Composition, 2009

I had thought a catalogue was in essence a list of works with some explanatory text: wrong. And I had thought making the list of works would be simple: that was also wrong. Like this Composition, a list may look easy, but it’s much more sophisticated than it appears.

There were two main categories of Jenny’s works in the studio when she died: (1) works finished after or unsold following her last exhibition in 2006, mostly paper reliefs, some mobiles, some wire works, and 12 oil paintings from 2013-15 and (2) works finished before 2000 – oil paintings, drawing, and prints. I kept, more or less, to this grouping on this website, and made a list of them on an excel spreadsheet by medium and in chronological sequence.

This order may not do for a list of works in an exhibition catalogue. The catalogues I looked at took a variety of approaches, but most of the lists were either chronological or followed the order of display in the exhibition or plates in a book. Some of chronological lists were divided by medium: there are arguments for and against that. If the story is about an artist’s development then strict chronological or historical will tell a more complete story: it can illuminate or challenge to see the artist taking different approaches in different mediums simultaneously.

Then there is the question of what information goes on the list, as opposed to what’s in the catalogue text. The listmaker must decide on:

  • measurement
    • of the finished work? in or outside the frame, if any?
    • metric or imperial? (these days most opt for metric)
    • convention – usually Height x Width x Depth
  • Title
    • Artist’s title if known
    • Customary title if work has previously been catalogued
    • If artist’s title was ‘Untitled’, how to deal with works which have no title at all?
  • Date
    • if recorded by artist, and where
    • if not, inferred by curator and how
  • Medium – straightforward enough (until you get to constructions)
  • Signature
    • whether signed or unsigned. If signed, what signature is used? Jenny had three or four eg J G McNulty, Jenny McNulty and JG McN – is it important to be precise?`
    • how executed and where located?
  • Provenance
  • Ownership
  • Number – catalogue number or other – eg gallery identity, accession number, database number –

After reading at least 30 catalogues, some of which were surprisingly different in their approach to listing, I realised that the most important rule is to be explicit about the choices you have made. A very good example is Oil paintings in Public Ownership in the Imperial War Museum, a catalogue drawn up by The Public Catalogue Foundation (now ArtUK) which is (not surprisingly) a model of its type. This devotes a whole page to explaining exactly the rules the list used. So the lesson here is to write the explanation of the list before writing the list.

But the other lesson for me is not to be self conscious about taking this completely seriously.  As I have already discovered it’s easy to make mistakes in listing which can cause confusion even if the artist is still alive.  The artist can also make mistakes!  It’s so important to get it right, to be exact. The life of a work of art may far outlive its creator and the Art Executor, and no one can know what will happen to it– it may be destroyed or it may live for decades.  If  neither the artist nor the art executor is around to explain themselves the list will may be the only record and no one can know how important it may be.