Collage and Then Some: Vitamin C+

Book Review
Vitamin C+ Collage in Contemporary Art. Introductory essay by Yuval Etgar. Phaidon (back cover)

Recently released by Phaidon, Vitamin C+ is another noteworthy addition to the publisher’s boundlessly malleable series of anthological volumes gathering scores of artist profiles into luxuriantly illustrated, conceptually cohesive tomes. Medium, era, genre, or movement tend to be the organizational binders for these books, as might be expected, and they’re generally wonderful and inspiring as such. But they’re sometimes wonderful and inspiring in less obvious ways as well, furnishing readers with much more to delve into, reflect on, and revisit time and again.

Drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and textiles have been among the foci for a number of earlier books in Phaidon’s ‘Vitamin’ series, a rubric of volumes surveying figures and trends in specific media. The first of these books to focus on collage, Vitamin C+ nonetheless presents as much more than a mere culling of profiles of contemporary artists working in the medium. Yes, it brings together over a hundred international practitioners of collage techniques at various stages of their careers, from more or less emerging, so to speak, to substantially established. And yes, aside from medium specificity and period, it leaves other categorical parameters relatively open. Something has to determine which artist precedes or follows another from one page to the next. Editors simply went with alphabetical order for that. All straightforward enough.

Vitamin C+ gains substantial intrigue and complexity, and amounts to a much more inspired and inspiring text, thanks in large part to its editorial process. As with a couple of the publishing house’s other recent titles, such as Prime: Art’s Next Generation, and another ‘Vitamin’ book, Vitamin D3, the featured artists here – 108 in total – were chosen by a panel of several dozen art writers, critics, curators, and collectors, many of whom are also present in the book by way of the critical and biographical profiles they furnish. This makes for a very broadly international group of artists and critical voices alike. It also makes for an enhanced, widened understanding of the medium itself, bringing together longstanding practitioners of collage art (e.g. Muhanned Cader, Dexter Davis, Ellen Gallagher, Arturo Herrera, Peter Kennard, Lorna Mills, Sam Nhlengethwa, Dee Shapiro); younger artists still carving out and expanding their own niche in the medium (e.g. April Bey, Bady Dalloul, Kahlil Robert Irving, Rachel Libeskind, Neo Matloga, Frida Orupabo, Sara Vattano, Guanyu Xu); and a number of well established artists who work in a broad range of media, and who might not be most readily associated with this medium over the other media they work in (Ipek Duben, Richard Hawkins, Thomas Hirschhorn, Gülsün Karamustafa, Christian Marclay, Wangechi Mutu, Giulio Paolini, Kara Walker).

The operative metric here is that collage is not simply a matter of specific approaches and materials used, or of recontextualized, reappropriated sources, but rather, that it is a particular way of working, a way of thinking, a way of processing visuals, materials, and compositions with collage-like concepts or complexities, even when some type of traditionally understood, overtly manifest ‘collage’ isn’t the ultimate visual or physical yield. Hence the mix here of ‘collage’ artists working in photography, video, installation, drawing, and sculpture, alongside others working with cut and torn paper, clipped and reconfigured photographs, and mashups of ads and other source imagery. Hence also the range of expressive impulses, from political messaging and environmental concerns to personal experiences and material enthusiasms. Aesthetically and conceptually, this book casts a broad net, and it is deeper and richer as such.

Vitamin C+ Collage in Contemporary Art. Introductory essay by Yuval Etgar. Phaidon 

Given the contemporary focus and overall critical polyphony of the volume, Yuval Etgar’s introductory essay, “Border Control: Testing the Limits of Collage,” is somewhat longer than it needs to be – but that’s a good thing. Here, the curator and art historian brings into cohesion the various ideas and inputs as described above, while also laying down a substantial historical trajectory of collage artists and techniques along which the book’s scores of contemporary practitioners can be placed. For Etgar, collage artists engage in “a continuous process of challenging the borders” of creative expression, one that “comes into play in formal terms relating to scale, spatial orientation and material composition, but also in ideological terms where hierarchies – social or other – can be undermined or inverted, and margins are constantly pulled into the centre.”

This lucid, astute essay is followed by the artist profiles, each of which features a handful of images and an accompanying text. The reproductions of works are generally exquisite. The critical and biographical texts are generally brilliant. The overlapping themes and uses of materials are many and sundry. And the sense of regenerative novelty and creative exuberance is unwavering. On that note, an initial straight-through, start-to-finish reading, though somewhat unnecessary for a book of this sort, proves very rewarding, as this makes the ways in which the profiles interrelate aesthetically and thematically all the more compelling and, on occasion, surprising.

The visual and conceptual dynamics within Vitamin C+ are so varied and active that the book seems to channel a sense of energy. It’s a prodigious source of information and inspiration for artists working in all media, curatorial directors, collectors, and anyone else interested in contemporary art. To be sure, teachers of studio art could put various aspects of the book to great use in the classroom. It’s also an excellent resource for today’s young art writers, as its detailed examinations of the generally multi-media techniques in question collectively expand into a full spectrum of contemporary critical discourses.

My only minor quibble with the volume is that in lieu of indentations or line spacing to indicate paragraph breaks, small polygonal ‘cut paper’ shapes are inserted between certain sentences. Although larger proportions of these same shapes are used with wonderfully swirling graphic flourish on the book’s cover, they make for a very strange typographic choice to separate paragraphs. Or maybe my quibble is just a very strange quibble. At any rate, Vitamin C+ lacks basically nothing and encompasses much. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a subsequent volume, perhaps Vitamin C++.

Vitamin C+ Collage in Contemporary Art. Introductory essay by Yuval Etgar. Phaidon

Vitamin C+: Collage in Contemporary Art, Phaidon Editors, Yuval Etgar, et. al., London and New York, Phaidon, 2023.

About the writer: Paul D’Agostino, PhD is an artist, writer, curator, and translator. You can find him on Instagram @pauldagostinostudio