Printmaking taken to a spellbinding new level

Ellen Gallagher’s masterpiece at MoMA is haunted by loss

Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965). DeLuxe, ca. 2004-2005. On view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965). DeLuxe, ca. 2004-2005. On view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Two Palms Press; Friends of Education of The Museum of Modern Art and The Speyer Family Foundation; General Print Fund/MoMA)

Ellen Gallagher made “DeLuxe” in 2004-2005, although it came out of ideas she had been developing for almost a decade. The teeming work defies interpretation even as it dazzles. It exists in an edition of 20, which makes it, at least nominally, a print, but all of the editions have complicated handmade elements added.

“DeLuxe” is based on pages from old magazines aimed at African American readers — “Sepia,” “Our World” and “Ebony.” Gallagher, 55, began collecting the magazines, which date from the 1930s to the 1970s, around 1996. As she told the Museum of Modern Art’s Sarah Suzuki, she liked their “speeded up way of looking at history.” Gallagher sensed a freedom she could make use of in their distinctive mash-ups of advertising and disparate editorial voices (“You would get a Richard Wright story next to a slasher text next to drag queen balls in Harlem in the forties”) and their shifting permutations of photography, illustration and typography. Writers in these magazines, the artist noticed, reported on the world “with a kind of ease and a kind of worldliness that I think you wouldn’t really find in mainstream publications today.”

Then and now, a magazine is a thing to flip through, to graze over — there’s no right or wrong way to read it. The same goes for “DeLuxe.”

Gallagher, an enthusiastic birdwatcher, is a fan of glimpses, flashing insights and poetic suggestion. The daughter of an African American father and an Irish American mother, she was born and raised in Providence, R.I. Later, she studied writing, and worked in carpentry and commercial fishing before turning to art. She created “DeLuxe” with master printer Craig Zammiello. Using an array of recondite techniques, from photogravure to aquatint, drypoint and spit-biting, they converted Gallagher’s intuitive sketches and collages into carefully composed prints. (This particular edition is owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)

Each edition is made up of 60 smaller prints, each measuring 13 by 10½ inches. It’s hard to get a good sense of the whole in reproduction, but standing before it in a gallery, you fall under a strange spell. The small, individually framed prints are displayed in five horizontal rows of 12. You have to crane your neck to see some, and bend down or squat to see others.

When you do, what you notice even before the riveting collisions of content is the range and subtlety of materials and techniques. Gallagher has used yellow Plasticine (often exquisitely worked), googly eyeballs, pomade, foil, velvet, gold leaf, glitter and crystals. A sense of teeming invention draws you in. What is that stuff? This technique? Why this image? What does it mean?

But Gallagher is casting out trails of breadcrumbs in a sandstorm. She delights, I suspect, in watching those who try to follow her get lost.

Still, if you don’t care where you are, you’re not lost — and that might be the spirit in which to approach “DeLuxe.” Drawing on what the writer Greg Tate, in an early piece on Gallagher, called “deep Black code” as well as on daisy-chains of personal allusions, Gallagher improvises her own, distinctively dreamy form of conceptual art.

Gallagher has said it was the magazines’ images, not the words, that initially drew her in. In one print, she converts a model’s bouffant hair into yellow flames, positioning this over a fake ice cube and an image of the sinking Titanic.

But the artist has wreaked just as much havoc with the text. Snippets of typography can take on a ransom-note menace as they whisper, threaten and shout: “Advice for bad skin.” “The key to lighter skin loveliness.” “Keep rough edges straight!” “It’s smart to look your best!”

I thought of Mark Bradford, whose intensely physical works have transformed stark messages on Los Angeles street posters advertising paternity tests, divorces, guns and cash into a powerful abstract art haunted by absence. Gallagher’s “DeLuxe” is more refined, but it also registers loss — the loss of Black identity, the marginalization of Black culture — even as it dances around the demotic idiom of old-style magazines.

What prevails, perhaps, over loss is an enchantment or haunting, like the rhyming flow of mumble-rap, or like a secret code inscribed in Afrofuturist cuneiform.

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Printmaking taken to a spellbinding new level

Ellen Gallagher’s masterpiece at MoMA is haunted by loss

Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965). DeLuxe, ca. 2004-2005. On view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965). DeLuxe, ca. 2004-2005. On view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Two Palms Press; Friends of Education of The Museum of Modern Art and The Speyer Family Foundation; General Print Fund/MoMA)

Ellen Gallagher made “DeLuxe” in 2004-2005, although it came out of ideas she had been developing for almost a decade. The teeming work defies interpretation even as it dazzles. It exists in an edition of 20, which makes it, at least nominally, a print, but all of the editions have complicated handmade elements added.

“DeLuxe” is based on pages from old magazines aimed at African American readers — “Sepia,” “Our World” and “Ebony.” Gallagher, 55, began collecting the magazines, which date from the 1930s to the 1970s, around 1996. As she told the Museum of Modern Art’s Sarah Suzuki, she liked their “speeded up way of looking at history.” Gallagher sensed a freedom she could make use of in their distinctive mash-ups of advertising and disparate editorial voices (“You would get a Richard Wright story next to a slasher text next to drag queen balls in Harlem in the forties”) and their shifting permutations of photography, illustration and typography. Writers in these magazines, the artist noticed, reported on the world “with a kind of ease and a kind of worldliness that I think you wouldn’t really find in mainstream publications today.”

Then and now, a magazine is a thing to flip through, to graze over — there’s no right or wrong way to read it. The same goes for “DeLuxe.”

Gallagher, an enthusiastic birdwatcher, is a fan of glimpses, flashing insights and poetic suggestion. The daughter of an African American father and an Irish American mother, she was born and raised in Providence, R.I. Later, she studied writing, and worked in carpentry and commercial fishing before turning to art. She created “DeLuxe” with master printer Craig Zammiello. Using an array of recondite techniques, from photogravure to aquatint, drypoint and spit-biting, they converted Gallagher’s intuitive sketches and collages into carefully composed prints. (This particular edition is owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)

Each edition is made up of 60 smaller prints, each measuring 13 by 10½ inches. It’s hard to get a good sense of the whole in reproduction, but standing before it in a gallery, you fall under a strange spell. The small, individually framed prints are displayed in five horizontal rows of 12. You have to crane your neck to see some, and bend down or squat to see others.

When you do, what you notice even before the riveting collisions of content is the range and subtlety of materials and techniques. Gallagher has used yellow Plasticine (often exquisitely worked), googly eyeballs, pomade, foil, velvet, gold leaf, glitter and crystals. A sense of teeming invention draws you in. What is that stuff? This technique? Why this image? What does it mean?

But Gallagher is casting out trails of breadcrumbs in a sandstorm. She delights, I suspect, in watching those who try to follow her get lost.

Still, if you don’t care where you are, you’re not lost — and that might be the spirit in which to approach “DeLuxe.” Drawing on what the writer Greg Tate, in an early piece on Gallagher, called “deep Black code” as well as on daisy-chains of personal allusions, Gallagher improvises her own, distinctively dreamy form of conceptual art.

Gallagher has said it was the magazines’ images, not the words, that initially drew her in. In one print, she converts a model’s bouffant hair into yellow flames, positioning this over a fake ice cube and an image of the sinking Titanic.

But the artist has wreaked just as much havoc with the text. Snippets of typography can take on a ransom-note menace as they whisper, threaten and shout: “Advice for bad skin.” “The key to lighter skin loveliness.” “Keep rough edges straight!” “It’s smart to look your best!”

I thought of Mark Bradford, whose intensely physical works have transformed stark messages on Los Angeles street posters advertising paternity tests, divorces, guns and cash into a powerful abstract art haunted by absence. Gallagher’s “DeLuxe” is more refined, but it also registers loss — the loss of Black identity, the marginalization of Black culture — even as it dances around the demotic idiom of old-style magazines.

What prevails, perhaps, over loss is an enchantment or haunting, like the rhyming flow of mumble-rap, or like a secret code inscribed in Afrofuturist cuneiform.

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.