Popular Prints

Categories: Writings on Álvaro Barrios

By José Ignacio Roca. From the catalog of the First San Juan Poly/graphic Triennial. 2004


Proyecto de Alvaro Barrios para la exposición Art Systems. Institute of Contemporary Art, Londres, 1974.

Project by Álvaro Barrios for the exhibition “Art Systems.” Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1974


In 1972, Álvaro Barrios began working on what would later come to be known as his Popular prints, a project that was born almost by chance.  While checking an advertisement he had been commissioned to produce for a local newspaper, Barrios noticed a considerable difference between his original, “artistic” drawing and the printed version.  Furthermore, the imperfections spread by the poor quality of the printing gave the image a particular charm, rendering it unique in spite of having been reproduced in a mass medium.  “A few days later”, the artist remarked, “I was struck by the technical differences involved in creating some pieces for an advertising campaign, and I began thinking about the similarity that might exist between this experience and the production of traditional prints.  I decided to announce, through a journalist friend, that the three advertisements were three popular prints and that I would sign any of them that were brought to me, at no charge.”  In 1974 Barrios first published a drawing in the mass media with the express intention of it becoming a popular print.  The artist has been engaged in this project for over three decades, during which time he has produced nearly twenty prints that have been published in a number of newspapers and magazines in Colombia and other Latin American countries.  One of these Popular prints was awarded first prize at the Second Latin American Triennial for Prints organized in Buenos Aires in 1979 by the Center for Art and Communication (CAyC).


The idea of publishing an artistic insert in a newspaper is not new.  Its roots can be traced to the futurist manifestos and the work of contemporary artists such as Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, and even to the Conceptual art of the 1970s.  But what was new about Barrios’ proposal was that he revitalized these inserts as a medium for the art of printing.  In a conscious, frontal assault on the artistic medium that challenges the market and, in particular, the Printers union-which betrayed the public role of printing by increasing costs through limited editions, fine paper and the validating signature-Barrios proposes, quite simply, ephemeral prints.  They are fleeting, in fact, since newsprint deteriorates easily, just as the medium in which the images appear enjoys but a brief lifespan:  newspapers are obsolete the day after they are published.  In an ironic gesture, the artist offers to sign them at no charge whatsoever, thereby demystifying the two modern cults of personality and of the artist’s signature.


But Barrios didn’t simply limit his project to the mass circulation of a printed work.  Bit by bit he incorporated other levels into his production in order to promote the public’s involvement.  In 1978, a popular print of his called Sueños con Marcel Duchamp (Dreams about Marcel Duchamp) was published in the Caribe de Barranquilla  newspaper.  It displays a photograph of Duchamp’s face and some blank lines where members of the public can write in their own dreams, which would later be claimed by Barrios as his own creation.  The public’s response led him to consider the possibilities of an art form that was capable of inserting itself into the public arena.  That’s what happened to one of his prints.  First, a popular painter reacted spontaneously and reproduced it on the front wall of a house:  then, somebody asked Barrios to sign some photocopies of a popular print in order to generate more copies.  All this once again upended the notion of the original as opposed to the reproduction.  They are copies of copies, reproductions of reproductions, which theoretically can be duplicated to infinity.  Even now, with the vast availability of information on the internet the prints created by Barrios continue to excite shrewd speculation among receptive members of the public on subjects such as the role played by art in society, the role of the media, and the utopian idea of an art that is accessible to everyone.  A retrospective of his Popular prints has been included in the area dedicated to Barrios at the Poly/Graphic Triennial.


El Mar Caribe (The Caribbean Sea), (1971-2004) is one of the first installations built in Colombia and the only one that is entirely decorated with prints.  El Mar Caribe (The Caribbean Sea) consists of a number of sheets, each with a deep blue rectangle silk screened on both sides, hanging in rows above the viewer’s head; they have been installed in such a way that they can be seen by the public coming from both directions.  Each silk-screened image is signed; the latitude and longitude of a particular sea are written on one side, and the coordinates for another sea are inscribed on the other.  In order to set up a new version for this Triennial, Barrios has made changes in both the printing of the prints and the geographical locations mentioned.  His brand-new coordinates refer to two seas that are symbolically very different for Puerto Rico:  the one that separates the island from the United States, and the one that distances the island from the rest of Latin America.  Within the dual political and cultural contest, this installation by Barrios achieves a special resonance for Puerto Rico.  It is there that the ocean becomes an icon of both the island’s independent insularity and its historical relationship to the mainland.