Alison McDonald has been the director of publications at Gagosian since 2002. During her tenure she has worked closely with Larry Gagosian to shape every aspect of the gallery’s extensive publishing program and has personally overseen more than five hundred publications dedicated to the gallery’s artists. In 2020, McDonald was included in the Observer’s Arts Power 50.
This summer an extensive exhibition of paintings and sculptures that explore the myriad of ways that artists have employed the unique properties of spray paint is on view at Gagosian Britannia Street, London. The exhibited works trace the medium’s diverse lineage, from Paul Klee’s early experiments in watercolor to David Smith’s Sprays (1957–65) to Lawrence Weiner’s performative TWO MINUTES OF SPRAY PAINT DIRECTLY UPON THE FLOOR FROM A STANDARD AEROSOL SPRAY CAN (1968) to Sterling Ruby’s recent spray paintings in a neon palette.
ALISON MCDONALDIn 1949, Edward Seymour added paint to aerosol spray cans, which until then had been used primarily as a dispenser for insect repellent. In 1957, David Smith began a group of works using commercial aerosol spray enamel. Surely it took a few years from the invention of spray paint to it being commercially available, so it seems that David Smith must have been one of the first artists to work with industrial spray paint as a medium. Why do you think he was drawn to this unconventional material?
PETER STEVENSIt wasn’t until the early 1950s that spray paint became widely available. As you mentioned, Seymour invented canned aerosol spray paint in 1949, but every time it was sprayed, the little nozzle would clog with dried paint. In 1953 Robert H. Abplanalp invented a clog-free nozzle that allowed spray paint to become commercially viable. Smith would have likely adopted this immediately—probably for its practical purpose. It was an easy way to paint things, and, more important, fit perfectly with his innovative working process—moving art-making out of the studio and into the industrial context. At that time, spray paint wasn’t an art material, so it didn’t come freighted with any kind of art history. Smith was surely very happy to find a material that he could define for himself—not necessarily for anyone else—what that material meant and how it could be used.
AMcdWhat are some of the earliest artistic representations that you have encountered, which were made using the act of spray?
PSWell, I find it amazing that the earliest known examples of people making artwork from sprayed pigment are among the earliest known works of art. You can’t get more basic than that. Handprints silhouetted by sprayed pigments, along with other painted images from around 30,000 BCE, have been found on cave walls in France and are among the earliest Paleolithic artworks. The form of a human hand appears to have been created by blowing pigment, a natural red ochre, either directly from the mouth or through a hollow bone, around the artist’s hand onto the cave wall. The absent image of the hand remained. It is quite poetic. The impulse is so human; it’s not mediated by some kind of process to make “art;” it is a simple affirmation: “This is me, I was here, I made this.” This was certainly a sentiment shared by Smith in all of his work. Spray techniques, or stenciling, seem to have been used continuously throughout history.
AMCdWere there any precedents to the aerosol spray-can that were developed by artists to assist in making spray part of an artistic act?
PSWell, stenciling in-and-of-itself, which was a form of printmaking, was done on fabrics in the classical periods of Japan, and surely throughout different eras and cultures there were artists who took objects, applied pigment around them, and then removed the objects to create images and patterns. That existed. The ability to spray—well, there are a series of watercolors that Paul Klee made in the mid-1920s using a sieve. Working with a stencil format, the resulting spray created both the positive form and the negative space. Wassily Kandinsky, who may have developed that technique with Klee, also made a series of these sprayed watercolors. We cannot be sure whether David Smith saw these works, but his works share a striking similarity. Those artists were important to Smith’s early development, and his focus on geometric abstraction was deeply informed by his interest in Kandinsky and Russian Constructivism. So, it is likely that he saw them. Following these examples, I don’t know of any other extensive use of spray by artists over the next few decades, but it seems likely that it was used again in some way, even if it was just in the form of a spatter, because it grows out of a very natural physical property of paint in relationship to a stencil.
AMCDDo you think there is something primitive about the act of spraying, perhaps as a way to create a mark or leave a trace?
PSYes, I think there is something very, very primitive. We often think of primitive as less: less sophisticated, less meaningful, but I see it in the sense of being primal, in being direct. The immediacy that is allowed by the spray gesture is unique. If you take a piece of charcoal and draw a line, it’s implicit that there was an action that a person did, and the result is visible. That was something that spoke to Smith and his generation of artists, the action, mark making. But the act of spraying actually leaves a residue of reality—not just of the action, but a trace of something that actually existed. For Smith, this effect also related to his interest in photography. Some of Smith’s photographs of the early 1930s, like Man Ray’s photograms, were also a form of stenciling. Again, there is that primal, poetic urge to create a document of an actual object in a way that simultaneously records the process of its own making, the existence of the object, and the loss of it. That is very primitive, in the fullest sense, and plugs into the emotional universality of the human experience that was central to Smith. That is why artists of his generation, and also the preceding generation, the early modernists, were looking back at tribal art.
AMCDPerhaps we can touch on the fact that the spray paint offers artists an immediacy, the ability to improvise, and versatility. It is widely available, affordable, and can be effortlessly transported. Surely some of these qualities make this media an attractive option for a wide range of artists.
PSThere is a democratizing principle in allowing everyday materials to be considered as “art.” In fact, it was a great leap when artists began to allow everyday life into the subject matter of painting. The development of oil paint in tubes allowed for the tradition of landscape painting to flourish. Through the development of welding, Smith’s sculpture of 1933 could incorporate used and discarded iron machine and tool parts, extending the use of found materials developed by the Cubists and Surrealists. The development and subsequent use of spray paint by Smith was in this same trajectory. It was not unique to Cubism, Surrealism, Pop art, or the pre-Pop work of Rauschenberg and Johns to bring everyday life into art. That had been going on for centuries with each new advance of the means of creating objects and images. The wide availability of an inexpensive versatile material such as spray paint was bound to be embraced by a diverse range of artists over time.
AMCDDo you feel that there is a connection that can be traced in an exhibition such as this one, using the media as an organizing principle, despite the different aesthetic intentions brought by so many different artists and the varying results?
PSPeople get lost when they oversimplify process and confuse it for content. Each artist uses media for very personal reasons; of course there are shared associations, but those are biased by numerous factors, such as culture, age, and personal experience. Using a specific medium or material as an organizing principle allows for the similarities and differences of each artist’s approach to have its own voice, while emphasizing the fact that all art is part of a continuum—a shared experience. And the context broadens to the culture at large. For contemporary artists who are working today using aerosol spray enamel, well, they have to consider graffiti. In contemporary culture, for example, if one is not a graffiti artist, that language is still everywhere; it’s so pervasive, it has to create some kind of a baseline. Even when one holds that can, just that physical gesture has those associations.
AMCD It’s so accessible and affordable; that’s surely at least part of the reason why street artists use it, and graffiti artists. Also the immediacy must help when there is not much time, and it must be a benefit that spray can make a positive image as easily and directly as it makes a negative one. However, then you have an artist such as Sterling Ruby, who is painting in spray as a way of making intense color studies and creating works that look both like abstract landscapes and Mark Rothko paintings, but in fact it seems that he’s very well aware that there is a predetermined language built into the media of street art and that he has to be seen as understanding that when he approaches the media. And that was different when Smith was encountering it, but that entire generation was maybe the first generation to understand that choice: that the selection of a material would actually impact the way people respond to the work, that it would be part of the message.
PSYes, and I think that’s an important point. The associations of a material can help or hurt the understanding of a work of art. The industrial origins of spray paint, its “modernity,” freed Smith from associations already bound to art. Now, almost sixty years later, spray painting has an extensive history, so for an artist to adopt it as a medium, he or she has to build on, or respond to, those histories. Often artists can leverage history to create interconnections that allow for a richer understanding of their work through associative meanings of the materials they brought in. This was certainly Smith’s belief. In the late 1950s, it became clear in the work of artists like Johns and Rauschenberg, and then onward, that context—those associative aspects of image, materials, etc.—became more and more the primary meaning of what art was, that we don’t look at anything without bringing our prejudices, our histories, our biases to it, and that those will have meaning for us. Artists working today are more keenly and intellectually aware of those decisions when they are choosing a material like spray paint. The artists that use it today also have the history of Klee, Kandinsky, Smith, and of many spray paintings that were made in the 1960s using big commercial compressors, like those of Jules Olitski and other artists, like Dan Christensen, who have been using spray for decades. So now, as we move forward in history, the next generation of artists gets to bring all of those associations along with them, and create new work that has that foundation to build on. That’s what is exciting about this show: It shows newness, but also it shows the continuum.
AMCDThe act of spray can also be used to create an atmosphere, and a lot of artists in the show seem attracted to that; for instance, Alex Israel uses it as a sprayed backdrop in his television performance pieces. And others use it to create an illusion of spatial depth, which must have been attractive for Smith, because he was able to create a sculptural space in a two-dimensional work of art.
PSSmith wanted to merge media—to blur the boundaries between how we look at drawing, painting, and sculpture. He also wanted to merge nature and industry. The appearance in some of his sprays of a starry sky or an atmospheric fog around the objects was absolutely part of Smith’s aesthetic. His Sprays echo the experience of his sculpture in the fields around his home and studio in the Adirondack Mountains of Bolton Landing.
AMCDThen there is a work by Lawrence Weiner in the exhibition, which is quite great, because he sprays a single can of spray paint on a single spot on the floor for two minutes. So in some ways that becomes about recording an act of time. But what I enjoy about exhibitions that group artists through media is that the ideas of each artist stand out, each brings their own intentionality, and it’s so interesting to see how many different people are doing completely different things with the same media. The nature of what you can communicate from a thematic show is that each artist is totally unique, and it brings together artists as diverse as Lawrence Weiner, Andy Warhol, and David Smith, and well—they typically have very little to do with each other, but then you pick this one idea, and you create an exhibition with some unifying principle, and all of a sudden you get both sides. You get what brings them together, what shared issues they had to deal with, and then how they branch off into their unique explorations.
Sprayed: Works from 1929 to 2015 at Gagosian Britannia Street, London, June 11–August 1, 2015.