Digital Catalogues Raisonné

I missed this post from the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago about the growth in digital catalogues raisonné. The article points out the with the recent loss of authentication services from foundations and others, catalogues have gained even more importance. Given the high cost to produce, there has been a recent trend toward electronic catalogues which are easier to edit and update. than their printed counterparts.

The Financial Times reports
With the breathless pace of today’s art world, you could be forgiven for thinking there was no place left for the catalogue raisonné, an inventory of the entire works of an artist that takes years to produce. Last September saw the publication by Phaidon of the last of four volumes devoted to Andy Warhol’s oeuvre (pictured). The first was published in 2002, but the research process had started years earlier. Monet’s catalogue raisonné, meanwhile, took 40 years to bring to life. Edouard Vuillard’s took 60.

The risk of being sued is a reason to approach the task with kid gloves. If an organisation dedicated to the preservation of an artist’s legacy denies authentication to a work, and it is then refused entry into the catalogue raisonné, its value plummets. In 2010, it cost the Warhol Foundation, which produced the artist’s catalogue raisonné, $7m to defend itself against an accusation that it had erred in refusing to authenticate a Warhol self-portrait. In the face of such lawsuits, a clutch of authentication services — including those concerned with Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat — have disbanded in recent years.

In the absence of these services, catalogues raisonnés become doubly important, according to Alex Branczik, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s in London. “Thanks to the research and expertise that goes into a catalogue raisonné,” he says, “it’s critical to the understanding of the artist and to [their] market.”

In 2013, Luca Massimo Barbero completed the catalogue raisonné for Lucio Fontana’s works on paper. The six-year project was “enormously challenging”, says Barbero, who is director of the Institute of Art History at the Cini Foundation in Venice. Fontana produced more than 5,700 works on paper, and although the foundation that looked after his archive had already undertaken considerable research, Barbero nevertheless found himself “reordering the chronology” of certain drawings. One drawing was redated from 1950 to 1946, which “changed the gestation” of the “Spatial Concept” series that was at the heart of Fontana’s vision.

The vast amount of time, labour and costs involved in production mean that many publishers are wary of undertaking catalogues raisonnés. For Phaidon, one of the world’s most respected art publishers, the Warhol catalogue was its first foray into the field. “It is very labour-intensive to edit, design and produce the books,” admits Deborah Aaronson, Phaidon’s group publisher. “So the bar is set pretty high.”

From a legal point of view, the publishing house protects itself with an indemnification in the contract. “The authentication of individual works clearly belongs in the purview of the individual author or foundation,” Aaronson explains. “Authentication is clearly a huge issue with Warhol, so it’s not our policy to get caught up with those things.”

Such challenges, allied to the rise of sophisticated digital technology, have resulted in a growth in online catalogues raisonnés. Easy to update, digital catalogues allow errors to be remedied quickly and cost-effectively, and permit information to be added as new material and scholarship emerge.

Prestigious online catalogues raisonnés include The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, which has been put together by art historian Jayne Warman, scholar and dealer Walter Feilchenfeldt and David Nash of New York’s Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery; and Louise Bourgeois: The Complete Prints & Books, which is being compiled by MoMA.

Now Artifex Press, in partnership with Pace gallery in New York, has launched a publishing company specifically for digital catalogues raisonnés. “The advantage of digital catalogues are that they can be updated and corrected,” says David Grosz, president of Artifex. “They are cheaper to produce [and] there’s much more flexibility in terms of how you publish it.”
Artifex hopes to make money through subscriptions, although the service is currently free in order to allow clients to accustom themselves to doing their research online. So far, it has published three works: Chuck Close: Painting, 1967-present ; Jim Dine: Sculpture 1983-present; and Tim Hawkinson Catalogue Raisonné, which includes the artist’s complete works to date. All are with Pace gallery, although Grosz says that future artists, who include Frank Stella and Niki de Saint Phalle, will not necessarily be associated with the gallery.

The inclusion of Hawkinson, a Californian sculptor born in 1960, highlights a trend in the digital field for cataloguing artists who are still alive, because their oeuvre can be easily updated.

So is there a danger that online catalogues might make their material cousins redundant? Carl Schmitz of the Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association doesn’t think so. “Online catalogues raisonnés are part of an ecosystem along with [their print counterparts],” he says. “The organiser of a catalogue raisonné project could choose to turn their work into an online database and follow that with the later publication of a book, or vice versa, and they could allow those decisions to wait while undertaking the long gestation period of research that a catalogue raisonné requires.”

Few catalogues raisonnés, however, can ever be regarded as definitive. “It’s very difficult to draw a line in the sand about works which are not in the catalogue raisonné,” Branczik says.

Nevertheless, the role of these time-honoured tomes looks secure for generations to come.
Source: The Financial Times

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