These days, we don’t receive visitors. Our friends appear in little disembodied boxes on our screens. But I still receive the newspaper as, well, paper: a satisfyingly material object whose daily arrival provides comfort, even as the messages on its pages contain ever-more-heartbreaking words and images. Long before the digital alternative was available, and steadily since, artists have conscripted newspaper as an artistic material—one that comes with readymade messages. Even as they paste its pieces into formal configurations, they let the world into the frame. Here are five examples from MoMA’s collection, spanning almost exactly a century.
Georges Braque. Still Life with Tenora. 1913
With papier collés (“pasted papers”) such as this one, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso ruptured traditional pictorial space, introducing a real object into the arena of illusion. Braque snipped this fragment from the short-lived political, artistic, and literary journal L’Echo d’Avignon; the word “echo” reinforces the sonorous quality of the drawn tenora, a woodwind instrument. Just as your morning paper might sit on a breakfast table, the periodical’s partial title joins a glass rendered in charcoal on an upturned oval. Other newspapers’ titles appear in similar works, such as the cameo of El Diluvio, a Barcelona-based daily, in Picasso’s contemporaneous Guitar.
Jean Dubuffet. Message “I’ve been thinking of you since Saturday...” (Message “Je pense à toi depuis samedi...”). 1944
Picasso and Braque’s experiments with newspaper came on the eve of the First World War; Jean Dubuffet’s came amid the Second. In this work, a poignant personal message—“I’ve been thinking of you since Saturday”—is scrawled in messy handwriting atop the typed staccato of political headlines, nearly obscuring references to a new Bulgarian government and a conversation between Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle. It’s a reminder—as if we needed one now—that our intimacies occur against the backdrop of world events.
Chryssa. Drawing for Stock Page. 1959
Newspapers contain more than just the articles, and in the late 1950s, the Greek-American artist Chryssa mined the stock market pages for their graphic potential—and their underlying meaning. Using actual New York Times press plates as stamps on the page, she created dense lattices of visual information: accumulations of image that echoed the amassing of postwar capital those pages represented. With a systematic impulse that anticipated Conceptual art, and an attention to the everyday that aligned with nascent Pop, she gave the same treatment to other sections of the paper: the Classifieds, the weather, even—in a play on her grid-like compositions—the crossword.
Pope.L. Mal Content. 1992
Of course, images are also integral to a periodical’s pages, and at the center of this work by Pope.L is a small photograph, cut from a newspaper, of the young Malcom X. It’s framed by an even more unusual material: a thick spread of peanut butter that recalls the cheap, ubiquitous food of the artist’s own childhood. By selecting a shot of the radical cultural leader in his youth, the artist poses questions about the public nature of a printed and circulated image. Here, the iconic Malcolm is the diminutive Mal of the work’s punning title.
Rikrit Tiravanija. untitled (the days of this society is numbered / December 7, 2012). 2014
Tiravanija’s collage of multiple pages from a Thai newspaper captures a specific geographic and historical moment: the massive public celebration of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 85th birthday. The long-reigning monarch’s health was deteriorating and military coups would shortly roil Thailand. However, the work’s overlaid, stenciled text—a purposeful mistranslation of French theorist Guy Debord’s 1979 dystopian statement—offers a more generalized prophecy. Just a few weeks ago, this forecast may have seemed especially foreboding in its prediction of a society doomed by a global pandemic. But today, the message seems hopeful: When the days of a broken society are numbered, a new one may be just a front page away.