Books

Putting Pen to Paper: Tackling the History of ‘Ballpoint Art’

Jan Fabre, Hey, What A Pleasant Madness!, 1988, ballpoint pen on seven bathtubs, with seven Murano glass owls, installation view in "Jan Fabre: Seven Rooms," various venues, Bath, 1997. WOODLEY & QUICK/©ANGELOS BVBA/COLLECTION MU.ZEE, OSTEND, BELGIUM

Jan Fabre, Hey, What A Pleasant Madness!, 1988, ballpoint pen on seven bathtubs, with seven Murano glass owls, installation view in “Jan Fabre: Seven Rooms,” various venues, Bath, 1997.

WOODLEY & QUICK/©ANGELOS BVBA/COLLECTION MU.ZEE, OSTEND, BELGIUM

You can take a note, draw a painting, obliterate a drawing, turn ink into paint, but whatever you do, consider the ballpoint.

COURTESY LAURENCE KING PUBLISHING

COURTESY LAURENCE KING PUBLISHING

In a well-designed, elegantly produced paperback volume, published by Laurence King, Trent Morse has cleverly set his mind and hand to a very modest and surprisingly complex medium—the ballpoint pen. All artistic devices and materials have their distinguishing features and ranking in the high/low-art continuum, with the ballpoint pen generally rated near the bottom. Its effects tend to be straightforward and relatively un-nuanced—it makes mostly solid lines.

But Morse, a former editor at ARTnews and currently managing editor at Introspective, traces a more venerable trajectory for the pen and its users, tracking its evolution back to Giacometti, with his rapidly and densely scribbled portrait heads, and to Alighiero Boetti, the first to use it as a primary medium, having assistants create cross-hatched tapestry-like lines, and then moves forward to artists like the Korean-born Il Lee, the consummate master of ballpoint today. Lee works with the pens exclusively, heating up their tips to let the ink flow freely; then he starts building up the pigment into areas of sculptural solidity. Paper, we learn, requires more ink than canvas.

Morse divides the work into two categories: “Spaces & Structures” and “Creatures & Characters,” with mostly pure and geometric abstractions in the first section and faces and figures of all manner in the second—although there is some categorical seepage. Thomas Nozkowski, for example, with his playful lines and abstract cartoons, falls into the first grouping, while the London-based Italian artist Seb Patane, who scribbles atop old prints, revealing the pen’s (and his) expressive and improvisatory potential, falls into the second.

What, we might wonder, is the attraction of this medium for such a diverse group of artists? Rebecca E. Chamberlain has said that she is drawn not to ballpoint’s refined linear possibilities but rather to its blue ink’s exceptional blueness. So enamored is she with its effect that she drains ink from her Bic pens and uses it as paint; she portrays interior spaces such as empty offices, thereby putting a work utensil to the task of depicting its natural habitat.

Il Lee, Untitled 978 W, 1997–98, ballpoint pen on paper. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND ART PROJECTS INTERNATIONAL, NEW YORK

Il Lee, Untitled 978 W, 1997–98, ballpoint pen on paper.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND ART PROJECTS INTERNATIONAL, NEW YORK

By contrast, Dawn Clements applauds it for more obvious qualities—not least, the fact that ballpoint doesn’t “smudge” the way pencil does; it’s clean (when not leaking, I suppose), portable, and self-contained. She, too, focuses on interiors, including bedrooms, kitchens, and the humble objects inhabiting them.

All of these testimonials to the pen are of only slightly less interest than the wide-ranging selection of artists and works Morse has chosen. They are an international group that includes Italy’s Angiola Gatti and China’s Wai Pong Yu, and represent various generations, presented with well-edited first-person commentaries on why the artists are attracted to the medium.

Ballpoint’s real versatility makes itself evident in the work of Belgian Conceptualist Jan Fabre, who speaks eloquently of its appeal: “it was cheap and practical. I could steal it and take it everywhere, which was very useful because I had very little means…. To me, drawing and writing are like breathing. I think as I draw and draw as I think…. I like the chemical quality of the blue ink from a Bic ballpoint pen, with its hints of green, violet, red, and silver…. The composition of the ink contains a kind of silver gelatin as in photography.” Fabre applies it to many surfaces, including freestanding bathtubs, a castle, and a wood house.

And finally, politically speaking, there’s German conceptualist Thomas Hirshhorn, who confronts a conundrum. One critic of his work asked why he was using a Bic pen when the producer of the brand is a financial supporter of right-wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. He responds, quite simply, that while “it’s shit to support Le Pen…it’s also shit to think about these questions.” He says he uses them because “they’re cheap,” “you can find them everywhere,” “they’re simple,” and universal, and undistinguished, among other virtues. Amen.

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