Artist's Notebook

Recto or Verso: What kind of artist are you?

Barnett Newman, Two Edges, 1948, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Museum of Modern Art, gift of Annalee Newman (by exchange). Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Mark Rothko, No. 1 (Untitled), 1948, oil on canvas, 8 feet 10 3/8 inches x 9 feet 9 1/4 inches. Museum of Modern Art, gift of the artist.  2010 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Last year I was in the downstairs gallery at the legendary Salmagundi Art Club on Fifth Avenue, and was not surprised to see that all the paintings, each a figurative image and made within the previous year, had been artfully signed by the artists. The painters had developed distinctive signatures and placed them unobtrusively in corners, using colors that blended in with without getting lost. A small detail perhaps, but whether or not artists include their signatures on the front (recto) of their paintings indicates where they situate themselves on the continuum of art history. If it’s in the range from later Abstract Expressionism to Pop to Conceptualism and Minimalism to Post-modernism, the painting won’t have a signature–unless it’s an ironic gesture. If, on the other hand, the artist is aligned with the more conservative European figurative tradition rooted in perceptual study, the painting will be signed.

Ironic: Josh Smith’s signature paintings


 Not ironic: A detail from G. Shephard’s painting at a Salmagundi Club exhibition.

The Impressionists all signed their work, as did the Cubists and the early Abstract Expressionists. A casual study of MoMA’s online collection reveals that even Two Edges, a 1948 Barnett Newman minimalist painting, was signed and dated on the front, while No.1 (Untitled), painted the same year by Mark Rothko, was not. Rothko, whose work came back into the spotlight this year when RED hit Broadway (and won a Tony award), was interested in expressing emotion through color and saw looking at art as a spiritual experience. Presumably he stopped signing the front of the painting because he realized that the signature would hinder the viewer’s ability to become immersed in the art.

In the Sixties and Seventies, as Minimalists like Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin pared art down to its essential elements, the signature was tossed aside for obvious reasons. More broadly, artists came to believe that adding a signature was an aesthetic choice rather than a requirement for exhibition; artists assumed that viewers would know who made each piece based on the use of materials and subject matter, which rendered a signature redundant. Willem de Kooning and others pointedly continued to sign their work to indicate that they were hopelessly — and proudly — old-school. Others, like Robert Motherwell, treated the signature as a compositional element and signed paintings on a case-by-case basis throughout their careers.

Recently I’ve begun to question the preciously perpetuated disdain among contemporary artists for signing artwork. Like Twittering, blogging and Facebooking a signature enables artists, most of whom will never achieve international recognition in their lifetime, to say Hey, I’m here. Wouldn’t contemporary artists, unlikely to stick with a single medium for one exhibition (let alone an entire career) benefit from signing artwork where viewers can see it? And what if, when they’re dead, the use of wall labels and didactic panels is no longer standard practice? Artists who work in disembodied, ephemeral media like social sculpture, performance and video may not care, but I imagine object-makers do.


  1. love this post. wonderfully persuasive and fascinating. this could be the making of an interesting paper.
    i sign HC on the front in a corner. my full name on the side of a thick canvas. on the back of the stretcher, i paint a swatch of color from the painting. sign it in cursive (with a sharpie) add the title and the date.

  2. I'm a non-signer, except for prints. I accept Sharon's arguments both pro and con, but I just never seem to find the right place for a signature in paintings.

    Two Coats of Paint is the blog I want to be when I grow up.

  3. I still don't know what is minimalist painting. Yeah, may be because of the art itself

  4. I'm a verso signer…I like all the info in one place.

    Thanks for this post. Interesting subject and observations.

  5. By minimalist, I simply meant that Newman has begun to reduce his subject to the essential visual elements.

  6. I've always thought signing a picture on the front panders to the public need to have something made by a particular person. In other words, if the artist becomes famous, they can prove who made it and sell it on for more money.

    I have been pressured to sign my work on the front, if it gets framed etc or is hung in an exhibition. In which case, I usually bow to the pressure.

    I don't like signing work on the front, I think my horrible signature messes up my work and makes it less immersive. I think it is also a bit egotistic. If I sign it at all, it's on the reverse.

    In an ideal world, the work itself is my signature.

  7. I think about recto and verso a lot� so I guess I�m both kinds of artist, or at least, that�s something I like to play with. The signature for me is another given lexical element of "painting". As paintings have canvas, staples, paint, they are also signed or marked, often back and front, with textual information.

    Plenty of paintings have text AS painting within the painting, i.e. Mel Bochner. That's another story. I think the Josh Smith example or the way Mark Grotjahn sometimes does it is partly that, as well as being ironic.

    "Normally", though, signature, date, etc. are part of an interesting case- material that both is and isn't legitimately part of a picture. It's allowed, even though it doesn't support the visuality of the work (assumed to be the whole purpose of painting?) Yet its presence as information is a part of the painting's being in the world as an object. That conflicted, ambiguous status is interesting.

  8. I sign all of my work on the front and I date it. My decision to do so really stems from a conversation with an old man, my grandmother worked with, from when I was younger. He told me to sign and date everything I wrote or drew. That advice has just suck with me. I also use my most legible handwriting to sign my full name. I feel kind of feel it's important that label or no, my work can be identified as mine.
    I also use my signature as a stopping point. Once I sign and date a work I won't touch it again.

  9. verso: as a (primarily) abstract painter, every mark on the surface is part of the painting and i strive for the impact of my work to come out of an emotive/visceral response. i feel that adding a literal graphic element would work at cross purposes to my intent. my personal experience with paintings (abstract or figurative) signed on the front is that once my eye lands on the signature, it stops and removes me from the flow of experiencing the work.

  10. In his introduction to Fairfield Porter's posthumous collection of art criticism, Art in Its Own Terms, Rackstraw Downes quotes a remark Fairfield Porter made during what must have been one of the more Byzantine discussions at the Artists' Club on Eighth Street, around 1952. The members were arguing about whether or not it was vain to sign your paintings. With the flustered lucidity of Alice in the courtroom, Porter sliced this particular Gordian knot once and for all: "If you are vain it is vain to sign your pictures and vain not to sign them. If you are not vain it is not vain to sign them and not vain not to sign them."

    John Ashbery, "Respect For Things As They Are"

  11. Definitely Verso. I agree with neene's position. Signing a piece on the front effectively takes you out of the totality of the experience. Imagine seeing a late Rothko painting with his signature on it? It would lose something. Not a perfect comparison, but take cinema as an example – you have the title and end credits, of course – but imagine if all the way through the film, you saw the director's name printed in the corner? "Godard", "Hitchcock" – it would take you out of the experience, even if slightly – thus diminishing the overall experience.

  12. Jessica you are the most logical artist in this ‘debate’. I’m sorry for the people who think a small name on front of an art work ‘interrupts’ their enjoyment! Are they for real? I will not buy an unsigned painting as I regard it as a work in progress which could be still be worked on. Artists please stand over your completed work by signing it. If I see a painting I want in a gallery with no signature will it be taken down to show me the signature on back? I don’t think so. Non signage is a big gripe of mine. Geraldine Gibbs

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