspapers, you end up with a nice, juicy object rather than disembodied ideas or electronic bits and bytes. A newspaper gives an ink-on-paper portrait of the world that isn't infinitely far from the pictures artists have always drawn of it.
Which brings us to why this show should perhaps scare anyone in love with newspapers: Even when they seem to be dealing with the day to day, artists have a tendency toward retrospection and nostalgia. Art historian Joshua Shannon, at the University of Maryland, recently showed that the cast flashlights of Jasper Johns, usually read as coming straight out of his daily life, were in fact based on models from his childhood. In the 1930s, when Max Ernst and others made their great collages, they were most often using printed matter from decades earlier. Even Rembrandt often dressed his sitters in archaic clothes. That could be what we're seeing in the New Museum show: Not an engagement with the live but a fascination with the almost-gone.
The exhibition includes documentation of a project called "Old News," in which eight artists or collectives have cannibalized old newspapers to turn out their own peculiar, mostly nonsensical riffs on what a newspaper might be. There's also the "Last Post," a tabloid that doubles as the exhibition catalogue, published weekly over the course of the exhibition -- from a mini-newsroom in the middle of one of its floors. And there's a nearby table manned by the staff at StoryCorps, who collect and archive snippets of oral history from across the nation: They give the public usually talked about in papers the chance to speak for itself.
Imitation may be sincerest flattery, but not in every case. The flocking together of all these alternatives to newspapers may not signal the continued power and relevance of the real thing. They may be watching at its deathbed. After all, you sometimes learn more from an autopsy than from a living body.
The Last Newspaper
runs through Jan. 9 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, Call 212-219-1222 or visit http://www.newmuseum.org.