HOW GOOD ARE E-COMMERCE PRINTS? The painter Richard Phillips, who produced a nifty inkjet-on-canvas edition for Exhibition A, in a sale that closed January 11 after 200 had sold, observes, “That print is scarily like my painting, though it’s much smaller in scale.” (The work, Der Bodensee, is based on a much larger painting—78 by 52½ inches—of the same name from 2008. The smallest of three sizes, 12 by 8 inches, sold for $75.) “[In my own spaces,]
I don’t hang my own paintings, which are gone in any case, but I do hang my prints” (Der Bodensee and two others created by Art Production Fund as part of its Prop Art program, which creates digital reproductions of paintings for TV shows—in the case of Phillips, “Gossip Girl,” then markets them to raise funds). “My paintings have an uncannily real effect, and translate well into reproductions—almost one to one. Exhibition A even matched the sheen and the varnish.” He continues, “I have one of the Der Bodensee prints in my studio. A friend visited and saw it and said, ‘I didn’t know you did that painting small.’”
Pace Prints, which had optimistically begun digital operations around 2000 to produce inkjet prints at the workshop, stopped doing so three years ago. According to Jacob Lewis, director of Pace Prints Chelsea, who is on the programming committee of the IFPDA, “We found that artists weren’t satisfied—they wanted to be working by hand in some way.” (Digital printing is used at Pace, but only in combination with traditional printmaking techniques.) Asked if the IFPDA would ever allow e-commerce companies into the annual November fair at the Park Avenue Armory—the most prestigious print fair in the world—he replies, “I’m 32. I’d be in my 70s by the time that would happen.” He adds, “I don’t see the prints as particularly valuable, but who knows? Warhol sold his prints for so little, and now you see them for a hundred thousand. Though I don’t see what happened to Warhol happening here.”
According to Phillips, “The difference between these prints and traditional printmaking is that these are made for immediate gratification. You bring them to your house and just pop them up on the wall. If you don’t like them after a while, you can drag them into the closet.” For Philips, whose work specifically concerns the circulation of images throughout pop culture, e-commerce prints have a particular allure. “That’s what it’s about: to make a Mona Lisa-type reproduction in order to stake out a position beyond art-world concerns. To become an image of the times.”
Unlike some of his comrades at the IFPDA, Pace’s Lewis is receptive to the idea of e-commerce prints. “These folks are introducing art to a younger generation. As the buyers invest further, I would hope they will invest in stronger work. It’s a great starting point.” Bekman is more than hopeful: “I often call 20x200 the ‘gateway drug’ of the art world,” she says. And there is evidence that people who purchase e-commerce prints go on to buy more expensive works by the same artists, beginning with the originals, which some seek to acquire (often through the publishers, sometimes through the artist’s gallery). Her appetite whetted, Bekman herself bought an etching by Ed Ruscha from Crown Point Press in San Francisco for $4,000. “The goal is to get people to move on and buy other work,” she says. As to the resistance from the fine-art print dealers: “That’s a pretty small pie they’ve got, and no one wants to give up their piece. Sometimes I look at those fantastic print workshops and think, ‘Boy, I could move that inventory!’ But I have too many irons in the fire.” She adds, “There are tons of people willing to buy art if you sell it to them. There’s no shame in that.”
Dürer might well have agreed.