By: Barbara Bedway
Shaun O’L. Higgins keeps a signed photograph of famed Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White in his office at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane Wash., along with a print of Norman Rockwell’s “A Country Editor,” which reminds him of his days as editor of the Brazil (Ind.) Daily Times. Switching from editorial to the business side in Spokane led him to a fateful conference in the late 1980s in Washington, D.C. ? and eventually two coffee table books showcasing the history of newspapers in fine art.
During that Washington conference, he sneaked out at lunchtime to visit the Phillips Collection and was struck by several paintings, including one by Van Gogh, that featured newspapers. One by Edouard Vuillard showed a woman at a window, reading a paper. Higgins’ varying roles as businessman, newspaperman, and art enthusiast converged in an epiphany.
“One of the issues we were struggling with at the time was, how do we develop more women readers? And I thought that image would make a great ad,” he says laughing. He also realized that if he “could just breeze through the Phillips in an hour or an hour and half, and find three great pieces of art featuring newspapers, there had to be more out there.”
He continued to gather notes about other works in his travels, eventually enlisting the aid of Spokesman-Review colleague Colleen Striegel and art historian Garry Apgar in the hunt. The three visited more than 200 libraries, galleries and museums in North America, Australia, Europe, and South America, culling from an estimated 80,000 works from the 16th century to the present, and featured in the 1996 volume The Newspaper in Art.
But the predominance of pictures of newsboys and other images of the past led Striegel to feel a book that reflected newspapers’ more recent influence was also needed. Higgins agreed, and now they have produced Press Gallery: The Newspaper in Modern and Postmodern Art (like the first book, it is published by New Media Ventures). Higgins calls it a museum- quality “exhibition catalogue without an accompanying exhibition.”
Coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the birth of newspapers in Europe, it features 140 full-color images in which newspapers figure, often quite literally, as material for artists.
“I attend a lot of newspaper meetings, and there’s a lot of doom and gloom in them,” reports Higgins, who presently serves as director of sales and marketing for Cowles Publishing Company, which owns and operates the Spokesman-Review. “I hope this book gives people within the industry a keener appreciation for the longevity of this media, the fact that it is a part of the contemporary world, and whether you make papers smaller or larger, papers are very much a living force. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to be attuned to the Internet, but do we really appreciate how powerful and how beloved this media is?”
More than 100 artists are represented, including Salvador Dali, Alice Neel, Juan Gris, Jacob Lawrence, Man Ray, Red Grooms, and Robert Smithson, along with the much lesser known. Andy Warhol’s work includes front pages of New York tabloids where he replaced photos with art renditions of the same person or scene. (The book includes an entire essay on Warhol’s tab art.)
From photographer William Wegman we find one of his famous weimaraners holding a page of New York Stock Exchange listings in his mouth against a black background. His most legendary pooch, of course, was named Man Ray.
Many of the selected works depict actual newspapers transformed into what is decidedly not your father’s paper: collaged, hand-knitted in wool and acrylic, sculpted into mixed media assemblages, blood-spattered, varnished, reimagined with reader commentary, recycled into crafts, and wearable art.
“We have a pretty broad range of artists,” says Higgins, who confesses a great partiality to the many works utilizing front pages. One particularly plaintive front page is Al Souza’s “Houston Chronicle,” with its layers of holes literally cut into the news. “You get the feeling that the truth still emerges through the holes of the newspaper,” Higgins notes. It’s hard to know what pages make up Souza’s “New York Times Spitballs,” deconstructed into a grid-like display that surely represents the ultimate in undigested information.
Whatever medium the artists in the book chose, according to Higgins ? who recently rejoined the board of the International Newspaper Marketing Association, where he is also past president ? they all pay homage to the enduring status of the newspaper as a contemporary symbol for news, despite the rise of radio, TV, and the Internet.
In the volume’s text, the authors observe that a newspaper’s visual clarity has helped it survive as an enduring icon. The Internet does not have the readily identifiable shape and texture of a newspaper, or a compelling calling card of transmitted meaning like the 72-point front-page headline.
“There’s life in the old media yet,” Higgins asserts. “It’s recognized and valued by a lot of very perceptive people outside the industry. Are we maximizing our opportunities with it? I hope this book creates some epiphanies for those who need to take a fresh look.”