Meet the Season 5 Artist: Allan McCollum

The above video is excerpted from the Season 5 episode Systems, premiering on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Systems features four artists — John Baldessari, Kimsooja, Allan McCollum, and Julie Mehretu — who invent new grammars and logics, finding comfort in some systems while rebelling against others in today’s supercharged, information-based society.

Who is Allan McCollum and what does he have to say about systems?

Allan McCollum was born in Los Angeles in 1944; he lives and works in New York. In his twenties, McCollum briefly considered a career in theater, then attended trade school to study restaurant management and industrial kitchen work. In the late 1960s, he began to educate himself as an artist. Applying strategies of mass production to hand-made objects, McCollum’s labor-intensive practice questions the intrinsic value of the unique work of art. McCollum’s installations—fields of vast numbers of small-scale works, systematically arranged—are the product of many tiny gestures, built up over time. Viewing his work often produces a sublime effect as one slowly realizes that the dizzying array of thousands of identical-looking shapes is, in fact, comprised of subtly different, distinct things. Engaging assistants, scientists, and local craftspeople in his process, McCollum embraces a collaborative and democratic form of creativity. His drawings and sculptures often serve a symbolic purpose—as surrogates, faithful copies, or stand-ins for people—and are presented theatrically, transforming the exhibition space into a laboratory where artifice and context are scrutinized. Economical in form, yet curious in function, his work and mechanical-looking processes are infused with humor and humility.

On the subject of systems in art, McCollum describes how he creates low-tech combinatorial systems to generate projects on a massive scale (in the forthcoming Season 5 book):

The Shapes Project (2005) is the first computer project that I’ve done. It’s all done with Adobe Illustrator, and I learned only the things I needed to know to do it. I don’t know how to program or create any kind of database that generates anything. What I do is very simple, like what I’ve been doing in combinatorial projects for twenty-five years or even longer. All my projects have had combinatorial elements where I’m taking a vocabulary of parts and putting them together to make something else, which is very computer-like, but there was never a computer involved before.

What I’m doing is incredibly simple. It’s childlike; anyone could do what I’m doing. The hard part is having the patience (and a boring, compulsive personality) that allows me to keep doing it over and over and over again. So from four shapes I can make around 200-or-so million unique shapes. But there’s another system where I use six shapes. Once you start using that, you can produce 60 billion shapes. This is consistent with wanting to make a shape for everybody on the planet. I had to come up with a system that not only created enough unique shapes for everyone on the planet, but I wanted there to be enough (even in fifty years when there are billions more people) to play with and experiment with. So I went way overboard.

What happens in Allan McCollum’s segment in Systems this October?

Allan McCollum’s segment begins with his uncle Jon Gnagy’s 1950s television program Learn to Draw. Crediting his uncle’s demonstrations as an early influence, McCollum says “whenever I design a project it’s in my head…that I would be able to show someone else how to do it.”

Describing his aesthetic motivation with the paradox of “wanting to try to work in quantities…and make things that are singular and unique at the same time,” the viewer travels with the artist and his team of studio assistants to the 28th São Paolo Bienal (2008) for the installation of Drawings (1988)—1,800 hand-stenciled, graphite pencil works. McCollum describes devising “a system that would produce a shape for everybody on the planet.” To make The Shapes Project (2005), the artist developed a set of unique forms that, when fully combined, results in 60 billion individual shapes. McCollum later collaborated with four remote home businesses in Maine, whom he only talked to via email and phone, to produce collections of silhouettes, rubber stamps, wood ornaments, and copper cookie cutters. The resulting Shapes from Maine (2009) at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York consists of over 2,200 individual hand-crafted objects, each its own one-of-a-kind shape.

Allan McCollum. Shapes from Maine: Shapes Copper Cookie Cutters," 2005/2008. Polished copper, 5 1/2 x 3 2/3 x 1 inches each, each unique, formed in copper by hand. Produced in collaboration with Holly and Larry Little, founders of Aunt Holly's Copper Cookie Cutters, Trescott, Maine. Photo by Lamay Photo, © Allan McCollum, courtesy Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.

Allan McCollum. "Shapes from Maine: Shapes Copper Cookie Cutters," 2005/2008. Polished copper, 5 1/2 x 3 2/3 x 1 inches each, each unique, formed in copper by hand. Produced in collaboration with Holly and Larry Little, founders of Aunt Holly's Copper Cookie Cutters, Trescott, Maine. Photo by Lamay Photo, © Allan McCollum, courtesy Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.

What else has McCollum done?

Allan McCollum has had more than 100 solo exhibitions in Europe and the United States, where his work has appeared in major exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2009); Museum of Modern Art, New York (most recently in 2007); and the Guggenheim Museum, New York (2004), among others. He has also participated in many international exhibitions, most recently at the Bienal de São Paulo (2008). Recent solo exhibitions include  Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York (2009); Barbara Krakow Gallery, Boston (2008); and Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Geneva (2006), among others. Allan McCollum lives and works in New York.

Where can I see more of McCollum’s work between now and the Art21 premiere this October?

Allan McCollum is represented by Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York. The artist also maintains an extensive website of his own works.

What’s your take on McCollum’s inclusion in Season 5?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below!


  1. Tim Nowakowski says:

    McCollum’s attempts fall into the system’s aesthetic of the 70’s, where permutations of a whole systemic procedure play out options, at times beyond the direction of the artist’s intention. A more organized version of Pollock’s chance permutations of liquid paint, canvas and gravity. The problem I have w/ this is relevancy. Having seen this type of piece played out many times b4 I lose arousal. We have this huge juggernaut called the Internet out there that encompasses people in a web of ‘connectivity’: the college student w/ Macbook, cell, iPod and cable tv, all simultaneously wired into nervous system of the cultural imaginary. God is not dead anymore, God is Google. McCollum seems stuck in the world of mass manufacturing when we have moved onto a world of hyper-information.

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  3. Jennifer Roland says:

    Hmmm … it seems Mr. Nowakowski knows nothing about McCollum’s work beyond what he read on this page. Check out his website, as listed above, and you’ll see that this “manufacturing” thread plays a small part within a much larger picture, one that explores community identity in small towns around the world, geological curiosities, movies and TV, the occult, the culture of gift-giving and exchange, educational publishing, paphleteering, social relations, achaeological history, all sorts of things … not to mention that many of his projects are totally internet-related. The 70s? Take some time to learn a little, Tim …

  4. Tim, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the full McCollum episode as it delves into precisely some of the 2.0 currents you’ve just addressed. Perhaps what’s most compelling about McCollum’s work is that he’s able to bridge the 70s “system’s aesthetic” and an interest in mass manufacturing with more contemporary concerns of this information age — showing how they interrelate and how generational shifts are not so clear-cut. Hope you’ll tune in October 28th!

  5. Tim Nowakowski says:

    Not buying. Roland in her ad hominemish response misses the fact that this site positions McCollum under the category of system. It’s not just me; as of 2007 Nancy Princenthal says pretty much the same thing. Moreover, in your very list of ingredients u have a sine qua non of Systems origin, gift giving. The tie is scholarly: proto structuralist, quasi Marxist Marcel Mauss’ Essais Sur Le Don describes the SYSTEM or economy of exchange in non industrial cultures, potlatch; Levis-Strauss adopts this approach to reading ‘primitive’ cultures known as Structuralism (religious system, language system, kinship system, etc.); Jack Burnham of Structure of Art fame coalesces this methodology into the art world in the 70’s, influencing system’s artists like Hans Haacke. McCollum’s debts are evident. I would argue that art historians would position McCollum between systems aesthetic, Duchamp’s Ready-Made or the HAND- oh how ironic – crafted Tzanck check, and Ad Reinhardt’s art object as tautology (Surrogate Paintings), and a little bit of Baudrillard’s media cranked, consumer embedded simulacra. McCollum = art as cultural anthropology, a rug, which is kinda worn, but w/ pluralistic sites like this, still serviceable, though questionably viable. So, yeah, he’s systems and he’s 70-80 ish, but of course he has the right to petition to get his view shown.
    I think this methodology is out of touch when u think of some of recent paradigm shifts in scholarship. McClintock’s Imperial Leather introduces what she calls the Great Mantra: race, class, gender; and fits this into ‘articulated categories’ such as commodity racism. Now ask yourself does McCollum address manufacturing in our society that admits the fact of racist labor, anti-union practices of a mass producer like Nike? We have seen a plethora of queering of white feminism (Cherie Moraga being lesbian, brown, Hispanic and a spokesperson for pregnant farm laborers exposed to pesticides on a daily basis). Ask yourself if this addresses the meltdown in capitalism that Marx railed against and Rosi Braidotti characterized as having no teleology other than its own self perpetuation like an addict on crack. I’d like to update that to crank. Does this relate to Spivak’s spearheading the discussion on identity politics and ethnicity? And if u ask what works do, I would just start w/ something like a Nayland Blake’s Gorge. It seems it’s exactly the systems aesthetic of the 70’s warmed over into Baudrillardian mediatized consumerism that gets in his way now, like Wittgensteins metaphysics engine that simply rev’s but has not a gear box. For me this is looking like a gift shop out in Malldumb and the Museum a Versaille in October of 1789. I’m not looking for retreaded Expressionism, but I want to hear a voice. I think Roland misunderstand that I’m not critiquing the potential content, but the form of expression or vehicle. Tired of yet another SUV, ha ha.

  6. Tim Nowakowski says:

    I have no questions. His read on options available to artists fits competently within all the right tropes and guidelines afforded late 20th C. art. Curators can do their job w/o upsetting board members and patrons. I have concern along another, more broadly related issue of white male privileging, but that’s for elsewhere. I worry he may have been preempted in project by McDonald’s ‘over 6 billion’ and the “I’d like to buy the world a coke.”
    Don’t get me wrong, however. This does not mean he shouldn’t do what he does. I’m looking for some significant development within his tradition. Let’s take Monet as my model for the moment. Cliche Monet, coffee table publication champion of all time. If we were to stop our knowledge of him w/ the end of the 19th C., then we would miss one of the most spectacular Late Styles, to use art historical jargon, possibly ever. It’s what we miss from the premature deaths of Pollock, Hesse, Smithson, e.g. McCollum is no Pollock, but he can tweak what he is doing into something meaningful. For right now, I’m feeling a holding pattern.

  7. Jennifer Roland says:

    Allan McCollum is surely influenced by the thinking in the 60s and 70s, who of his age isn’t? He began showing his work in 1969, and his “structuralist” anthropological viewpoints come through all the time, in his interviews. But what’s interesting is how he has turned critical thought into so many varying PRACTICES over the last 40 years, I think, and how he remains so relevent and admired by even the very youngest artists. I like the question he poses on the website of his Imperal Valley project, about their local mountain and the sand concretions found at it’s base: “MAYBE THE MEANING OF AN ARTWORK IS THE SUM OF ALL MEANINGS GIVEN TO IT BY THE SUM OF ITS VIEWERS?” I think his work interestingly explores all the different ways objects have meaning to all sorts of people, which of course would have to include “manufacturing” as well as handicrafters and amateur painters, collecting souvenirs, exchanging gifts, all types of ways of making and owning and enjoying objects. And the generosity of his publishing handouts and pamphlets, all downloadable from the internet; and his great interviews with other artists, especially the one with Harrell Fletcher, who is also interested in social practices and doing art with small town communities.

    Tim, let us know what you think after the Art21 broadcast, and after studying McCollum’s website! You can’t simply accept Art21’s or a magazine critic’s categorization of artists as “systems” artists or “romance” artists or whatever, and base your thought on that, thereby letting journalists and critics define an artist’s terms, or your terms and your entire outlook — this is how television shows and magazines always do things, to package their products. Read what the artist himself has to say in all his lengthier, non-edited interviews.

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