I recently had the pleasure and responsibility of jurying an international show. The first stage was online in the jurors’ homes using a simple system where entries were presented by enlargeable thumbnails. A move of the cursor enlarged portions of the image once again. I purposely didn’t enlarge the signature area. Voting was a matter of clicking “yes” or “no” below the image. There were 380 entries — the quality was dauntingly high. We three jurors were unknown to one another and from different “persuasions.” Nevertheless, as tallied by the show’s presenter, our selection of 80 works more or less coincided. This morning, we three jurors met for the first time to choose the prize winners. The 80 paintings were nicely hung with no tagging or other info. The first thing I noticed was that perhaps a third of them had no signature. I’ve seen this before, but this was the first time there were so many.
I can understand why painters might want to have their paintings juried on merit alone. I wondered if some of the artists were intending to drop by the gallery and sign their work just before the show. Not practical, I figured — some painters were geographically challenged. Could there be other reasons for the omission? Fear of gender discrimination? Age? Race? Degree of baldness?
I was stumped. I always thought signing was an artist’s honour and guarantee of authenticity. The show’s presenter told me not signing nowadays was “just a trend.”
This afternoon, when I got home, I phoned a couple of my dealers. One told me the artist’s signature is part of her brand — important particularly to collectors who may want to own an artist’s various periods. “Besides, collectors have their own insecurities,” he said. “They feel uncomfortable thinking that such and such isn’t an actual Frank Bloggs, even though they think it might be. And they want their friends to read for themselves of their Frank Bloggs ownership.”
“Painters who don’t sign their work on the front are less likely to make sales,” said another dealer. It seems that some discriminating connoisseurs tend to think an unsigned painting may be less valued by the artist. Even a painting signed on the wraparound may be suspect.
This evening, while signing my name on a painting, I was thinking I might stop signing my cheques.
PS: “A painting without a signature is like a Big Mac without a pickle.” (Gallery owner)
Esoterica: I guess something must be said for the mystique of an unsigned painting. Is the artist so important and his style so recognizable that no signature is necessary? Do the cognoscenti gain smug satisfaction and pleasure by “knowing” what we regular peons cannot even read? To us knuckle-draggers, is the artist saying, “Poo on you”? Come to think of it, over at MOMA, I had noticed that the Rothkos weren’t signed. Nor were many of the Lichtensteins and the Warhols. What’s the matter with those guys? Don’t they want to get known?
by Jim van Geet, Australia
No signature! Absolutely astounding! Down here in the Antipodes it is a phenomenon which has not yet reared its ugly head. Having judged a number of shows, as well as staying in the loop of exhibitions, the only times I’ve encountered it is when the work was quite sub-standard and/or student’s work. Which begs the question of “why show at all?” Only at the stratospheric top end of easily recognizable brands could it be countenanced.
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Not signing not uncommon
by Ted Lederer (Elliott Louis Gallery), Vancouver, BC, Canada
As a gallery owner of 12 years, I am seeing more and more artists not sign their work on the front.
However, I have never seen artists not sign their name somewhere on the piece (unless they forget in the heat of preparing for an exhibition). Usually, when unsigned on the front the work is signed on the back. I for one insist every work be signed somewhere, but I don’t care where. I have seen no evidence to support the comment that works unsigned on the front do not sell as well. In fact, over the years, I have seen many, many paintings degraded by poor choices the artist made in signing their name on the front. I think it fair to say that most of the unsigned work I see is of non-objective abstract art where the artist felt a signature would interrupt the piece.
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A copy in Asia
by Catherine Chin, Singapore
I was quite taken by your comments on art work without signatures. In Southeast Asia where I live, when a painting is unsigned it means it is not an original work but a copy of another more well- known artist’s work. It will therefore command a fraction of the price of an original, signed work. I will be travelling to Saigon next week where this is a normal practice for young artists. I have seen this in Beijing and Shanghai as well.
Bio on the back?
by Tom Hoffmann, Seattle, WA, USA
I read your comments about the “no signature” phenomenon immediately after reading an email about a watercolor society show I’ll be in. The message from the show stressed the need for my artist’s bio to be attached to the back of the painting. My gut response was, “I won’t include a bio. My painting should speak for itself.” I’ve always resisted the resume/bio/artist’s statement jive, feeling that none of that should matter, but I do sign my work. The juxtaposition of the emails showed me a connection I hadn’t ever thought of: if a record of my accomplishments or my intentions is irrelevant to the work itself, what does it matter who painted the picture? The painting is what it is, good, bad, or indifferent, with or without any ID. And yet… If I see a painting I particularly like, the first thing I want to know is where I can see more of that artist’s work. I don’t care at all where the artist went to college, or which banks have her work in their collection, but I’d be frustrated if there were no signature.
If the work meets the artist’s standards well enough to be hung, then it is worthy of the certification a signature provides. It’s a bit like saying, “I’m Frank Bloggs, and I approve of this painting.”
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To heck with it!
by Suzanne Thompson, Frankfort, KY, USA
I am not a painter, but most of my work is “signable.” I have been convinced that signing is better than not signing. I resisted signing on the front because I work very hard to make an aesthetically cohesive image; putting my name in some negative space just doesn’t seem right. It is negative space for a reason. I am signing my new work; at first it was as a cartoonist signs theirs, where you have to look for it. My most recent I just said, “To heck with it” and semi-boldly signed in the lower right corner, smack-dab on the edge of my precious negative space. It only hurt a little. I would like to have a conversation with Mr. Warhol about why he didn’t always sign his. I would hope he would use my excuse as it relates to the graphic rather than painterly images in his work. I’m afraid, however, his answer would be, “Oh, honey, if you don’t know by looking at it that it’s mine, you don’t deserve to know!”
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
Let it be known that most Russian artists almost never signed on the front of their paintings. They did it on the canvas back and in my opinion that’s where any written information ought to be. My only concession is to paint in conspicuously the initials of the artist on the front right or left corner with a full signature on the canvas back and the stretcher bar. And if the name is as common as Smith then add the mother’s maiden name…lol
This applies also to the smaller paintings especially with artists’ names exceeding the length of admiration. On the other hand, I have been signing “Anonymous” all unsigned paintings I have ever come across. I admit it has improved my sales and by the same token pulled those artists from sure oblivion. So next time you find a painting signed “Anonymous” you’ll know who did it. By the same token I made those artists better known than they ever hoped to be. Nothing like a good Latin name on a decent canvas!
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No ‘up’ side
by Nola Russell, Victoria, BC, Canada
I don’t sign any of my “abstract” work on the front. I sign and put the month of completion on the back (it can take several months to complete a painting). These works are either based on colour theory experiments or represent music and consist of large blocks of colour (some blending — but within a blocked space). There is absolutely no way that a signature would not affect the look of the work. Often, a signature would diminish any effect that should occur when the painting is viewed. And, there is nowhere to hide a signature within the blocks either. So … I sign on the back, because the work is more important than me (or my signature).
Additionally, many of these works have no “up.” A signature is usually a good indication of where the artist believes “up” to be on an abstract work. Since I often hang my paintings at various angles and many of them are not rectangular, I don’t want to influence the viewer/possible owner into thinking that it won’t fit into almost any space or that their personal taste is upside down or sideways. Turn it any way you want … that’s “up.”
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Signing monkey business
by Tony Angell, Seattle, Washington, USA
Given the degree of replication being done (both with and without the artist’s permission) of artist’s work in China, do you suppose that the artist might have a moment of conscience and decide to leave it unsigned inasmuch as they really had it done by someone else? I am speculating here, but given the degree of wannabe sculptors that have flooded the market with work that is computer completed or based only on something the artist sent to a stone carver in Nanging (rough sketches or, even worse, examples being cement statues from a garden supply yard), there may be some other motives here in leaving the work unsigned.
On the other hand, I have sent out bronze work that was given such attention (or lack of) that my signature and edition number were both ground off. I gather from a Russian friend that many of the painters in his country feel that to sign them is too egocentric. The painting alone should represent the full “signature” of the artist.
By the way, have you ever forgotten to sign a piece? I must admit that I have as I of course leave the signature for the point at which I’m ready to step away from a work. Sometimes this is a protracted process and once when I did get back to it I was so relieved to ship it that it arrived unsigned. Yes, he sent it back for a signature.
Dealer cover up
by Rena Bierman, Cochrane, AB, Canada
I visited a gallery in September that displayed paintings without a signature upon the gallery owner’s/manager’s request. He even mused with covering up the signatures that were already on paintings with tape somehow so that people who were in the gallery couldn’t type in the artist’s name on their phone, search the net for the artist’s website and then later purchase the artist’s work directly. The owner spent 40 minutes explaining this omission and his reasons for trying to push it so that no artists he represents would have their name displayed.
Quite disturbing, I thought, and so thought the artist friend I had gallery touring with me.
Is it legal to cover up the name of the creator of a work who owns the copyright of the image?
Can you imagine buying a CD and not knowing the name of the musician until after you have purchased it? Going to a concert without knowing who you will hear? Not being allowed to know who is the composer or song writer of a certain piece? Going to a movie and not knowing who the actors are? When you see a movie, there is a long string of “credits” going to the people involved in producing it. “Credit” should go to the creator of any piece of art in my opinion.
I found the idea ludicrous even though I could understand that technology poses options for the buyers and a challenge for galleries.
Perhaps artists represented by galleries need to be instructed on how to be loyal to the very people who represent their work and not to be the gallery’s competition. Instead, be their business partner.
(RG note) Thanks, Rena. Any dealer who put a fig leaf over part of mine would be toast.
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The integrated signature
by Paul Paquette, Vancouver, BC, Canada
This letter made me think of some of the artists who do sign their paintings… and probably shouldn’t!
I refer to those artists who finish off an otherwise fine painting by signing it as if they were signing a giant novelty cheque, or at the other end of the spectrum, those who scrawl their names with clumsy bloated lettering creating the impression they are either semi-literate or descended from Neanderthals.
>As you suggest, we should consider the signature to be a vital component of the artwork itself as well as a potential selling point for collectors. I believe that in developing our skills as artists we should make a conscious effort to develop a signature that is unique, as well as being elegant, unobtrusive and readable. Something which contributes to the finished artwork rather than detracting or distracting from it.
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Enjoy the past comments below for No signature!…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Heike Covell of Facebook who wrote, “I always sign my paintings — I wouldn’t want anyone else to sign them.”
And also Lea Magruder of Facebook who wrote, “I have a chop.”
And also John Murphy who wrote, “As a painter, every painting I hang I do so proudly and want everyone to enjoy. One thing I have always remembered: it’s the Eye of the Beholder that makes it the Best; the signature gives its Value.”
And also Ramon Tombril who wrote, “Signing a painting is an egotistical conceit that ought to be abandoned.”
And also Leo Revell who wrote, “People are beginning to buy ‘no name’ brands.”