‘It Can Be Nightmarish or It Can Be Wonderful’: Watch Artist Allan McCollum Create Thousands of Variations on a Theme

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the
Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Systems," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

Walk into Petzel Gallery’s Chelsea outpost right now and you will be confronted with a bewildering array of colored circles with small black shapes, arranged in a gigantic matrix along three walls. Up close, it becomes clear that each shape is ever-so-slightly different.

The work is part of Allan McCollum‘s The Shapes Buttons from Oregon, which is an extension of his ongoing “Shapes” project. For the last 50 years, the artist has been creating works that capture the contradictions of capitalist consumption, in which American society venerates unique objects yet relentlessly buys into mass-produced products, feeding the cycles of fast fashion and built-in technological obsolescence.

For the “Shapes” project, McCollum has designed a system that produces unique forms, allowing him hypothetically to make create billions of shapes—in his own words, “enough for every person on the planet to have one of their own.”

McCollum partners with artisans around the U.S., like the Oregon-based artist Delia Paine, with whom McCollum collaborated to create buttons based on the shapes. Together, the two created more than 5,000 items.

Allan McCollum, <i>Collection of Four Hundred and Thirty-two Shapes Buttons</i>(2005/2015-2016). roduced in collaboration with Delia Paine of Via Delia, Bend, Oregon. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery.

Allan McCollum, Collection of Four Hundred and Thirty-two Shapes Buttons(2005/2015-2016). Produced in collaboration with Delia Paine of Via Delia, Bend, Oregon. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 filmed back in 2009, McCollum explained that working in factories as a young man, he was inspired to “work in quantities and make things that were singular.”

For McCollum, there is a sublime aspect to the experience of standing in a space filled with hundreds upon hundreds of the same thing.

“There is, of course, the drama of thousands of things,” McCollum said. “It can be nightmarish, or it can be wonderful feeling of abundance. And it can go back and forth.” 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s “Art in the Twenty-First Century” series, below. “Allan McCollum: Traces: Past and Present” is on view at Petzel Gallery through February 19, 2022 at the 456 W 18th Street location. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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