Paper (Making) in a Digital Age at Dieu Donné

Just blocks away from the grit and chaos of Madison Square Garden and Penn Station in New York, a small storefront offers a quiet respite from the texting masses and the barrage of screens in the form of a professional paper-making studio. The space is home to a nonprofit organization called Dieu Donné (meaning “God Given” in French), that has been creating, promoting and preserving contemporary art that utilizes the hand paper-making process since 1976.

A visit to the 36th street space was the perfect way to bring our month-long exploration of Paper in a Digital Age to a close: the gallery is currently showing work made by the abstract artist James Siena during an in-studio residency, the studio is host to works in progress like Katherine Bradford’s stencil and linen pulp paint, and education workshops for young students throughout the city have just begun for the spring. In a media-crazed creative landscape, Dieu Donné is a bastion of the hand-made.

In 1974, the organization’s founder Sue Gosin and its current Artistic director Paul Wong met at the University of Wisconsin—Madison as graduate students of Walter Hamaday and formed Dieu Donné to foster interest in the disappearing art of paper-making. They moved to New York City with cofounder Bruce Weinberg in 1976 and began a decades-long history of experimentation, collaboration and invention in the medium.

“The founding of Dieu Donné grew out of the arts and crafts movement, but we definitely see this as a contemporary art organization now,” says Program Manager Bridget Donlon. “At this point, we’ve evolved beyond just using paper-making as a craft — it’s a medium artists are inspired and challenged by, and it provides them an opportunity to do something new and different.”

We still think it’s a vital medium because it’s 2,000 years old and we’re still finding new things to do with it out of these collaborations.

Donlon notes that Dieu Donné exists for the express purpose of furthering the possibilities of paper, especially for artists who may never have used it before: “We’re decidedly non-commercial, so our interests are not motivated by selling work. It’s really about experimentation and collaboration. We always say paper is a dying art in terms of newspaper and print media, but we still think it’s a vital medium because it’s 2,000 years old and we’re still finding new things to do with it out of these collaborations.”

Some of the world-renowned artists who have been a part of such collaborations include Chuck Close, whose first works on paper were created with Dieu Donné; William Kentridge, who continues to have large-scale paper forms created in the studio for his work; and Richard Tuttle, who pushed the boundaries of the medium in his 2009 sculptural suite The Triumph of the Night, created in the studio with Paul Wong.

I like the tension between precision and accident…It’s an inherent quality in paper making that is utterly real.

Sequence, Direction, Package, Connection, the James Siena show currently on display, is a meditation on logic, employing the artist’s signature “visual algorithms” to explore paper’s unique qualities in original editions. “I like the tension between precision and accident,” Siena remarked of his experience working with paper during his Lab Grant Program residency at Dieu Donné. “It’s an inherent quality in paper making that is utterly real.” The work was created using pigmented linen pulp cotton and abaca, transforming the “painting” process into one that interacts directly with the paper material rather than being applied on top of it.

Siena joins a storied tradition of established artists who have participated in the Lab Grant Program, which offers mid-career artists the opportunity to work out of the Dieu Donné studio for an extended residency in order to create completely new applications for hand paper making in their practice. There is also a Workspace Program for emerging artists at the beginning of their careers which focuses on experimentation and technique and features a group show of the resulting work.

Dieu Donné is also committed to promoting and preserving handmade paper art through the annual Paper Variables program, which offers its supporting community the opportunity to collect unique works made by specially commissioned artists. This year, Katherine Bradford, Andy Mister and Sara Greenberger Rafferty will be experimenting with the ‘wet process’ of paper making for the first time. An exhibit of select pieces from each edition will be on display in the gallery from June 26 – August 16, 2014.

For more information about Dieu Donné’s educational programming and ongoing events and exhibitions, sign up for their quarterly newsletter Pulp News.