A Painting Is A Painting | SÜDKURIER Online  – January 12, 2018,  Berlin


Berlin A Painting Is A Painting

Siegmund Kopitzki

Is it the signature that turns a piece of work into art? Galerie Vayhinger based in Singen, Germany, and the artist Tim Beeby have ventured an experiment in Berlin



The young man, one of the first visitors to the exhibition Unsigned Untitled Undated at Haus 1 on Berlin’s Waterloo Ufer, the bank of a canal, takes his time. He strolls through the gallery space several times, taking a look here and there, sometimes picking up a canvas leaning against the wall, apparently unable to decide. Finally he finds something, after consulting with the artist, he grabs a large piece of work, ink on canvas, packs it in two red plastic carrier bags, and bids the artist farewell, without having left any remuneration or contact details.


The young man would quickly be emulated. In the next few hours half a dozen visitors leave the exhibition with a picture under their arms and without paying. But what is strange is that no one protests. Neither Tim Beeby, a British-born artist based in Essen, nor Helena Vayhinger, a renowned gallerist from Singen on the German/Swiss border, who is open to experiments and was happy to lend her name to the Berlin event. Rather, the two study the comings and goings in the Haus 1, which used to be a kiosk and public toilet, before it was converted into the capital’s smallest exhibition space. But not everyone leaves the gallery with a canvas. Some seem irritated, an elderly couple even suggesting it is shameful “to so easily take a canvas.”


What exactly is going on here? “Unsigned Untitled Undated” is not a charitable enterprise, even if it may seem so. Helena Vayhinger who happily lent her name to the project explains: “Unsigned… offers visitors to the exhibition the opportunity of taking an unsigned work from Tim Beeby’s series ‘Inks’ away with them free of charge.” Those who wished could have the canvas, sometimes adorned only by a black blob on a white ground, signed titled and dated, and acquire them for the customary market price – from 1400 euros upwards. All signed the signed canvases will be documented and entered in Beeby’s catalogue raisonné. Each buyer also receives a certificate of authenticity from the artist.


The unsigned works are not documented. As far as the materials the artist employs and the aesthetic appearance are concerned, they are indistinguishable from the signed works. The young man who took away the large-format work unsigned, but also those who followed him, do not care. For them a painting is a painting ... But is that really the case?


The signature is an obsession for the modern, multi-billion dollar art business. That is indisputable. Leaving works unsigned, untitled and undated, and making them available for free, challenges the process of signing a work of art before it enters the system of commercial and institutional exploitation. Although the unsigned work is economically worthless and inferior from an institutional point of view, it has the same aesthetic value as a signed one. However, a look at art history demonstrates that the situation is more complicated.


Signatures, the name attached to the work by the artist as evidence of authorship, have been known since antiquity. In the Middle Ages the names of artists were mostly acknowledged only during its late period. The proliferation of signatures since the Renaissance has been dependent on changing ideas of the artist’s role and its importance to the value of the work. Nevertheless there remained painters such as the Master of Meßkirch who left no authorial traces on their works. In the art of the modern period, the name, representing individuality and authenticity, is often supplemented by the suffix ‘f,’ or ‘fec’ (Latin: fecit – has made it), which also declared a work as complete.


Over the centuries, the signature in its considerable variety has been evident across almost all artistic media – in architecture and sculpture, painting and printmaking, on medallions and in the minor arts. Donor portraits as well as self-portraits of the artist served as signatures, but complete names were also included within paintings in the depiction of church facades, picture frames, and business card-like ‘cartellini.’ Abbreviated or encrypted, names could appear as a monogram, coat of arms or house mark. Albrecht Dürer (which is phonetically similar to Tür, the German for door) frequently played pictorially on his own name.


For a long time, the signature of the artist has taken on an almost magical significance. An unsigned work was already difficult to sell during the Renaissance – the lack of the value-creating ‘signum’ diminished the appeal. In 1675, the French aristocrat Marquise de Sévigné noted that paintings were like bullion and could be sold at any time for twice their purchase price. This was the reason works by Dürer were not only copied, to which there can be no legal objections, but also featured a faked signature, enabling them to pass as the real thing, a problem that continues today.


Easy to Fake

For art historians, the handwritten signature, which can easily be faked, is only an auxiliary criterion in questions of attribution and dating. Although the signature is important in terms of authorship of a work, they argue, but not for its qualities as an original. Within this context, it is also worth mentioning the pleasures of complicity, Pop Art legend Andy Warhol and the German performance artist Joseph Beuys were both renowned for signing on all sorts of objects on request.


This is where Marcel Duchamp enters the discussion. The conceptual artist exploded the myths surrounding originality, which regarded the artist as genius-like creator. Duchamp’s so-called readymades questioned the common sense concepts of art. In 1914 he bought a galvanized iron bottle dryer from a Paris department store and signed it; his object Bicycle Wheel (1913) is a combination of a wheel, a bicycle’s front fork and a wooden stool; he even declared a urinal (Fountain, 1917) a work of art


Duchamp took the view that even the selecting of an object is an artistic work – which topped Beuys, later statement that everyone is an artist. But subsequent generations of artists have seen through, criticized and even thwarted the traditional idea of personal creativity, also questioning the legal view that only the signature establishes an externally recognizable relationship between the artist and the work. In the early 1960s Warhol donated one of the screens he had used for his Flowers prints to fellow artist Elaine Sturtevant. Sturtevant continued working with it, signing the resulting prints with her own name. It is also known that Warhol also let his mother sign paintings, which has no effect on them as originals. Beuys and other artists also used stamps, pseudonyms or fingerprints as a signature, which are better viewed as acts of playfulness than as serious certification.


Such playfulness is not always funny. There was legal dispute in the late 1990s concerning a painting by Jörg Immendorff. Allegations of fraud were made against the artist because he had sold a copy of an older painting painted by his assistant as his own work. But even the ‘old masters,’ whether Dürer, Lucas Cranach or Peter Paul Rubens, operated studios in which employees created paintings that were then signed by the ‘master.’ The US artist Jeff Koons employs up to 120 people in his studio, as does the Englishman Damien Hirst. The formula then and now is still: If a work is created under the artistic direction of the ‘master,’ then it can be considered an original. In the end, more visitors than expected opened their purses for signed canvases, all of them unique, as a result Beeby and Vayhinger did financially well from the event, a victory on points for the art market. (sk)

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