On August 9, 2003, under a withering sun in steamy Splendora, Texas, Louisiana-based artist David Bradshaw fired nine shots from a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol into the second edition of the James Surls’ print "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes."
The shooting, which took place behind Surls’ studio in Splendora before about 70 onlookers, was the result of a creative decision made by Surls that was also expected to put an end to a brewing controversy over the creation of the edition.
The following is a story about how and why the decision was made. (See photo captions and links at the end of this story.)
March began in a heady way for Surls. His artwork, most of it made during the previous 12 months, filled half the exhibition space at the two-year-old Meadows Museum in Dallas. Surls considered the show one of the most important in his 38-year career. The reviews were good and the response to his work, particularly in Dallas and Houston, reinforced a close bond that has long existed between Surls and his admirers in Texas, a bond that had been somewhat strained by his 1998 move to Colorado.
About a week after In the Meadows: Recent Sculpture, Drawings and Prints of James Surlsshow opened, an unexpected telephone call from Houston art dealer Hiram Butler shattered Surls’ sense of serenity.
“He said a collector from Houston had attended the Meadows Museum show and had spotted a second-edition print of "Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" ("II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes") on display there. We had included the print in the show almost as an afterthought,” Surls said.
“As an owner of a first-edition print of "Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes," the collector objected to the very existence of a second edition of the print. He felt the existence of a second edition devalued the first edition.”
Surls said Butler, a former business partner in Houston, warned him that "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" should never have been made and would harm, perhaps even destroy Surls’ reputation among collectors of his work.
It wasn’t long before that call was followed by another from Mark Roglán, Ph.D., curator of collections at the Meadows, who had also received a call from the Houston collector. Roglán first viewed "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" at Surls’ Colorado studio and decided to include it in the Meadows show.
“I would have taken any call like this from a gallery owner or museum curator seriously. But Hiram is very knowledgeable about things involving prints; I consider him an authority,” Surls said, “I was stunned; the calls caught me completely off guard.”
Momentarily on the defensive, Surls said he told Butler that if a mistake had been made, it was one of love for the print and naiveté about the process.
“I would never go out of my way to upset or harm the interests of a collector; I don’t need collectors going around bad-mouthing me.”
After several more conversations with Butler, Surls said he decided to contact the collector directly. “I called the guy and offered to take the issue off the market as a courtesy to him. I made a second edition of the print out of love for the image. I had no commercial thoughts in mind when I did it. Most of the prints were still in my drawer, all except for some proofs, one that was auctioned to raise money for a charity, and a couple that were sold to friends. The rest I was planning to keep for my daughters. I was not out on the market hawking them. But the collector refused my offer. He wanted the whole second edition recalled and destroyed.”
Surls struggled to find a solution that would end the impasse without sacrificing what he considered his rights as an artist.
“I am an artist. I depend on collectors to buy my work, but the artist is the creative force. Collectors need artists to make art, but artists are the drivers of the creative train. Collectors fuel the train.”
Surls said the woodblock of "Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" was made during the summer of 1986 at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado.
“I spent a week that was very important to me with Chip Elwell of New York City, one of the best woodblock printers of his time. As the week was coming to an end, we still didn’t have anything we really liked. We decided I’d cut another block. It took me most of a day, but the result was "Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes." Chip printed it on Okawara paper by hand-rubbing it with a bamboo spoon.
“We hung the test print on a wall to look at it. Usually when you hang a test print, you look at it and criticize each little detail that’s not exactly right. You make decisions about what you’re going to do to make it better. In this case we were elated with what we had and decided to make no changes. We took it down and both of us left Anderson Ranch the next day.”
Surls said Elwell took the woodblock and the unsigned test print back to New York City with the intent to print an edition, but the print was never made.
“Chip died unexpectedly within a week or ten days of returning to New York City,” Surls said. “I got a call from his sister. She said I should come and get the block right away, and that’s what I did.”
Later in the same year, Surls took the block to the Houston Fine Arts Press in Houston where 20 prints plus proofs were made. The sale of the edition was undertaken by Butler, and it was sold out within a year at $1,000 per print. Fifty percent of the price went to the artist. “And I was happy to get it,” Surls said, “Back then a thousand dollars was a thousand dollars.”
Thirteen years later, in the summer of 1999, Surls returned to the Houston Fine Arts Press on other business. “While I was there, someone reminded me that my block was there and asked me if I wanted it. I loaded it in my truck and took it to Austin where I was planning to meet with Katherine Brimberry of the Flatbed Press. I had not struck the plate to guarantee that another edition would never be printed.”
Surls said he really liked the block and asked Brimberry if a second edition of the print could be made simply because he liked it.
“She said Flatbed had never done a second edition, but if they did it, it would have to be clearly marked as such. It could not be an extension of the first edition. Each print would have to bear the Roman numeral II which would clearly mark it as a second-edition, as a second state of the print.”
Each of the 15 second-edition prints and printers and artist’s proofs were made on Arches “cover buff” paper using Daniel Smith Permanent Red Relief ink, according to the print’s documentation.
“We used a different paper, a different ink and a different printing pressure,” Surls said. “We all thought this was sufficient to distinguish the print from the first edition.”
After the print edition was completed, Flatbed printer Patrick Masterson personally delivered the prints to Surls in Colorado where they were signed and deposited into Surls’ massive print cabinet. There they remained, except for private viewing, until Roglán’s visit in connection with the Meadows show.
Shaken by developments and the collector’s refusal of his offer to simply hold the second edition off the market, Surls said he began investigating his situation. He called lawyers, print makers, fellow artists, galleries.
“I decided I had done nothing wrong,” he said.
Others tend to agree. Bud Shark of Shark’s Ink in Lyons, Colorado, said the main difference between the second-edition print in question and others was the amount of time that had passed between the time the first and second editions were made. “Second editions are made all the time,” he said. “Usually it’s when an artist likes the print, experiments with it and decides to produce it in a second state. It might be on another paper or in another color. It’s usually done at the time of the first print.
“In this case the difference was a separation in time and in the materials used, and in the documentation since it wasn’t made at the same time.”
On the other hand, Shark said, collectors usually take the words “limited edition” to mean a limited number of prints will be made and a block struck.
Mark L. Smith of Flatbed Press said, “We didn’t publish the print. James was the publisher, but we did what we felt we needed to do to do it right. As a favor to James, we clearly documented the print run and recorded it as a second publication. Each print was marked with the Roman numeral II. It certainly does not look the same as the first edition print. The color is very saturated and the coverage was very good. If he’d done this at the same time (as the first edition), there wouldn’t be any question at all, or we’d have the same question.
“Still, I’m not sure Flatbed would ever consider doing anything like this again.”
Enter David Bradshaw
Responding to the controversy, Surls said, “There was no attempt or intent here to deceive anybody. The print was clearly marked as a second edition. I recognize there are print purists who say second editions should never be made. I understood where this collector was coming from. The collector is trying to protect the value of his investment and he thinks the second edition will devalue his print. I disagree with his approach to the problem, but I respect what he’s saying.
“I told my dealer, “My god, he just wants me to shoot the damned thing!” He wants me to destroy them. That’s when the idea of shooting the prints and getting David Bradshaw to do it came to mind. The idea to shoot them was a creative decision.”
The collector has refused to comment publicly on the issue, but Surls said his conversations with the collector led him to believe that transforming or destroying the second-edition by shooting the entire edition and striking the block would be sufficient to satisfy the collector’s concerns. Surls then began planning the August 9 event in Splendora.
“Texas was the only reasonable place to do this given our state’s reputation for solving problems by executing living things.”
Butler did not wish to comment at length on the controversy, but wrote in an e-mail, “ 'Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes' is among the best prints made in the eighties. James Surls has told me he is taking the block and impressions and firing a bullet through them to create a conceptual piece…it is brilliant.”
As he prepared to “execute” "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes," Bradshaw, 58, of Cecilia, Louisiana, who has long used dynamite, C-4 plastic explosives and firearms in his own work, and in collaborations with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and William Burroughs, said, “I disagree with James somewhat on the stand-alone veracity of this print. There was nothing wrong with it. During a print run with Robert Rauschenberg in Captiva (Florida) in 1971, we made an edition of 29 and 20. One was green, one was brown.”
Bradshaw said he knew of an edition of lithographs that were sold as an edition despite the print block cracking while the first print in the run was made. “The crack got a little wider with every print, but Robert said to keep on printing. The edition ended up being, in effect, a set of monoprints,” he said, implying that "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" might be considered in the same way because of the way he expected his bullets to affect the prints.
On the morning of August 9, while Bradshaw, in his role as ballistics expert and national-champion pistol marksman, carefully experimented with different bullets and firing-powder loads, Surls and Smith meticulously collated the entire edition of "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes", including all the numbered prints. They stacked the prints face down on the woodblock used to make them just as they were printed. The duo, with the assistance of friends, neighbors and colleagues, created a kind of press to hold the block and prints to keep them from moving when being shot. The second edition was then escorted without ceremony, but in the manner of a condemned prisoner, to the rear of Surls’ long-time studio where they were shot by Bradshaw, who used dots carefully placed on the prints by Surls as aiming points.
Bradshaw said, “James wanted this done by someone with a certain amount of dignity. Someone couldn’t just pick up a gun and do this. Many people view pistols and firearms as tools of violence, and they can be. But I view them as tools that involve control.”
In addition to carefully controlling the speed and mushrooming of the bullets used as they punched through the prints and block, precision was desired in the execution of "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes." Bradshaw said that’s why he used a “Les Baur Model 1911 .45 caliber ACP originally designed by John M. Browning. “I can put a group (of shots) into the area the size of a coffee cup at a hundred yards with this pistol.”
But Bradshaw, who sometimes makes sculptures by blasting large sheets of metal with explosives said, “You can overdo this. If you look for too much precision in art, you do it at the expense of spontaneity.”