In some ways one could argue that every artwork is an archive in the sense that the accumulated knowledge of the artist is inherently embedded within the material of the work itself, both tangible or intangible. Another way to think about it might be in terms of the idea of a trace: some artists prefer to lay bare the evidence of their process–examples include visible erasures or corrections–such that the work itself becomes an archive of its own making. However, these two examples of process are largely self-contained and self-reflective; the archival qualities of the artwork are incidental or implied, but not the primary source material for the work, nor the primary content.

Elizabeth Moran, whose current exhibition at the Hawn Gallery, “Against the Best Possible Sources,” derives directly from the artist’s research at the TIME, Inc. corporate archives, is one of many artists whose practice reflects what the art historian, Hal Foster, broadly defined as an archival impulse. Artists working in this archival manner, according to Foster, “seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.” He adds that they, “elaborate on the found image, object, and text, and favor the installation format as they do so.”1

To accompany Elizabeth Moran’s exhibition, I assembled a small selection of books from the Hamon Arts Library’s collection that offer further context on the installation. The selection offers a starting point for deeper research into archival practice–presenting canonical, theoretical texts and short essays on the archival practices of a variety of artists. Two significant exhibition catalogues, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, and Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art, seek to document the importance of collecting, archiving and storing in artistic practice. As such, they offer useful introductions in the elusive effort to define archival and research-based practices in contemporary art. These two exhibitions feature work by many artists using archival materials or structures in their practice. I’ve included an additional text, The Archive, which highlights a few of these artists as well. They will be the focus of an upcoming blog post.

The Archive. Edited by Charles Merewether. London: Whitechapel; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

This text is particularly useful as an overview of how critical and theoretical notions of the archive have changed over time. It also offers brief introductions to several different strategies that artists have used as engagement with archival material. Essays included examine how the archive operates in various academic disciplines, including anthropology, critical theory, and history, and how these disciplines inform contemporary artistic practice. Artists highlighted are Christian Boltanski, Susan Hiller, Ilya Kabakov, Renée Green, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Walid Raad’s Atlas Group, both of whom will be discussed further in the next blog post.

Enwezor, Okwui. Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary ArtNew York, N.Y.: International Center of Photography. Göttingen: Steidl Publishers, 2008.

Organized by the late, renowned Nigerian scholar and curator, Okwui Enwezor, in 2008 at the International Center for Photography in New York, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, is not only one of the most significant exhibitions on the ways contemporary artists have engaged with archival structures and archival materials,  but also serves as an exemplary model for the curator’s ideas about how exhibitions themselves are opportunities for interrogation and research. The exhibition, in other words, functioned as an extension of the archive itself. Because it was held at the ICP, Enwezor’s exhibition focuses on artists who use archival documents–specifically photographic archives–in their investigations of history, memory, identity, and loss, which is a marked contrast from the more expansive approach used by the curators in Deep Storage.

The exhibition included work by a geographically diverse group of artists, some of whom were not well known in the United States. While the artists in the exhibition use a broad range of strategies to investigate their particular areas of interest, Enwezor unites them through their shared focus on the role of photography and film as a documentary practice. Artists include Christian Boltanski, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Jef Geys, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Craigie Horsfield, Lamia Joreige, Zoe Leonard, Sherrie Levine, Ilán Lieberman, Glenn Ligon, Robert Morris, Walid Raad, Thomas Ruff, Anri Sala, Fazal Sheikh, Lorna Simpson, Eyal Sivan, Vivan Sundaram, Nomeda and Gediminas Urbona, and Andy Warhol.

Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art. Edited by Ingrid Schaffner and Matthias Winzen. Munich; New York: Prestel, 1998.

Like Archive Fever, Deep Storage is a massive exhibition catalogue that provides a highly useful overview of contemporary archival practice, yet its focus is quite different. Deep Storage attempts to investigate artists’ use of not only archival structures and materials, but also the process of collecting and storage as related to museum practice. However, it shies away from arguing for a comprehensive definition. The curators divide their strategy into four distinct sites of investigation into storage: the storeroom/museum, the archive/library, the artist’s studio, and the data-space.  As a result, the exhibition covers a broad range of mediums and modes of working from over forty different artists.

For this exhibition the concept of storing information and material is the central point that unites the diverse group of artists. Organized alphabetically like an encyclopedia, it features brief essays on all participating artists, which serves as a solid starting point for deeper research.


  1. Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Autumn, 2004): 4 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3397555.

Book title selection and blog post by Allison Klion, Hawn Gallery Project Manager.