Jessica Helfand | Essays

Second in a Series: Completions

Photograph by Mitchell Feinberg for New York Magazine, 2006

For two years, I’ve had this image on the wall in my studio — a step-by-step examination of a gradually diminishing Mallomar — which (other than a possible symbol for the slow food movement) is compelling because it is both one thing and many things: part x-ray, part information graphic, this photograph by Mitchell Feinberg (from a 2006 issue of New York Magazine) takes an untouched morsel of puffed chocolate and renders it, over time, with the diagnostic precision of a crime scene. Migrating swiftly from macro to micro, Feinger's portrait takes us from complete cookie to granular crumb in twenty simple steps.

But within those twenty steps lies the deconstruction of something much more basic, and it illuminates the degree to which the series, when shown on a single surface, carries with it a kind of implicit satisfaction that a series disseminated over time does not.

Early Netherlandish Diptych, National Gallery of Art

The study of multiples has a long history, dating back to early Christian literature and enduring through the Middle Ages as diptychs and altarpieces, panel paintings and other thematically connected structures of two. (Some aped a book structure, and many could even be open and shut.) While examples of dual and even triple images prevailed through the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries — advances in printing and photographic technologies eventually making such work more readily achievable— the heyday of real multiples didn’t come until the early 1960s, when artists like Claes Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol played with repeat images, increasingly negotiating the simultaneous presences of multiple images on a single plane.

Andy Warhol, 100 Cans, 1962

The advent of the editioned imprint, a fundamentally modern-day conceit, made the repeat production of a single thing immensely more manageable, and indeed, more economically viable. (This very gesture loosely paralleled the mass production we came to associate with modern life in the second half of the 20th century.) But it is one thing to collect over time, exercising the curatorial impulse to aggregate with selectivity: in this case, the series is created by the individual, and the enjoyment of the series exists as a function of the chase. You, the collector, decide what is variable and what is constant, and by defining the paramaters, establish the organizational criteria that frame the collection — ergo, a series. Conversely, when the series itself is provided as a completed set of actions, that time-based endeavor is virtually nullified.

Benjamin Sabatier, Bacs 014, 2005

The Parisian artist, Benjamin Sabatier, takes familiar objects — scotch tape dispensers, ice cube trays — and creates sculptural objects in which the ubiquitous, manmade form is repeated ad infinitum. Sabatier’s grids adhere to a kind of geometric rhythm, and his fidelity to that rhythm is offset by the contents of his creations. One tape dispenser alone, awaiting another, is hardly a series: but when stacked into a sculptural entity, the gestalt of the whole is considerably more satisfying. You can see all the pieces, observe their repetition, and feel a visceral sense of satisfaction — a mental completion, even — as a result. Sabatier's ice cube trays provide a grounded armature — a sort of three-dimensional grid — and once you comprehend the structure you’re ready for the chaos within it.

John Giorno, from Welcoming the Flowers, 2007

Adopting the visual lexicon of the graphic designer, John Giorno’s screenprinted poems are typographic compositions that beckon to echoes of springtime (bursts of pastel colors, names of flowers) with limited means. Condensed letterforms welcome the delights of horticultural novelty, but with a twist: words like “narcotic” and “betrayed” are initially easy to ignore, and soon disturbing to discover. Taken singly, the poems are pleasant and unassuming: but as a series seen all at once, they’re thinly veiled visual haikus requiring a kind of tacit psychological adjustment, an extra moment to take it all in. What you see may be what you get — but it's not what you were really expecting to get.

This relationship between what you see and what you expect to see is, I think, the entire point. If a series of things appearing together lacks the dramatic denouement of the series released over time, it is perhaps because, like Giorno’s piece above, such work tends to prey on our expectations for completion. That said, some of the most compelling series are those which seem to intentionally subvert that completion, severing the connection between the mind and the eye, the parts and the whole, the crumbs and the cookie. For designers struggling to rationalize the very level of consistency that our work demands, there is often an equal desire to resist the inevitable boredom that comes with playing by such rules — playing, perhaps, being the operative idea.

At the end of the day, a series is really a story waiting to be told. Whether told in diptych, triptych, multi-paned storyboard or editioned variation, the desire to orchestrate in multiples remains at the core of so much of who we are. It's probably not the urge to get it right that keeps us coming back for more, but a series' capacity for endless iteration that draws us in, makes us wonder, pushes us to see something diferently. In so doing, the multiplied form continues to endure, vividly mirroring our own mysterious, by definition changeable — and indeed, fragmented — cultural identity. The series, I think, is us.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [19]

One of my favorite themes in William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition is the concept of "apophenia," or the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things." I think your marvelous line, some of the most compelling series are those which seem to intentionally subvert that completion, severing the connection between the mind and the eye, the parts and the whole, the crumbs and the cookie is a lovely example of this.

Thanks for another interesting and beautifully written post.

debbie millman

terrific weblog. i love mitchell feinberg's work. great post.

paul pincus

I remember seeing a display of multicolored ceramic flower pots at a Target years ago. I stood, mezmerized by the harmony of the glazes, and tried to decide which of the beauties to take home with me.

I ended up not buying any because just one of them alone just didn't seem as nice as the array. I lacked a place in my home for 20 flower pots!

Thanks for the insightful article, Jessica. I am reminded of a few items that might be of interest:

Edward Tufte has long advocated the use of small multiples in information graphics, exactly for the reasons you state -- patterns, relationships, outliers, and disruptions are much more visible in repeated images that in series, as you put it, "disseminated over time."

ICA/Boston's current permanent collection exhibition includes a piece by Kader Attia that serves as a nice illustration of the contrast between serial and repeated image. Whenever we've included the piece (a video of sugar cubes melting under a stream of black oil) in our marketing publications, we've shown it as a grid sequence, which, to my eyes, is more powerful than the actual video.

Next month we will be opening a new major exhibition of Tara Donovan's work. If anybody captures the sublime nature of obsessive repetition, it's her.
Jose Nieto

A kudos for you Ms. Helfand. This is writing that treats graphic design as an autonomous project. This is the kind of thought that I would I would love to see more of in graphic design. This column teases the significance of graphic design as a cultural entity. Seriality is endemic to graphic design, so much so that it is unchallenged (until now) and passes for the unexceptional. The beauty of your writing not only unpacks this aspect, but also theorizes it to reveal the rich complexity hidden, a complexity that magnifies what graphic design has to offer.
David Cabianca

...to Ms. Debbie Millman's comment about "apophenia," or the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things", I'd like to mention that this is an abnormal occurrence with schizophrenics. Debbie, is that probed in Gibson's book at all?
Jason Tselentis

I was immediately struck by the lagmireaux pairing of a apparent overdistinguished looking façade that supposedly signified some kind of venerable “authenticity” with an interiorist credence of substantive content. But as I plunged past the books notating collective sign-value packaging and into the distinguished August Johasaphat Enright's English translation (his final) of this circa-1950 text (ostensibly on the subject of Pataphysics in lieu of Collective Modes of Art Sensibilities), which Baudrillard here and there defines as “the philosophy of gaseous states”, as “tautology” (the use of redundant language that adds no information) (p. 8) and as “the mind’s loftiest temptation” (p. 7)) this pairing made a sort of irrefutable though not ineffable logic, as immediately I started reading about “fake” “stucco” “self-infatuation” and “vast flatulence” (p. 7), followed soon after by talk of “fake universes” and relentless navel gazery.
Abraham Cohen

@Jason... really, in a sorta-subtle way, that theme is a driving force in every William Gibson book, but not in a way completely specific to schizophrenia. I think there's a point about cultural schizophrenia that he is making in Pattern Recognition.

Wonderful stuff. Have you seen the blog design slinger? Done by two Art Directors from Hollywood, one who studied architecture.
William McBride, Ph.D.

In the concluding statement--that "the series is us"--the author has a point. But by having the artist completing a series for us, doesn't he/she do the work for us, and so creates a boundary between us and the work? Perhaps, but doing so directs our thought toward a reality that we may not have seen if we only wanted to see what we liked or disliked.
Jihea Kim

Great post, Jessica: one lonely quibble is that my initial thought on seeing the Feinberg poster was "heck, it wouldn't take me twenty immaculate steps to demolish a Mallomar...."
L.M. Cunningham


"Mallomar — which (other than a possible symbol for the slow food movement"

Brave soul. I see your point in the context of this (excellent) photo, but I think the Slow Foodies would totally flip out over this statement.

Thanks for the article!


Great post! A photo like that can say so many things to so many people. I've got to admit, it was the image that caught my eye and caused me to continue reading the article. So often we take for granted the things around us that can be turned into something truly unique!


As a printmaker I find multiples to be a great fascination. I am beginning to understand that maybe my love for multiples is also the reason I tend to collect things of little importance, with hopes that someday I'll make it into an award winning art project of sorts. My reasons for becoming a pack rack go hand in hand with making prints. I love to have a lot and consume a lot, because the more I have the busier I can keep myself.

Multiples are a great escape for those who fear that running out will be the end of, well the end.

Thanks for the article, great insight.

This article intrigued me in many ways. One being the designer, John Giorno, and his piece called Welcoming the Flowers. The design for this work is very inviting and also simple, which I think helps the viewer feel more welcome to look at it. This work is great in design, because of the way the artist used the colors and words of the floral names and then, like a slap in the face, uses words like “skulls”, “betrayed”, and “cat piss”.
The whole article deals with how one gets this relationship of expecting what you think you will see and then what you actually see. I have an issue with this statement, because of Andy Warhol’s work of the Campbell’s soup cans called 100 cans. This work is something that I would know what I would be seeing and it would be no surprise to me if I were to see it in a gallery. His work is plagiarized. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy his work if I were to see it on a book bag or purse, but to me this design (and many others of his) is Kitch. His design is repetitive and become boring. If he were to work like Mitchell Feinberg, then the design would be more original. Feinberg’s work of the Mallomar cookie is aesthetically pleasing to me. I like that he used repetition, but he also made the cookie look different in every scene. The design definitely helps me to see what he is trying to get across.
Amanda Svorec

I really enjoyed this artice, mostly because I am always interested to hear and learn about new artists. I was intrigued by the photograph taken by Mitchell Feinberg of the diminishing dessert. It certainly gives the viewer a new way of looking at things, and makes for an interesting design. The composition brings your eye from the top to the bottom, and then I felt myself looking back to the top to make sure I didn't miss anything.

Using repetition is helpful in design to get a point across, or to make a pattern or make things more interesting, and I think the piece by Benjamin Sabatier is a great example of the right way to use repetition in design. He takes advantage of the lines of the ice cube trays to create grids and repeats it over and over, and the colors on the inside create a pattern overall. It's a nicely thought out and successful design.

Andy Warhol was a great repetition artist, which is shown here in his Campbell's soup cans piece of work. He took a common every day thing that we wouldn't normally think twice about, and turned it into a work of art by repeating it over and over, making a pattern and design out of it. Doing this gives the viewer a completely different view on the object being represented.

I feel that idea of series, pattern, and repetition in design can be very interesting. As mentioned already repetition does a great job of assuring the viewer that things are constant and undisturbed. I also feel that repetition almost creates an idea of community inside of a work, giving it the ability to avoid a "lonely" look.

One of my favorite pieces that relies on series and repetition can be found here. It is an ad for Nescafe coffee, but it is quite interesting because of the way it uses series to set a very clear, calm flow, and then gradually changes, sending entirely different messages and ideas. "ZZZ" is a pretty common way of cartooning sleep, and when the "Z"s slowly turn into the "N" of "Nescafe" it represents the transition from sleeping to being awake. Clever!

The example work by John Giorno is pretty interesting in that it makes one feel quite assured and comfortable with the work until closer inspection, at which point the message changes entirely.

Patterns and series can be found everywhere in nature and otherwise, which may be the reason why we feel so comfortable with it's usage in design.
Josh K

I am always amazed by how simple art can be.
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