"Making Copies is Very Near to Speaking:" An Excerpt from Pati Hill: Photocopier

23 Feb 2016


Pati Hill, Alphabet of Common Objects, c. 1975-79, 45 black and white copier prints, each 11” x 8.5,″ part of Arcadia University Art Gallery's 2015 exhibition Pati Hill: Photocopier. Courtesy Estate of Pati Hill and Arcadia.

The Center-funded exhibition Pati Hill: Photocopier presented by Arcadia University Art Gallery opens this week, with over 100 of the writer-turned-artist's black and white prints on view from February 25 through April 24. In an essay for the accompanying monograph, Michelle Cotton, curator and director of the Bonner Kunstverein (Germany), situates Hill's practice within the conceptual art scene of the 1960s and 70s. Using an IBM photocopier to scan objects as quotidian as a gum wrapper and as unexpected as a dead swan, Hill remained committed to the medium for nearly 40 years, producing an extensive, yet little-known, body of work. In the following excerpt, Cotton highlights Hill's fascination with the copier as a printmaking tool, and her efforts to "reveal, quote, and perhaps also to preserve or cherish things."

"By the mid-1960s, artists were using the copier, which became a means of making original images as well as mass-producing art to be disseminated via the post system as Mail Art. [ ] It was Mel Bochner's 1966 exhibition, Working Drawings And Other Visible Things On Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed As Art, that was the first to make significant use of a photocopier within conceptual art. The exhibition at the School of Visual Arts in New York included contributions from Dan Flavin, Dan Graham, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, and Sol LeWitt that were reproduced as four copies, filed in four identical binders, and arranged on pedestals. The exhibition encapsulated the idea further developed in subsequent years: The copier came to be recognized as an instrument for mechanized seriality. It could also dematerialize an object, dispelling the "aura" of an original note or drawing so that it became a document that simply contained information. Yet the technology was not perfect and, upon closer inspection, no two copies were exactly the same.[footnote The Xerox books of the conceptual artist Ian Burn derive from this fact. Each has a "structure," Xerox Book #1 begins with a blank sheet of paper that was placed on the glass to be copied, each copy was used to make the next producing a book of 100 pages in which the pages are progressively darkened by with toner as the machine searches for something to reproduce.]

By the late 1970's, there were "copy artists" working primarily or exclusively with these machines. Pati Hill was one such artist. Her first exhibition, Objects, presented in different forms in New York at the Kornblee Gallery in 1975 and at Franklin Furnace in 1978, combined text and image. Her texts are full of personal memories and associations and are often poetic or surreal in their pairings. For instance, she describes "Bacon" that "looks like television" or an "Egg Slicer" as an "aeolian harp."[footnote Pati Hill, "Affiche for 'Fifty Common Objects 1974,'" Paul Bianchini, Galerie Toner, 1974.] Hill later wrote that the "common objects" documented for the exhibition were amassed in a "laundry hamper" until it "overflowed:" "I would take them to a copier in a nearby town and record the ones that still intrigued me, then throw the originals away or put them back into circulation."[footnote Pati Hill, Letters to Jill (New York: Kornblee, 1979), 22.]

[ ] Hill used the copier to reveal, quote, and perhaps also to preserve or cherish things, from her "Six Photocopied Garments" to the list "epoch of the great trains." Objects appear displaced and suspended against a black field of toner, and images are redescribed. It is as if everything is scrutinized by the machine and recorded so that is it not lost. [ ]

[ ] The images, when amassed and viewed together, render their subjects as a lexicon of forms. Abstracted from their domestic or prosaic contexts, they become connected to each other by the uniformity of the copies. It is their format and composition—the way in which the objects float within the page or the grain of the print, the sharp contrasts, the glare of the whites and the depth of the blacks—that fix associations. She told The New Yorker that "Copies are an international visual language, which talks to people in Los Angeles and people in Prague the same way. Making copies is very near to speaking."[footnote Pati Hill, quoted in Anthony Bailey, "Copies," The New Yorker, August 4, 1980, 23-24.]

Michelle Cotton is director of the Bonner Kunstverein (Germany). Previously, Cotton was senior curator at Firstsite in Colchester (England), and curator at Cubitt Gallery, London and S1 Artspace, Sheffield. She has curated over 50 exhibitions and programs of artists' film, including retrospective and historical surveys, such as Bruce McLean: Sculpture, Painting, Photography, Film (2014); Xerography (2013); Nigel Henderson & Eduardo Paolozzi: Hammer Prints Ltd 1954–75, (2012), and Design Research Unit 1942–72 (2009-10). Cotton has contributed to various publications, including Artforum, Frieze, Mousse, and Texte zur Kunst, and is a member of the Jury for the 2016 Turner Prize at Tate Britain, London.