Paul Sietsema, Modernist
Paul Sietsema, Modernist

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The late Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes probably saw plenty of bad puns in his day. What would he think of “Shock of the News,” the exhibit that lifts its name from The Shock of the New, his TV series that debuted in 1980? He probably wouldn’t mind—after all, Hughes’ show attempted to make sense of modernism, and this one attempts to do something similar by examining artists’ relationships with news media.

Judith Brodie, the National Gallery of Art’s curator of modern print and drawings, has said she conceived “Shock of the News” as a companion to last fall’s “Warhol: Headlines.” But as she researched artists’ use of newspapers, she broadened the show’s scope, filling several binders with names and snapshots of possible works to include. Although thousands of artists have used newspaper in their works, newspaper art can’t be thought of as a movement. Yet it is a steady undercurrent, and this is one of the first museum shows to test the waters.

The exhibit appropriately begins with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto,” which appeared on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909. Championing misogyny, violence, and an end to history and traditions, the sprawling poem fathered Futurism—a movement that died with most of its artists during World War I. Marinetti’s poem was also the deadbeat dad of Cubism and Dada, works of which follow in a nearly linear procession through the gallery.

Much of the art in this show explores how the newspaper could affect older traditions. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque collaged newspaper into drawings and paintings; John Heartfield used newspapers in his photomontages; and some of Hannah Höch’s collages consisted of nothing but newspaper—as did several Dadaist poems.

But the exhibit shows how after World War II, artists began thinking more broadly about the news. Some still used them in paintings, but with a few tweaks. Willem de Kooning appreciated newsprint’s slick surface; Paul Thek liked how it buckled. In a political act, Robert Morris painted over a front page of the New York Mirror whose headline read, “We Blockade Cuba with 40 Warships.” Others, like Yves Klein and Salvador Dalí, prodded the paper more subtly, self-publishing short-lived journals in which the newspaper became artwork and the news was about them.

Then there’s Andy Warhol’s deadpan take on the front page. Despite being the catalyst for “Shock of the News,” his work is among the least interesting pieces on view. His approach doesn’t do much more than rawly exploit a headline—in this case, one about JFK’s assassination —and present it as a decorative motif.

“Shock of the New” offers an odd collection of work that spans continents. The newspaper has been cut, collaged, recomposed, copied, dissected, obscured, simulated, gold-leafed, transformed into sausage (literauturwurst, that is), and obliterated. There’s not a lot that unifies these pieces—except, of course, yellowed paper with text on it. Maybe that’s enough. Here, the newspaper is not only a medium, a subject, a vehicle for criticism, and an object to criticise; it is also an object that is revered.