Sari Dienes. Tomb (detail). c. 1953–54.Ink rubbing on paper, fabric flag, and torn colored board,36 × 24" (91.4 × 60.9 cm)Gift of the Sari Dienes Foundation, Inc.

Reception Points: Sari Dienes’s Tomb

Close looking reveals the process and enduring mysteries behind an artwork partially made in a cemetery.

The In Detail feature brings together curators and conservators to take a close look at an artwork, exploring specific details about its making and meaning that might otherwise be hidden to us.

Samantha Friedman: I’m Samantha Friedman, associate curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints. And I’m excited to be here today to talk about Sari Dienes’s Tomb with my colleague, Erika Mosier.

Erika Mosier: Hi, I’m Erika Mosier. I’m a paper conservator in the David Booth Conservation Department at The Museum of Modern Art.

SF: Erika and I worked together on Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury, which is currently on view at MoMA, an exhibition of drawings from the collection ranging from 1948 to 1961, looking at the moment in which artists are turning to drawing to start again after the Second World War. And Sari Dienes’s Tomb is one of the works in that exhibition.

Dienes was born in Hungary, studied in Paris with artists like Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant, and lived in London just before World War II. She came to the US in 1939 and ended up staying because of the circumstances of the War. She settled in New York, and became part of the scene with European expatriate artists, and a next generation of younger artists, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, who were starting a new way of making and thinking about art. Sari Dienes is not a name that’s as well known. But Cage and Johns would actually often help Sari Dienes with her rubbings out in the streets. It says something about the way that reception happens over time that they were aiding her, and then she became less known to art history.

In Degree Zero, Tomb sits alongside works by Johns, Cy Twombly, and Claes Oldenburg—the Johns and the Oldenburg also including flags, a really potent symbol during this period. You have a strong sense of the relationships between these artists during this time.

Now let’s start looking closely at the work!

Sari Dienes. Tomb. c. 1953–54

Sari Dienes. Tomb. c. 1953–54

Tomb, detail of grave

Tomb, detail of grave

EM: So this work is an assemblage, where the artist put together different components, and the largest element is a frottage of a gravestone. We probably all have done this print technique as kids, where you take the side of a crayon to paper over a textured surface to reproduce that surface.

Dienes made her rubbing by putting a piece of paper on a gravestone and rolling over the surface with an ink brayer, like one you’d use for inking a print. The raised areas of this stone that were in contact with the paper would pick up the black ink. Below the frottage is a small American flag printed on fabric. And that flag has staples at the left edge, and then a piece of Scotch tape attaching it at the upper right corner. Surrounding the composition are two layers of torn mat board that make a window onto the image. The uppermost mat board has a gray paper layer, and where Dienes tore that away, the layers of the board are revealed, showing the light brown paper fibers that would be in its center. The underlying piece of board is torn slightly larger, and has been colored with black ink that gives some contrast. The assemblage has been put in a wood frame by the artist, and it has nonstandard glazing. We would normally use plexiglass here at the museum, but this is a thinner material.

SF: What makes this work so interesting is the way that it straddles so many different techniques. First of all, she’s making a frottage, or rubbing, which is part drawing and part print. Dienes worked with Stanley William Hayter at the printmaking studio Atelier 17 in the late ’40s in New York, which was a gathering place for expat European artists. Max Ernst, an older artist associated with Dadaism and Surrealism, was one of the key promoters and practitioners of this use of frottage as a way to achieve and harness the effects of chance.

And, as if to reinforce that connection to printmaking, she’s not using a crayon, as Erika pointed out, that we all did as a kid. She’s using an oil-based printing ink, she’s using a brayer. It’s a drawing, but it’s made with kind of a conceptual process that’s based on printmaking, and with the specific tools of printmaking.

From Life magazine, October 1, 1954: “Tombstone artist Sari Dienes, in grave-yard tracing old tombstone impressions to create her unusual form of art”

From Life magazine, October 1, 1954: “Tombstone artist Sari Dienes, in grave-yard tracing old tombstone impressions to create her unusual form of art”

EM: You can actually see the width of the brayer in her strokes when she’s going over the gravestone.

SF: Right. So the tool that was used to make the work is visible in the composition. And then you also have this element of assemblage, which places Tomb not only between a drawing and a print, but also between a drawing and a sculpture. There’s a dimensionality with both the addition of a flag, a textile, an object from the world.

So here we can see a few images of Dienes working in the Trinity Church graveyard in downtown New York. And you can see the way that she’s taken a large sheet of paper.

EM: For our artwork, and I think probably in this image, too, she’s using something that would come on a roll so she could get the length she needed. The paper we have is probably somewhat like newsprint, so a thin, short-fibered paper.

SF: And the thinness of the paper probably would have made it easier for the texture of the gravestone to come through, right?

EM: Yes, definitely. Here you see her holding it. But she might have also taped this paper to allow her two hands to be able to do the printing. That would have definitely aided her, because this technique of doing gravestone rubbings is really to reproduce the information on that gravestone. And she’s using it more in an artistic way, it’s a little more atmospheric, maybe not trying to record every single detail, but to make the image she wants to use for her assemblage.

SF: That’s a crucial point, Erika. I’m so glad you raised that. And, in fact, she says this very beautiful thing, creating a little bit of distance between her own practice and the traditional use of a rubbing: “My use of rollers and natural surfaces is much freer than that. It is a kind of jumping off place for my imagination.”

And I think that’s so great, because it reminds you that she’s not going for a one-to-one accuracy. It’s not a kind of factual recording. It’s the first step in the process of a larger, more imaginative work of art. During this time, she’s becoming really interested in Zen Buddhism. She reads Alan Watts’s book The Way of Zen, and I think that idea of being a reception point for different impulses that are happening around you, and that paper being a reception point for different textures, is very much in line with that kind of Zen thinking, rather than any fanatical desire for accuracy.

EM: There was an article in Life magazine about her tombstone rubbings, and that actually led to the National Park Service hiring her to do rubbings of petroglyphs, and they would have wanted accuracy.

SF: It’s ironic.

From Life magazine, October 1, 1954: “Tombstone artist Sari Dienes, in grave-yard tracing old tombstone impressions to create her unusual form of art”

From Life magazine, October 1, 1954: “Tombstone artist Sari Dienes, in grave-yard tracing old tombstone impressions to create her unusual form of art”

If you’re taking a big roll of paper out to a graveyard downtown, the conditions aren’t going to be perfect.
Samantha Friedman

EM: Looking at the finial elements, on the side, they look to me like they should have been something that existed as three-dimensional sculptures on the gravestone. But that would have been very difficult for her to capture in a rubbing. So it just makes me wonder what the gravestone actually looked like. Was this a three-dimensional or two-dimensional element? Could she be putting together different elements here, as she did with her rubbings of sidewalks?

SF: Right. And then there are different kinds of surface elements and surface textures, too, creases that show up, which might represent texture in the tombstone or a wrinkle in the paper that caught the ink in a certain way.

EM: Yes, you noticed, Samantha, at the lower left on the tombstone, there are these anomalous areas. I wonder if that might actually be the stone deteriorating, and she picked that up in her rubbing. Also, we saw areas where we thought there might actually be the stem of a leaf, because you get this white line with a darker line in the center.

SF: You have the sense that she would have been very happy for all of those kinds of contingencies and variables that might have arisen during the process.

EM: Yes.

SF: You can imagine that if you’re taking a big roll of paper out to a graveyard downtown, the conditions aren’t going to be perfect. It might be windy, you might step on the paper. And so all of these creases and things would just be part of the process.

Tomb, detail of grave

Tomb, detail of grave

Tomb, detail of flag

Tomb, detail of flag

EM: Yeah, and with the paper being a little thin as well, it’ll be more prone to creasing than a thicker paper would be. Another great detail to look for is the staples on the left side of the flag. There could be more points of attachment under the flag but, of course, we can’t see those. And then, at the top of the flag here, you can see a little piece of tape poking out from the top of the flag, and that’s how she’s attached the flag on that side.

SF: So that’s not a conservation-approved material.

EM: No, not a conservation-approved material! But it’s still holding, so that’s great.

SF: And when we were in the galleries looking, Erika, you were speculating too about whether we can know if the staples were her way of attaching the assemblage element to the support, or if they might have even been remnant staples that could have been from the found flag originally. If this flag had had a pole, were the staples just part of this found element that she could have seen in one of the cemeteries itself? And looking now at this close up, you realize the way that this found flag presents the stars as an absence, an echo of the way a frottage works. The writing on the gravestone is the absence of the medium.

EM: Very true. And a rubbing is basically a type of printing, and this flag was printed too.

SF: Right. So, it’s just another one of these brilliant ways in which the different elements of this piece work together. I can’t help but think about the thematic ways that a tombstone and a flag are speaking to each other in 1953, 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era. Is it some kind of comment about the state of America?

EM: Whatever the message she wants to get across with this, I really wonder if she first thought of combining the two elements because she saw a flag in a cemetery, and that just sparked her imagination to use those together in an artwork.

Tomb, detail of flag

Tomb, detail of flag

SF: So we started to talk about the different kinds of rubbings that she made during this period. The subjects run the gamut from natural elements, with leaves and trees and things you would have found in nature. She made them on tombstones, as we see. And then she also made them on these gritty, urban sidewalks. This piece in our collection is called Soho Sidewalk. And she is getting the details of a manhole cover and creating these gorgeous, unlikely textures out of them. And this work, which is much larger than Tomb, is on a different support than that thin paper. It’s a kind of unusual support called Webril.

EM: Yes, Webril, actually, it’s a medical material. And it’s what is used when you break your bone, between the skin and the plaster cast. And I think it appealed to her because it was cheap, it was strong, it took detail well, and she could get it in different sizes. Because this piece is a little over six feet, so she would have needed something large to achieve this rubbing. And if you compare rubbing on Webril with rubbing on paper, the Webril gives a softer image.

SF: Her Soho Sidewalk rubbings were used in the window displays of the department store Bonwit Teller, which was just down the street from MoMA, I think in ’55. And so literally taking an impression of the dirty sidewalk and the dirty street and the manhole cover and everything that’s kind of low and base, and then elevating it to be shown vertically, to be shown among stylish fashion that’s for sale in a fancy Midtown department store, is kind of the irony of ironies.

EM: Yeah, it definitely is. And I have to wonder where she first found out about this material. Did she know someone who worked in the medical field? Did she break a bone and get it cast with this material? I would love to know.

Sari Dienes. Soho Sidewalk. c. 1953–55

Sari Dienes. Soho Sidewalk. c. 1953–55

SF: And it’s just one of many examples of artists during this postwar period turning to non-conventional materials, more industrially produced materials, materials with different purposes, because they create interesting effects or are available in different ways. I’m thinking of Lee Bontecou scrounging castoffs from downtown laundromats to make her fabric sculptures.

So this is a photograph of her making those sidewalk rubbings. And you can see how she’s using that brayer or that roller that would have been used in the printing process. And that really physical process of leaning down and getting low and getting into it and putting your weight into it.

EM: When I look at this image, I think about the mechanics: how did she transport these after she did them? These would have been large sheets of paper wet with printing ink. And I really have to wonder how she managed them. Did people carry them flat and get them back to her studio so they could dry?

SF: Right. Or if they were rolled, would that have created other additional effects with ink that was yet to dry?

EM: Yeah, I think it might, or perhaps she found a way to roll them with some material that preserved the surface.

SF: The more closely we look, the more questions we have.

EM: Discovering new details is one of my favorite parts of what we do.

Peter Moore. Photograph of Sari Dienes demonstrating the street rubbing process. 1970

Peter Moore. Photograph of Sari Dienes demonstrating the street rubbing process. 1970