Eugenio Dittborn (b. 1943)
Eugenio Dittborn (b. 1943)
Eugenio Dittborn (b. 1943)
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Eugenio Dittborn (b. 1943)

The 21st History of the Human Face (Colophonia) Airmail Painting No. 122

Eugenio Dittborn (b. 1943)
The 21st History of the Human Face (Colophonia) Airmail Painting No. 122
paint, stitching, photo-silkscreen and grommets on two sections of duck fabric with ink and postage on two airmail envelopes
82 1/8 x 54 7/8 in. (209 x 139.4 cm.) each panel, 82 1/8 x 110 in. (209 x 279.4 cm) overall
24 3/8 x 16 in. (62 x 40.6 cm.) each envelope
Executed in 1998.
Alexander & Bonin, New York.
Private collection, London (acquired from the above, 2000).
Lisbon, Instituto de Arte Contemporânea, Pinturas Aeropostais, June 1998.
New York, Alexander & Bonin, Eugenio Dittborn: Taciturna (Recent and Non-Recent Airmail Paintings), 29 October – 5 December 1998.
Further details
1 Eugenio Dittborn, quoted in Sarah Thornton, “El Genio Dittborn,” Economist, January 19, 2011.
2 Dittborn, “Marks of the Journey: A Conversation with Eugenio Dittborn and Roberto Merino,” in Manifestos and Polemics in Latin American Modern Art, ed. Patrick Frank (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017), 249-50, 252.
3 Ibid., 248.
4 Dittborn, “Correcaminos VII/Roadrunner VII, 2012,” Afterall 29 (Spring 2012): 77.

Lot Essay

“I’m a little bit agoraphobic,” Dittborn once deadpanned. “I’d like to be in an envelope but I can’t fold myself.” He has, of course, made a career of folding his works into envelopes: his Airmail Paintings, begun in 1983, have long traveled by post, disguised as letters and placed into oversized envelopes that continually crisscross the globe. “I invented these folded paintings to get out from this place, to be in the world,” he explains. “They are like messages in a bottle.” Sent from Santiago, the Airmail Paintings betray their beginnings in Pinochet’s Chile, a time of censorship and untold brutality. Their contents, drawn from such disparate sources as compendia of criminal and ethnographic photographs and drawings made by schizophrenics, probe the nature of memory and mobility, trace and disappearance. “The superstructural meaning is the travel,” Dittborn allows. “You can see it in the folds.”1 His Airmail Paintings have circumnavigated the world, making an early appearance in Sydney (Artspace, 1984), major stops in New York (New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997) and Porto Alegre (Bienal do Mercosul, 2011), and a recent trip to London (Goldsmiths Center for Contemporary Art, 2020).
The present work belongs to the ongoing series The History of the Human Face, in which a montage of portraits, often photographically enlarged, is silkscreened and sewn onto panels of cotton fabric. Mordant and discontinuous, the faces form a social typology extracted from old detective magazines and anthropological studies, how-to-draw books and news stories, children’s drawings (“outsider art”) and facial composites (police sketches). “I was looking for faces with the maximum distance between them,” Dittborn acknowledges. “There are gulfs and leaps from one type of face to another, between one technique and another, between the method of rendering and method of shipping, and between the places where I found them. Just as each Airmail Painting traveled, there are ‘journeys’ inside each one, or antipodes joined in abrupt contact.” The friction between the faces is multiply temporal. “An Airmail Painting is the space in which disparate moments in time can meet each other,” Dittborn notes. The work’s circulatory structure—“forever in motion…[with] neither a destination or a home”—is, moreover, inseparable from its material form; its itinerary (date and location) is imprinted on the airmail envelope with which it is always exhibited.2
Twenty countenances, roughly the same size but otherwise dissimilar, populate the present work, forming a border at the outer edges of two cotton panels that come together to form a rectangle. The white expanse at the center of the work, bare but for the faint, grid-like creases in the fabric, suggests an emptiness or a void. The centrifugal placement of the portraits further amplifies the interspace between them and, in a way, the marginality of both their historical and their aesthetic existence. Images of fugitive and forgotten subjects, they have a contingent material presence here; the faces can be moved at any time. “Tacking one piece of fabric over another, I can easily unstitch them and move them to another spot,” Dittborn explains. “None of the materials that I use allow permanent attachment. That is the provisional character of the inscriptions, and thus of their connections.”3 Their precarity is again mediated by the amorphous stains of blue paint applied over each face; seen as well in other works from this series, the translucent washes insinuate chance and accident, the marks plausibly a fact of folding, inseparable from the work’s “airmailness.” Dittborn underscores the importance of this inscriptional mark (colophon)—alternatively, its distilled residuum (colophony)—in the title of this work: Colophonia. “The dye placed its concentrated weightlessness at the service of mobility,” he writes, “marked the printed figures, crossed folds and tacks and stained, finally, other stains.”4
Dittborn included The 21st History of the Human Face (Colophonia) Airmail Painting No. 122 in his first New York gallery exhibition, Taciturna (recent and non-recent airmail paintings), at Alexander and Bonin in 1998. It is similar in format to The 22nd History of the Human Face (Trueque) Airmail Painting No. 123 (1998), with which it shares a few faces. Other works from The History of the Human Face are held at Harvard Art Museums (2nd), the Vancouver Art Gallery (3rd), the Walker Art Center (10th), the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (15th), and De Domijnen, Sittard (23rd).
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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